Chinese tea differs from person to person and era to era. Tea leaves, through different fermentation processes, become different kinds of tea. With different steeping time, temperatures, infusion methods and vessels, the possible flavors are endless. Wherever a Chinese person may be, tea is a part of who they are.
This is considered as one of the most typical ways to greet a friend in Chinese, but in recent times people in cities have been replacing it with another greeting: Let’s go for tea sometime!
Mr Zhao: the “boat”in the “sea of tea”
The city of Chengdu has been described as a city steeped in the “sea of tea”.
Despite the fact that the city has no well known type of tea of its own to speak of, the people here have brought much culture and refinement to the act of drinking tea.
According to media statistics, in the 1940s there were over 800 teahouses within the old city walls of Chengdu, the largest of which could seat over 1,000 patrons. Many of the more famous teahouses were hidden in the back alleys of the city, and nestled next to rivers and within bamboo thickets. Today, just as many teahouses remain.
Mr Zhao Gu, an old resident of Chengdu, has lived here for 60 years. Following his father’s example, he started drinking tea at the age of 10 while he was still a school pupil. Throughout his working life and now in his retirement, he has been an avid tea drinker for well over 40 years. Frequenting teahouses is an integral part of his life.
“A handful of us will go to an outdoor teahouse and spend more than half the day there.”
The outdoor teahouses Mr Zhao refers to are a staple of Chengdu. In Chengdu it never gets really cold or hot all year round, so most teahouse patrons like to have their tea in the open air. Most outdoor teahouses are next to a river, some are built inside large parks, and in some cases you’ll see some tables with a few chairs for each scattered at the side of a street or on a corner, as a makeshift “teahouse”.
Some of Mr Zhao’s favorites include the teahouse next to the Jinjiang River, Huanxisha Garden at Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, and Heming Teahouse in People’s Park. At 8-15 yuan for a cup of tea, as opposed to easily over 100 at an upscale place, outdoor teahouses are definitely much more suitable for the mass public.
“Enjoying a cup of tea in the shade of a tree, with the fresh air, there’s just nothing like it!” Mr Zhao only drinks green tea and jasmine tea, and uses a lidded bowl. A lidded bowl comes complete with the bowl, the lid and the saucer;the lid can be used to stir the tea, and to block the tea leaves. Whether or not someone can skillfully use a tea lid is a sure sign of whether or not they’re an experienced tea drinker.
In Chengdu it never gets really cold or hot all year round, so most teahouse patrons like to have their tea in the open air. Most outdoor teahouses are next to a river, some are built inside large parks, and in some cases you’ll see some tables with a few chairs for each scattered at the side of a street or on a corner, as a makeshift “teahouse”.
Jasmine tea is a type of green tea scented with fresh jasmine flower petals several times,and is amiably known by locals with the poetic name “green pond with drifting snow”. Jasmine tea is divided into five grades, with the third-grade kind giving you the best value for your money. Chengduers call this third-grade jasmine tea simply “third jasmine”, and it’s the most common kind of tea they drink. When they’ve entered a teahouse, before they’ve even sat down, you’ll often hear them calling out: “Hey, buddy, two bowls of third jasmine please!”
Upon mention of the aspects of tea drinking that people are very particular about, Mr Zhao will affectionately tell you: “The teahouses tend to get pretty crowded, so rather than keep interrupting the customers, the servers invented a teapot with a really long spout that enables them to pour tea from far away. It’s really hard to use,and is a highlight of old Chengdu teahouses.”
“Ear picking is another interesting part of Chengdu teahouses. The ear picking man will walk around the teahouse, and next to your ear you’ll hear the metallic sound of his tweezers. With a twist of his thumb and forefinger, you’ll hear a crisp silvery sound, and your ear will tingle for a moment,it feels great.”
Chengdu itself is like a big teahouse,and within every teahouse is a small version of Chengdu. Chengduers will often hang out at teahouses, and have no motive in doing so other than to relax. Chengduers love to chat, and refer to chatting as “arranging troops according to Dragon Gate tactics”. Depending on the type of person he’s meeting with, Mr Zhao will chat with them about different topics. With old friends they will talk about each other’s daily lives; with old classmates, they will think back to anecdotes from their student years. The tea never stops pouring the whole afternoon, and their “Dragon Gate tactics” never run out, the act of drinking tea together bringing the group of friends closer and closer.
“The teahouses used to open really early —at five or six in the morning while it was still dark. Some regulars would bring a sweet potato that they had just cleaned, and have the server put it on the stove for them. Then after a few cups of tea the sweet potato would be cooked,and they’d eat it for breakfast, with more tea.”
When recalling what Chengdu teahouses were once like, Mr Zhao is filled with nostalgia: “The teahouses used to open really early —at five or six in the morning while it was still dark. Some regulars would bring a sweet potato that they had just cleaned, and have the server put it on the stove for them. Then after a few cups of tea the sweet potato would be cooked,and they’d eat it for breakfast, with more tea.” Nowadays the stoves have been replaced with electric kettles to boil the water, and the teahouse patrons have learned to“order out”; sometimes after a morning of drinking tea, Mr Zhao will give the server some money and say, “Hi miss, why don’t you go next door and pick me up some wontons?”
These days, Mr Zhao is busy choosing some tea for his son who lives in the US. Every year he’ll go overseas to see his son and his family,and each time will bring them a few packages of tea. “I’ve always thought that tea suits Chinese people more than coffee,” says Mr Zhao as he carefully packs several bags of tea into his suitcase.
Xiaoming: living in a different world
If Chengdu teahouses are a microcosm of urban life, then the“new-style teahouses” now in vogue among the white-collar populations of cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing in recent years could be considered the “new favorite” of metropolitan tea lovers.
In an old building in Block 11 of Beijing’s Heping West Street,there’s a small and little-known teahouse featuring an exquisitely refurbished interior. The people who come here to drink tea call it the “tea space”, because aside from drinking tea they also host tea parties and tea classes.
Every day after work or at weekends you’ll be able to see Xiaoming there; he’s a Beijing local in his 30s, and works in media. Different from the laid-back lifestyle of Chengduers, Xiaoming, like many other people around his age living in Beijing, feels the immense pressure of this enormous city. “Before I turned 30 I was like a spinning top, just busy working every day,until finally by chance a friend introduced me to the ‘tea space’.”
“Alcohol dulls the senses, so using alcohol to solve your problems will only make them worse, whereas tea makes one more clearheaded. The tea space creates a positive feeling, which makes my mind feel cleansed, so I can calm my mind and think clearly. Before when I got off work I just wanted to go home and sleep, now when I get off work or have free time I’ll always come sit at Block 11 for a while.”
“The people who come here for tea are always making friends with each other.” Every night from 7:30 to 9:00 is the prime time at Block 11. You don’t need a reason to go other than you like drinking tea, but you can also take tea classes, where a professional tea teacher will instruct you on how to distinguish between teas, and how to make tea properly. You can also listen to live music played on the guqin, do calligraphy, flower arrangement,or Zen meditation. Block 11 is a great place to go and relax. “There’s an unwritten rule here — before beginning a tea party, everybody has to introduce themselves, but you don’t have to say your profession, and you can even keep your real name secret, so that in this environment we can show our real selves without any pretext.”
A lot of the young people who come here to drink tea used to frequent bars instead.“After really getting into tea we discovered that the state we’re in when drinking tea is actually more comfortable.” Xiaoming has experienced this firsthand: “Alcohol dulls the senses, so using alcohol to solve your problems will only make them worse, whereas tea makes one more clearheaded. The tea space creates a positive feeling, which makes my mind feel cleansed, so I can calm my mind and think clearly. Before when I got off work I just wanted to go home and sleep, now when I get off work or have free time I’ll always come sit at Block 11 for a while.” When Xiaoming is talking about Block 11, his lips always curl up in a smile.
“Actually I have my own motives for coming here. Sometime in the near future I want to hold tea classes in English for foreigners here in Block 11.” Xiaoming continues,“I lived abroad for several years, and my job now involves communicating with foreigners frequently. I find them very interested in Chinese tea culture. I often think, what can I offer to these friends from abroad? One time I was drinking English black tea with a British friend; the tea tasted really strong, and the leaves had been crushed in a machine,then filtered through a mesh.For people in the West, tea is just a drink. But for Chinese tea, aside from just looking at the shape of the leaves and smelling the aroma,there’s lots of culture involved. How can I help them to understand?”
“Tea leaves, through different fermentation processes, become different kinds of tea. With different steeping time, temperatures, infusion methods and vessels, the possible flavors are endless. Starbucks are the same everywhere throughout the world, and they provide a standardized process, but Chinese tea differs from person to person and era to era. This may be the unique flavor of Chinese tea, a flavor that has been carried on for thousands of years,” Xiaoming ponders thoughtfully.
Liya: the many benefits of tea
Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful areas south of the Yangtze River, commonly referred to as Jiangnan. Since ancient times there has been the saying, “Above are the heavens, and below are Suzhou and Hangzhou”. Aside from West Lake, Hangzhou is also known worldwide for its Longjing green tea. There are many teahouses throughout Hangzhou, and no shortage of etiquette for tea accessories,tea snacks, tea sets and tea steeping methods. Steeped within the elegant aura of Jiangnan, the teahouses of Hangzhou are bursting with culture.
Liya, a girl from Hangzhou,lives next to West Lake. Like many Hangzhou locals, she loves drinking tea; but different from many,she seldom frequents teahouses,choosing instead to set an old tea table with a lovely tea set in the living room of her own home, her own personal “family teahouse”,reflecting her refined lifestyle.
“When we pick up a cup of tea, the tea is hot, so we have to be careful, and cool ourselves down along with the tea.When time slows down for you, and when a cup of tea quietly offers you its aroma and flavor, it’s like everything has come to a rest.”
In the past Liya drank tea, but when she really started learning about tea and how to enjoy it, and making it a part of her life, was when she and her husband got married and started living together.Her husband is a well-known Chinese medicine doctor, who not only encourages her to learn about tea arts, but also often has tea with her. “He taught me about the concept of healthy living,” says Liya. “Whenever we’re free, we’ll make and drink some tea at home. My husband has taught me a lot about health information related to tea, like how green tea is ‘cool’ in nature and is best enjoyed in the summer, and people with poor digestion should avoid drinking too much of it. In the winter you can drink black tea to warm your stomach. Just recently when we got to the hottest part of the summer,my husband would make green tea with hot water in which cordyceps had been steeped. He would wait until the water cooled to 80 degrees, and then pour it over the tea leaves. Chinese medicine,tea, healthy living, actually they’re all connected, and the philosophical concept of tranquility behind tea is something that I gradually came to understand through drinking tea with my husband.”
Liya has lots of friends with whom she takes tea classes and drinks tea. She’ll often invite them to her home to drink tea and chat. “People who love tea ceived some Biluochun tea that my friend in Suzhou sent me, so I invited some friends over to try it, and all of them ended up bringing other good kinds of tea to share.” Aside from tea tasting, she and her friends will also travel together,to Jingdezhen to buy tea sets, or Qinghai to see the tea mountains, so her life is amazing because of tea. “After discovering tea, my appreciation of beauty has increased!” Liya says with a laugh.
Tea has already become a part of Liya’s daily life: Her son is two years old, but as it turns out he’s been drinking tea for more than two years. “When I was pregnant I’d drink mild tea, a lot of people think that you can’t drink tea when you’re pregnant, it’s bad for the baby, but actually as long as you control the amount,not only is it not harmful, but a lot of the trace elements in tea are beneficial for the baby.” When her son got eczema, Liya even rubbed cool green tea on his skin, clearing it up in no time. “Now his favorite food is the eggs stir-fried with green tea that I make. After using Longjing leaves to make tea, don’t throw them away, as you can use them for cooking afterwards, not only for color, but they also add a mild, pleasant aroma to the food as well.”
“When we pick up a cup of tea, the tea is hot, so we have to be careful, and cool ourselves down along with the tea.When time slows down for you, and when a cup of tea quietly offers you its aroma and flavor, it’s like everything has come to a rest.” Wherever a Chinese person may be, tea is a part of who they are, be it green, black, white or Wulong tea. In this “Kingdom of Infinite Flavors”, people from all corners of China live all kinds of lives imaginable.