Tea ceremonies are perhaps one of my favorite traditions to watch and photograph. As a first-born Chinese-American, I’m extremely proud of my heritage. And like most ABC’s (aka American-born Chinese), I’ve managed to toggle between two different, yet beautifully rich cultures and traditions; such as eating too much during Thanksgiving and eating too much during Chinese New Year. But one of the most time-honored traditions in my heart, is undoubtedly a Chinese tea ceremony.
I’m going to be walking you through everything you need to know about tea ceremonies: what it is, how to organize it, and for my fellow photographers out there, how to photograph one. Having witnessed, been a part of, and photographed numerous tea ceremonies myself, I hope you’ll find this useful!
What are tea ceremonies?
It is a wedding ceremony tradition that is designed to formally introduce the bride and groom to each other’s families and pay their respects by having the couple “jing cha” or offer tea to elder relatives. Traditionally, the groom’s family would present a dowry to the bride’s family. And if the bride’s family accepts, thereby consenting to the marriage, then the bride’s family would in return, give the groom’s family gifts as well. On the day of the wedding, the bride would serve tea to her family in the morning and then the couple would serve tea to the groom’s family after they’ve been formally married.
That was then. These days, you’ll find that most brides and grooms will host tea ceremonies for both sides of the family, at the same time. Another Chinese wedding tradition worth mentioning is “door games.” Door games is a fun tradition in which the bridesmaids will subject the groom and the groomsmen to some lightheartedly fun, yet potentially cruel hazing, in order for the groom to “prove his love” and retrieve his bride. Depending on how many family members you have, it can be a hectic but also fun, lively, and vibrant tradition to witness.
Where do I start in planning a tea ceremony?
That will entirely depend on the couple’s vision for the wedding. Some couples may have a Chinese banquet as well as an American wedding. In that case, the Chinese tea ceremony is usually on the same day as the Chinese banquet. If the couple only has an American wedding, they may opt to host the tea ceremony on the morning of the American wedding. Depending on whether you decide to play door games or how much family to include in the tea ceremony, having it on the same day as the American wedding can feel like you’re having two weddings on the same day, which can be a little bit tiring. But hey, there’s such a thing as coffee and snack breaks! If you can do it, I’d say go for it.
Where do I host a tea ceremony?
Typically either the bride or groom hosts the tea ceremonies at the family home. It can be indoors or outdoors. It depends on how many people will be invited. If the tea ceremony is taking place on the same day as your wedding, I would advise you to keep it close to the venue, especially if you want your wedding photographer to cover it. I’ve seen tea ceremonies hosted either on site at the wedding venue or in a hotel room/airbnb near the venue.
How long do tea ceremonies take and how much time should I account for it?
Once again, this depends entirely on the couple and how many family members they would like to include. My advice would be to list out all of the relatives you’d like to offer tea to, ahead of time. That way, you can get an estimate on how much time to budget for the tea ceremony as well as keep a list to read off of during the actual tea ceremony. You can either choose to include only immediate family and grandparents, or you can include extended family as well (aunts, uncles, older cousins).
During the tea ceremony, elders will likely also give the couple gifts in the form of jewelry or “hong bao” aka red envelopes, and recite well wishes, so keep in mind this may take an extra bit of time. On average, it should take about 3-4 mins for a single person or 6-8 minutes for a pair. Do the math and add an extra 15-20 minutes on top of that to get the total time to budget for the tea ceremony.
If it is on the same day as your American wedding, make sure to add extra buffer time to travel between the tea ceremony location and venue. Depending on whether or not you want your wedding photographer to cover the tea ceremony, you’ll need to make sure that you budget enough time to get from place to place. My advice would be to google the time travelled between locations (without traffic) and add an extra 15-20 mins on top of that. The bigger the buffer, the better!
All in all, make sure to leave enough time for the tea ceremony so that it’s an enjoyable experience for everyone. Remember, elders really cherish this tradition, so make sure to take your time and not rush.
What should we wear during the tea ceremony?
During a Chinese tea ceremony, traditionally the bride will wear a cheongsam, also known as a qipao dress. A qipao is a close-fitting and shapely dress, popularized in 1920’s China. There are a lot of gorgeous qipao options out there and it’s tough to choose. Definitely consult with relatives on where to find one that uses quality fabric that will tailor it to your size and shape.
But if you want to make it easy on yourself, I would recommend checking out my friends over at East Meets Dress. East Meets Dress has the PERFECT mix of traditional and modern cheongsams. If you’re interested in buying one, make sure to use my referral code EMDMONICA10, to get 10% off your dress purchase! Otherwise, a red dress could work too, since red symbolizes luck and good fortune in Chinese culture. During a Chinese tea ceremony, the groom can also wear a simple suit and tie.
What do we need to prepare for the tea ceremony?
Well, tea for one thing. There’s no strict rule about teas. Traditionally, sweet teas with red dates and lotus seeds are used to wish the couple to be blessed with children. Otherwise, green tea, oolong, chrysanthemum, etc will all work. Bonus points if you know your parents’ favorite tea to drink during dim sum! If you’re thinking about kneeling during the ceremony, you’ll also need two pillows to kneel on. You’ll also need two chairs, a hot water kettle, a teapot, tea cups, and a tray for the tea cups. Note: make sure to have enough tea cups for every member of the family, either porcelain or paper. After a while, these rounds go quickly, and you’ll never have time to wash the cups quickly enough.
Next, you’ll need to draft up your list of relatives and determine the order. The order is listed as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and older cousins. Usually, you’d start with the groom’s oldest relatives first. Then alternate between groom and bride’s side for each set of family members. Ex: Grooms grandparents, bride’s grandparents, groom’s parents, bride’s parents, etc.
How do you run a tea ceremony?
You’ll need to set up two chairs or a bench for the elders as well as a tea table nearby. Usually you’ll need to designate a team to run the tea ceremony. A family member or a friend can read the relative’s names off the list, either in English or preferably Chinese. A few family members can prepare the tea: boil water, steep the tea, and pour tea into the cups. Another family member can place the tea cups on the tea cup tray to give to the couple. The couple can then offer tea to the relatives. The relatives will put the tea cups back on the tray after they are done drinking the tea. The process will start over for the next round.
In terms of positioning, the groom is always on the right and the bride is on the left. Female relatives should be seated across from the groom and male relatives should be seated across from the bride. During this, the couple has the option to kneel or stand and bow during the tea ceremony. This is entirely up to the couple and their families. Traditionally, the couple will kneel for grandparents and parents, which is the ultimate sign of respect. After that, they have the option to stand and bow, when offering tea to other relatives. In traditional etiquette, the couple will hold the tea cup with both hands to offer tea to relatives.
WHEW, that’s a lot of info. Okay, what’s the best way to photograph a tea ceremony?
The best way to photograph a tea ceremony depends on whether the couple is kneeling or standing. As the couple is kneeling, make sure to grab a wide shot of them kneeling in front of the seated elders, from behind. A great angle to photograph would be on either side of the couple, just as the couple is handing the tea over to the relatives. Then you’d be able to get the facial expressions of all four people in a single shot. This is especially important for grandparents and parents, because oftentimes, there will be a lot of emotions. Every so often, make sure to get a close up shot of the gifts that the elders are giving, (i.e. gold jewelry, red envelopes, etc.) as well as details of the tea cups and tea pot.
Because you are likely to be indoors, it’s always good to have a flash ready. Or in the case below, the couple preferred natural light, so I simply positioned the group to face the window.
So there you have it! There’s my hyper-detailed, borderline long-winded post on Chinese Tea ceremonies! There are tons of different cultural wedding traditions and I’d love to learn more about each one. If you’re engaged and you’re participating in your own wedding tradition, I’d love to learn about it in the comments below! Otherwise, check out the below for some bonus fun!
Here are a few Chinese Tea ceremony photos from my family!