What to Read Next

Why finger tap when tea is poured

Sheere Ng
21 March 2013
Why finger tap when tea is poured
Why finger tap when tea is poured

Text and images by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra

Why do people tap their fingers on the table when the tea server fills their cups?

This gesture dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.), during one of Qianlong emperor’s travels in Jiangnan (south of lower Yangtze River), when he had disguised himself to observe the lives of his subjects.

One day, as he was resting his feet at a teahouse, the wait staff shoved a teapot at him. He had dressed himself like a servant, while his companion, said to be a eunuch, looked as if he was the master. In order not to cause suspicion, the emperor picked up the pot to fill their cups.

The problem was, custom demanded the subjects to kowtow or at least bow to the emperor whenever he extended such benevolence. But doing so would expose their identities. It was nerve wrecking for the eunuch who was caught between being disrespectful to the emperor and sabotaging his cover, both of which were punishable by death.

In desperation, the eunuch bent his index and middle fingers, and knocked his knuckles on the table surface to signify kowtow. This practice propagated amongst the common man, and it became a silent thank you to the person who was pouring tea.

There are slight variations to the story, depending on who you speak to. Some say the emperor was engrossed in his conversation with the locals, when he realised that his teacup was empty. He instinctively, as if he had forgotten his regal stature, helped himself with the tea and even poured for the others.

The rest of the story follows the same track, except that three, instead of two, fingers are used to knock on the table – a pair to represent one’s arms, and the last one represented the head.

Or, a grateful emperor wanted to toast and offer tea to his victorious army, but was advised to knock his fingers instead when they served him, as he cannot be seen to lower himself to physically thank them at that level.

“Many customs need not have a single origin or source, but when someone tries to explain it after the custom has become ingrained in life, the more imaginative ones will outshine the others,” explains Prof Koh Khee Heong, from the department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore. Today, this gesture is commonly seen at teahouses and dim sum restaurants, especially amongst the older generations. Besides finger tapping, there are other ceremonious gestures in tea drinking. For example, the host is supposed to pour until the teacup is 70 per cent full, as the rest is to be filled with friendship and affection.

Starwood Credit Card

Earn 25,000 Bonus Starpoints®! Use toward Award Nights or Flights.

Powerful Tactical Flashlight Flying Off Shelves!

This new tactical flashlight was just released to the public and is flying off shelves in the United States. Limited supplies left, act quick!

10 Cards for People Who Have Great Credit

What card offers up to 5% cash back? And which one offers 24/7 concierge service? See the best credit cards of 2016. Apply online, quickly & easily.

Insane Navy Seal Flashlight, should it be banned?

The Military has recently released technology that is now available to the public. Get yours before they run out - Limited Supply!

Attn Home Owners Who Never Miss a Payment.

Home Owners who have not missed a payment in 3 years or more need to read this. If you owe less than $625,000 on your home there is a solution.

Military Mortgage Rates In 2016

Rates as Low as 2.75% (3.028% APR) 15 Year Fixed. Exclusive For Veteran & Military Takes 1 Min!

How To Make Sagging Skin Look Tight and Lifted

[Watch] The easy and effective way consumers across the country are improving the look of their wrinkled and sagging skin without cosmetic procedures.

What Has Been The 2016 Best Skin Tighteners ?

Women everywhere are saving thousands of dollars on plastic surgery by reducing the appearance of wrinkles from the comfort of their own home.

Free Samples Sites- Why You Should Pay Attention

Sign up now for freebies so good you will feel guilty not paying for them! No credit card or purchase necessary.

Kid sleep troubles email series for moms

We get it. We’ve been there. Sign up for our email track to learn how to handle kids who won’t go to sleep or won’t stay in bed.

Join Disney Movie Club Today

Get 4 Disney Movies For $1 With Membership. See Details. Plus, Free Shipping On Your Initial Order!

The New Fuel Behind Oil's Death Spiral

A stunning breakthrough in chemical engineering has unleashed a massive supply of fuel that could hand the United States 100% energy independence.

Ever Googled Someone? Do A "Deep Search" Instead

Entering a Name and State on this site could reveal info you thought wasn't available. Have you searched yourself or someone you know yet?

Did You Know Every New Car Has a Secret Price?

Don't pay MSRP! Save yourself both time & money on your new car purchase. Join 97,000+ others this month and find your lowest price for your new car!