Get into the Chinese tea tradition
In China, tea is more than just a drink. The Chinese have been cultivating, processing and drinking what is known as cha for millennia, with the earliest discovery found in the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han, who died in 141 B.C.
China’s sun-soaked southern province of Yunnan is also home to what is believed to be the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree, a towering tangle of branches at 3,200 years young.
Chinese scholars have long hailed tea’s medicinal benefits and nobility have flaunted it as a status symbol for centuries. It first became popular among the masses in the Tang dynasty (618-907), when people would gather in humble tea houses to share news and ideas. While the teahouses have changed over the years — most recently into sleek design-led spaces — the habit of drinking tea remains burnt into the Chinese consciousness. Whatever the weather or activity, it’s rare to see a Chinese person without their trusty Thermos, and the teahouses are as alive and well as ever.
Wan Ling might as well have tea running in her veins. Hailing from a family of growers in China’s southeastern Fujian province, the home of Oolong tea, she’s worked in the business all her life.
She now has her own tea house in Shanghai, from which she serves and schools tea enthusiasts from all over the country.
“Drinking tea is a part of daily life,” she says, pouring a fragrant roasted Oolong into tiny porcelain bowls. “In my hometown every family has a big tea table and whenever you see them sitting down, they are always making tea.”
There are six main types of Chinese tea: Oolong, Green, White, Yellow, Black and Dark. While some regions are famous for certain varieties, all categories come from either the tea bush or the tea tree and are distinguished only by their processing technique. Within these broad groupings however, thousands of smaller subtleties are dictated by location.
According to Wan Ling, the tea you choose should depend on the weather, with green tea more suitable for hot climes and dark tea better in the cold. The teas you like and dislike, she believes, are also directed by the balance of your body.
Despite drinking tea for as long as she can remember, Wan Ling only started learning about tea from outside Fujian when her friend widened her horizons with an antique 1951 pu’er tea from Yunnan. The spark ignited, she traveled to tea growing regions across China and spent several years under the tutelage of a Malaysian tea master. After years of study, she can now blind-taste minute variations and tell whether a clay cup was made in an electric or wood-fired kiln.
And while stylized tea ceremonies are still an important part of prominent events such as wedding, a true master knows each tea must be treated differently, with slight alterations of the temperature of the water, the infusion time and even the height the tea is poured from.
“In my opinion, if you are making a cup of tea, the final product is an artwork,” says Wan Ling. “But I think if the tea you drink touches you, the process doesn't matter that much.”
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Published: March 26, 2019