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May 26, 2014

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The timelessness of tea

IN China, it’s almost always a good time for tea. This noble, yet humble beverage has been appreciated by Chinese for thousands of years. Both its taste and the profound culture that have emerged around it make for a fascinating drink.

Chinese people enjoy tea in a similar way to how Westerners appreciate wine. It is served to guests, valued by specialists, can be very expensive or rather cheap and is great when you are thirsty.

“Throughout the years, tea has always been a part of Chinese people’s lives,” says Shen Jiong, an official with Shanghai Tea Institute.

A China original, tea is appreciated by almost everybody in the nation. Everyone, from emperors to common people, has loved tea. It is listed as one of the seven necessities in daily life along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar.

Shennong, a legendary ruler and cultural hero in China, is always be remembered as the one who discovered the magic herb. In “Shennong Bencao Jing,” or “Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,” Shennong wrote about tested hundreds of herbs to learn about their effect.

It contributed greatly to the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine. According to one story, he was poisoned by 72 herbs one day, but was saved by tea.

“The legend probably isn’t true,” Shen says. “But since most legends are developed from certain facts, tea was very likely first discovered as a medicine. With its health benefits and pleasant taste, tea gradually became a popular drink nationwide with various cultures deriving from it.”

Though drinking tea can be as simple as picking up the cup, swallowing the beverage and putting the cup down, it can also be appreciated at a much deeper level. This includes drinking tea in an appropriate room accompanied by incense burning and beautiful music. It also involves using a precise technique to bring out the best taste of the leaves, sharing with friends and composing a poem or completing a painting.

“Tea is appreciated in Chinese culture as a symbol of being reserved, one who is indifferent to fame and wealth, and for limiting desires, all of which are valued by Chinese scholars even today,” says Shen.

It is believed that tea has been recognized and used by Chinese for more than 4,000 years, yet it was not until the Northern Dynasty (AD 386-518) that the drink started to become popular among scholars. Around this time, the idea of yi cha yang lian, or cultivating honesty through tea, became more mainstream.

To fight pervasive corruption, some scholars chose to treat friends and guests with a simple cup of tea instead of a traditional banquet with wine. It soon became a trend nationwide.

“Wine makes people drunk, while tea keeps people sober,” Shen says. “I think that the characteristics of tea also worked as a major factor to win over scholars, who were determined to turn the chaotic world into a clean and wise one.”

Drinking tea is also not necessarily less entertaining than serving wine. In fact, any simple entertainment can be developed into an elegant and poetic one if ancient Chinese scholars are involved, according to Shen. It’s hard to name a scholar who didn’t like tea from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) onward.

With their engagement, simple tea drinking became an art and various tea processing methods were developed.

The first teas were more like a herbal soup cooked in a saucepan with water. But in Lu Yu’s “Cha Jing” or “Classic of Tea,” written in the Tang Dynasty, tea making at the time involved grilling and grinding a tea cake before putting the powder into a saucepan for cooking.

Brewing tea leaves with hot water replaced the cooking procedure in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when tea culture reached its zenith. The tea powder needed to be whipped quickly in order to produce a white, thick foam like that in a cappuccino.

It is difficult to do and some scholars even had friendly competitions about painting pictures in the foam. This was known as dian cha, literally point tea, which prevailed until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

When Zhu Yuanzhang of humble birth won his throne as the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, he considered the dian cha custom a harassment of the people and a waste of money. Pouring boiling water into a pot or cup of loose tea leaves was promoted as a simple and effective tea making procedure that remains today.

Of course, tea bags and tea machines have been invented since then, but many people still prefer using just tea leaves to make a pot of their favorite beverage.

It is said there were four different ways of appreciating tea in ancient China.

The royal class chased after the top-quality tea leaves, along with the best water, tea tools and heat control.

Scholars enjoyed tea as an art. They wanted to sense the subtle layers of the tea and create poems and art in the process.

Many Buddhists listed cooking tea as a course, believing in the three virtues of tea — keeping sober, improving digestion and restricting desires.

For ordinary residents, tea has always been to relieve thirst and for breaks from work.

Tea houses throughout history have been favored entertainment venues as friends came together to drink tea and take in operas and acrobatic performances.

“These variations have converged somewhat in recent years, as most people now take tea as a healthy drink that is also good for the soul,” Shen says.

Free your mind temporarily from stress and worries, relax, make a good tea, immerse yourself in all the meanings of tea and enjoy the peace each cup brings.

“As long as you make a tea in which you enjoy the taste and peacefulness it brings, it is a good tea that benefits you,” Shen says. “I have no objection even to instant tea bags as long as one takes pleasure in it in their own way.”


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