A Guide to Chinese Tea Ceremonies and Brewing Chinese Tea

Woman performing a Chinese tea ceremony

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Traditional Chinese tea ceremonies are often held during formal occasions like Chinese weddings, but they are also done to welcome guests into one's home.

If you want to perform a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, start by gathering all the tools you'll need: teapot, tea strainer, kettle (stovetop or electric), tea pitcher, brewing tray, deep plate or bowl, tea towel, water, tea leaves (not bagged), tea pick, tea-leaf holder, tongs (挾), narrow snifter cups, teacups, and optional tea snacks like dried plums and pistachios. A traditional Chinese tea set can be bought at Chinatowns around the world and online.

Now that you have all your materials, these are the steps for performing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony:

01
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Prepare the Chinese Tea Set

Chinese tea set

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To prepare the Chinese tea set, heat water in a kettle. Then place the teapot, snifter teacups, and regular teacups in the bowl and pour the heated water over them to warm up the tea set. Then, remove the teapot and cups from the bowl. The tongs may be used to handle the cups if they are too hot to handle with your hands.

02
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Appreciating the Tea

Close up of oolong tea leaves

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In a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, the tea (traditionally oolong) is passed around for participants to examine and admire its appearance, ​aroma, and quality.

03
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Start the Process

Tea leaves and a tea set
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To begin making Chinese tea, use the tea-leaf holder to scoop the loose tea leaves from the tea canister.

04
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Tea Brewing: The Black Dragon Enters the Palace

Scoop of tea leaves
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Using the tea-leaf holder, pour the tea leaves into the teapot. This step is called "the black dragon enters the palace." The amount of tea and water will vary on the type of tea, its quality, and the size of the teapot, but generally, one teaspoon of tea leaves for every six ounces of water will do.

05
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Proper Brewing Temperatures

Close-up of water boiling in a teapot

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Heating water to the proper temperature is important when making Chinese tea, and ideal temperatures vary by tea type. Heat your water to the following temperatures for each tea type:

  • White and green: 172–185 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Black: 210 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Oolong: ​185–212 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Pu’er: 212 degrees Fahrenheit

The type of water you use matters as well. Avoid distilled, soft, or hard water and instead make your tea with cool, spring mountain, or bottled water.

Next, place the teapot into the bowl, raise the kettle at shoulder length, and pour the heated water into the teapot until it overflows.

After pouring the water, scoop away any excess bubbles or tea leaves and place the lid on the teapot. Pour more hot water onto the teapot to ensure the temperature inside and outside the teapot is the same.

06
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The Fragrance of the Tea

Pouring Chinese tea

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Pour the brewed tea into the tea pitcher. Using the tea pitcher, fill the tea snifters with tea.

To simplify the process or for those whose tea sets do not have snifter cups, you can opt to pour the tea directly from the teapot into the regular teacups, skipping the use of the tea pitcher and snifter cups.

07
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Don't Drink Yet

Tea ceremony cups

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After filling the snifter cups with tea, place the teacups upside down on top of the narrow teacups. This is a solemn act said to bring prosperity and happiness to guests. Using one or two hands, grab both cups and quickly flip them so the snifter is now inverted into the drinking cup. Slowly remove the snifter cup to release the tea into the teacups.

Do not drink the tea. Instead, it is discarded.

08
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Pour to Brew Again

Pouring hot water Into a Chinese tea pot

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Keeping the same tea leaves and holding the kettle just above the teapot, pour the heated water into the teapot. The water should be poured just above the teapot so as to not remove the flavor from the tea leaves too quickly. Place the lid on the teapot.

09
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Proper Brewing Times

Close-up of leaves in a teapot

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Steep the tea. The size of the tea leaves and their quality determine the length of the steeping time. In general, a whole-leaf tea is steeped longer and high-quality tea has a shorter brewing time.

  • Green tea: 30 seconds to three minutes
  • Black tea: three to five minutes
  • Oolong tea: 30 seconds to 10 minutes
10
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Last Steps

Pouring tea from a traditional teapot into a cup

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Pour all the tea into the tea pitcher, and then pour that tea into the tea snifters. Then, transfer the tea from the snifters to the teacups.

11
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Drink Your Chinese Tea

Woman drinking Chinese tea

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It's finally time to drink the tea. Good etiquette dictates that tea drinkers cradle the cup with both hands and enjoy the tea’s aroma before taking a sip. The cup should be drunk in three sips of different sizes. The first sip should be small; the second sip is the largest, main sip; the third is to enjoy the aftertaste and empty the cup.

12
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The Tea Ceremony Is Complete

American man learning manners of tea ceremony

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Once the tea leaves have been brewed several times, use the tongs to pull out the used tea leaves and place them in the bowl. The used tea leaves are then shown to guests who should complement the tea’s quality. The tea ceremony is officially complete with this step, but more tea can be made after cleaning and rinsing off the teapot.