The Chinese take their tea seriously. Everyone, from taxi drivers to company presidents, drinks tea every day, all day long. Tea is consumed in liters: cups upon cups of the lovely, steaming, fragrant stuff. But any Chinese tea expert knows that much of the action and excitement takes place long before the first heavenly sip. While most everyday tea is just a matter of water sloshed over tea leaves, a true tea aficionado knows there are meticulous details of brewing time, water temperature, quality of water, types of tea pots and cups that make a big difference in the result. And that¡®s after all the care has been taken to grow and ferment the delicate leaves, to blend and so on.
Tea is to the Chinese as wine is to the French, as beer is to Germans, as cigars are to Cubans.
Even in the middle of its busy location, the Beijing Wuyutai Tea Shop stands out. Though the Old Beijing exterior is a recent concoction, the tea from this old teahouse is the real thing. With a history that stretches back more than a hundred years, this teahouse has much tradition.
Founded in 1887 during the Qing Dynasty, the Wuyutai Tea Shop started as a stand. Since then, it has undergone several transitions and identities, but always at the same location in Beijing¡®s Dongcheng District. To some extent, the history of the teahouse reflects the numerous ups and downs of contemporary Chinese history. From being privately owned, the shop was taken over by the State in 1956. During the cultural revolution, it was known as the Red Day Tea Shop. It returned to its original name in 1985. Then in 1994, the shop underwent an important renovation. "Before the renovations, we were just like any other tea shop in Beijing," manager Jin Yali said, "but afterward, our business grew rapidly." Today, the shop, still under State ownership, is flourishing. With the renovations, it got a traditional look, and soon afterward, a tea room was added.
The current revival in tea culture and teahouses can be interpreted as an increasing interest in traditional Chinese culture. While tea to Beijingers was never quite the obsession that it was for their southern cousins, teahouses were still quite popular in the city before the revolution. Since the Wuyutai Tea Shop added its tea room, it has seen an influx of customers who come just to savor the tea, sit and relax. And unlike in the days of Old Beijing when teahouses were mainly the habitats of old men with their caged birds, teahouses these days are popular with many young people, particularly students who want a quiet place to study and think. Businessmen and amorous couples also find reprieve in teahouses, and, of course, the old men are still around.
Jin¡®s office is proportioned and decorated with the usual Chinese office amenities -- glass desktop, doilied couches and the ubiquitous vacuum bottle and teacups. Tea is offered, of course, first off. Jin is happy with her lot in life. An artisan of sorts, she seemingly relishes every aspect of the business. She started at the Wuyutai Tea Shop in 1970 right after finishing middle school. Singled out by an old master of teas, Jin owes much to her former mentor at Wuyutai. Nearly a foundation of the teahouse himself, Zhang Wenyu started there when he was only 16 and worked there for some 60 years. Jin speaks fondly of teacher Zhang, who taught her all he knows of the art and business of Chinese tea. Under his instruction, Jin learned how to distinguish the numerous distinctions among various teas and, equally important, how to blend the various qualities and tastes of different leaves together.
Any one of the teas that you might buy at a tea shop are, in fact, blends of about seven or eight leaves. Leaves grown in different parts of the country have distinctive personalities. Leaves from Fujian Province, for example, are known to be more fragrant, Anhui leaves are favored for their pure flavor, Guangxi tea leaves behind a certain bitterness, and Zhejiang tea is known for its tastiness. Prices of tea leaves can range from 50 to 500 yuan per jin. A tea master must take into consideration taste, appearance and price when blending teas. Needless to say, putting together a fine tea is not an easy task, but one that requires years of experience.
Tea is not only an inescapable part of daily Chinese life, but also an important part of Chinese culture. The origins of tea drinking in China have been studied by many a scholar, and the theories expounded on it are numerous. Whatever the case, it would be a safe bet that tea has been consumed in China for roughly 5,000 years. With such a long tradition, it¡®s not at all surprising that the folklore and customs that surround tea, its preparation and its consumption are rich and elaborate.
Most obvious, tea is an excellent thirst quencher. But any Chinese person knows it also stimulates the appetite and helps digestion. Tea cleans out your insides and has about a dozen medicinal attributes. Many would say that there¡®s nothing like a cup of tea to settle the stomach after a night of excess. And of course, there is also the caffeine that¡®s most present in Oolong tea. There are also more outrageous claims ranging from "facilitate the flow of urine" to "prevent cell mutation and act as an anti-carcinogen." But most people just like tea because it¡®s refreshing.
Various teas have their special attributes. Green tea, the preferred daily drink of Anhui and Nanjing residents, can qu huo , or calm the inner fire in the body. Beijingers prefer to drink hua cha, jasmine tea, which is said to aid digestion. Oolong tea, a favorite in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, is an even stronger aid to digestion. And black teas, the favorite of most foreigners, is sometimes said to be cooling.
While tea culture has regional differences, it has reached its heights in Taiwan and in Fujian Province, and cultivation has been the livelihood of numerous tea growers for eons. This is also the origin of the elaborate tea pouring "ceremony." Miss Du at the Wuyutai Tea Shop demonstrates. First she presents a tray holding no fewer than 10 items, all of which she carefully introduces. Next she goes about the utensils and then two steepings. The tiny teacups are used exclusively for sipping. Once properly steeped, the tea is first poured into a high, narrow cup called the holding cup or sniffer cup, whose aroma is meant for you to enjoy. From this cup, the tea is poured into the tiny teacup.
For all its cultivated elaborateness, tea ceremonies represent the apex. Just ask a taxi driver to try to pour all those little clay containers in his cab. Tea is meant to be enjoyed in numerous shapes and forms. While Jin can elaborate energetically for hours the art of blending and brewing teas, she will also be the first to explain the practical everyday aspects. And this is the part of her job she really loves. While attending a ceremony for model workers in the city, for which she was singled out, she beamed in the flurry of questions everyone peppered her with when they learned her profession. "What kind of tea is best to drink in winter?" "How long should I brew Oolong tea?" As a seasoned artisan, she can discuss erudite details with the best of them, but at the same time, she has a common connection with any stranger who drinks and appreciates tea. And of course, there¡®s the obvious drawing point: It just tastes good.