Six Chinese Idioms About Tea: Understanding Culture via Language

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Contribution by Anesce Dremen

With its origins nestled deep within Yunnan, China, tea is a tree, a leaf, a symbol of longevity, and a cultural relic. The earliest record of tea dates back 2,100 years along destinations of the Silk Road. In the first manuscript about tea, “The Classic of Tea,” Lu Yu describes tea with this delicate simile: “its liquor is like the sweetest dew of heaven.” From literature to being integral to wedding customs to being a cherished part of the quotidian, tea is profoundly embedded in Chinese cultures, traditions, and heritage. The following six idioms demonstrate how tea is steeped within Mandarin.

1. 禅茶一味 Chán chá yīwèi

Tea and zen derive from the same flavor. Or, more simply, tea and zen are the same flavor. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese chán (禅) which originates from the Sanskrit dhyan (ध्यान ). Zen tradition was influenced by Buddhism and was further influenced by Daoism as it spread across China. 

Today, this idiom is perhaps the most well known among tea enthusiasts across China. It is often found in simple calligraphy in a hand-crafted scroll across tea houses, tea shops, and even tea rooms within homes.

Six Chinese Idioms About Tea

In a story within the Song Dynasty History of Zen Buddhism in China 20 scrolls, an honorable monk instructed all those who arrive at the monastery to first go and drink tea. When a servant witnessed the honorable monk inform both new arrivals as well as returned meditators to ‘go and drink tea,’ and asked why this was, he too was instructed to ‘go and drink tea.’ This brief narrative embodies the essence of what 禅茶一味 is: regardless of one’s background, experience, or class — all ought to go forward to drink tea in unity.

2. 开门七件事:柴米油盐酱醋茶 Kāimén qī jiàn shì: Cháimǐyóuyán jiàng cù chá

In order to open the door, there are seven essentials required for life: firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea. The beauty of this idiom resides in its simplicity. Traditionally, the seven ingredients were staples in all households as the basic requirements. What quintessential Chinese cuisine requires in the kitchen include oil to heat the wok as well as salt, soy sauce, and vinegar to prepare any dish in accompaniment with a bowl of rice. Depending on the region, tea can be sipped alongside or distinct from one’s meal.

3. 茶余饭后 (茶余酒后) Cháyúfànhòu (chá yú jiǔ hòu)

Leisure time. Quite literally this idiom translates to, ‘over a cup of tea or after dinner.’ Some idioms replace dinner with a cup of alcohol. In December 2020, Tan Weiwei’s hit song — Xiao Juan, which raised awareness about domestic violence — used this idiom to contextualize how quickly news of domestic violence victims killed by their partners are dismissed (A topic of discussion over a cup of tea, a diversion after a meal / how quickly cast aside). Tea is a central unifier which can accompany both heavy and light news.

4. 人走茶凉 Rén zǒu chá liáng

Once people walk away, tea becomes cold. Metaphorically, this idiom also conveys that one’s feelings can become as intangible as an unwanted cup of cold tea once people have left. 

Traditionally, tea should always be served hot. Small tea cups, small enough to nestle within the palm of one’s hand, are perpetually refilled from the fairness cup (the pitcher) in order to both maintain a fluid sense of community over the tea ceremony as well as to ensure that one’s tea never grows cold. The development of drinking tea lukewarm or cold is a rather modern invention lasting only a few decades (as is bubble tea and other such trends). Traditional gongfu ceremonies will only brew tea hot; cold tea is reportedly reserved for one’s enemies (this is also said of the first wash of teas). In tea shops and tea houses, if the tea master realizes that an attendee’s tea has grown cold, they will then pour the tea out (likely over tea pets) and refill the cup with the latest brew.

5. 茶饭无心 (茶饭不思) Cháfàn wú sī (cháfàn bù sī)

This idiom expresses melancholy as one ‘doesn’t even have the heart to drink tea or eat rice.’ Another rendition is that an individual ‘doesn’t even think about tea or rice’ due to their sadness. Clinical depression can manifest in a refusal or an inability to eat or drink. Many Chinese women in dynastic China would protest their situations, such as an arranged marriage or binding of feet, by refusing to eat or drink. This is tragically romanticized by Du Liniang in Tang Xianzu’s “The Peony Pavilion,” by Redjade in Lin Yutang’s “Moment in Peking,” and by Peony in Lisa See’s “Peony in Love.”

6. 三茶六饭 Sān chá liù fàn

A method of being extremely welcoming and considerate to guests is to serve three types of tea and prepare six dishes. The number six also serves as a pun: 六 liu (six) can be interpreted as 留 liu (to remain). The welcoming of an engagement into a new home could include a meal with three types of teas brewed in addition to an elaborate meal with six dishes: manifesting the hope that the fiancee would remain within the hearts of the new family so that she transforms from guest to daughter-in-law.

May these six idioms remain within the realm of your heart and accompany you in the myriad of cups of tea that flow forth in your future.

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