The Art of Tea and The Way of Tea

Mention the words Chinese tea culture and the first images that surface are probably that of a tea ceremony and the method of brewing tea commonly known as gongfu brewing. Not inaccurate but hardly representative of the entire spectrum that Chinese tea culture entails.

Unfortunately, Chinese tea culture has been synonymous with Chayi (the Art of Tea) as opposed to Chadao (the Way of Tea). Hence, this beloved beverage and way of life has often been portrayed as a mystical, arcane ceremony that requires years of devoted training and the purest of hearts before one can begin to unravel the mysteries.

If that is the case, than tea would have been reserved for less than 1% of China’s (admittedly sizable) population, not a ubiquitous sight across the country spanning all walks of life. Contrary to what some may believe, not all Chinese are proficient in brewing gongfu tea or even drink tea the gongfu way. While we are at it- Chinese do not wear silk traditional costumes everyday either but I digress.

Chinese tea culture is more than ceremonies and performances. It can be as simple as throwing some leaves in a tall glass. It can be carrying a vacuum flask or tumbler full of brewed tea and sipping from it all day long. It can also be the famous Beijing big bowl tea (Da Wan Cha) or Taiwanese ‘bubble tea’ or Hong Kong’s ‘yum cha’ culture.

It would be unfair to assume Chinese tea culture begins and ends with the gongfu style or the ceremony that is more of a performance than about exacting the best possible taste from the leaves. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for it- there are few things more inherently relaxing than attending a tea performance but that is hardly representative of the full spectrum.

For tea to be considered a culture- it would have to be ingrained in the daily lives of the masses. Just like British tea culture entails afternoon teas which has embedded itself into a daily routine- Chinese culture has elements that are day-to-day affairs. Being a daily affair would exclude ceremonies, unless the subject matter in question is in that line of work.

For example in Chinese culture, tea is universally served at restaurants, virtually by default. When I was in China, I asked for plain water (after a whole day at the tea market, I was certain I wouldn’t be able to consume anymore caffeine without a bout of insomnia) and I was greeted with a look of incredulity. I had to repeat myself and endure those piercing stares before I eventually got my message across.

Yet teas served in restaurants are simply brewed in a metal or ceramic pot, not a Yixing pot with an elaborate show before being served. These may be a notch (or ten) below the teas served in ceremonies but they are undeniably as much a part of Chinese tea culture as their more illustrious counterparts.

Another common simple method of consumption is drinking directly out of tall glasses with the leaves thrown in. This is particularly favored for green tea which is the most commonly consumed type in China. There are variations and more details but generally the approach is this- warm the glass, add leaves, add hot water, let the leaves steep, when the water level falls to 1/3 fill again and repeat another time. Not only is this convenient, it allows the drinker to watch leaves unfurl and admire the rhapsody of the leaves. More importantly, it basically requires only a glass and hot water and not the whole kitchen sink so this can be practiced in the workplace without incurring the boss’s wrath.

Some connoisseurs disdain this method of brewing saying that it doesn’t quite unleash the full flavor of tea but personally I think the convenience it brings about outweighs the loss in quality.

Tea culture really is about enjoying tea in a manner that best fits the occasion. Whether on the dinner table or in the office, on the go or hosting friends at home- these are all as much a part of tea culture as ceremonies and performances. At its very core, tea culture is about consuming it, incorporating it into part of our lives- not a sporadic indulgence. This is true for the Chinese nationals and should be true for of us.

Let Chinese (or Japanese or Korean) tea ceremonies intrigue us but not intimidate us, be enchanting but not elusive- tea culture can be simple, enjoyable and an everyday affair.