Tea

Special Focus - - Contents - Wang Xiaoke 王小可

There may be no bet­ter word in the world's lan­guages than茶 that re­flects a har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship be­tween the man and the na­ture.

The Chi­nese char­ac­ter “茶” is the orig­i­nal lit­eral form of tea. The up­per part “艹 ” (pic­to­graphic “grass”) and the lower part “木 ” (which means “tree”) are to­gether ex­press­ing tea’s na­ture as a herba­ceous plant. How­ever, only when “人” (“hu­man” in Chi­nese) stands be­tween “艹” and “木” the char­ac­ter is made com­plete. So you see, the char­ac­ter “茶 ” is a min­i­mal­ist pic­ture show­ing a man be­tween grass and trees. Hu­man in the mid­dle, na­ture around him: this can be taken as an im­pli­ca­tion of a har­mo­nious co­ex­is­tence be­tween man and na­ture, or an ideal life­style of our “get­ting back to na­ture”.

As is known by all, be­ing one of the cul­tural sym­bols of China, tea is now a part of some for­eign cul­tures as well. The English tea is a well­known ex­am­ple which uses dif­fer­ent kinds of black tea as base (gen­er­ally taste much stronger than the Chi­nese coun­ter­part), and an amount of ad­di­tives to im­prove the fra­grance and taste. So is the In­dian chai, which is typ­i­cally a mix­ture of many kinds

of herbs as well as spices to be boiled in milk be­fore drink­ing. Nowa­days, the English af­ter­noon tea is pro­vided in many metropoli­tan restau­rants in China and be­comes pop­u­lar among the younger gen­er­a­tion. How­ever, some tra­di­tional Chi­nese tea-drinkers think lit­tle of the English or the In­dian style. In their opin­ion, adding milk, sugar, or other ad­di­tives to tea is a bad way which stands for the all-per­va­sive in­va­sion of mod­ern in­dus­try. They even can not tol­er­ate putting tea into tea bags, say­ing that the con­ve­nient im­prove­ment brings an odor of

fast food and pro­duc­tion line. Tea is tea. Plant leaves plus hot wa­ter, and no more.

This is of course con­tro­ver­sial. Sup­port­ers of English tea or In­dian chai may ar­gue that the new recipes bring changes in taste and of cul­tural el­e­ments, or rad­i­cally, that they are “ad­vanced” forms of tea. You know, like all sim­i­lar de­bates upon food and drink, this one is very un­likely to come to an end. But if we look back through the his­tory of Chi­nese tea, we may find it in­ter­est­ing and be amazed at so much pos­si­bil­i­ties of tea which are now for­got­ten.

De­spite the re­mote records in myths and le­gends, some

re­li­able de­scrip­tions oc­curred in Han dynasty and Six dy­nas­ties ( 3rd cen­tury B. C.~ 6th cen­tury A. D.). In the be­gin­ning, peo­ple just picked leaves from tea bush and put them in a pot. It sounds like mak­ing veg­etable soup, and ac­tu­ally in ear­lier stages of his­tory, tea was gen­er­ally used as food or even medicine. In the fol­low­ing cen­turies, the tech­niques of tea man­u­fac­ture were de­vel­oped, when peo­ple started to com­press tea into a cir­cu­lar disc known as a “tea cake” (the same way Puer tea cake is made to­day). One sur­pris­ing fact is that in Sui and Tang dy­nas­ties(late 6th cen­tury – early 10th cen­tury), the main­stream of tead­rink­ing in China is to serve tea cake along with ad­di­tives in­clud­ing ginger, scal­lion, tan­ger­ine, cin­na­mon, salt, milk, and cheese (“su­lao”). Then there was a great change when Lu Yu “the Tea Sage” fin­ished his renowned mas­ter­piece,

the Book of Tea in the 8th cen­tury. In Lu’s style, the tea cake should be baked and grounded into pow­der be­fore be­ing boiled thrice, each in a short time. Dur­ing the boil­ing, the wa­ter should be con­stantly stirred with a bam­boo tool called chax­ian. The most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence is that noth­ing ex­cept salt is al­lowed to be added to the tea. In Song dynasty this style was fur­ther de­vel­oped and be­came quite pop­u­lar among no­ble­men and schol­ars. Many vari­a­tions of styles and stan­dards were cre­ated. About in the 9th cen­tury, Ja­panese learned the style of pow­dered tea from China and later de­vel­oped it into matcha tea style (they use chasen, a Ja­panese coun­ter­part of chax­ian).

The com­pli­cated and some­what aris­to­cratic tra­di­tion of serv­ing tea was bro­ken down by the Mon­go­lian in­va­sion. When Chi­nese peo­ple re­built their empire as Ming dynasty in the 14th cen­tury, some to­tally new ways and stan­dards of tea-drink­ing were cre­ated. Loose tea took the place of tea cake; most tea ad­di­tives stepped down from the stage. Tea was now brewed with hot wa­ter other than boiled. Chi­nese peo­ple be­gan to cre­ate more ad­vanced tech­niques of tea manufacturing, and var­i­ous new kinds of tea were in­vented. There were green tea, oo­long tea, white tea, yel­low tea, jas­mine tea (pre­made), black tea ( lit­er­ally “red tea” in Chi­nese), dark tea (lit­er­ally “black tea” in Chi­nese), Puer tea, etc.

More at­ten­tions were paid to the de­tails of cul­ti­va­tion, manufacturing, brew­ing, tea set, and even the en­vi­ron­ment of drink­ing or the clothes one wear to drink. Peo­ple eval­u­ated the qual­ity of tea through its color, aroma, and taste, dis­cussing the ideal com­bi­na­tions of tea sets (each one has dif­fer­ent ma­te­rial qual­ity and artis­tic design) and dif­fer­ent kinds of tea. In a real master’s eyes, the rec­om­mended wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, times of brews, and even the mood while drink­ing should all be cor­re­spond­ingly dif­fer­ent. He would tell you that with drink­ing tea, how peo­ple could achieve self-cul­ti­va­tion and spir­i­tual sub­li­ma­tion. All these sim­ple but pro­found stan­dards con­sist of the new sys­tem of tea; and that sys­tem con­tin­ues to this day.

As we can learn from the his­tory, the cul­ture of tea has never been closed, and should not be lim­ited to any group of peo­ple. If you would like to know the early spirit of tea, a cup of Dar­jeel­ing with honey and al­mond bis­cuits may help you to feel it. You can also im­merse your­self in a me­dieval Asian serene while drink­ing Ja­panese matcha. And if you are pur­su­ing the purest med­i­ta­tive state, try to know it through ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the kalei­do­scopic kinds and ways of mod­ern Chi­nese tea. No mat­ter which style is your fa­vorite, it is al­ways great to let tea be a part of your life.

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