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.
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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.
- The Real Deal
- The Sales Pitch
- The Scam
- Inside the tea shop
- How To Avoid the Chinese Tea Ceremony Scam
How can you tell the difference?
The Real Deal
The real Traditional Tea Ceremony was a beautiful, welcoming experience at a monastery on top of a mountain in rural China about four hours drive from Wuhan. The 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’s considered 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 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 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.
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 30’s 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 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 as 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.
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.
For peace of mind make sure you buy travel insurance before you go, especially if you are travelling solo. I use and recommend World Nomads because it covers overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities so I can concentrate on enjoying my trip without worrying about something going wrong.