Brew­ing cul­ture

Tea has long been part of the so­cial life in Hangzhou

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writ­ers through dengzhangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Longjing tea in­fuses life in Hangzhou, in ev­ery sense.

The light brew ex­erts a heavy in­flu­ence over the city’s men­tal­ity.

Con­se­quently, Zhe­jiang’s pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal is also known as China’s ‘‘tea cap­i­tal’’.

Poet Xie Lingyun brought tea to the city 1,500 years ago, and its West Lake area has since sired Longjing tea, one of the coun­try’s most fa­mous va­ri­eties.

Longjing is green gold. Ac­tu­ally, pre­mium picks have sold for more than an equal amount of the pre­cious metal.

It was of­fi­cially listed as an im­pe­rial tea by Em­peror Kangxi (16541722). His grand­son, Qian­long (171199), des­ig­nated 18 plants as im­pe­rial trees. (At least ac­cord­ing to lore.)

These trees still stand in what’s to­day the Im­pe­rial Tea Gar­den, just up the road from Longjing vil­lage’s China Na­tional Tea Mu­seum.

The mu­seum, set among plan­ta­tions that em­anate from sur­round­ing peaks near chock­ablock tea­houses run by farm­ers, is re­garded among China’s most beau­ti­ful.

Six ex­hi­bi­tion halls present the plant’s so­cial and sci­en­tific di­men­sions — from his­tory to health, cus­toms to chem­i­cals — with dis­plays that range from early relics to the lat­est re­search.

The es­tab­lish­ment chron­i­cles how tea drink­ing emerged from China’s south­west­ern jun­gles as a medic­i­nal con­coc­tion to be­come the so­phis­ti­cate’s pour of choice — and even­tu­ally the world’s most pop­u­lar bev­er­age (af­ter wa­ter).

Le­gend holds that its home­o­pathic prop­er­ties were di­vined nearly five mil­len­nia ago by Shen­nong, a quasi-myth­i­cal medicine man some­times de­picted as sport­ing ox horns.

About 2,500 years later, a monk in South­west China cul­ti­vated the plants in a tem­ple — a trend that spread through­out the na­tion. Vis­it­ing Chi­nese elite got their first taste dur­ing pil­grim­ages to these places of wor­ship.

Tea re­tains a spir­i­tual com­po­nent, and Longjing, in par­tic­u­lar, has for cen­turies been as­so­ci­ated with Chan Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion.

And it sus­tains a sa­cred role in con­tem­pla­tive in­tel­lec­tual pur­suits, as painters, po­ets and artists have in­cor­po­rated it in their cre­ative pro­cesses for cen­turies.

Hangzhou’s his­tory as a pros­per­ous place due to abun­dant nat­u­ral resources means it was fre­quently graced by the likes of em­per­ors and il­lu­mi­nati.

‘‘The elite and the or­di­nary have long en­joyed tea in Hangzhou,” says the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor, Wu Xiaoli.

To­day, pro­fes­sors and driv­ers con­sider Longjing a sta­ple, even though a half-kilo­gram of low-grade leaves cost around 1,000 yuan ($150).

Lo­cal tea ex­pert Pang Ying at­tributes Longjing’s sta­tus to the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and cul­tural her­itage of hand pro­cess­ing.

“A Chi­nese adage says fla­vor­less tea is per­fect tea,” Pang says.

“Longjing is as light as the city’s moun­tains and wa­ters.”

Hangzhou’s Hu­pao Spring — said to have been ex­ca­vated by two tigers — is specif­i­cally be­lieved to pro­vide the best wa­ter for brew­ing Longjing.

“The art of tea drink­ing is a bal­ance be­tween food and tea,’’ Pang says.

Longjing is Hangzhou’s drink of choice be­cause peo­ple eat lightly fla­vored fish and shrimp.

Pang owns three tea­houses in the city, in­clud­ing one on West Lake’s bank — rec­og­nized as prime place for peo­ple hop­ing to drink in lo­cal tea cul­ture.

It’s more than the mere act of drink­ing, Wu says.

“Tea is in­grained in Hangzhou peo­ple’s genes,” he says.

He grew up drink­ing it in Mei­ji­awu vil­lage, a place with pre­mium plan­ta­tions near the mu­seum.

He and pri­mary school class­mates helped har­vest Longjing be­fore the Tomb Sweep­ing Fes­ti­val, when­the shoots are be­lieved to be at their best, in the 1970s.

Fry­ing the leaves — a process to halt ox­i­da­tion shortly af­ter har­vest to seal in the green tea’s su­perla­tive qual­i­ties — was in­scribed as a na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble her­itage in 2008.

Vis­i­tors to the mu­seum’s new branch — opened in a hill­side plan­ta­tion in Longjing vil­lage last year to fo­cus more on ac­tiv­i­ties than ex­hi­bi­tions — can study cus­toms sur­round­ing Longjing and other teas, such as serv­ing cer­e­monies.

The mu­seum re­ceives more vis­i­tors from abroad than any other in Hangzhou, Wu says.

It stands near the well from which Longjing claims its eponym, which trans­lates as Dragon Well. The ap­pel­la­tion hails from the an­cient be­lief the shaft was a por­tal to a dragon’s lair, since it sus­tained the sole wa­ter source dur­ing droughts.

This his­tory — or at least lore — to­day charms vis­i­tors en­chanted by Longjing’s cul­tural cul­ti­va­tion.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The China Na­tional Tea Mu­seum hosts many ac­tiv­i­ties to help young gen­er­a­tions bet­ter un­der­stand the coun­try’s tea cul­ture.

A Ti­betan-style show­room in the China Na­tional Tea Mu­seum.

Lush veg­e­ta­tion and tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture in the mu­seum.

A tea rit­ual is per­formed in the mu­seum.

Chil­dren learn to make tea in a tra­di­tional way.

The en­trance of the tea mu­seum.

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