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2 Tins of Tea and a Wedding

Time:2008-10-07   Source:

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 bookQi Xiu Lei Gaowritten 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.)

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 ofDa Liis decided by the economic conditions of the bridegroom’s family; rich families, for example, can send as much as 24 or 32tai(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.