A while ago I bought a tea set from Dragon Tea House. It’s an affordable “Yixing” set that comes in a carrying case that doubles as a chápán, or draining tea tray. Included was a small tea towel – a washcloth, really – emblazoned with the legend CHA YUAN 茶缘. 茶 is tea, so I assumed this was Chinese for tea towel and moved on.
Recently, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to look up 缘. To my bafflement, Nciku defined 缘 [yuán] as “cause, fate or edge.” There are some poetic names for items used in gongfu tea, but this really took the cake. How is a tea towel a cause, fate or edge?
According to local gongfu practice, a tea towel is placed to the side of the brewing vessel. Before pouring from the vessel, and before passing it to others, its bottom is wiped on the towel. Perhaps a towel is an “edge” or border in the sense that “the tea stops here.” I found further senses where 缘 was used to describe a “hem” or “fringe,” so maybe this was a synecdochical usage.
Looking at ChineseEtymology.org, I could see that the part of 缘 that conveyed meaning, or the signific component, was 糸, which referred to “thread”. This tied all the definitions together. You could describe “consequent” or even “fated” actions as “following a thread through time”. And if you approach a thread perpendicularly, it’s an “edge” or a “boundary”.
Suddenly, I felt very foolish. Have you figured it out already? 茶缘 was written on a tea towel, but it shouldn’t have to mean “tea towel”! Maybe the word for “thread” written on a towel produced a minor resonance, but its primary meaning was “fate.” The plurality of usage examples for 缘 on Nciku referred to relationships. 良缘 liángyuán is a happy match or marriage, or “good-fate.” 情缘 qíngyuán is a predestined love, or “love-fate.” Along those lines, I wish you a bountiful and flavorful TEA DESTINY!