Brian's Blogs

How can I ever look a tea bag in the face again?

I wonder sometimes why many in the West think that their version of modern-day living is any better than what you find in other, less-developed parts of the world. As McDonalds and KFC and Starbucks conquer the globe with their versions of fast food and ‘real coffee’, is the rest of the non-American world any better off as a result?

In some ways, the same can be said of tea. Back in the 1950s in Britain we all used loose leaf tea, and jolly good it was too. Then some bright spark invented the tea bag and we all thought that this was a major leap forward in civilisation. Sure, you can still get loose leaf tea in the UK, but who bothers with it any more except for top notch establishments?

Yet here in China the tea bag has never really taken off. Everywhere you see people pouring hot water onto their tea leaves – and I do mean everywhere. On buses and trains from a thermos; in shops and offices from hot water machines; everyone enjoys their brew and the only tea bags I see are reserved for hotel bedrooms and other establishments frequented by ‘laowai’.

Whenever I go to teach English at weekends, I am offered tea by the principal of Langge School – ZhiJuan. Not for her the lowly tea bag. No way. Instead she chooses a special tea from her vast collection, pours a little into a bowl, pours hot water onto it, ‘scrapes’ off any floating leaves with a lid and then decants the liquid into a small jug from which she pours it out into sip-sized cups. To drink a dozen cups of her brews at one go is the norm and very nice they are too.

Recently, Xiaoyan – the mother of one of the kids I had been teaching – asked if I would be interested in learning about how to make the perfect cup of (Chinese) tea. It would be part of my education; something I really should have found out about when first I came to China – not just as I am about to leave this wonderful country.

She didn’t mention it then, but I found out later that it just so happens she had only recently gained her official endorsement as a professional tea practitioner. And her teacher, Sun Xuelian, would be delighted to educate me in the ways of the Chinese tea ceremony.

The Occupational Qualification Certificate is, I suspect, a bit like the British NVQ system – qualifications assessed in the workplace through observation of performance. The back cover explains it all, complete with British-spelt English, which itself is something of a rarity here in American-English dominated China: “This certifies the competency of the holder for a specific occupation and serves as an effective public notarial document on the holder's skill level for the purpose of overseas employment and labour export. The certificate is validated with the seal of human resources and social security administrative authorities or the working agencies of human resources (labour) and social security of the concerned departments directly under the State Council or the PLA and CAPF.” (That’s the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police Force, in case you were wondering!)

The Chinese tea ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is a Chinese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of tea leaves. In modern day China, virtually every dwelling has a set of tea implements for brewing a hot cup of tea. A visitor to a Chinese home will be expected to sit down and drink tea while talking.

The Gongfu Cha Dao (功夫茶道) also known “Gongfucha" makes use of a small teapot of about 100 – 150 ml to enhance the aesthetics, and more importantly "round out" the taste of the tea being brewed. Pots come in all shapes, as a chart on Xuelian’s wall amply illustrates.

Actually Xuelian also teaches art in her little basement studio. I somehow don’t think she can get enough tea-making students to earn a living from that alone.

The basics of the tea equipment used is simple enough. Spread out on the table is a glorified drip tray. It can be made of stone or clay and I guess it’s like the tea-equivalent of a child’s sand-pit! Expect it to get messy – I mean, very messy!

From one corner of the tray is an escape hatch from which a rubber or plastic hose reaches down into a bucket. At first glance it reminds me of a catheter attached to a patient in a hospital who has just undergone surgery and can’t get to the loo on their own!

Some of Xuelian’s pots are really rather nice. I particularly like this one which is made from two immiscible types of clay which result in a swirling pattern after the final firing of the pot.

This next classic design, however, is known as Xi Shi (西施). Shi Yiguang (施夷光) was one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China who was said to have lived during the end of the Spring and Autumn Period in Zhuji, the capital of the ancient State of Yue. Xi Shi's beauty was said to be so extreme that while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish would be so dazzled that they forgot to swim and sank away from the surface! Anyway, the pot is meant to replicate the shape of her breast and nipple … from which I can only surmise that maybe the fish had a point! I guess she must have been a pretty hot young lady!

There are many different ways of brewing Chinese tea depending on all kinds of variables, not least the type of tea being used. For example, green teas are more delicate than oolong teas or black teas and should be brewed with cooler water as a result. A good quality oolong tea is good for anywhere from 4 to 8 infusions while some Pu’erh teas can even last for more than eight infusions.

Actually, the temperature of the water is really important. In the UK the accepted wisdom is to boil the kettle and to then pour out the water while it is still boiling. Not so in China. It needs to be hot but if it is too hot it can spoil the taste. The temperature will depend on the type of tea you use. For instance, if you serve green tea, heat it to about 85 degrees without letting it boil. 95 °C should be used for Oolong and only boiling water is used for compressed teas, such as Pu’erh tea.

And were you aware that as a rule of thumb, the temperature of the water can be determined by the size and the sizzling sound made by the air bubbles in the kettle? At 75–85 °C, the bubbles formed are known as "crab eyes" and are about 3mm in diameter. They are accompanied by loud, rapid sizzling sounds. At 90–95 °C, the bubbles, which are now around 8mm in diameter and accompanied by less frequent sizzling sounds and a lower sizzling pitch, are dubbed "fish eyes". When the water is boiling, neither the formation of air bubbles nor sizzling sounds occur at all.

Once you have rinsed out the teapot to ensure it is free from any debris, it and the cups are then warmed and sterilized with hot water, and the excess is then poured away onto the tray, whence it makes its way via the catheter into the bucket below.

The second stage of the preparation is to give everyone present the chance to examine the tea and appreciate its appearance, smell, and other characteristics, after which "the black dragon enters the palace" – i.e. the teapot is filled with tea. If you are going to make a good job of it, you spoon the tea out using only bamboo or wood – never metal. The pot is normally filled up to a quarter or even one-third with tea leaves, which for a 150 ml tea pot equates to around 15 grams of tea leaves.

Hot water is now poured from a height above the pot until the pot overflows and any debris or bubbles which form on the surface are then scooped away gently to keep the tea from around the mouth of the pot, which is then closed with the lid.

And then?

And then, you throw it all away! Customarily this first brew is poured into the cups but it is not drunk. It is essentially a slightly extended way of washing the tea leaves and warming up the cups. So you don’t drink this tea. Instead you either pour it out of the cups onto the teapot to keep it warm prior to the next fill up with water, and also to make it shiny over time, or you throw it over your tea pets.

Your what?

A tea pet symbolises wealth and fortune and is basically a small work of art made of different kinds of clay, just like the tea pots, and is normally placed on a tea tray. During the ceremony, tea is poured over them and over time they darken and mature into …errr… darker and more mature – and even coloured and shiny – tea pets! (I told you it was messy!) Many people have large collections of them. A popular type is Jinchan (a type of three-legged toad, which is said to be able to spit out money - perhaps because it sounds like jinqian - meaning money!

Now you repeat the procedure, pouring on the water from a great height to show your skill in pouring, letting the tea brew for 10 to 30 seconds, and then pouring the tea through a sieve into a jug, ready for it to be used to fill the tea cups. Each time the tea is poured, you add 30 more seconds to the brewing time. The better the tea, the more infusions it will withstand. You never refill water into the small teapot until you are ready for the next serving.

Normally the server pours the tea into the small cups which have been arranged in a semi-circle around the drip tray. The cups are never filled to the top. Instead the normal height is around 70 percent which in practice means you have a better chance of not burning your fingers when picking it up! But if you believe what they would tell you, it is because the Chinese are said to believe that the rest of the cup is filled with friendship and affection. Yeah, OK!

So the first cup of tea has been thrown away. Now it’s time to savour the taste… right? Wrong!

First the server passes a cup to each guest and invites him or her to smell the tea. It’s a bit like sniffing a fine claret before quaffing it down; the tea can have an amazing “nose” which you could well miss were you just to go straight for the tasting part.

Etiquette demands that instead of nodding your thanks or blurting out ‘xie xie’, you should actually thank your server by tapping on the table three times with your finger or bent index and middle fingers.

This custom is said to have originated in the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qian Long would travel in disguise through his empire. Servants were under strict instructions not to reveal their master's identity. One day in a restaurant, the emperor, after pouring himself a cup of tea, filled a servant's cup as well. It was a huge honour for the servant to have the emperor pour him a cup of tea. But he couldn’t kneel and kowtow to the emperor since that would reveal his identity, so he bent his fingers on the table to express his gratitude and respect – supposedly the bent finger being the head and the other two the arms.

There is also an etiquette as to how to hold your cup – balancing its base on the middle finger while holding it by thumb and index finger, all the while keeping your arm down so as not to show off your arm pits!

And to show your appreciation the first time around you can slurp your tea loudly!

Apart from the glorified drip tray, there is also a range of wooden or bamboo tools that normally can be found. They are called “ cha dao liu jun zi” - six tools of cha dao. Cha lou is a ring shaped funnel for pouring loose tea into pots with small apertures; cha chi is a spoon for dolling out the dry tea leaves (metal spoons are strictly off limits!). Other tools serve as prodders and pushers, too…

and perhaps the most useful of all – wooden tweezers, or cha chi for picking up the tea cups when you want to empty an unfinished cup and pour its contents over one of the pets.

Another of the seemingly weird things one is expected to appreciate after drinking the tea is the appearance of one of the tea leaves once it has been uncurled and smoothed out following its immersion in the tea making process. During the initial tea production, the tea leaves are traditionally turned constantly in a deep bowl. This process slightly damages the edges of the leaves such that not only does it make the edges of the leaf turn red, but more importantly when it is being brewed, the leaf more easily gives up its full flavour to the water.

When it comes to making green or flower teas, then the traditional earthenware pot sometimes gives way to a glass variety – such as this one that has a removable filter built in.

The dry leaves might be placed in a container – cha he – for ease of pouring into this pot, and a wooden spatula used for pushing the leaves out of the container if friction stops them pouring easily.

Once the water has been poured onto the leaves inside the filter, they soon rise to the top, whence the filter is removed and the remainder of the glass pot is used for pouring out the tea.

For the darker teas such as the pu’erh variety, it is common to be offered something sweet to suck on as this helps remove the tannins from building up in the stomach.

Amazingly this entire lesson has taken some two hours to get through. Even more amazing is the fact that the next day I am visiting a shop in the Ancient Cultural Street area of Tianjin when my new-found expertise is put to good use. This shop, which sells upmarket jade and other works of art, is run by Fan Jian Qin.

Not only does she serve her upmarket potential customers tea, as they contemplate their purchases, but she also has some rather natty little tea pots, such as this squirrel pot…

or even this tiger model which I rather fancy…

But it’s here that I have a second lesson that I wasn’t expecting to add to the previous day’s education. For it appears that something that many Chinese add to their enjoyment of the tea ceremony is the addition of incense. And those in the know don’t just pop out to the corner shop to buy a joss stick. No. They make it up for themselves! In this case Jian Qin begins her demonstration while her friend Zi Han looks on…

The basic ingredients consist of a bowl half full of ash from previous incense burnings (and for those of you who are about to ask the age old chicken-and-egg question, the answer is you can actually purchase spent incense powder); and of course some powdered incense – in this case two IKEA jars of Sandalwood and Eaglewood – which is called Tanxiang and Chenxiang in Chinese, the latter being a type of agarwood similar to the oud they use in the Middle East.

Just like in the tea ceremony there is also a set of special tools for shovelling, prodding and dusting up…

Jian Qin starts by flattening the ash in the bowl. In clockwise circular strokes, moving anticlockwise round the bowl with each stroke being slowly contemplated, the ash gets firmed more and more until some ten minutes later it is as flat as a bowling green … though she apologises that she might have rushed the job a little!

Next she takes a brass moulding template and places it carefully on the ash.

Using small quantities of the incense powders, she uses one of the tools to press them into the slots of the mould such that by the time she lifts the template away, a patterned incense flower has been left on the surface of the ash. It’s just like when you go to buy a cappuccino in Costa Café when they sprinkle chocolate powder in the shape of their coffee bean logo onto the top of the froth – though with a lot more care, naturally!

She uses a splint to light the incense…

and like a gunpowder fuse it slowly burns, filling the room with wonderfully scented smoke.

The idea is now to sit back, and enjoy the scent and enjoy the tea and enjoy each others’ company, which we all do.

And to think that we Brits actually used to think that using a tea bag was so cool! Oh please!

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