An elderly couple take their seats, and a younger couple kneel before them. A tray is presented, two small cups of tea on top. The younger man takes a cup and offers it to the elderly man first, then the elderly woman. The younger woman repeats the task. Everyone involved in and witnessing the event is all smiles. The elderly couple then take their time to shower their blessings on the younger couple – now customarily man and wife in their eyes – with words and gifts.
If you haven’t attended a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony before, the above scenario likely sounded alien to you. Family bonds, respect for one’s elders and proper convention are among some of most highly valued qualities in Chinese communities. And since the tea ceremony embodies all of that, it is almost never missing from a traditional Chinese wedding, no matter how modernised it may have become.
The wedding tea ceremony has its roots in an ancient Chinese marriage custom that is almost like a Chinese version of the modern vow-exchanging ceremony. In this ceremony, the couple (the groom may still be attired in a traditional Chinese garb and the bride in her traditionally-styled bridal gown) being wed are first asked to bow before heaven and earth, their elders, and then each other. No “I do”s going around here, but still an open declaration that the marriage has been sealed with the official consent of all present! After that event, the tea ceremony begins.
As a sign of respect, the couple will usually kneel before their elders when presenting tea to them. Nowadays, some are allowed to simply bow when serving the drink. The basic sentiment behind this ceremony is gratitude. The couple are thankful to the parents who took care of them until the day of their marriage, and reassures them in this symbolic gesture that they too will continue to take care of their parents after their marriage. The complete ceremony includes serving tea to grandparents and any senior relatives like aunties and uncles as a show of respect, although some choose to simplify it by serving only their parents.
This event is also viewed as the official introduction of relatives from both sides to each other. Unlike many other cultures, where age usually signifies a transition into adulthood, the Chinese consider marriage to be the turning point. So this is also the day the newlyweds are formally considered “adults” who will now be starting a family of their own. The tea set used for the ceremony is usually kept by the couple as a memento of this important event. Most Chinese will prefer to choose a red tea like Puer tea as they associate the colour red (see Wedding Malaysia Guide) with happiness and prosperity, but any tea is acceptable.
Rich in meaningful symbolism, it is not hard to see why Chinese all around the globe from all walks of lives are still choosing to include the tea ceremony in their weddings. If you ever have the chance to be present at one, don’t get too intimidated by the formalities and instead focus on the strong sense of respect it conveys!