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Tea: The Quintessential Chinese Beverage

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 9, 22, and 23

Tea is an elixir. It invigorates, offers warmth, is calorie-free, has less caffeine per cup than coffee, and is the national drink of more than one country. Tea is also society, agriculture, and history. Above all, tea is quintessentially Chinese.

Imagine olden days when traders trekked across Asia and the Arab world, the caravans beating gongs, and hoisting flags heralding drivers of different nationalities. Turkish traders reached northern borders of China to buy their chay, a China flatlands and Cantonese pronunciation, while others of other nationalities made it to Fujian to buy tay, as the Chinese in that region called this beverage. Over mountains and rain forests, they plied the ancient caravan routes while tasting, sip by sip, to deliver this exciting new commodity, China's national drink.

When tea came to Europe, particularly France and Holland, it provoked a war of words over supposed curative properties; perhaps, that is why it never stood a chance to match coffee's popularity on the continent. However, in England, this beverage made major inroads; it was even advertised frequently in newspapers as early as 1658. As a beverage, tea reigned supreme, even became an all-curing elixir. Thomas Garraway's shop sold it in both beverage and leaf form, and touted its use for everything from memory loss to scurvy, sleepiness to dropsy, something to provide a gentle vomit, and as an item to give the drinker heavy dreams.

Who could resist? Certainly not the Venetians who used it for their stomach troubles or their gout, or Charles II who taxed it heavily, or his wife Catherine of Braganza who thought it so valuable that she brought her own leaves from Portugal in her trousseau. Not even the East India Company, who in 1689 began to import it regularly to Holland, England, France, and beyond, could resist; why should they as they were given a monopoly on the tea trade until 1833.

In America, tea evokes other memories. Among them, the Boston Tea Party, and the psychological and pharmacological effects of tea and toast. For centuries, tea captured and drew lovers to this splendid drink with elegant tea times and more elegant tea cakes.

Most recently, tea has caught everyone's attention as a subject of cancer research. A strong relationship has been found between green tea and animals, a weaker one with man. Dr. Gao and his colleagues reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in Volume 86(11) on pages 855-8 in 1994, that a reduced number of cases of esophageal cancer was related to an increased consumption of green tea. Thus, in the 1990's, tea was xanadu.

Tea, an infusion of the leaves of an evergreen, is the world's most widely consumed beverage, about twenty percent consumed green, mostly in Asian countries, and eighty percent black, as enjoyed in the western world. Exotic teas are profitable and proliferating. Tea parties are once again in fashion. Writing about it is derigueur, its history, geography, brewing methods, salubrations, and delicacies to accompany it important things to know about. Research about tea is as exciting as the varieties sold.

Knowledge about the origins of this ancient beverage is scanty. Perhaps drinking it began by a descendent of one of the twelve Emperors of Heaven. Maybe it was introduced later by a scholar returning to China from abroad. A non-Chinese myth relates that Bodhiharma, a Buddhist saint, fell asleep while praying. Furious at himself, he cut off his eyelids and threw them down whereupon, they took root. Overnight, they grew into a tea bush, and voila!

The most popular Chinese version of the origins of tea is that the beverage was born in the year 2737 BCE. Some say it was at a reception for, others think by, or in the garden of Emperor Shen Nung, one of the first physicians in Chinese history. The tale tells that leaves from an evergreen shrub accidentally fell into a pot of water servants used to make his regal boiled water; even then they knew not to drink unboiled water. The Emperor approved the flavor, deduced it had medicinal powers, and prescribed it to perk up people.

Soon thereafter, tea was appreciated by all. It was so valuable in the sixth century, that it was pressed into cakes, some used as currency complete with imprints, emblems, and a variety of designs. Later, in the Tang Dynasty, the poet Lu Yu, born in the second quarter of the eighth century, wrote a classic volume called Ch'a Ching. His Book of Tea documented every aspect of growing, processing, and preparing tea. It even codified how to think about tea--elevating it to an art form.

During the Song Dynasty, very elaborate ceremonies were developed for tea (green only), using a dried ground and whisked form to be drunk from a special bowl. In the fifteenth century, during the Ming Dynasty, using whole leaves and making tea in pots became fashionable. Teacups replaced bowls as the vessels of choice. It was this method of tea preparation and this type of tea that Dutch traders found and imported to Europe, the year 1610. Later the British East India Company took over the bulk of the trade becoming what we might consider a tea cartel.

Where or when aside, all leaves of real tea come from a tropical bush: Camellia sinesis, native to China, Tibet, and India. Now grown further afield, tea exporting countries are: China, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, Indonesia, Argentina, Malawi, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and Vietnam. The major importers of tea are the United Kingdom, Russia, United States, Egypt, Japan, Morocco, Australia, Germany, and Canada; in declining order.

No matter the location, the leaves of this evergreen are picked, allowed to wither a bit, then heated. Some call the process frying, others fermenting, still others are more technically correct and refer to it as oxidizing. This multi-named singular set of processes gives tea its characteristic color and taste and produces what the Chinese call green, oolong, or red teas. In addition to color, the qualities of the teas are differentiated by the season the leaves are picked, whether what was collected was bud and first leaves or larger ones, and where they were grown, elevation a critical item, and three thousand to six thousand feet for the finest. The western world knows tea not by the color of the brew but by that of the leaf, so we call these color variations green for that which is unfermented, oolong for the semi-fermented, fried or oxidized, and black for those leaves that are fermented or oxidized.

Tea at one time was picked mostly by women; hand picking the leaves still produces the best and most expensive tea, lower qualities are now picked by machine. When collecting leaves for Tung Ting or Dragon Well Tea, only the end two leaves and the bud will do, and a pound of the finished product takes a whole days effort. No wonder it not only is the best but can be the costliest. They say that to 'delight in picking the young leaves for three days before the Qing Ming festival is a treasure, three days after it is trash.'

For the record, English and Indian teas are better known by the size and shape of their leaves, the meanings of orange pekoe and pekoe, and by their blending of teas and other ingredients such as in Earl Gray and English Breakfast teas. The tea bag has recorded origins early in the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) and then was a silken gauze bag. New York merchants later used that idea of tea bags when they gave out free samples but tea and tea bags didn't really become popular until Arthur Godfrey popularized Lipton's on both radio and TV.

Tea drinking in China has become an inextricable component of living. It is honored as one of the seven necessities of daily life making it more than just an item for quenching thirst. It is a ritual and a means of communicating, welcoming, and showing respect.

Though Chinese tea rituals vary by region and ethnicity, each and every one of them is a means to contemplate, commemorate heroes and ancestors, and a time to enjoy a fine brew. Rituals frequently include music, incense, flowers, fruits, and special verses. They can be for appreciating nature and life.

Among the Han, the major ethnic Chinese population (who are more than ninety-two percent of all Chinese), there are many tea rituals. One is a four seasons formality meant to recapture the spirit and wonders of nature. Representing the harmony of the four directions, east--west--south--north, with the five elements, gold--wood--water--fire--earth, and matching colors of cloths, flowers and tea sets, special guests are invited to taste four different teas.

I attended one such four-season tea-tasting last year where twenty-four young ladies represented an equal number of sub-seasonal periods in the Chinese lunar calendar. They, as tea servers, paraded out in beautiful long velvet dresses bringing each item wanted or needed for the ceremony, be it flowers, a few goodies, teapots, cups, other equipment, and the tea. At four separate tables, they served honored guests green Pouchong, an Osmanthus King's Oolong, some Champagne Oolong, and a dark Ginseng Oolong tea.

The four tea colors, fragrances, types, and tastes, and the entire event were a heady experience, beautiful and restful. There are other Han tea rituals including a tea worshiping ritual where incense, flowers, delicacies, tea, and words of gratitude are offered. Chinese drink tea not only at rituals or only at meals, and all Chinese people do not drink it in the same manner.

Among the fifty-five recognized Chinese minority populations, there are other tea types and tea rituals. For example, I read that Dai people in Yunnan roast their tea leaves over an open fire and thus drink truly roasted tea. Miao also like their tea leaves roasted. The Blang minority steam large tea leaves then pack them into bamboo tubes, and seal and bury them for months or years. When they dig them up, they brew a puckery tea or eat them as a sour vegetable. Those of the Bai minority consume three courses of tea: bitter, spicy, and sweet and need walnuts, honey and ginger to make them so. Hani people drink strong tea made of mature leaves roasted not directly in the fire but in bamboo containers. After roasting and cooling, the leaves are cooled and brewed.

A speciality of the Dong people, one of eleven ethnic peoples in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China, is to greet guests with an unusual refreshment, oil tea. Made of tea, tea oil, and a rare highland Yunwu tea, this tea is very special. To drink it, one holds one's bowl already a quarter full of a kind of puffed glutinous rice, ready for the pouring of hot water. This bowl was handed to each guest and family member by the woman of the house, they do not help themselves.

My one experience having tea made by people of this ethnic group was outside of Qiming, an unusual place to find many Dong families. There, I learned that the bowls used to drink tea are handed out in descending age order (I had to tell the interpreter how old I was). The hostess poured my tea and that of others and when she said 'please' with outstretched hands pointing to my bowl, all in the room could taste this unusual elixir. It was difficult to remember to keep both hands on the bowl, a form of politeness to the Dong.

I was told that family or ordinary visitors garnished their oil tea with green onions and garlic leaves. As I was a very special guest, my bowl and those of all with me had the rice, and also fried peanuts, pig's liver, salt, and what may have been a glutinous rice paste. We added the green onions and garlic leaves, but not until after our tea was poured and the appropriate greetings were exchanged. I was obliged to and thankful that I was served and could drink four bowls of this brew, three salty, the last one sweet. They were quite different, flavorful, and quite strong. To drink four bowls was an acceptance of their wishing me a sweet future; and I returning their desire.

Asking later about why four bowls and not an odd number, preferred by most Chinese, never produced a satisfactory answer. But I did learn that this Dong tea ritual is not common these days except during courtship. When practiced among the unmarried, a group of young men and women go for tea to the home of one of the females. There, she makes them tea and if she gives each person one chopstick, advising that there is someone is in the room that she likes. All accept this single stick and if one of the men drinks an odd number of bowls, he is telling her and everyone present that he fancies her; they then become what we would call engaged. What an interesting way to court. Never did think to ask what happens if two gentlemen drink odd numbers of cups of oil tea.

Tibetans, also considered a minority by the Chinese though they think otherwise, drink lots and lots of tea. They have their own tea drinking patterns and rituals. Five cups in the morning is not unusual, many more during the day popular. I had several opportunities to try Tibetan tea rituals, some formal, others less so.

When one goes to any Chinese home, tea is offered as soon an you sit down; among Tibetans, you are greeted with it as soon as you arrive. Traditionally, tea was made in a churn, the same or if they were affluent, a different one from the one used to churn their butter. In the homes I visited, I never saw a churn, but rather saw my tea prepared in aluminum, copper, or a vessel made of another metal.

Tibetans call their tea 'Butter Tea.' Once I had it as an oolong tea with yak butter floating on top. On that occasion, I was told to blow the butter aside with each drink I would take, always leaving some of the butter and tea in the cup. The tea left there told my hosts I wanted more tea; finishing the butter told them I had my fill.

In another Tibetan home, I was greeted by my hosts at the gate of the fence surrounding their home, with their hands extended, palms up. There I was draped with a long blue scarf called a "hata," and given a glass of Arag, the strongest liquor I've ever had. Furthermore, I was expected to (and did) chug-a-lug or gambei which means I had to bottoms-up that drink. No sooner did I feel the warm burning going mouth to stomach, when I was rushed inside and offered boeja which is their word for buttered tea.

A kettle with a mixture of tea, tsampa or toasted barley flour, some dried ground yak cheese, quite a bit of butter (I saw in a subsequent batch, about a handful used with about eight cups of water), some salt, and a tiny bit of rock sugar (less than a teaspoon) were in it. This was poured into my bowl and boiling water from another kettle was then poured into my bowl from some distance above it. Not even a splash was made. Impressive!

I never found out if this elevated pouring was mandated. In this home and that of several other Tibetan families, bowls of tea were drunk with two hands by the elders, only one hand by those younger than I.

With the butter tea I had in one family's home, came a very large platter of huge rib bones with very little meat on them. This dish was plunked down on the table, nothing else was served this noon-hour except this meat course and tea. Everyone relished the meat, myself included, and those less neat than others, licked the grease off fingers, not a napkin in sight. We all ate and washed the yak meat down with tea, put the stripped and clean bones directly on the table, took others, and ate and drank some more. It is said that Tibetans consume around forty bowls of tea a day; that day I probably did, too.

Another home where I had Tibetan tea was in an apartment in a tall building in Beijing. It was home to a Tibetan family assigned to the National Minorities Institute in this capital city. Here, the tradition was simply to put tsampa and a lump of butter in my bowl, hand me the salt shaker, and pour hot water from a beautifully decorated metal teapot into a ceramic one with tea already brewed in it. There was sugar on the table in a bowl, but no one used it. Mother, son, daughter, interpreter, and I drank tea and had snacks of nuts, dried tofu, and other goodies set out on a very American-looking coffee table in front of their Castro-type couch-bed in their fifth-floor living room. For my pleasure, they modelled both winter and summer traditional clothes and allowed me to model them, too, as they told tales of their life on the steppes.

I'm sure there are many more Han and minority tea rituals, I can think of one in a Uygur home where I had tea in a glass, and another in a Russian-Chinese home where the samovar took center stage on the carpet we all sat upon. In both of these, my grandmother would have wondered where the cubes of sugar were to put between her teeth before drinking the very dark red tea served.

There are these tea rituals from China and then there are others of their Asian neighbors. All are aesthetic, soothing, and special. If you know of any and would like to write about them, please do; they'll be considered seriously for inclusion in future issues.

And, if you might want to try Tibetan Tea, Rinjing Dorje, in Food in Tibetan Life (published by Prospect Books, London, in 1985 on page 52), wrote the only known printed recipe I've ever seen. A version of it follows adapted to the style of recipes in Flavor and Fortune. Before that recipe, a few tea tomes for your perusal and perhaps your library. They are:
The Book of Tea by Brochard Beauteac and Stella Donzel. Paris France: Flammarion, 1993.
The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu; translated by Francis Ross Carpenter. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.
The Tea Lovers Treasury by James Norwood Pratt. San Francisco: 101 Productions, 1982.
The Tea Lovers Handbook by Moira Weinreich. Vancouver Canada: Intermedia Press, 1980.

Boeja or Tibetan Tea
1/2 cup loose Darjeeling tea (or Chinese fermented brick tea)
10 cups hot water
1/2 cup butter
salt to taste
1 cup heavy cream
1. Put tea in hot water and soak for ten minutes, then boil it (three minutes if using Darjeeling tea, ten minutes for the brick tea).
2. Strain the tea and put it in a blender with all the rest of the ingredients for about three minutes. You will need to do this in three batches if you have a home-sized blender.
Serve in tea cups or small Chinese bowls.

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