Chinese Wedding Tea Ceremony
We all know the story: boy meets girl... girl rejects boy... boy persists... girl gives up... they fall in love and decide to get married. Now, here's the twist: it's all thanks to tea.
Tea has played a significant role in much of human history, but it is a little known fact that it has also been an important tool in many weddings. Throughout the centuries, tea has been both a gift to the couples and a symbol of their unity throughout many cultures. In this issue of TeaMuse, we'll explore just a few examples of the way tea helps couples say, "I do!"
At traditional Chinese weddings, Tea Ceremony is an equivalent of exchange of vows at a western wedding ceremony. This official ritual is still widely practiced at modern Chinese weddings on the wedding day, either at home or at the reception.
When the bride leaves her home with the groom to his house, a "Good Luck Woman" will hold a red umbrella over her head, meaning "raise the bark, spread the leaves." This "good luck woman" should be someone who is blessed with a good marriage, healthy children and husband and living parents. Other relatives will scatter rice, red bean and green bean in front of her. The red umbrella protects the bride from evil spirit, and the rice and beans are to attract the attention of the gold chicken.
Specifically, the relationship between Chinese tea and marital customs surrounds tea drinking and the customs associated with offering tea to wedding guests.
In the past, when a man was about to marry a woman, he had to prepare a certain amount of betrothal gifts. Since marriage decided a couple's happiness, the gifts had to contain economic value and have an auspicious element to dispel disasters and bring good fortune. Even today, people in many places still adhere to this custom.
As a betrothal gift, tea played a significant role among different Chinese ethnic groups. According to the book Qi Xiu Lei Gao written by Lang Ying of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): "Once a tea plant is grown, it cannot be replanted to other places or it will die. Therefore, the process of a woman accepting betrothal gifts from a man is called 'Chi Cha ' (literally 'eating tea'), and it means that the woman will spend the rest of her life with the man she marries." (Actually, unsophisticated planting skills of the time prevented tea plants from being replanted.)
On the wedding day, the bride serves tea (holding the teacup with both hands) to her parents at home before the groom arrives. She does this out of respect and to thank her parents for raising her. The tea at this time does not need to have the lotus seeds or dates, and the bride does not need the assistance of a “lucky woman.” She pours and serves the tea by herself without the groom.
Traditionally, after the wedding ceremony, the newlyweds serve tea (holding the teacups with both hands), inviting the groom’s elders to drink tea by addressing them by formal title, e.g. first uncle or third aunt.
The general rule is to have the woman on the left side and the man on the right side. The people being served will sit in chairs, while the bride and groom kneel. For example, when the newlyweds serve tea to the groom’s parents, the bride would kneel in front of her father-in-law, while the groom would kneels in front of his mother.
The newlyweds serve tea in order, starting with the groom’s parents then proceeding from the oldest family members to the youngest, e.g. the groom’s parents, then his paternal grandparents, then his maternal grandparents, then his oldest uncles and aunts, and all the way to his older brother.
In return, the newlyweds receive lucky red envelopes (“lai see,” which means “lucky”) stuffed with money or jewelry. The helpers, who are usually women blessed with a happy marriage or wealth and chosen by the fortune teller or bride’s mother, also get lucky red envelopes stuffed with money from those being served. These envelopes are placed on the platter which holds the teacups.
Although the book does not explicitly point out that tea was included as a betrothal gift at the time, it can be regarded as the origin of men sending tea as part of their betrothal gifts to their intended. In the Ming Dynasty, tea, unlike rice, wine and other foods or daily-use articles, had a different meaning: Eternal loyalty to one's husband.
Tea may have been listed as the prime betrothal gift sometime after the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During this period, when the Confucian school of idealism and philosophy enjoyed its heyday, the importance of morality, ethics and restraining human desire was emphasized. In the Southern Song (1127-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, moralists stipulated that a woman should never remarry, even after her husband death. They greatly valued the rootedness of tea plants and used tea as a symbol for the whole wedding ceremony.
Nowadays, many rural Chinese still refer to the wedding as "Shou Cha" (literally "accepting tea") or "Chi Cha" ("eating tea"), bride-price as "Cha Jin" ("tea money") and betrothal gifts as "Cha Li " ("tea gift"), preserving the custom of ancient marital practices.
In the past, the engagement ceremony was an important process before marriage; only after this ceremony was an affiance cemented. Although such ceremonies varied greatly from place to place in China, they all had one thing in common: The bridegroom's family had to send gifts to the bride's family to secure the marriage.
For instance, in rural areas of North China's Hebei Province, people send "Xiao Li" ("small gifts") before the engagement ceremony, which include tea, jewelry, clothing, wine and food. When the couple is about to get married, the bridegroom's side must send "Da Li" ("big gifts"), such as more clothing, jewelry and money. Generally speaking, the specific amount of Da Li is decided by the economic conditions of the bridegroom's family; rich families, for example, can send as much as 24 or 32 tai (the amount of objects two persons can carry between them on a shoulder pole). But, no matter how poor the family may be, it is expected to send tea, dragon-and-phoenix cakes (cakes with patterns of dragons and phoenixes), Chinese dates and peanuts, etc, which convey a special meaning. After the bride's side receives the gifts, it should also send a dowry, which is also decided by family's economic conditions. Typically, the dowry must include a pair of tea cans and one vanity box.
Regarding tea as a symbol of loyalty to one's husband was mainly prevalent among the Han people. But, since people of most Chinese ethnic minorities love tea, they also included tea as betrothal gifts.
For instance, the people of the Va ethnic minority in Yunnan Province had to send betrothal gifts three times: six bottles of "clan wine" with some tea and bananas the first time; six bottles of "neighborhood wine" the second time to indicate the neighbors' approval; and one bottle of open-door wine" the third time for the bride's mother as she prayed for her daughter
People of the Naxi ethnic minority in Northwest Yunnan called the engagement "sending wine" and their betrothal gifts included a bottle of wine, two tins of tea, four or six boxes of candy and two liters of rice.
Tea also plays an important role when a party is sent to escort the bride to the groom's house or to the formal wedding ceremony. Although some people still use tea as a gift for the couple, tea plays a bigger role in other aspects: the rites of drinking tea from nuptial cups by the bridegroom and bride, all friends and relatives drinking tea together to indicate future harmony, and the bride and groom proposing a tea toast to their parents and elders to express their gratitude, etc. For instance, for the Bai people of the Dali area in Yunnan Province, on the second day after the wedding, the couple must first propose a tea toast and wine to the elders in the morning. Then, they pay a visit to their parents and ancestors before the reunion feast.
While most ethnic groups in China love tea and although wedding ceremonies across China vary greatly from place to place, tea is a vital component to the custom. The above-cited examples are just a taste of how the nation's tea culture is associated with marriage ceremonies.
Wishing all lovers a happy, healthy life together!
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