Cantonese Legend of “Knocking to Express Thanks When Drinking Tea”
Cantonese don’t attach great importance to etiquette when drinking tea. However, there are some customs when other person pours tea for you. No matter what status the person has – eldership, superior, honored guests or even very familiar old friend, Cantonese must knock to express thanks. They tap the tea table or table top lightly with middle finger and index finger so as to express thanks. Such “knocking to express thanks when drinking tea” has been passed down to the present and has been a custom in the south of the Five Ridges. There is a story about its origin:
It is said that during the southern inspection tour of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty, he went to a little tea house in Xiguan, Guangzhou to drink tea with his servant. A waiter carried two tea cups with tea leaves in them and put them in front of Emperor Qianlong and his servant. After that, another waiter carried a large bronze kettle in his right hand and came to Emperor Qianlong. He took up the tea cup cover with his left hand and lifted his right hand highly. The boiling water poured out from the bronze kettle mouth. Emperor Qianlong saw that half of the tea cup was filled with water without any water dropping on the table.
Emperor Qianlong was very astonished, so he asked the waiter why he made tea in this way. The waiter answered with smile that he made tea with “shrimp bubble water”. When the water was boiling, there would be bubbles so the Cantonese call it shrimp bubble water. The tea needed to have water poured on it from high. Only in this way, can the tea become fragrant. When Emperor Qianlong heard that he stood up and carried the bronze kettle in person. He imitated the waiter and poured water into his servant’s tea cup.
Such behavior made the servant frightened to death. Emperor Qianlong poured water for a servant, how could he accept this! According to the rules in imperial court, this was emperor’s award. He should kneel to the ground and hit his forehead on the ground and express his gratitude. However, the Emperor then made this tour without showing his status, so he mustn’t expose the Emperor’s identity. In such moment of desperation, he promptly bent his right index finger and middle finger and made a posture of bending knees and knocked for several times on the table top beside the tea cup so as to mean hitting his forehead on the ground and expressing his gratitude. The waiter saw it and felt very puzzled, so he asked the servant what the action meant. The servant answered without thinking, “it is knocking to express thanks when drinking tea”.
From then on, such “knocking to express thanks when drinking tea” has become more and more popular in teahouses and then becomes Cantonese etiquette of drinking tea. Now, such etiquette is still very popular in the south of the Five Ridges and among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. At the very beginning, there were specific rules for knocking with fingers. One shall bend the fingers and made a fist lightly and knock with knuckles. After that, it gradually evolved into the way we know now, namely draw the middle finger and the index finger close and knock with fingertips lightly.