A long time ago, around the time of China’s Qing Dynasty, it was said that the emperor, a rather young man by the name of Shunzhi, grew weary of spending all his days and nights cooped up in the palace.
He resolved to travel throughout his kingdom, exploring all that he ruled over. So as to not draw too much attention, and unnecessary danger that would entail, to himself Shunzhi decided that it would be wise to take the journey in disguise. And so he, and a handful of his most trusted advisers, set off to become a part of their country.
One day, young Shunzhi came to a small village with little more than one main thoroughfare and a few shops where the essentials could be purchased. Thirsty, he inquired to a passerby as to where the local teahouse could be found (tea, after all, was one of the essentials). The young lady pointed to a colorful doorway just behind them and the troop shuffled in.
After being seated, Shunzhi became captivated by the table next to them, where a man was talking, laughing and gesturing emphatically, all while gracefully pouring out tea to even the farthest corners of his table. Shunzhi was so impressed by this display of dexterity that he, for the first time in his life, decided that he would serve the tea to his servants.
As would probably be expected, this turned out to be quite a messy decision on the Emperor’s part. The young man immediately went to pour the tea in the teacup of his adviser on the opposite end of the table – further than his arm could reach. Put simply, most of the tea ended up embarrassingly short of his target. When the pot was emptied, the tea that actually made it into teacups was filled to the brim and dripping down the sides.
It was clear that the young lord needed practice.
However, since the advisers knew his true identity, they had to adhere to the custom of showing acknowledgment to the Emperor by bowing. This would immediately give away Shunzhi’s charade, so he was forced to devise a plan.
He ordered his servants to, instead of bowing, tap their three middle fingers (the two outside fingers representing prostrate arms and the other the bowed head) in front of the cup. That way, even those across the table could acknowledge that their cup was full and the young ruler had successfully poured.
As the legend of Shunzhi’s travels grew, it became a common practice to tap your three fingers on the table after receiving a cup of tea – just in case the pourer was the Emperor in disguise.
So the next time you sit down at a Chinese restaurant or are the guest at a Chinese gathering, be sure to honor your tea pourer with this simple gesture of thanks – you never know who they could be!