Chinese Tea Culture: Elements of Making Good Chinese Tea

Tea service for Chinese tea ceremony.

Making good Chinese tea requires a careful combination of elements. (Image: Hot99 via Dreamstime)

Whether you are planning to attend a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, or just want to make flavorful Chinese tea at home, there are a few essential factors you should know about Chinese tea culture.

Making good Chinese tea requires a careful combination of elements. Water purity, water temperature, tea infusion capability, type of teapot, tea leaf quantity, and pre-soaking time all need to be considered.

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Tea brewing (泡茶 pào chá) is only one aspect of a tea ceremony (一泡茶 yī pào chá). A Chinese tea ceremony is a multi-step procedure, consisting of preparation (備茶 bèi chá), adding boiling water (行茶 xíng chá), steeping (沏茶 qī chá), serving (奉茶 fèng chá), tasting (品茶 pǐn chá), exchanging views [about the tea] (交流 jiāo liú), and bidding farewell (賦歸 fù guī). The tea ceremony is a critical aspect of Chinese tea culture.

The factors that influence the quality of a round of tea service are highly intricate. A tiny change can substantially affect the tea’s flavor. Variations in time, environment, and people can also lead to a totally different tea ceremony experience.

When tea ceremonies go smoothly, they positively shape the final flavor of the tea. The liquid is unadulterated, fragrant, and with adequate strength of flavor. It creates the most congenial social atmosphere. The host and guests unwind.

Traditional Chinese tea ceremony with cups and strainer on the table while a woman pours tea.
When tea ceremonies go smoothly, they positively shape the final flavor of the tea. (Image: Fieryphoenix via Dreamstime)

One of my clients called me several days after visiting my tea shop. He said he could not reproduce the same flavor using the same tea leaf, water, and teapot that he experienced during our tea ceremony.

This reminded me of the saying “an exclusive gathering once in a lifetime” (一期一會 yī qī yī huì). The saying comes from the Japanese tea ceremony (sado). It carries the same meaning among Chinese tea drinkers. It illustrates the subtlety and refinement of all the interacting elements of tea preparation.

Factors such as the thoughts of the tea-maker, teaware selection, brewing habits, and conditions are controllable once they are understood. These controllable factors comprise the contents of this article. Yet we will still attempt to explore the subtle, unpredictable, mystical parts of tea brewing whenever possible.

7 elements of Chinese tea culture: water, fire, ware, dose, personnel, timing, tea leaf

These are the seven elements of Chinese tea culture. These elements need to work together.

“Water” refers to the water used in making the tea. In ancient times, it normally came from natural springs. In modern times, the water fetched from pollution-free mountain streams or collected dew is the best choice, followed by well water, and filtered water. These days, we are hesitant to use water collected from rivers, rain, snow, lakes, or seas due to pollution.

“Fire” refers to the heat source for boiling the water. It also indicates the temperature the tea leaf is subjected to. The best choice for water boiling is traditional charcoal, followed by using a gas burner, alcohol burner, or electrical heater.

Closeup of charcoal burning in a terracotta kiln.
The best choice for water boiling is traditional charcoal. (Image: Pongvit Ayasanon via Dreamstime)

Microwave ovens and induction cookers are the worst. Charcoal is best because it generates infrared rays. The ash layer that covers the surface of burning charcoal prevents direct heat induction. The heat distribution is more uniform, and the infrared rays can penetrate through the tea leaf and spring water.

Boiling water prepared like this will have all the water molecules excited to a full boil, and therefore cook through the tea leaf more thoroughly than other methods. Even though the reading on the thermometer is the same 212°F, the quality of the tea resulting from water boiled with charcoal is far better than that boiled using electricity.

“Ware” includes four things — the kettle, the teapot, the teacup, and the tea storage container. Most important are the kettle and the teapot. The teacup also substantially affects the taste. People these days frequently forget the importance of the kettle.

Also neglected is the influence of the material of the tea storage container on preserving the freshness of the tea. Containers made of tin have always provided the best preservation. If you use two different types of kettles, two different kinds of teapots, and two different sets of teacups, the various combinations of these will give you eight varieties of fragrance, taste, and feeling.

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