The Chinese Art of Tea Drinking
Wherever Chinese go, the custom of drinking tea follows. The Chinese
were the first to discover the tea
leaf, and have drunk tea for uncounted ages.
Tea is an indispensable part of the life of a Chinese. A Chinese
saying identifies the seven basic
daily necessities as fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.
The custom of drinking tea is
deeply ingrained in almost every Chinese, and has been for over a
thousand years. During the
mid-T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), a man named Lu Yu entered the Buddhist
in life, but returned when older to secular life. He was later best
known for summarizing the
knowledge and experience of his predecessors and contemporaries into the
first compendium in
the world on tea the Tea Classic (Ch'a Ching). This work helped to
popularize the art of tea
drinking all across China, making avid tea drinkers of everyone from
emperor and minister to
street hawker and soldier. Even the neighboring countries of Korea,
Japan, and Southeast Asia
came to adopt the tea drinking custom.
In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India
Company introduced Chinese tea for the first
time to Europe. By the mid-17th century,
afternoon tea had become a standard ritual of the
British nobility. It is interesting to note that the
two different pronunciations for "tea" most
common in languages that borrowed the word
from Chinese-cha and tee-originate from
different dialects of Chinese. Languages of
countries that once imported the leaves from the
north of China, such as Turkey, Russia, and
Japan, adopted some variation of the sound cha,
such as chay, chai, or chya. Countries on the
southern maritime lines of China, such as Spain,
Germany, and England, borrowed the word in
the forms of Tee, and tea respectively, based on
the southern Chinese pronunciation.
Tea is made
from the young, tender leaves of the tea tree.
The differences among the many kinds of tea
available are based on the particular methods
used to process the leaves. The key to the whole
process is the roasting and fermentation.
Through fermentation, the originally deep green
leaves become reddish-brown in color. The
longer the fermentation, the darker the color.
Depending on the length of the roasting and
degree of fermentation, the fragrance can range
from floral, to fruity, to malty.
Tea that has not been fermented is called "green
tea". Tea steeped from green tea leaves is jade
green to yellow-green in color, and gives off the
fragrance of fresh vegetables. Examples of green
tea are "Dragon Well" (Lung-ching) and "Green
Snail Spring" ( Pi-lo-ch'un ). The Chinese call
tea that undergoes full fermentation "red tea"
(hung - ch'a); in the West it is known as "black
tea." Tea made from black tea leaves is
reddish-brown in color and has a malt-like
aroma. Oolong, or "Black Dragon"
Lwu-Lung)tea is an example of a
partially-fermented tea. This tea is unique to
China, and Taiwan is one of its most
representative areas of production. Oolong tea
comes in three degrees of fermentation: lightly
fermented, moderately fermented, and fully
fermented. The identifying features of lightly
fermented Oolong tea, such as Paochung , are a
full aroma, clarity, and a golden color.
Moderately fermented types such as "Iron
Buddha" (T'ie-kuan-yin), "Narcissus"
(Shui-hsien), and "Frozen Peak"
(Tung-ting),have a brown color, a full "mature"
flavor that appeals more to the sense of taste
than that of smell, and a vaguely sweet
aftertaste. Tea infused from moderately to
heavily fermented tea leaves like "White Hair"
Oolong (Pai-hao Wu-lung) has a red-orange
color and a fruity aroma.
To make a good pot of tea, special attention must be paid to the
quality of the water, water
temperature, the amount of tea leaves used, and the type of teapot. Soft
water (water with a low
mineral content) that is clear and fresh is required to steep tea; hard
water should by all means be
avoided. The correct water temperature varies from tea to tea; for most
fully fermented and
moderately fermented kinds it should be near boiling (100C or 212F);
however, it may be low
as 90C (194F) or less for lightly fermented or green teas. The
proportion of tea leaves to water
also depends on the kind of tea leaves used. The teapot may be filled
from one-quarter to
three-quarters full with the tea leaves, depending mainly on how tightly
curled the tea leaves are
as a result of the rolling and roasting processes. The teapot is then
filled with water. Steeping
time starts at one minute, but varies from tea to tea. The time required
for subsequent brews
from the same leaves must be proportionally lengthened. The best kind of
teapot to use for most
fermented teas is a purple clay ceramic pot. The size of the pot should
be in correct proportion to
the size of the cups. Ideally, the cups should have white interiors, to
facilitate accurate assessment
of the color of the tea.
People enamored of tea drinking also usually
enjoy the beauty and feel of teapots. Small
teapots are used to steep tea (in the "kung fu"
steeping method) in most homes of China today. This particular
method has been passed down to the present
day from the days of Ming Dynasty Emperor
Shen Tsung in 16th century China, so it boasts
a 400-year history. The full aroma and
sweetness of the tea can be brought out when
using a small teapot to steep tea. During the
Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911)
dynasties, the purple clay ceramic teapots of
Yihsing, Kiangsu were the most famous. Any
pieces made by a master potter are sought
after everywhere, and are worth their weight
in gold. While master potters in China continue to produce traditional
purple clay ceramic teapots, they have also
developed a number of creative new teapot
designs which have received enthusiastic
public response. Collecting teapots has
become a fashionable pastime.
Tea is China's
national drink. Tea contains vitamins, tea
derivatives, essential oils, and fluoride. It is a
diuretic, attributed with the properties of
improving the eyesight and increasing
alertness, so Chinese believe that frequent tea
drinkers enjoy an increased life span. Its
medical properties and benefits to the human
body have in fact been scientifically proven,
and tea has come to be generally recognized
as a natural health food.