Tea may just be China’s single most significant contribution to art, culture, cooking and civilisation. No, seriously, bear with me on this one, because it may all make sense.
This blog post came about because of a visit to Hangzhou, Marco Polo’s Kinsai, for long the cultural capital of Renaissance China, an extraordinary place in all sorts of ways. Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, as depicted on the back of the 1 Yuan note, was amongst Chairman Mao’s favourite places, but to be honest, on this occasion Mao can’t really claim the discovery for Hangzhou because that predates his rule by centuries.
The lake is beautiful, for sure, and has been much enhanced over the centuries by judicious landscaping, planting of trees, cultivating of lotus flowers and building of temples, but the veneration of the lake as a prime spot of beauty and harmony necessitated behaviour that matches this aspiration. And this is where the tea comes in.
So, tea, or to be precise green tea or Camellia Sinensis, has been cultivated in China for close on 3,000 years, and remains as popular as ever. Where previously the first (and best) shoots of tea were preserved for the consumption of the emperor, these days the first harvest is habitually gathered for government use as exclusive state gifts- tea remains serious business in China.
Tea is also hard work. The plants have to be raised in the right conditions (acid soil, high temperatures, and plenty of rain), and require careful pruning to remain at waist height for the best access to plucking the new shoots. Work then continues as the shoots need to be dried, ideally by hand, swirling them around a bowl, and packaged, so the journey from the tea bush to a tea leaf that can be used in a drink is quite laborious. Tea leaves need to be dried, measured and stored, and given the significance of the beverage, this requires nice, aesthetically pleasing objects. So, there is craftsmanship and significant care involved just for the process of producing the tea, and that is before we even get to the ritual of actually making and drinking tea.
Again, this is serious business that any tea drinker will understand. What is the right type of mug to use? Cup and saucer? Bone China? Glass? How hot should the water be? Filter the water? How long for the tea to infuse? Hot milk or cold? Or lemon? Each of these choices affects the quality of the brew, and in this, the Chinese preoccupation with tea becomes a concern with taste, and with the senses in general. Tea tastes beautiful and needs to be consumed in beautiful ways in beautiful vessels and in beautiful surroundings. Tea needs time to infuse, and needs to be drunk slowly, preferably in conversation with friends, where talk and thought feed the mind in the same way as the tea nourishes the body. There is a Chinese saying that speaks of ‘eating the tea’ rather than drinking it- if it’s good, it is worth taking time over.
If the ritual is important, it is worth making it special, and this is reflected in the many images, on scrolls, paintings, and, ironically, on teapots, that show tea being drunk and consumed. Tea and it’s consumption also becomes a marker of identity and status; it was fascinating to visit the Tea Museum at Hangzhou and see an entire room devoted to ‘ teapots of minority cultures’. Teapots were different shapes,mused different materials, had distinctive patterns and often held very differently prepared tea, so even just a flying visit was enough to get a real sense of how deeply entrenched social rituals surrounding tea are in Chinese culture. I certainly intend to read up on this a bit more but really, a culture based on tea, on social rituals, on achieving a balance between nature and art, well, there is much to like.