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Spring Travel | Globe Magazine

When ordering tea in China, don’t forget to tap

The history and etiquette of a longstanding custom.


Whether you’re in Hong Kong or Shanghai, get ready to drink lots of tea. And when a server fills your cup, show your appreciation the way the locals do. Instead of saying thank you, quietly tap your fingers on the table during the pour.

Legend traces this etiquette back to a Chinese emperor who liked to travel the countryside incognito. When he refilled his companions’ cups, they would tap their fingers rather than bow before him, so as not to blow his cover. The practice endures both in Hong Kong and the mainland, but with variations. In Hong Kong, people tend to tap two fingers — the pointer and middle finger. In Shanghai, they usually add the ring finger in as well.


At one restaurant in Hong Kong, a waitress tells me I should be tapping only with my pointer. But the manager insists two fingers was right. “She’s from the country,” he says of the waitress, waving his hand theatrically. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

This isn’t the only link between tea and fingers. Around Shanghai, the most prized tea is called “lady,” and is picked early in the season by young girls with delicate fingers. After that, comes “mother” tea. Late-season tea is called “grandmother,” when even old and chubby digits will apparently do.

One final piece of finger etiquette: When visiting temples, pointing is considered disrespectful. After I point to a large Buddha statue at one temple, an old woman marches over to admonish me. She speaks no English, but I instantly understand the international language of shame.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.