Tibetan Tea Culture

Tibetan Tea Culture

Princess Wencheng and the History of Tibetans' Tea Drinking

The Tibetans started to drink tea early in the mid-700s in the Tang Dynasty. This reminds us of Princess Wencheng, the envoy of the friendship between the Hans and the Tibetans. In A.D. 633, Tibetan King Songzan Gambo put down the rebellion in northern Tibet. To strengthen contact with the Central Plains, he sent an envoy to Chang'an (today's Xi'an, Shaanxi Province) to request unity by marriage in the 15th year of Zhenguan (A.D. 641) of the Tang Dynasty. The Tang emperor Taizong decided to marry his daughter. Princess Wencheng, to Songzan Gambo. When she went to Tibet, Princess Wencheng took many craftsmen and materials, which were said to include 3,800 kind of seeds, as well as skills of metallurgy, spinning and weaving, silk reeling, papermaking and winemaking. Besides, she introduced the custom of drinking tea to Tibet. In the Tang Dynasty, when tea culture came into being in the Central Plains, many people went to Tibet with methods of tea drinking and tea ceremonies and culture. Jia, the name used for tea in the Tang Dynasty in some parts of China, has been used in Tibetan to the present, which shows that the Tibetans started to drink tea early in the Tang Dynasty. In the Supplement to the History of the Tang by a Tang writer are the words: "Once Duke Changlu was sent to Tibet as an envoy. When he was making tea in his tent, the Tibetan king asked him what he was makings Duke Changlu said, "It is tea, which can remove worry as well as thirst.' The king said that he also had tea. Then Duke Changlu asked him lo show his tea. The king put out his tea of various kinds, and pointed at the tea with his fingers, saying, 'This is Shouzhou tea, this is Shuzhou tea, this is Guzhu tea, this is Qimen tea, and this is Changming tea.'" This shows that the royal Tibetan court knew a lot about the tea of the Central Plains during the 200 years after Princess Wencheng went to Tibet. South of the Tibetan mountain areas, a popular folk song titled the Princess Brings the Dragon-Design Tea Cup, says, "The dragon-design teacup was brought into Tibet by Princess Wencheng. It reminds us of her kindly face." This shows that Princess Wencheng brought to Tibet not only tea leaves, but also tea sets. The tea cakes, popular in the Tang Dynasty, were further changed into those with the delicate design of dragon or phoenix, which were, according to the Tibetans, brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng. The Tibetans also think that Princess Wencheng taught them how to grind and boil tea. Whenever they treat their guests to tea, they will tell how Princess Wencheng taught the ancient Tibetan women to make milky tea and buttered tea. Princess Wencheng did introduce tea culture to Tibet, even if these folk songs or legends about her are exaggerated Afterwards, during the former Shu and the latter Shu of the Five Dynasties and the Song Dynasty, people exchanged horses for tea with the Tibetans, bringing the custom of drinking tea of the Central Plains to Tibet. Most Tibetans, who led a nomadic life, ale cheese rather than vegetables, and tea helped them digest the cheese. On the dry plateau, (kinking tea, which helped them not only produce saliva and quench thirst but also prevented many local common diseases, was popular with officials and the common people. Therefore, Tibetans regard tea as something holy rather than something common. According to them, "One will get dull without tea in a day, and sick without tea in three days."

Tea Culture in Tibetan Temples

In the development of tea culture of the Central Plains, Buddhism played an important role. The Tibetans, who believe in Buddhism, attach importance to tea ceremonies during Buddhist activities. They often connect tea with God. When praying to deities in temples, they take medicine, holy water, and tea with them. In the Zuglakhang Monastery in Lhasa, brick tea over one hundred years old was collected, which, though actually useless, was treated by the monks as treasures to protect the Temple. Therefore, the Tibetans think of tea as something more holy than the Hans do. Regarded as something pure and holy granted by Buddha, tea requires very solemn ceremony. More than 200 years ago, a Portuguese missionary wrote My Travels from Tartary to Tibet, China, in which he gave a detailed description of the tea culture in Tibetan temples. He wrote, "The Tibetans have a surprising way of drinking tea. The tea bricks were of high quality, and five such tea bricks were valued at one tael of silver. All the teapots were made of silver. The teapots and teacups on golden saucers on the sacrificial altar in the Lama temple, which were all made of emerald, looked gorgeous. In particular, the Kewenbamu Lamasery, which was the religious and cultural center, was the most magnificent. Many scholars and pilgrims from all parts of China gathered here to have a tea party. The devout pilgrims treated the Lamaists to tea. It took a lot of money to hold such a simple but momentous activity. Bach of the 4,000 Lamaists drank two cups of tea, which cost 56 taels of silver, The ceremony of presenting tea to Lamaists was also a surprise. Some young men held steaming hot boiler for the benefactors kneeling on the ground to give to the countless rows of Lamaists in solemn robes, who sat still. At this time the benefactors would sing hymns. Rich pilgrims would serve tea with refreshments or cheese at the tea party."

The above-mentioned materials show at least the following points:

  1. Tea is vested with mystery in Tibetan temples. It has more spiritual meaning than material meaning. The Buddhists and Taoists on the Central Plains drink tea mainly to cultivate their moral character by sitting in meditation and to avoid dozing off, though they connect tea drinking with Buddhist or Taoist activities, while in Tibetan temples,tea is regarded as a holy and pure thing similar to charms, holy water and treasures.
  2. The Tibetan temples are particular about tea art. Their teased for example, are not inferior to those of rich Hao families, though they are no match for the royal court of the Central Plains, The tea, contained in boiler, is drunk in combination with the charity of the temples, as Tibetan tea culture not only absorbs the idea of charity in the tea culture of the Central Plains, but also contains Buddhism.
  3. The tea ceremonies of Tibetan temples, grand, solemn and large in scale, is different from those of the Tang Dynasty monks in the Central Plains, who decorated and boiled tea anywhere. The large-scale tea party perhaps, was, either influenced by the large-scale tea parties of temples in the Song Dynasty, or create by the Tibetans. At the tea parties, the Tibetans give Buhhdist salutes and sing paeans under the command of the abbot. Unlike the monks of the Central Plains, who drink tea to achieve peace of mind and find their true selves, the Buddhists of the Tibetan temples treat the tea they drink as something holy and miraculous bestowed on them by the spirits of the nirvana. This clearly shows their objective idealism, greatly different to reformed Chinese Buddhism, is more similar to the original form of Buhhdism.

Treating Guests to Buttered Tea and Milky Tea, and the Tibetan Festivals and Customs

Unlike some upper-class Tibetans, who drink Maojian tea or Yaxi tea, the common Tibetans or Lamaists mainly drink Kangzhuan tea, Fuzhuan tea, Jinjian tea and Fangbao tea. Buttered tea and green tea are drunk in both pastoral areas and agricultural areas. In pastoral areas milky tea is also popular.

Milky tea is the Tibetans' main drink with rice or bread. The Tibetans generally drink several bowls of milky tea in the morning before going to work. They drink it five or six times from morning till night Milky tea is not only for daily use, but also for the reception of guests. Whenever a distinguished guest comes, they mellow milky tea. First, they pound brick tea into pieces, and put them into the stainless steel teapot to boil. Then they pour the hot, fragrant tea into a wooden vat over one meter high, put in some butter and salt, and mix with a stick. At this time, the tea, water, butter and salt are dissolved. Then heating the tea in the teapot again, they finally get fragrant buttered tea. When a distinguished guest comes, they often present hada (a piece of white silk used as a greeting gift among the Tibetans) to him,let him take a seat,and then offer him buttered tea. The Tibetans stress etiquette when drinking milky tea. The host must continually add milky tea to the guest's bowl after he drinks, while the guest must, instead of drinking up the bowl of at one gulp, leave half bowl of the tea for the host to add more, If the host fills up the guest's bowl, the guest, who cannot drink any more, may not drink again. But at the time for leave, he must drink up the bowl at one gulp to express his thanks and satisfaction to the host.

Tibetan herdsmen are very hospitable. When a close friend or a new guest comes into one of their tents, the hostess, after bowing, immediately Serves milky tea. Then the hostess puts ginseng, rice, steamed stuffed buns and other food on a plate, which is covered with hada to show respect for the guest. The most honored guest can seize meat and stewed vegetables to eat with his hands.

For Tibetans, tea implies friendship, respect, purity and auspiciousness. During their festivals, they drink buttered tea and barley wine while singing and dancing merrily. In the Taer Temple, Qinghai Province,there is a lantern show,with buttered tea as the theme.

In the Zhongdian region of the northwest part of Yunnan Province, people hold a special tea party with antiphons. In slack seasons, young people stay in the fields and on the roads. Boys and girls respectively select one of them as a representative, and the boy and the girl selected, on the pretext of grabbing a scarf or a cap, chase each other and leave the crowd to discuss when and where to hold such a tea party. When the guests arrive, the host or the hostess sings loudly, "Honored guests, we have the nerve to invite you into our humble village to drink tea with us. Your promise will be our privilege." At this time the guests invited politely sing, "0h, honored people, we don't deserve to accept your invitation. Please invite other girls." This results in antiphons. With a bowl of tea followed by a song, the two sides sing to each other alternately until one side admits defeat.

Tibetans use tea in various polite formalities and customs, such as weddings, childbirth, funerals and religious rites. When a baby is born, they first boil tea, with the fresh tea implying good looks. At wedding parties,a lot of tea is boiled, the bright and fresh tea expressing a happy marriage. In funerals tea is also boiled, the light tea expressing peopled mourning for the deceased. When visiting Lamaists, Tibetan women must apply sugar or milky tea, which is thought of as something beautiful and pure, to their faces, or they will be punished.