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Tea's Ethnic Diversity

China is a country of 56 ethnic groups. Though treating guests with tea is a custom common to all ethnic groups; history, culture, geographic locations, and ethnic traditions have made the practice of drinking tea as diverse as the different ethnic groups themselves. This is exactly what the Chinese saying describes, "A different custom exists for every hundred miles." The great variety of ethnic tea drinking customs together constitutes a very important component of Chinese tea culture.

Unlike people in most parts of China, the nomadic Tibetans living on the Tibetan Plateau do not drink plain tea. They drink buttered tea. The butter in buttered tea is extracted from cow milk or goat milk. The milk is boiled and stirred, and a butter layer naturally forms on the milk surface as it cools. Pu'erh tea is crushed down to small pieces and boiled for half an hour. The tea sediment is filtered out and the juice is poured into a canister. Pre-roasted and smashed pieces of walnuts, peanuts, sesame, and pine nuts are added in tea juice along with the extracted butter. The mixture is then beaten with a pestle until the butter and the tea juice are completely blended. The buttered tea is then stored in this form. Before drinking, it is poured into a kettle and heated a stove. It is quite convenient.

Buttered tea has a delicate fragrance; it quenches thirsty and also helps resisting cold. It is ideal for consumption in cold, high altitude regions. Every morning the Tibetans must drink a couple of bowls of buttered tea. When a guest visits, the host always brings out buttered tea served in wooden bowls with silver inlays, as a gesture of respect.

The Mongols are also a nomadic people. In China, they live primarily in Inner Mongolia, and their living environment is similar to the Tibetans'. However, the Mongols prefer milk tea. The Mongol nomads usually brew black tea in a bronze kettle, and then add an appropriate amount of fresh milk. They normally drink milk tea at least three times a day. In the morning, they have tea and roasted rice. Any leftover tea is kept warm on fire,so that they can drink it any time they want. During the main meal, they eat primarily beef and mutton. To help digestion, they also drink milk tea at this time. Then before going to bed, they drink milk tea again.

When they visit friends or attend joyous events, the Mongols bring a couple of blocks of brick tea, which are considered to be one of the most valuable gifts. When guests arrive, it is considered discourteous if milk tea is not served. The host usually puts a tea table in front of the guests as they sit, and then brings out salt, sugar, roasted rice, and curd. The hostess serves milk tea. The guests can add salt and sugar according their preferences. The roasted rice and curd are tea snacks. As part of common etiquette, the guests do not finish the entire bowl of tea. They must leave some tea in the bowl,allowing the host to add more. Right before the time of departure, the guests finish the bowl of tea, give thanks, and then are led out of the tent by the host.

The Bai ethnic people in Southern China are known for their "three cups of tea" ceremony, It is a tea ceremony The Bai ethnic people in Southern China are known for their "three cups of tea" ceremony. It is a tea ceremony full of subtle meanings about life. The first of the three cups of tea is bitter tea. An earthen canister is first heated on fire. Tea is then added into the heated canister to be roasted while being shaken. When the tea turns slightly yellow and a slight burnt smell arises, boiled water is poured into the canister. The bitter tea is served as this. Though this cup of tea tastes bitter, it has a very rich fragrance. This cup of tea can be very stimulating.

The second cup of tea is sweet tea. Ginger slices, sugar, sesame, roasted walnuts, shredded cheese are placed in the tea bowl with the tea, and then boiled water is poured in. This cup of tea is more like a dessert. It is both delicious and nutritious. Sweet tea often eaten using a spoon. It can also be had with Macks such as olives and pineapples.

The last cup is an aftertaste tea. Cinnamon, Sichuan Pepper, and ginger slices are together boiled in water. Then bitter tea and honey are added into the brew and then served. This cup of tea is sweet, bitter,and spicy. The combination of all these tastes in a single cup symbolizes the variety of adventures one may experience in life. This metaphor makes the last cup of tea particularly memorable.

The three cups of tea present bitterness first, sweetness second, and finally a combination of these tastes. This manifests the Bai peopled optimism and a unique understanding of life.

The Dong ethnic people drink a very unique type of tea, called oil tea. When guests visit, they must drink three bowls of oil tea as show of respect to the host. They also have soy tea, which is even more interesting. The main ingredients of soy tea, beside tea, include roasted rice, soybean and corn. Depending the occasion, there are plain soy tea, red soy tea, and white soy tea. Plain soy tea is usually served during holidays. Each family throws all the tea ingredients in a big cauldron and lets them cook. A respected elder is in charge of serving the tea to everyone who attends. Red soy tea is served for festive events, particularly at weddings. Pork stew is added with other ingredients into the tea. The groom and bride serves the tea to every guest. White soy tea is for funerals and memorials. Beef stew is added, The family of the deceased serve the tea for all those who attend the funeral. To express condolences and thanks, the guests who drink the white soy tea all put some money at the bottom of the bowl after finishing.

Almost every ethnic group in China has its own unique tea drinking customs, which together form the diverse landscape of the Chinese tea culture. Although these customs differ significantly in many respects,they have in common the essence of tea drinking which is, satisfying a physical need of quenching thirst, to bring about a spiritual enjoyment and to express social conventions.