China, the Homeland of Tea
China is the homeland of tea. It is believed that China has tea-shrubs as early as five to six thousand years ago, and human cultivation of teaplants dates back two thousand years. Tea from China, along with her silk and porcelain, began to be known the world over more than a thousand years ago and has since always been an important Chinese export. At present more than forty countries in the world grow tea with Asian countries producing 90% of the world's total output. All tea trees in other countries have their origin directly or indirectly in China. The word for tea leaves or tea as a drink in many countries are derivatives from the Chinese character “cha”. The Russians call it “cha'i”, which sounds like “chaye” (tea leaves) as it is pronounced in northern China, and the English word “tea” sounds similar to the pronunciation of its counterpart in Xiamen (Amoy). The Japanese character for tea is written exactly the same as it is in Chinese, though pronounced with a slight difference. The habit of tea drinking spread to Japan in the 6th century, but it was not introduced to Europe and America till the 17th and 18th centuries. Now the number of tea drinkers in the world is legion and is still on the increase.
Tea-Drinking Customs in China
Of the three major beverages of the world——tea, coffee and cocoa, tea is consumed by the largest number of people.
China is the home of tea, and drinking tea is a national obsession. The Chinese are the most likely to delight in drinking tea as well as being the most discriminating in the way tea is made and served.
Tea is indispensable in the life of the Chinese people. It is not simply a type of drink, but a transmitter of culture, representing the philosophy, aesthetic views and way of life of Chinese people, from which the spiritual world of the Chinese can be discerned.
The tea-drinking tradition from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which features infused tea, has been inherited in most of China. But people from different areas favor different teas. Generally, people in northern China, northeastern China and Sichuan Province, love jasmine tea; those living in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui Provinces favor green tea; and along the southeast coast, Oolong tea is preferred. People from Hu'nan Province have an interesting habit: they chew and swallow the tea leaves after drinking the infusion.
Distinct customs in different areas and minorities compose the variety of China's tea-drinking tradition.
“Gongfu” Tea from Fujian Province
Preparing and drinking “Gongfu” tea involves elaborate procedures. This tea is popular in Yunxiao, Zhangzhou, Dongshan and Xiamen in southern Fujian Province, and Chaozhou and Shantou in Guangdong Province.
The antique-looking “Gongfu” tea set includes “Four Treasures for Tea-Making”: one is a reddish-brown kettle, “yushuwei”, with an oblate body that holds only 200g of water; the second is “Shantou Wind Stove”, which is a small, exquisite and vented stove, used to boil water. Today, for convenience, many people use the electric stove. The third is a teapot, “Mengchen Pot”, the size of a goose egg, made of zisha, a fine clay from Yixing that holds just over 50g of water. The last is “Ruochen'ou”, an extraordinarily small cup about the size of half a pingpong ball, which holds only 4ml of the brew. Usually, four cups make a set and are placed on an oval tea tray. Besides pottery tea sets, there are porcelain ones, which look distinct with blue floral patterns glazed on a white background.
With “Four Treasures”, you can make tea. In preparing “Gongfu” tea, you must undertake a unique process. First, rinse the tea set in clean spring water and place it on a tea tray. When the water in the kettle is boiling, use some to warm the pot and cups. Then put tea leaves in the tea pot until it is half-full and add boiling water until it reaches the brim. Purists will immediately pour out the first infusion and warm the tea cups with it. Again, fill the pot with boiled water, using the lid to skim off the foam before covering the pot to preserve the aroma. Arrange the four cups in a square, their mouths all touching. Wait a moment (less than one minute) before lifting the pot and moving it in circles over the cups while pouring tea until each cup is filled. Known locally as “General Guan Patrollinging the Town”, this ensures that the density of tea is the same in each cup. Even the final and most dense bit is poured evenly into the four cups——known as “General Han Xin Dispatching Troops”.
Once the tea has been poured in the tea cups, that does not mean you can drink it immediately. According to the practice of “Gongfu” tea, you should first lift the cup to your nose and inhale the fragrance. Then take a sip, and hold it in your mouth to taste its flavor; in no time you will feel your nose and mouth filling with the fragrance, your throat moistening, and the secretion of saliva increasing, which will comfort your whole body. Add more water to the pot and enjoy another round of tea. After, at most, the fifth round, replace the tea dregs with new tea and start over.
The best leaves for “Gongfu” tea is Oolong——for green tea has a “cold nature” that pains the stomach and black tea has a “hot nature” that seems to dry the stomach; neither is suitable to be drunk undiluted. Only the half-fermented Oolong, having a “warm nature” and enduring infusion, is best for “Gongfu” tea.
Making and drinking Oolong tea
In making and drinking Oolong tea, people focus on quality. The tea utensils, small and exquisite, mainly include a kettle, a heater, a teapot and several teacups. They are usually in a complete set which is called “the four treasures of the tea shop”.
I. Choose fine pottery tea utensils. Heat and wash the teapot and teacups with boiling water. Put proper amount of tealeaves into the teapot and pour the “boiling” water into it until it is full, making sure to the down-pouring water can fully stir the tealeaves in the teapot. Remove the foam with the teapot lid and then lid the teapot.
II. Shower the teapot with a little boiling water for one or two minutes. Distribute the tea soup equably into each cup in turn and the tea is ready to serve.
III. The tealeaves can endure several infusions. After the tea is poured into the cups, one should first smell the fragrance and then try the flavor. Only by sipping slowly can one enjoy the real flavor of the tea.
Advantages of Tea-Drinking
Tea has been one of the daily necessities in China since time immemorial. Countless numbers of people like to have their aftermeal cup of tea.
In summer or warm climate, tea seems to dispel the heat and bring on instant cool together with a feeling of relaxation. For this reason, tea-houses abound in towns and market villages in South China and provide elderly retirees with the locales to meet and chat over a cup of tea.
Medically, the tea leaf contains a number of chemicals, of which 20-30% is tannic acid, known for its anti-inflammatory and germicidal properties. It also contains an alkaloid (5%, mainly caffeine), a stimulant for the nerve centre and the process of metabolism. Tea with the aromatics in it may help resolve meat and fat and thus promote digestion. It is, therefore, of special importance to people who live mainly on meat, like many of the ethnic minorities in China. A popular proverb among them says, “Rather go without salt for three days than without tea for a single day”.
Tea is also rich in various vitamins and, for smokers, it helps to discharge nicotine out of the system. After wining, strong tea may prove to be a sobering pick-me-up.
The above, however, does not go to say that the stronger the tea, the more advantages it will yield. Too much tannic acid will affect the secretion of the gastric juice, irritate the membrane of the stomach and cause indigestion or constipation. Strong tea taken just before bedtime will give rise to occasional insomnia. Constant drinking of over-strong tea may induce heart and blood-pressure disorders in some people, reduce the milk of a breast-feeding mother, and put a brown colour on the teeth of young people. But it is not difficult to ward off these undesirable effects: just don't make your tea too strong.
The Categories of Tea
Chinese tea may be classified into five categories according to the different methods by which it is processed.
1) Green tea: Green tea is the variety which keeps the original colour of the tea leaves without fermentation during processing. This category consists mainly of Longjing tea of Zhejiang Province, Maofeng of Mountain Huangshan in Anhui Province and Biluochun produced in Jiangsu.
2) Black tea: Black tea, known as “red tea” (hong cha) in China, is the category which is fermented before baking; it is a later variety developed on the basis of the green tea. The best brands of black tea are Qihong of Anhui, Dianhong of Yunnan, Suhong of Jiangsu, Chuanhong of Sichuan and Huhong of Hu'nan.
3) Wulong tea: This represents a variety half way between the green and the black teas, being made after partial fermentation. It is a specialty from the provinces on China's southeast coast: Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan.
4) Compressed tea: This is the kind of tea which is compressed and hardened into a certain shape. It is good for transport and storage and is mainly supplied to the ethnic minorities living in the border areas of the country. As compressed tea is black in colour in its commercial form, so it is also known in China as “black tea”. Most of the compressed tea is in the form of bricks; it is, therefore, generally called “brick tea”, though it is sometimes also in the form of cakes and bowls. It is mainly produced in Hubei, Hu'nan, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces.
5) Scented tea: This kind of tea is made by mixing fragrant flowers in the tea leaves in the course of processing. The flowers commonly used for this purpose are jasmine and magnolia among others. Jasmine tea is a well-known favourite with the northerners of China and with a growing number of foreigners.
A new tea-plant must grow for five years before its leaves can be picked and, at 30 years of age, it will be too old to be productive. The trunk of the old plant must then be cut off to force new stems to grow out of the roots in the coming year. By repeated rehabilitation in this way, a plant may serve for about l00 years.
For the fertilization of tea gardens, soya-bean cakes or other varieties of organic manure are generally used, and seldom chemical fertilizers. When pests are discovered, the affected plants will be removed to prevent their spread, and also to avoid the use of pesticides.
The season of tea-picking depends on local climate and varies from area to area. On the shores of West Lake in Hangzhou, where the famous green tea Longjing (Dragon Well) comes from, picking starts from the end of March and lasts through October, altogether 20-30 times from the same plants at intervals of seven to ten days. With a longer interval, the quality of the tea will deteriorate.
A skilled woman picker can only gather 600 grams (a little over a pound) of green tea leaves in a day. The new leaves must be parched in tea cauldrons. This work, which used to be done manually, has been largely mechanized. Top-grade Dragon Well tea, however, still has to be stir-parched by hand, doing only 250 grams every half hour. The tea-cauldrons are heated electrically to a temperature of about 25oC or 74oF. It takes four pounds of fresh leaves to produce one pound of parched tea.
The best Dragon Well tea is gathered several days before Qingming (Pure Brightness, 5th solar term) when new twigs have just begun to grow and carry “one leaf and a bud”. To make one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of finished tea, 60, 000 tender leaves have to be plucked. In the old days Dragon Well tea of this grade was meant solely for the imperial household; it was, therefore, known as “tribute tea”.
For the processes of grinding, parching, rolling, shaping and drying other grades of tea various machines have been developed and built, turning out about 100 kilograms of finished tea an hour and relieving the workers from much of their drudgery.