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The role of Tea in Chinese Culture

Aggiornamento: 19 feb 2021

Di Rachele Rosina

Considered one of the seven necessities in the daily life, tea as has a central role in Chinese culture.

Initially used in Chinese medicine and cuisine, it became a popular beverage especially in the highest starts of society.

Tea culture became associated to literature, art and philosophy, promoting the creation of beautiful vessels, but also the sharing of ideas during informal meetings.

Tea drinking can be traced back as early as the 5th century AC (did you know that 2000 years old tea leaves were found in an imperial tomb dated 141 BC?) however, it became a widespread recreational beverage from the 8th century AD, greatly thanks to religion and phylosofy.

In Buddhism, tea was used by monks to help to meditate. Moreover, tea serving reflects key concepts of Confucianism, such as the filial piety or the respect of a rigid social hierarchy. For example, tea was used to show respect to the elderly or higher ranks – serving tea was a duty of the youngest in the room, or the people of a lowest social status. Children would serve serving tea to their parents as a sibol or regret in case they misbehavied. Furthermore, during the wedding the bride and groom would serve tea to their parents to show gratitude.

Tea because naturally associated to art ad literature, especially because it was used by scholars during they meetings in the tea houses. During these gatherings, political allegiances and social ranks were temporally suspended, in favour of a free exchange of ideas. Still nowadays, “inviting someone for a tea” is a way to indicate the invitation to meet and talk in an informal setting.

Tea also requires different vessels for serving, drinking and storage, which were sold alongside tea leaves.

Teapots and cups became objects that could show the refined taste of the elite: skilled artisans would produce splendid vessels used at the imperial court and by the highest ranks of society, decorating them with painted motives or shaping them in unusual shapes, such as the Qingbai melon-shaped ewer dated Northern Song dynasty (12th C. AC).

Photo curtesy of the Museum of East Asian Art (Bath, UK)

From the Ming Dynasty, Yixing vessels became incredibly sought for for their ability to enhance the flavour of tea. The brown stoneware clay used to produced this kind of teapots can only be found in the area of Yixing, in the Jansu Province, and they are still highly admired nowadays.

A beautiful example of the mastery reached in the production of this kind of vessels is the Yixing teapot by Yang Pengnian, with calligraphy by Chen Mansheng (c.1820), part of the collection of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.

Photo curtesy of the Museum of East Asian Art (Bath, UK)

Nowadays, with the increasing liberalisation of Chinese society, the connotations related to the social status of the users have become blurred. However, every household has at least a tea set, and it is common to offer a tea to friends or guests.

It is interesting to see how a simple leaf can become a symbol of a social status, promote the creation and exchange of ideas, and then evolve in new ways according to the location were it is consumed.

Tea drinking has been exported by Portuguese merchants and priest during the 16th century, creating completely different cultures in western countries, such as Britain. Tea has become part of our everyday life, in ways that sometimes largely differs from its original use, and it will continue to develope with time.

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