Think of China and images of high-rise buildings, high-speed trains, expansive highways and quickly advancing technology might spring to mind, but behind all this lust for speed is a culture underpinned by quieter traditions and ancient rituals. The Chinese attitude and approach to tea is a prominent example of this. The Chinese have a long history of tea drinking, predating the British penchant for afternoon sipping by some 5000 years. Chinese myth and storytelling is full of ‘old sayings’ which reveal the pivotal role it has historically played in everyday life, but interestingly also highlights its bridging role between different tiers of society:
While Chinese laymen have spoken of there being
“seven daily necessities – firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea”
Scholars have lauded over their own:
“music, chess, calligraphy, painting, poetry, wine and tea”
This is not the kind of tea which you’d take in bag form out of a cardboard box and fling into a mug but a complex and delicate tradition which deserves attention and respect. The cultivation, processing, drinking, ambiance, preservation, utilisation, effects, art, development and export of tea have all been studied and analysed carefully by Chinese scholars over the years and in modern society it plays a pivotal role in the process of the cementing of friendships and honouring of guests.
On a recent trip to Hangzhou, home to China’s Lóngjǐng (or Dragonwell) tea fields, I visited the National Tea Museum which hosts various tea culture programs to develop Chinese traditional culture and train tea masters across the country. Having taken part in tea ceremonies in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I was keen to find out more about this alluring ritual…
There are six basic types of tea in China, each with their own unique processing and brewing requirements:
GREEN TEA - A non-fermented tea where leaves are pan-fired, rolled and dried. It is best brewed using water boiled to a temperature of 75-85°C in a transparent glass vessel.
BLACK TEA – Is a fermented tea where leaves are withered, rolled, fermented and dried. It is best brewed in water of 100°C in a purple clay tea pot which is believed to absorb oils from the leaves and dissolve toxins.
OOLONG TEA – is semi-fermented. Leaves are sun dried, air dried, rotated, heated, rolled and dried again. Oolong and scented teas can be brewed in bowls with lids and are best steeped in water at a temperature of 90-95°C.
YELLOW TEA – is heated, rolled, smothered and dried – processed similarly to green tea but with a slower drying phase. It can be brewed in a glass vessel.
WHITE TEA – is withered in natural sunlight and dried. For brewing purposes, a glass teapot is usually used.
DARK TEA – refers to tea used in compressed tea cakes. It is heated, rolled, heaped and dried and usually brewed in a clay teapot.
The tea ceremony itself is of particular importance to the drinking of tea in China and it is treated as an almost spiritual act which encourages the drinker to savour every aspect of the tea.
“Even the humblest citizen could enjoy this elevating act”
The Tea Ceremony
Firstly, it is important to know (or so I was told) that “the tea set is father of the tea”.
“Tea cannot be tasty or aesthetic unless it is well matched with the tea set”. First rate green tea, for example, should be brewed in a transparent glass vessel so ‘one could see the graceful movements of the bud leaves during the infusion’ while black tea is traditionally blued in small purple clay tea pots.
Tea sets have been produced for centuries in China and come in many different shapes and sizes – from the almost ludicrously ornate to the simple and practical.
Cup in the shape of an ancient drinking vessel with Peacock blue glaze (Qing Dynasty 1644-1912)
When I had finished making my way through the airy galleries of the China National Tea Museum, I was taken by a ‘hostess’ to the tea drinking hall where I was seated in front of a table of tea pots wooden tea trays and jars of varying tea leaves. “We will perform a Lóngjǐng tea ceremony”, the hostess explained, taking a glass cup from the shelf.
She then weighed out two grammes of first flush tea leaves (picked last week from the research tea plantation outside) before placing them into a transparent glass vessel and infusing them by pouring a quarter of a cup of water boiled to 80°C exactly. It is important to observe the bubbles and after an interval of ’20-40 seconds’, during which the tea components are extracted out, the hot water was poured out and the glass refilled and poured out another three times – a process known as ‘three nods of the phoenix’. This is an important part of paying respects to the guest as well as a method of causing the leaves to turn over.
Four small clay drinking cups were set out and filled with the second quarter of water from the pot – but this was not for drinking, only for warming the cups. When the tea is ready (and any foam at the top has been removed using the lid) the tea is poured evenly into the cups in a circular motion.
We were then asked if we would like to finish off with something a bit sweeter – “there is a tea for every taste and every ailment” our hostess told us. She took one of the glass jars from the side shelf and filled it with green tea leaves and Osmanthus flowers. This was the famous Osmanthus flower tea, made popular in the Ming Dynasty. As with Oolong, it is best brewed in a glass vessel and we were encouraged to “watch the leaves delicately unfold” which was quite mesmerising.
This act of observation and patience can tell you a great deal about Chinese culture (learning calligraphy taps into the same idea). These are mindful rituals where care and attention to detail is required rather than speed and technological wizardry (although it has to be noted that a sleek electric kettle is now the water boiling method of choice).
The Tea ceremony instilled me with a feeling of stillness, tranquility and calm which in a world where all else is moving and changing rapidly, is increasingly necessary. In this sense the Chinese tea ceremony is perhaps more important now than ever before.