Everything You Need to Know About a Chinese Wedding Tea Ceremony

Plus, how to plan your own.
Hannah Nowack The Knot Weddings Editor
by Hannah Nowack
Hannah Nowack The Knot Weddings Editor
Hannah Nowack
Editor, Real Weddings
  • Hannah writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a focus on real wedding coverage.
  • Hannah oversees engagement content on The Knot's partner brand How They Asked.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Hannah was the Social Media Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings.
Updated Sep 24, 2021

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. "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 wedding photographer Stephanie Bishop of Starling and Sage.

The time-honored tradition, which dates all the way back to the Tang dynasty in China (618 to 907), was created to show respect for the couple's families. "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 Cassie Valente of Cassie Valente Photography. "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."

Historically, 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 tea ceremonies for both sets of parents as part of the wedding.

How a Tea Ceremony Works

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 Jenny Fu of Jenny Fu Photography. 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.

Gift Giving During a Chinese Tea Ceremony

"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."

When to Have the Tea Ceremony

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.

Where to Host the Tea Ceremony

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 garden close to your wedding venue while your guests enjoy predinner 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.

What You Need for a Chinese Tea Ceremony

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. 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.

Setting Up a Chinese Wedding Tea 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.

Decor for a Tea Ceremony

From the very simple at-home ceremony to the lavishly decorated affair, there are many options for decking out your tea ceremony space. 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.

Ways to Personalize a 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 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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