Ask Mei

Tea culture

Why do drinkers finger-tap the table?

Tea culture

When I dine with my Chinese friends and colleagues, they often tap the table with their fingers when being served tea or wine. What does that mean?

Tapping the table with the index and middle fingers when being served drinks is a very common practice in China. It basically means “thank you” in an unintrusive way – with the welcome effect it won’t interrupt conversations at the dining table.

This practice is believed to have originated with the Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. As the longest living emperor (1711-1799) who reigned over China during the relative peak of its economic, military and cultural might, Qianlong is the source of many legendary stories and anecdotes – some real and some fictional.

As a sophisticated connoisseur of tea, art and literature, Qianlong is believed to have made seven leisurely trips to the beautiful and wealthy southern part of China, specifically the Yangtze River Delta – the area that includes modern day Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang – to sample life there. He enjoyed travelling in disguise so that he could observe the common people at close quarters.

During one of his southern trips, Qianlong visited a teahouse – incognito – with a small entourage, who were also dressed in plain clothes. The emperor was so impressed with the local tea that he kept filling up the cups for his courtiers. The ancient Chinese tradition held that whenever the emperor gave somebody anything (even a rope to hang himself) that person should kneel down to thank him. But since they were in disguise, nobody could do that in public. Luckily, one smart official came up with a solution by bending the index and middle fingers of his right hand and tapped the table three times – a hand gesture to symbolise kneeling and kowtowing. Qianlong was very pleased with this clever invention and others immediately followed suit. So next time you are served drinks at a Chinese dinner, you should also try this tapping gesture – see if your Chinese friends are as pleased as the emperor.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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