How to Avoid the Chinese Tea Ceremony Scam

Find out how to avoid the Chinese Tea ceremony scam. When you’re travelling you can be more vulnerable to scams and cons. Learn how to avoid falling for this common scam in China.

The Chinese Tea Ceremony is an ancient tradition dating back to the 7th century Tang dynasty and is a wonderful cultural experience for visitors to China. In the beginning, tea was cultivated as a herbal medicine within the temples and was valued for its calming properties. Over time tea ceremonies became social, cultural and traditional events where tea-making techniques, atmosphere and attitude are important.

In my two trips to China, I’ve experienced several Chinese Tea Ceremonies. One of them was the real deal, another was a sales pitch and the last one was a scam aimed at fleecing unsuspecting tourists.

But how can you tell the difference?

The Chinese Tea Ceremony Scam

The Real Deal

The real Traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony was a beautiful, welcoming experience at a monastery on top of a mountain in rural China about four hour’s drive from Wuhan. The Tea Ceremony was performed by a Taoist monk to welcome me and my companions to the Temple of the White Cloud on the Immortal Platform.  

This monastery overlooked a tea plantation that was very hard to get to at the top of a very steep dirt road.

Once at the monastery, we met Master Li, a Taoist monk who invited us inside. Then the Traditional Tea Ceremony began. Master Li brought out a large tray with very small porcelain teacups and a teapot. He discarded the first cup of tea because it was too weak to drink. Master Li kept refilling the cups and I kept drinking the tea. This went on for some time until I realised he would just keep refilling my cup until I stopped drinking. The tea ceremony is known as “jing cha” in China which means to “respectfully offer tea”.

The Immortal Platform, China
The Immortal Platform, China

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The Sales Pitch

Wandering through the market in the old town of Hangzhou I was offered a small cup of tea outside a teashop. I accepted the tea and was ushered inside the shop. The sales assistant spoke very good English and offered me several different types of tea to try.

I sat down and the Tea Ceremony began as she showed me the different grades of tea & explained the tea-making process and the history of tea growing in the Hangzhou area. The local Dragon Well tea from Longjin village is famous for its quality & flavour. At the end of the tea ceremony, I was expected to make a purchase which I was happy to do.

Buying Dragon Well Tea in Hangzhou was fun but it was clearly aimed at selling to tourists. Although the tea making was close to the Traditional Tea Ceremony, the ambience was missing in the busy tea shop and the sales assistant quickly moved on to the next customer once I made a purchase.

hangzhou old town
Hangzhou Old Town

The Scam

I was in Shanghai leaving the Bund, a busy tourist area with fabulous views of the Huangpu River and the city.  I was approached by a Chinese couple in their 30s who asked me to take their photo. The young man’s English was very good and he was very friendly. He said he was from the country & was visiting Shanghai with his wife who didn’t speak much English. They were going to a tea shop nearby for a Traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony & asked me if I would like to join them.

Five minutes later we were still chatting & still walking in the same direction & I found myself going along with them. We left the main shopping area and went down some quieter streets to a small tea shop.

Inside the tea shop

Once inside we were ushered into the back area. The young man offered me a corner seat near the wall. A very bored-looking Chinese man came & the Tea Ceremony began. The young man ordered several different types of tea & I tried the first one. Several more arrived & after a short time, I realised it was going to cost a lot of money. I suspected it was a scam & I started to feel uneasy because I was alone. But I was cornered against the wall so I stopped drinking the tea, thanked the young man & told him I was expected by work colleagues.

Shanghai China
Shanghai China

We left the tea shop & the couple continued walking with me to the metro station. The man tried to set up other meetings & asked me where I was staying. I was evasive with my answers & left as quickly as I could.

The Tea Ceremony was brief, had no atmosphere and was very expensive. It cost me about $50 Australian…a lot for 3 tiny cups of tea. But it could have been much worse.

When I met up with my work colleagues I described the situation & was told the Traditional Tea Ceremony is a common scam.

How To Avoid the Chinese Tea Ceremony Scam

Be aware that the scam exists and targets unsuspecting tourists. I could say don’t trust anyone you meet and don’t talk to strangers but that’s all part of the travel experience especially if you are travelling solo. So I think simply being aware that the scam exists will make you less vulnerable.

Think twice before going to a new location with someone you’ve just met. Always know where you are so that you can leave if you want to.

Know the exchange rate and how much money you are spending. The scam relies on tourists being unsure of the exchange rate and not understanding how much they will be asked to pay so do your homework so you can operate effectively in an unfamiliar currency.

Scams operate in the big cities

Be especially careful in big cities and in busy tourist areas where scammers are more likely to operate. In retrospect, I can see that I was targeted from the outset. I was in a busy tourist area, walking alone. The young man crossed through a stream of pedestrians when he first approached me.

Don’t give a stranger too much information

Don’t give a stranger information about where you are staying or where you are going next.

Leave your valuables and extra cash in the hotel safe. Carry only what you need for the day.

Unfortunately, you can’t trust everyone you meet, especially when you are travelling alone but luckily no real harm was done. So I guess I’ll just have to clock this one up to experience.

Know where you are and where you’re going. Take a trusted Travel Guide for China.  I rarely travel without a Lonely Planet Guide.

For peace of mind make sure you buy travel insurance before you go, especially if you are travelling solo. I use Travel Insurance that covers me for overseas medical, lost baggage, and other expenses and I can concentrate on enjoying my trip without worrying about something going wrong.

Stay safe by booking a tour

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  1. The real deal in the monastery sounds wonderful. The only one really worth doing.

  2. We went for the sales pitch in Shanghai but the monastery experience sounds fascinating.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am so sorry that happened to you but I am so glad that you’re sharing this story so it doesn’t happen to others.

  4. this kind of thing happens in egypt too, glad you got out of it

    1. Thankyou! Yes unfortunately scams can happen anywhere & tourists are vulnerable.

  5. AS a huge fan of tea, I always look for tea shops everywhere I go. I haven’t been to China yet, but when I do visit, I expect to do a couple of tea related activities. I am glad you shared this information, it is really helpful.

    1. Yes I love tea too & I’m glad you found the article helpful. The Dragon Well tea from Hangzhou was very nice!

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s good to know about the legit tea houses as well as these types of scams and how to avoid them.

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