Tea has long been part of the social life in Hangzhou
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.
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.