Tea Drinking in China: Part I

As sipped my Lizhi Hong (Lychee Black) tea on this hot summer day, I thought of Guangzhou (Canton). In Britain, English tea is widely drunk. In China, whence tea originally came, tea drinking is even more pervasive, in all its categories and vareities. What is viewed as luxury tea over here, is widely drunk in China, and what is considered specialist know-how over here, is common practice over there.

Tea is as integral to Chinese life as flavouring is essential to cuisine. As a child growing up there in the 1980s, I saw and experienced tea as a drink enjoyed by the masses in everyday life. A common way of drinking tea then was to infuse it in glass jars which, after serving their purpose as pickles container, were thoroughly cleaned for reuse. The thick glass on these made them ideal for holding hot water. This method was a popular one for taking tea at work. Whenever I spotted them on teachers’ desks, or at my mother’s offices where I hung around after school, I liked watching the leaves floating around in the golden liquid and slowly sinking to the bottom of jar. Perhaps my love of glass bottles came from this.

Some of these drinking vessels had previous lives as bottles of instant coffees, iced teas and fruit flavoured drinks, imports which had just hit the Chinese market at the time. With their screw-on caps, they were used by outdoor workers – builders, security guards, bus drivers, as portable drinking bottles on duty, and refilled at intervals.

7191_129464475309jHTea plays an important part in Chinese social life. Apart from its symbolic and formal use on occasions such as matrimonial ceremonies, it is the first hospitality offered to guests in most households, with the leaves infused in individual mugs or a tea set. Raised in household where my half Chaozhou (Teochew) parentage dominated when it came to tea, my father, aunt and grandfather would start the small kettle used especially for tea on the mini-stove as soon as guests arrive, make and serve Gong Fu (as in hard work and great skill) tea with Wulong leaves continuously so that the pouring of water, the sound of sipping from the tiny cups and the gurgling of the kettle became a melody that accompanied the conversation. There were sweets snacks on the table to prevent drinkers of getting “tea-drunk”.

We had a petite white porcelain set with pandas and bamboo painted on the translucent cups. It came with a Teochew style water tray of the same material, with exquisitely carved heart-shaped drainage holes. Many years later, as my passion for tea became evident, I was given my grandfather’s Yixing clay set to inherit. The Gong Fu ceremony, a uniquely social and egalitarian way of drinking tea, is not an esoteric method adopted by a select few, but one that is practiced widely, in many forms and variations, in Chaozhou and other parts of Guangdong and southern China.

When dining out in China, it is customary for the waiting staff to inquire what kind of tea the customers would like, rather than what they would like to drink. Soft drinks and alcohol are more often ordered in addition, than instead of, a pot of tea. Taken a lot more in the south than in the north, tea tends to be served in robust, mass-made white porcelain sets in southern restaurants, and tall glasses in the north, where green tea tends to be the most popular. All six categories are widely drunk in southern regions.

The taking of world famous Cantonese cuisine of dim sums, is referred to in Cantonese as “Yum Cha”, literally to drink tea. Traditionally eaten between early morning and lunch, these tasty tiny parcels steamed in bamboo cages are always enjoyed with tea. Yum Cha is a regular social occasion for families and friends. At weekends, a member of the family would usually get to the restaurant really early in the morning, in order to get a table for the whole family. Established, traditional restaurants housed in the art deco style buildings by the Pearl River, or in the old town, were particularly busy. Many that dedicate mornings to serving dim sums, are still referred to as “Cha Lau”, teahouses, rather than restaurants.

66581759_3The very first customers are usually the elderly, who rise in the early morning to take their mountain walks or Tai Chi in the park, and then congregate to the Cha Lau to drink tea with a couple of dim sum dishes for breakfast. After this, the place would really start to buzz. The scent of Char Siu Bao and Cheung Fun waft through the halls as the trolleys piled high with bamboo steamers and bowls of congee thread between the tables, narrowly avoiding energetic young children. In order to have any chance of being heard by one’s companions or to place the next order with the bustling waiter, one had to speak up over the cacophony of clinking chopsticks and porcelain crockery, garrulous Cantonese conversations, laughter of children.

When friends meet on the street, the conversation would often end with “see you soon, I’ll treat you to Yum Cha when we’re both free!” The prevalent tea of choice for the Cantonese is Pu’er with chrysanthemum (for its cooling properties as a herb) usually referred to by the shortened name of “Gok Poe”. You may be familiar with Yumcha, the purveyors of oriental teas with a chain of teahouses around the UK, who have taken their name from this great Cantonese tradition.

The antiseptic and cleansing properties of tea are not just employed in traditional medicine, but as a folk custom in restaurants to rinse the tea ware before the tea is poured for drinking. Bowls of tea with fresh lemon pieces are served with dishes that require the use of hands. The Cantonese love their seafood and river catches. I remember eating steamed crab and delicate shrimps dipped in sauces of soy, spices and vinegar that were delicious but smelled strongly. It was both refreshing and a relief to dip my fingers in those bowls before drying them with fresh towels.

A common misconception in the West has always made me chuckle, that loose leaf tea cannot be drunk without a strainer, or it is uncouth to do so. Drinking loose leaves without a strainer has a method used by the Chinese for centuries. The transition from grinding leaves into powder (a tradition adopted by Matcha) to drinking whole leaves from the Ming Dynasty onwards has its distinct historical reasons (which I will go into in another article). For the Chinese, to drink tea is to be at one with nature, it is no surprise that the natural law of physics is relied upon. The few minutes of brewing time are enough for the leaves that float up when water poured, to unfurl, saturate with water, gain weight and sink to the bottom of the vessel. If this doesn’t happen, the water isn’t hot enough.

Teashops like Camellia Sinensis in Kingly Court, or The Teahouse in Covent Garden, abound in China, just a bit smaller and less well decorated. In the backstreets near residences, by the fresh food markets, next to the house ware shops, you will always find a loose leaf teashop that serves the local community, sometimes several. The leaves are usually stored in labeled big glass jars or metal tins. Whilst not all six categories or rare types would be sold, a good range would usually be available, several each of green, black and Wulong. Naturally shops in different regions would feature offer more locally grown tea. Yunnan shops would sell more Pu’er, locals of Zhejiang would have more of a taste for their green teas, Fujian would sell a bit of everything, and Guangdong (Cantonese) shops would feature the Phoenix Danchong, a very intense Wulong grown in Chaozhou. Sold by the Jin (50 grams), they are wrapped up paper bags. A select range of essential tea ware, including water trays, would be also be on offer.

Of course, the age-old tradition, which began the drinking of tea since the time of the legendary Shen Nong, continues in China to this day. Herbal tea, taken mainly in Guangdong and Hong Kong, where belief in the balance of Yin and Yang, hot Qi and cold Qi in the body, are still very much alive; is referred to as “Leung Cha”, literally “cold tea”. Unlike the Camellia Sinensis, it is taken cold, often in the summer, to rid one’s body of the surplus hot Qi, preventing sore throats and spots. When I was a child, people largely made their own herbal teas at home. Every week both the neighbour’s child and I would be subjected to a bowl of the bitterest, blackest (non-negotiable, must-drink) tea brewed by my grandma on her coal stove in an ancient looking, straight-handled clay pot.

Occasionally, Leung Cha would be offered by some enterprising keepers of snack shops on the street side or in alleyways that also had the communal telephone. A couple of big pots full brewed for the day, stored in the typical big silver Chinese kettles, to sell to passing custom for 50 cents a cup. Ten years later when I visited Guangzhou as an overseas Chinese teenager, things had completely changed.

1e45d12df8ae092e8eca529c60e8ffbdAny tea lover in China would tell you that the taste and aroma of tea is dependent not only on the region where the leaves are grown but also on how the leaves are shaped, how different flavours are extracted and developed during the preparation process. This is why tea bags, no matter how fancy, are the antithesis of Chinese tea. My mother travelled a lot on countless business trips. She always packed a quantity of leaves from home in medicine bottles or small tins to take with her so she didn’t have to drink the tea bags in hotels, and could have a cup of her favourite whenever, wherever. Much later, as a adult speaking to attendees at my tea talks, I found that this is a common practice for discerning drinkers of tea in China.

Occasionally, I would tag along on these business trips with my mother. A particularly memorable time was the conference she attended with other municipal officials in the beautiful Lushan mountains. On that day we rose super early, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and climbed to the mountaintops to catch the awesome scenic beauty of Lushan’s famous sun rise. Afterwards, I went along with the adults to their meeting. I only remember that the room was spacious, very formal and officious looking. We sat at a very long table, and I was given a Lingdao (literally “leader”) cup along with the actual Lingdao. This is usually an oval-shaped, white lidded porcelain cup with light blue patterns, so widely used by officials at all levels of government, that it became a sort of Mao suit amongst tea ware. I opened the cup and my nostrils came into contact with a most exquisite scent, I could see tender young shoots at the bottom of the jade like liquid. I sipped the tea, and even as a child who knew little of tea, I was amazed by the taste and aroma, it was like nothing else I had ever tasted, or have since. We were told this was Yun Wu (Cloud & Mist) green tea, and that the leaves were grown on those very mountains, picked at dawn.

That was the first time I came into contact with rare, connoisseur Chinese tea. It was a distinct memory, one of many factors that propelled my fascination with tea, which grew as an adult, alongside my passion for Chinese literary and cultural translation. Years later, at a tea market, I asked the shopkeeper for Yun Wu tea. He looked astonished. “Are you joking? Of course we haven’t got any. They say that Yun Wu Cha was only taken by the Chairman himself”.

In part two of this article, I shall be writing about tea connoisseurship in China, which takes the term to another level, also how popular drinking habits have developed over the last decade, and the contemporary trends of tea drinking in China.



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