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The etiquette and taboos of drinking tea and alcohol in Tibetan culture

Tibetan cuisine has a long history, and the ancient dietary habits of Tibetan people have formed their own unique dietary etiquette, with some dietary taboos. Tibetans are a highly ceremonial people with simple customs, respect for elders, love for children, and honesty being traditional virtues passed down through the ages. “The Sixteen Cleanliness Laws” formulated by Songtsen Gampo emphasized filial piety, respect for virtue, reverence for the elderly, sincere love for relatives and friends, and integrity, which greatly influenced the formation of Tibetan ethical and ceremonial customs.


The dietary etiquette of Tibetans also reflects their ethical spirit. In daily life, family members and neighbors get along harmoniously, respecting and loving the elderly, and treating others with integrity. When good wine is brewed at home, the first glass of wine “chang-phud” (new wine) is dedicated to the gods and tasted by the elders. Every year when new grains are harvested, tasting the new crop is the privilege of the elders. During family meals, the hostess serves the elders first, then the whole family gathers around the fire pit to eat happily together. Tibetans are very hospitable and warmly welcome guests. If someone visits, they will spare no effort to offer good wine, tea, and food.

There are many customs related to drinking tea and alcohol in Tibetan culture. At home, each person uses their own tea bowl and cannot use another person’s bowl casually. When drinking tea, one cannot drink all the tea in the bowl; instead, one drinks half or most of it and then fills the bowl again before finishing it, leaving a little bit at the end to symbolize that there is always more tea to be had, wealth is abundant, and other deep meanings. When a guest arrives, the hostess will take out her treasured porcelain bowl and place it in front of the guest. She will pour the butter tea into the cup after shaking it lightly a few times (the bottom of the teapot must be lower than the table). The guest cannot drink the tea immediately; instead, he or she should blow away the floating oil slowly and sip the tea several times before leaving about half of the tea in the bowl. The hostess will refill the cup quickly so that the cup is always full. Guests are expected to drink at least three cups of tea; drinking only one cup is considered unlucky according to a Tibetan saying: “One cup becomes an enemy!” When drinking tea, one cannot make a sound like “xi, xi”; also, one cannot finish all the tea in the bowl, or else it will be seen as having no manners.


Tibetan alcohol etiquette and customs are also very rich. Every time new wine is brewed, it must first be offered to the gods with “new wine,” and then the eldest person in the family will be served first according to the ancient rule of “respecting seniority.” Afterward, everyone else can drink. At festivals, weddings, or large gatherings, alcohol is generally first offered to the most respected elders and then served to others in order. Those offering the wine should hold the glass with both hands above their heads and present it to the recipient, especially when dealing with elders. The recipient should first take the glass with both hands, then hold it with the left hand and dip the index finger of the right hand lightly into the wine to flick it into the air three times. Some people also softly chant auspicious prayers like “Tashi delek pema jungne….” Afterward, they can drink. Flicking the wine three times symbolizes respect for heaven, earth, and deities and praying for blessings from Buddha’s dharma and monks.

There are some taboos for drinking alcohol; one cannot drink all the wine in one gulp, but must follow the “three sips per cup” rule of “sang-jin-xia-da.” After offering wine to the gods, the recipient should drink one sip first. The person offering the wine will refill the glass, and then the recipient should drink a second sip before filling the cup again and drinking it all in the third sip. Drinking all the wine in the cup shows sincerity. When drinking alcohol at a party, the cups are shared by everyone, and those drinking together can be considered as one family, so they cannot use separate cups or utensils, which would be seen as being outside or looking down upon others. In the past, people who worked in “lower-class jobs” such as butchers, blacksmiths, and sky burial workers generally did not share cups with others; they always brought their own cups and drank alone.

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