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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. When you arrive in the beautiful island of Taiwan, you may see some elderly gentlemen seated in twos and threes, perhaps in a temple up some old street. They may be leisurely gathered around a simple but attractive teapot about the size of a fist, each holding a small cup, mixing chat with drink. This is the traditional Chinese ``old men's tea'' ceremony ( lao-jen ch'a). While strolling down the bustling streets of metropolitan Taipei, your nose might also lead you to a ``tea art'' shop, identified by a large sign with the Chinese character for ``tea'' ( ch'a) on it. If the prospect of a tea-tasting experience intrigues you, an expert on the beverage will initiate you in the basics of ``kung fu tea,'' or the traditional tea-steeping and drinking ritual.

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 monkhood early 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 te, 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'' ( Wu-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 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 (100J or 212K); however, it may be low as 90J (194K) 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 in the Republic 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 the Republic of China continue to produce traditional purple clay ceramic teapots, 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.

Tea is a cash crop in Taiwan, an agricultural product that is a source of foreign exchange earnings. Specialized tea shops all over the island continue to actively promote the art of tea drinking. New style ``tea art houses'' with elegant, classical interiors have quickly become a common sight around the island. Each local area also holds its own tea-tasting competitions, attracting the participation of large numbers of tea farmers, tea merchants, and tea connoisseurs. The price of any tea that is designated as a superior grade in one of these competitions immediately soars. This feature gives tea competitions extra appeal and vigor. The custom of tea drinking has become part of a sophisticated spiritual life; and the ``tea art'' spirit, which reveres nature and knows no bounds, is just like Chinese interpersonal relations: warm and mellow.

Tea, especially green tea, is a natural and healthful beverage.




Cultural Division, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Houston
11 Greenway Plaza, Suite 2910
Houston, Texas, 77046
Tel: (713) 871-0851, Fax: (713) 871-0854, E-mail: houcul@houstoncul.org