I recently had the pleasure of attending a small class on Chinese tea and tea ceremony, given by Chinese scholar Bing YeYoung, a former professor of Chinese culture in Beijing who left China and came to America following Tiananmen Square, and who now teaches classes locally on Chinese culture. (See: http://www.literati-tradition.com.) Chinese tea ceremony is quite a different way to drink tea than either traditional English style or Japanese tea ceremony. What follows are some of my notes from the class and the basic steps involved in Chinese tea ceremony. The following photo thumbnails are all linked to larger versions in this Flickr photoset. (See slideshow.)
Traditional chinese tea pots are made of unglazed clay, and have been seasoned from years of use. The clay absorbs the oils from the tea leaves and eventually, over time, can develop a glazed appearance, especially on the inside of the pot. The clay used to make these tea pots is a special Yixing clay that is only found in one small town in China, near Shanghai. The Chinese believe this clay can dissolve toxic minerals in both tea and water. Yixing teaware are highly collected.
The teapots are much smaller than what we are used to here in the West, typically holding just 1 cup, or 8 ounces of liquid. Since the clay absorbs some of the tea’s essence, one uses different pots for different types of tea. The tea pots and cups sit on a special slatted bamboo box to drain and hold the excess liquid that will be poured over the tea pots.
Regarding the little man on the top of the tea pot in the photo, this is what Bing has to say about him: The man on top of the teapot is a Chinese Buddhist immortal who lived a long time and had supernatural powers. He is a popular figure in Chinese tradition, a symbol of happiness and wealth but with a humble and down-to-earth attitude. His name is Budai, or the One with bag full of happiness, wealth, and magic.
Steps for Making and Serving the Tea
Step 1 If you haven’t used the teapot for a while, rinse it out first with hot water.
Step 2 Put tea into tea pot.
Never use your hands or metal to handle the tea leaves. Use only scoops made of bamboo or wood. The best way to store tea is in a glass jar, in the refrigerator. The amount of tea you add depends on the number of people you plan to serve. Typically fill the small pot 1/4 to 1/3 full with dry tea leaves.
Step 3 Heat water.
Depending on what type of tea you are making, you will heat the water to different temperatures. Water for green tea should never be brought to boiling. It should only be heated enough so that tiny bubbles are rising from the bottom of the kettle (about 85°C). Water for jasmine tea can be a little hotter, and water for Oolong (wulong) or black can be boiling (100°C). Never heat water in a microwave for tea, nor use the instant hot water dispensers available in some sinks. Heat it in the traditional method – in a kettle, on a stove. The water from the kettle should then be poured into a large clay teapot. A cozy placed around the large teapot will keep it warm.
Step 4 Pour water out from this large teapot into the small teapot from some distance, until the leaves are covered with water. Almost immediately after hot water has been poured into the small teapot, pour out the water among the small tea cups. You will not drink this tea. The purpose of this pour is to season and warm the cups.
Step 5 Refill the teapot with water. Then empty the teacups from the first pouring over the tea pot. This keeps the teapot warm and helps cure the clay of the tea pot.
Step 6 Pour out the tea into the tea cups. Note that this first serving of tea should only actually “brew” for 10-30 seconds. By the time you have finished emptying the cups over the tea pot, it is time to pour out the tea from the tea pot into the cups. With each subsequent infusion, add approximately 30 seconds to the brewing time. A good tea will produce a minimum of 3 infusions.
Step 7 Place the tea cup in a lacquer, wood, or bamboo holder. Offer to your guest. If you are the guest, receive the tea cup and holder with both hands. To drink the tea, hold the tea cup holder with your left hand and lift the tea cup gently with the fingers of your right hand. Each tea cup will hold 2 or 3 sips of tea.
The best quality tea is expensive, even in bulk, but still less expensive and much higher quality than what you can get in tea bags. For comparison, Bing pays $100 per pound for green tea in China. You wouldn’t usually buy a whole pound of tea, however, just a quarter pound at a time.
The four teas we tasted during our class were: West Lake Dragon Well (green), Green Peak of Tongting Lake (green), Tie Guanyin (oolong), and Pu Er Cha (black).