The semantics, grammar, and pragmatics of "drink tea" in the PRC

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Tea is a Very Big Thing with me.  I am intensely interested in all manifestations and transformations of this celestial ichor.  For some references, see the "Selected readings" below.

All the tea in China is on my mind this morning as a result of reading this article:

"Defying China’s Censors to Urge Beijing to Denounce Russia’s War", by Chris Buckley (March 18, 2022)

In the midst of an account of numerous individuals who had signed a petition against Russia's war on Ukraine, I came upon this sentence:

“Every single one was taken for tea,” Mr. Lu said in a telephone interview, using a common euphemism referring to being questioned by the police.

The basic expression at issue is simply "hē chá 喝茶" ("drink tea"), which seems innocuous enough, but, depending upon the context, it can be cause for alarm.

"Hē chá 喝茶" ("drink tea") appears in a variety of constructions, e.g.:

qǐng hē chá 请喝茶 ("invite to drink tea")
bèi qǐng hē chá 被请喝茶 ("be invited to drink tea")
bèi qǐng qù hē chá 被请去喝茶 (be invited to go drink tea")
bèi hē chá 被喝茶 ("be drink tea-ed")

On the surface, all of these superficially innocent social graces nowadays can be very bad news for those who are on the receiving end when they are offered by officials of the government (police, state security, etc.).

Grammatically, note the use of the adversative passive (see also the last entry under "Selected readings" below).

Semantically, the surface signification is "drink tea", but the connotation is "be questioned by the authorities".

Collectively, it's kind of like a gigantic tea party, in which the invitees to tea are dissenters and resisters to government policies and actions with which they disagree.

For a deep study on "drinking tea" in the PRC, see "Drinking Tea with the State Security Police", by Yaxue Cao in China Change (March 1, 2012).

For censorship in general, see "The face of censorship" (1/11/19), which has a long bibliography.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Frank L Chancechancefl said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 8:29 am

    Note the rather different connotations of "お茶を飲みに行きませんか” Ocha o nomi ni ikimasenka? "Shall [we] go for a cup of tea?"in Japanese. Between young people this is basically a request for a date, and among older folks one might expect to receive a business proposal over the proverbial tea, which more than likely would actually be coffee.

  2. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 8:48 am

    In my youth, the BBC would regularly report that "Mr X was helping the police with their enquiries".

  3. Stephen Horowitz said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 9:23 am

    Regarding Japanese, I also remember learning that back in the day in Kyoto high-society, if you're at someone's house and talking to them in the entrance way, and they invite you in for tea (Something like, "O-cha nomi-agarimasen ka?" I think), then it's actually a polite way of ending the conversation or signaling that it's time for you to leave. I never fully confirmed this anywhere or heard it myself though.

  4. Bloix said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 9:32 am

    As you're interested in all tea-related things, you might like this expression if you don't already know it:
    As a young US lawyer a few decades ago, I worked for a firm with British clients, and for reasons not relevant, from time to time I had to interview reasonably highly-placed executives about their work histories. Often they would say, when asked what they did in their first jobs, "I made the tea" – meaning, I did whatever anyone in the office told me to do.

  5. Neil Kubler said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 12:51 pm

    Despite over a century of European language influence on the passive with 被 bèi, so that bèi is now used much more frequently and widely than before — including in many felicitous sentences, it is interesting that the adversative use still exists in expressions like bèi qǐng hē chá "invited to/made to drink tea" or (of villages) bèi gāotiě le "be high-speed railroaded" (i.e., high speed rail was run through a village whether the residents liked it or not).

  6. klu9 said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 3:19 pm

    Some more on the phrase from China Digital Times:

    And the "Passive Era" bèi shídài 被时代:

  7. David Marjanović said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 3:37 pm

    I've seen 被 bèi explained as "undergo".

  8. AntC said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 4:14 pm

    @Bloix [British] "I made the tea"

    Aww you're eliding a whole office/factory culture of the 1950's/60's. There weren't dinky hot water boilers or kettles/jugs/kitchen area in each office. Rather, a vast teapot or stainless steel urn was wheeled around all the offices dispensing what was (by the end of the circuit) sludge "you could stand a spoon up in".

    Being 'tea boy' was then a standard training method for meeting all the office staff/managers, gossiping with them, and finding out how the business ran.

    The complaint about the university boys in the 70's/80's with all their 'Management Science' was exactly that they _hadn't_ started as tea boys/they didn't understand the business/their so-called "efficiencies" were illusory/they would wreck the economy. And so it proved.

    (Speaking as an ex-tea boy myself.)

  9. Calvin said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 8:02 pm

    Hong Kong has a similar take, albeit more limited and westernized, for being "invited" to the anti-corruption agency (Independent Commission Against Corruption)): "去廉署飲咖啡" (having coffee at the ICAC).

  10. Chas Belov said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 9:41 pm

    Apparently not to be confused with 飲茶 (Cantonese yam cha, literally drink tea), to go have dim sum.

  11. Terpomo said,

    March 24, 2022 @ 9:53 pm

    I'm reminded of "to go for one's tea" meaning "to be killed", which apparently arose among the IRA in the late 20th century.

  12. Carole said,

    March 25, 2022 @ 1:54 am

    In the UK civil service (and some military branches(a "meeting without tea" is a (usually informal) disciplinary meeting with colourful language and strongly expressed emotions. Not an enjoyable experience for the recipient.

    Here's someone suggesting the Queen needs to hold one with the Prime Minister:

  13. Jenny Chu said,

    March 25, 2022 @ 3:48 am

    @Chas Belov – thanks for posting exactly this!

    … and not to be confused with the Vietnamese "ăn chè" ("eat tea") which refers to having one of those puddings made of sweet beans and such.

    And then again, if you want to actually ask someone if they want some tea, as often as not you ask if they would like to "uống nước" ("drink water")

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    March 25, 2022 @ 4:47 am

    I am reminded of the British Army term for being brought before one's Commanding Officer to receive a serious b**locking (wherein one remains at attention before his/her desk rather than sitting down): "Interview without coffee."

  15. Stephen Hart said,

    March 25, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

    Reminds me of a line in Led Zeppelin's Misty Mountain Hop:

    "Just then a policeman stepped up to me and asked us said
    Please, hey, would we care to all get in line
    Get in line
    Well you know
    They asked us to stay for tea and have some fun"

  16. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 26, 2022 @ 4:01 pm

    Ai Weiwei writes about his treatment on returning to China after living in New York. This is from The New York Review of Books, March 10, 2022, page 6.
    — Summoned by the police for “a cup of tea” [被喝茶/Bèi hē chá] — a euphemism for being politically warned — his response was predictable. “Reject cynicism, reject cooperation, refuse to be intimidated, refuse to drink tea.”

  17. Jerry Packard said,

    March 28, 2022 @ 3:53 pm

    Good work, Victor.

  18. Chas Belov said,

    March 31, 2022 @ 11:19 pm

    @Jenny Chu: Thank you. ¡fascinating!

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