UNESCO Adds Chinese & Turkish Tea, Social Practices to Its Intangible Cultural Heritage List

For tea lovers and the global tea industry at large, the 17th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, held from Nov. 28 to Dec. 3 held at Rabat, Morocco, was a highly successful event as two tea nominations were inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Culture of Çay (tea) of Azerbaijan and Türkiye and the traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices in China were officially inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Being part of UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage inscriptions means that a country's heritage is recognized, as well as its importance in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of increasing globalization.

Overall, Intangible Cultural Heritage also helps to create intercultural dialogue and foster mutual respect for other ways of life. Its importance lies not only in the cultural manifestation itself, but in the wealth of knowledge and skills that are transmitted through it from one generation to another.

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity specifically aims to give greater visibility to the traditions and skills practiced by communities.

The Culture of Çay (Tea) of Azerbaijan and Türkiye

“Tea can be an Intangible Cultural Heritage,” said Saziye Ilgaz, a board member of ESTA (European Speciality Tea Association), who lives in Turkey. “As far as I know, Turkey and Azerbaijan made the application together. The registration of Turkish tea culture as Intangible Cultural Heritage will both ensure the survival of this culture and enable the world to recognize Turkish tea culture. Besides, tea has a significant role in Turkish social life. In our society, offering a glass of tea is considered a sign of hospitality and friendship. In addition, families chat and discuss family matters while drinking tea after dinner. Turkish delight, dates, dried fruits, cookies and baklava are served alongside tea during tea conversations. This is an activity that strengthens family ties. Relatives and friends are also included in these conversations from time to time. Regardless of the rich or poor, everyone chats and socializes with their friends by drinking tea in tea houses and cafes.”

Ilgaz said the Unesco statement that tea cultures are intangible Cultural Heritage is very important for the Turkish tea industry. In the short term, introducing Turkish tea brewing and drinking culture to the world will enable the development of tea tourism in Turkey. Thus, despite the ongoing globalization of the world, traditional Turkish tea brewing and drinking culture will be preserved.

“In the medium and long term, I think that the taste of Turkish tea will be widely recognized and loved in the world, and Turkish tea will be marketed together with the brewing and drinking culture in world markets,” added Ilgaz. “If we can achieve this, both the tea production industry and related sub-industries – industrial branches that produce teapots, teapots, tulip-shaped cups, etc. – will have the opportunity to open up to world markets.”

Unesco said the Culture of Çay (tea) of Türkiye and Azerbaijan – a  symbol of identity, hospitality and social interaction – is an important social practice that shows hospitality, builds and maintains social ties, and is used to celebrate important moments in the lives of communities.

Although there are several types of tea and brewing techniques, communities in both countries (Türkiye and Azerbaijan) primarily harvest and consume black tea, and communities brew tea by using a wide variety of kettles, produced using traditional craftsmanship.

The drink is served freshly-brewed and hot, in pear-shaped cups made from glass, porcelain, faience or silver. It is typically accompanied by sweets, sugar, lemon slices, jams and dried fruits.

In certain regions of Azerbaijan, some communities also add local spices and herbs to the tea, such as cinnamon, ginger and thyme.

Tea culture is an essential part of daily life for all layers of society in these countries, providing a strong sense of cultural identity. The bearers include tea farmers and harvesters, tearoom owners, tea makers and the artisans who make the associated tools, utensils and sweets.

Türkiye incidentally drinks the highest amount of tea and with a per capita consumption of 3.5 kg per person.

Vugar Abbasovm, a Turkish businessman, said, “We make all the important decisions while drinking tea, so I am very happy for our tea culture to be inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco.”

Similarly, Gulieva Ilaha, a doctor in Türkiye, noted, “When a guest comes to our home, we offer tea… so glad we are in Unesco’s list.”

Aysel Kuru, a teacher in Türkiye, said the decision will help Turkish tea culture to be transferred to younger generations, so it will not only be a “grandparents” beverage.

Hasan Onder, general manager of Rize Tea Trade Center (Rize Cay Carsisi), said the recent development will help the brewing culture, especially with local tea ware (the famed tulip shaped tea glass), which will become known all over the world.

Traditional Tea Processing Techniques & Social Practices in China

Regarding China, Unesco said China’s traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices entail the knowledge, skills and practices around tea plantation management, tea-leaf picking, manual processing, drinking and sharing.

Based on natural conditions and local customs, tea producers in the region have developed six categories of tea: green, yellow, dark, white, oolong and black teas. When added to reprocessed teas, such as flower-scented teas, the result is more than 2,000 tea products with a variety of colors, aromas, flavors and shapes.

“Tea is ubiquitous in the Chinese people’s daily life and is served steeped or boiled in homes, workplaces, tea houses, restaurants and temples,” Unesco said. “It is an important part of socialization and of ceremonies such as weddings and sacrifices. The practice of greeting guests and building relationships within families and among neighbors through tea-related activities is common to multiple ethnic groups, providing a sense of shared identity and continuity for the communities. The knowledge, skills and traditions are passed on through families and apprenticeships, and the bearers include tea producers, farmers and artists, as well as those who make the pastries that are typically served with tea.”

China, in its nomination file, explained, “The traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices in China are closely connected with people’s life and the practitioners are numerous. The possible inscription of the element would demonstrate at the local level the diversity of such heritage, raise awareness of the general public, in particular the youngsters, of knowledge concerning nature and the universe, traditional skills and health care practices, enlarge the scope and improve the frequency of practices, thereby ensuring visibility of intangible cultural heritage in general. The inscription would also help stakeholders to further recognize the importance of intangible cultural heritage for sustainable development, and encourage their participation in safeguarding activities, hence creating favorable conditions for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.”

China's nomination added: “The inscription of the element would enhance worldwide the awareness that drinking tea is good for physical and mental health, and further highlight the important role that Intangible Cultural Heritage, safeguarding plays in providing sustainable livelihoods, advancing gender equality and rural development, and protecting terrestrial ecosystems, etc., hence ensuring the visibility of intangible cultural heritage in general.”

It also said tea producers have a good command of expertise, take apprentices and teach specific knowledge and core skills, and assume special responsibilities for the transmission and development of the element in China. Tea farmers specifically cultivate tea plants and run their tea plantations according to laws of nature and ecology, and experience accumulates over generations. Among them, the virtuous seniors preside over the ceremony to worship the “God of Tea.” Tea pluckers, mainly consisting of women, pick and select tea leaves. Tea artistes present and pass on tea art or tea ceremony.

“The elders in families, clans and communities, taking every opportunity in daily life, rituals and festive events, pass down the customs of drinking and serving tea to other members, especially the younger generation, through oral instructions and practices,” said China’s nomination. “Drinking and sharing of tea have been deeply integrated into people’s everyday life.”

To learn more about the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, visit ich.unesco.org.

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