It’s all in the tea…

Around the world couples are exploring their cultural traditions and blending elements of East and West in new ways, and the Chinese Tea Ceremony is both ancient and important. I have only had an opportunity to work with a few Chinese-American brides or grooms, and of those only two have ever chosen to have a Tea Ceremony.

All the way back in the 5th century Lu Yu, a Chinese poet wrote: “Tea tempers the spirit and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue; awakens thought and prevents drowsiness.” I’d have to agree completely!

I must mention that there is also a Japanese Tea Ceremony, one of the biggest differences being in how the tea is brewed; the ‘high art’ of tea culture is very complicated. Japanese tea practitioners focus on high grade sencha/gyokuro (steamed tea and jade-dew tea) and matcha (ground tea). Chinese tea practitioners focus on yancha (rock cliff tea), tieguanyin (iron Bodhisattva tea) and dancong (lonely bush tea). Seriously, I have no idea about any of that, but perhaps, if you love tea, you’ll understand. And there is a Japanese Sake Ceremony as well.

In a traditional Chinese ceremony, the couple kneels in front of their parents and serves them tea, thanking them. It is an expression of the deep gratitude in Chinese culture for elders; parents are held in the highest regard. Some versions of the traditional tea ceremony include the bride serving tea to the groom’s family. This feels very servant-like, putting the woman in a role many modern women would prefer to forget.

But the ceremony remains significant, even in modern times, and there are three traditional prayers that accompany the ritual. The officiant directs the bride and groom to pray to heaven and earth first, then to the groom’s parents or family elders, and lastly to bow to each other.

Here’s an important detail – the ceremony is not done within what we would think of as the regular wedding ceremony – it is conducted as a separate ritual, sometimes after the ceremony but before the reception, sometimes in the morning, but whenever it is done, it is a more private event for immediate family. It reminded me of how signing the ketubah in a Jewish wedding takes place before the actual ceremony, usually in a private area with just immediate family. There are many customs that are part of the big day, or many days of celebrating and ceremony in diverse wedding traditions.

When serving the tea, the order of service is usually

  • parents
  • grandparents
  • grand-uncles and grand-aunties
  • uncles and aunties
  • elder brothers and sisters
  • elder cousins

However, you need not include all of these people, and not always in this order – there are families that prefer to serve the grandparents tea before the parents. Within each generation, dad’s relatives are served before mom’s relatives. It is indeed a very patriarchal society.

For my thoroughly modern couples, as I often do, I created hybrids, an updated version of the ritual, with their full approval of course.

For example, for one couple, I transformed it into a ‘unity ritual,’ using it like candles, sand, or other symbols of joining together. We simply had the parents come forward (no kneeling) and the couple offered them tea to sip along with some words of gratitude, then the couple shared tea as well. Pretty simple, but lovely. I was sure to incorporate some Chinese poetry and a few other cultural details, and voilà! A tea ritual made new.

 

Photos by Brooke and Bryan 

 

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    Lois Heckman

    Lois Heckman is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies in the Poconos and beyond. She has performed hundreds of ceremonies and brings a wealth of knowledge to her work. Visit her website: ... Read Full
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