What Is a Chinese Tea Ceremony? Everything You Need to Know About This Tradition

Plus, etiquette on how to plan your own.
Chinese tea ceremony illustration
Illustration: Aurélia Durand
Hannah Nowack The Knot Senior Weddings Editor
by
Hannah Nowack
Hannah Nowack The Knot Senior Weddings Editor
Hannah Nowack
Senior Editor, Weddings
  • Hannah writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a focus on real wedding coverage.
  • Hannah has a passion for DE&I and plays an integral role in ensuring The Knot content highlights all voices and all love stories.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Hannah was the Social Media Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings.
Updated Nov 27, 2023

Traditional Chinese weddings include cha dao, a Chinese tea ceremony to show elders respect. Whether you're a to-be-wed considering including a Chinese wedding tea ceremony to honor your heritage, or are a guest at an upcoming Chinese tea ceremony, we're diving into all the details that you need to know about a traditional Chinese tea-drinking ceremony. We tapped into seasoned experts to offer their insight on everything from Chinese tea ceremony history and meaning to the etiquette and steps to know for planning one. Expert wedding photographers Stephanie Bishop, owner of Mississippi-based Starling and Sage, Cassie Valente, owner of California-based Cassie Valente Photography, and Jenny Fu, owner of New York-based Jenny Fu Photography, weigh in below. Read on for all the tea ceremony wedding planning advice you need. And if you're looking for a pro vendor to help you bring all your tea ceremony dreams to life, check out The Knot Vendor Marketplace.

Chinese Tea Ceremony Details in This Story: Definition | History | Supplies Needed | Red Envelope Significance | Etiquette | Steps | Decorations | Timing | Attire | Sayings | Personalization

What Is a Chinese Tea Ceremony?

A Chinese tea ceremony, known as cha dao, is a Chinese wedding tradition for the couple to honor elders by serving them tea.

Not only are wedding ceremonies a time to celebrate the love you and your partner share, but they're also a great time to honor family and the heritage that brought you to where you are today. While all you need in order for your wedding to be legal is a signed marriage license, including meaningful traditions and rituals in your wedding ceremony is a beautiful way to ensure that your wedding day is a true celebration of love and family. One such ritual that many couples of Chinese heritage choose to include in their wedding ceremony is a traditional Chinese wedding tea ceremony.

What Is Chinese Tea Ceremony History?

The time-honored tradition of a wedding tea ceremony, which dates all the way back to the Tang dynasty in China (618 to 907 AD), was created to show respect for the couple's families. According to Chinese wedding tea ceremony history, during ancient Chinese wedding ceremonies, the couple would stand at the family altar, where they would pay homage to heaven and earth, the family ancestors and the kitchen god, Tsao-Chün.

"The tea ceremony is one of the biggest components in a Chinese wedding. Once this is done, it is a sign of marriage in the eyes of Chinese tradition," shares Bishop. "The tea ceremony is my absolute favorite tradition when it comes to honoring parents and grandparents at Chinese weddings. I'm personally so glad to have done a tea ceremony at my own wedding, even though we opted for a very small celebration with just ten guests in attendance," shares Valente. "Although the exact details vary from celebration to celebration, most tea ceremonies involve the wedding couple serving tea to their parents and other extended family members as a sign of respect."

According to Chinese tea ceremony history, after a couple exchanged vows, they would serve tea to the groom's family (the bride would have served tea privately to her own family that morning). However, today, many couples choose to honor both partner's families by hosting a Chinese tea-drinking ceremony for both sets of parents as part of the wedding.

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What Is Needed for a Chinese Tea Ceremony?

Let's dive into the nuts and bolts of your tea ceremony wedding planning needs. In terms of Chinese tea ceremony decorations, you'll want to have an altar or table to display photos or candles in recognition of each family. If you are hosting just one tea ceremony, you may choose to have two small ancestral altars. A lot of times the bride and groom will light two wedding candles (one with a phoenix, the other with a dragon motif) to represent each of their families. The couple can also light one candle together (symbolizing the joining of two families). Other items for the ancestral altar: white flowers, fruit such as longans, offertory wine and burning incense. Of course, a tea set is a must for a Chinese tea-drinking ceremony. The type of tea served can be left up to each family, but popular choices are black dragon, orange blossom, and classic green tea. "The tea is sometimes paired with traditional ingredients such as lotus seeds and red dates, a combination that symbolizes sweetness in the marriage and future heirs," says Valente.

Here is a checklist of what is needed for a Chinese wedding tea ceremony:

  • Tea
  • Altar
  • Red dates
  • Lotus seeds
  • Invitations
  • Attire
  • Tea set
  • Candle
  • White flowers
  • Offertory wine
  • Incense

What Is the Significance of Chinese Red Envelopes?

Chinese red envelopes are a key part of the tea ceremony. Lucky red envelopes (called hong bao in Mandarin or lai see in Cantonese), filled with money or jewelry serve as Chinese tea ceremony gifts for the newlyweds.

"The tea ceremony is also most often where you'll see the passing out of gold bridal jewelry and hong bao," explains Valente. "Red envelopes (also known as hong bao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese, different dialects) are one of the most popular symbols in traditional Chinese culture. We give these envelopes to wish good fortune and wealth to others, which is why they are so commonly seen during Lunar New Year festivities and at weddings. These small red packets are filled with lucky money and gifted by the older, typically married family members to the younger generation. It totally makes sense to start off a new year or new journey in life with a handful of hong bao!" Fu concurs, adding that after the tea service, "in return, the parents shower the couple with red envelopes, wedding gifts, usually jewelry and gold, and also a blessing for the new couple on a happy and fruitful life together."

Bishop goes on to elaborate that "in Chinese tradition, it's not as common to give newlyweds gifts (like in American culture with a wedding/bridal shower) so during the tea ceremony, the elders give ang bao or lai see as a way to bless the couple. Other gifts such as jewelry can be given also. For example, I personally received a diamond bracelet and my husband a gold bracelet from an elder on our wedding day during the tea ceremony."

What Is Chinese Tea Ceremony Etiquette?

As with many wedding traditions, there are rules and etiquette that should be followed when it comes to Chinese tea ceremony traditions.

First, you should consider the etiquette for setting up the ceremony. The general rule is that the bride is on the left and the groom on the right. Those family members served should sit in chairs facing the couple. (For example, the bride, who would traditionally be dressed in a qun kwa or possibly a cheongsam or qipao) would kneel in front of her father-in-law, while the groom kneels in front of his mother.) If you opt to invite your guests to the ceremony, have them sit in chairs facing your elders. You can seat them in rows just as they might have sat for the vow exchange or seat them at round tables where everyone is able to see what's going on. Oftentimes, the couple will have attendants (generally bridesmaids) assist with the tea ceremony to ensure all goes off without a hitch.

Another consideration is finding a venue that's conducive to hosting Chinese tea ceremony traditions.. If you want to host a private tea ceremony, you can choose to have it just about anywhere. To add contrast to a formal indoor reception, a private outdoor tea ceremony is the perfect way to incorporate a breath of fresh air into your day. Host the ceremony in the garden close to your wedding venue while your guests enjoy pre-dinner cocktails at the reception. If you want to keep it more low-key, opt to have a small ceremony with family at home. If you wish to include your entire guest list, you'll need to reserve a space big enough to accommodate everybody. Find out if there is a big enough outdoor patio at your reception venue, or perhaps the hotel has a smaller banquet room near your reception space. You could even set up the tea ceremony in your reception room and then have the room "turned over" before dinner is served.

Additional Chinese tea ceremony etiquette and rules:

  • The groom typically kneels on the right side of the bride
  • The proper tradition is to kneel on Chinese tea ceremony cushions in front of the elders
  • The couple should use two hands when offering the tea as a form of respect

What Are the Chinese Tea Ceremony Steps?

Who goes first in a Chinese tea ceremony? How long is a Chinese wedding tea ceremony? Understanding all the Chinese tea ceremony steps is key to planning the ritual successfully.

If you are hosting two separate ceremonies, traditionally, it's appropriate to honor the groom's family first in couples where there is both a bride and groom. Likewise, if you are holding an all-inclusive tea ceremony, the groom's family should be served first. While, historically, the groom's family has gone first in the ceremony, all couples should feel empowered to modify and adapt the flow of a tea ceremony to ensure the custom best represents their relationship.

During the ceremony, the couple serves a cup of tea to the groom's parents and elders in order of seniority. "The newly married couple honor their parents by serving them tea on the wedding day. They kneel and serve the parents and in-laws tea. Not only do you serve the parents tea, but you must also serve tea to all of your elders in the family," explains Fu. As Fu noted, after the groom's parents are served, the groom's paternal grandparents and then his maternal grandparents will be served tea. Next, are his oldest uncles and aunts, and finally, his oldest brother or other elder siblings are served.

After each elder takes a sip, they hand the couple a lai see (a lucky red envelope), which usually contains money or gold jewelry. The envelopes are placed on the platter that holds the teacups and teapot. The ceremony is then performed in the same manner for the bride's family. The tea ceremony is also the time when the Chinese wedding contract should be witnessed and signed with a traditional signature seal or personalized stamp.

This is the traditional Chinese tea ceremony order:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Uncles/ Aunts
  • Elder Siblings
  • Elder Cousins
  • Younger Siblings
  • Nieces/ Nephews

What Are Traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony Decorations?

From the very simple at-home ceremony to the lavishly decorated affair, there are many options for Chinese tea ceremony decorations. Often times couples choose to incorporate a mix of the following motifs into their decor: the Double Happiness symbol, phoenix and dragon motifs, and a red-and-gold color palette.

In addition to the decor, it's important to also consider the stationery needs you may have associated with your tea ceremony. If you do plan to invite all your guests to the tea ceremony, be sure to have someone there who can explain the significance of the ceremony to those unfamiliar with the tradition. If you don't have a spokesperson, print out the meaning of the Chinese tea ceremony on an insert for your wedding program so that your guests can follow along.

Should You Host a Chinese Tea Ceremony Before or After the Wedding?

The tea ceremony traditionally takes place following the wedding ceremony. Today, some couples wait to host the tea ceremony until the day after the wedding (think: a post-wedding tea, instead of brunch). Others host the ceremony just before the wedding, during the cocktail hour, or just after the ceremony. Some couples, when mapping out their wedding day, may plan to have the tea ceremony during the day's most auspicious hour, after consulting a Chinese almanac or Feng Shui specialist.

When the tea ceremony takes place usually depends on the amount of privacy a couple wishes to keep. If you just wish to include immediate family, you could serve your parents before the wedding ceremony, in the privacy of your family home. Another option is to perform the ceremony during the cocktail hour, while your guests enjoy hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. If you want all guests to pay witness to your tea ceremony, build in time between the ceremony and cocktail hour for this event to take place.

What Do Guests Wear to a Chinese Tea Ceremony?

Proper Chinese tea ceremony attire colors are warmer options like purple, pink, and peach as these hues symbolize new life and happiness in Chinese culture. Orange and yellow are also acceptible colors for Chinese tea ceremony clothing. Black and white should be avoided for Chinese tea ceremony guest attire as these colors are typically worn at Chinese funerals and symbolize death and mourning.

What Are Common Chinese Tea Ceremony Sayings?

When crafting your Chinese tea ceremony script, there are many traditional sayings and quotes couples can include. One really important Chinese wedding tea ceremony saying is "[Name/ kinship term], please drink some tea." This hospitable phrase should be uttered during a traditional Chinese tea ceremony when handing the cup of tea to the recipient.

Additional Chinese wedding tea ceremony sayings include:

  • 早生贵子 (zao sheng gui zi) Translation: Give birth to a son early
  • 早生贵子 (zao sheng gui zi) Translation: Grow old together
  • 心心相印 (xin xin xiang yin) Translation: Heart to heart
  • 永浴爱河 (yong yu ai he) Translation: Forever in love
  • 百年好合 (bai nian hao he) Translation: A happy marriage for a hundred years

Can Couples Personalize a Modern Chinese Tea Ceremony?

While there's a certain structure to tea ceremonies that's been established over the years, couples should feel empowered to adapt and adjust the format for a modern Chinese tea ceremony to suit their needs. "At my own wedding's tea ceremony, we took the time to thank our family members in groups of twos, starting with my mother and father, and served them tea while thanking them for raising me and providing me with constant guidance through life. It is an intensely emotional ceremony," shares Valente. Meanwhile, Fu says that she's "also seen the younger family members serve tea and gifts to the bride and groom." In addition to a tea ceremony, couples may also consider incorporating other Chinese wedding traditions into their nuptials as a way to further honor their heritage in a meaningful way. Ultimately, When it comes to crafting a wedding celebration that reflects you and your partner, the options are endless.

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