More than just a warm drink that is approved of, tea in China is a way of life. It plays an essential part in Chinese life. From morning to evening, around a table with a typical tea set, or in a little thermos bottle that is carried all day, the Chinese only swear by one thing, chá.
By Linda Abdulovska
I remember very well the first box of tea that I was given by a Chinese friend. Having absolutely no idea how to drink it, I used it to decorate my apartment.
Nevertheless, a few weeks later, during the Lantern Festival which closes the Chinese New Year celebrations, I had the opportunity to taste the tea and find out about the Chinese tea ceremony in a little village in the Fujian region. It was at precisely that moment that I realized how important the tea ceremony is.
How do you choose your tea? That is the question! They are not named for the color of the tea leaves but for the color of the infusion. They all have a particular way of being prepared, which is often different according to whether the tea is green, black, white, yellow, or red.
Fujian region, where I live, is particularly well-known for jasmine tea. It's a tea that I adore and it has become my favorite by a long shot. It's made at the end of summer, after the rainy season. One of my friends, Huang Qi Jiao, told me: "You have to wait for night so the jasmine flower is open and giving off its transcendent perfume".
To be completely honest I think calling it a tea "ceremony" is a bit exaggerated. But everyone is free to find it poetic, moving, or spiritual.
Different tea sets and utensils are used, depending on the occasion for which the tea is being served. I've often asked my Chinese friends the question and always get the same answer "Oh, that's much too difficult to explain!"
The host will invite you to sit down and generally begins by cleaning the tea itself. He'll clean the tea cups with warm water (think about little Chinese tea cups) and dry them without touching them with the help of a pair of tongs. During this time you will be able to smell the magical scent rising up from the tea pot. Once it has infused, the tea is served, and the cup put down in front of you.
It is good manners to begin by breathing in the scent of the tea before tasting it delicately, in small mouthfuls. After having made the mistake (oh the shame!) of swallowing my cup of tea in one mouthful, a friend explained that it was very bad manners to drink your tea quickly and have your cup refilled often. Obviously, your host will never let on that he has noticed you being impolite, and will refill your cup as soon as he notices that it is empty.
A tip that's good to know: as a sign of respect, when your host serves you a cup of tea, say thank you by gently and discreetly tapping two fingers on the table.
It's surprising to see to what degree tea plays a crucial part in Chinese life. Even if young people aren't really interested in the quality of the tea, or its ceremony, they all walk about with their thermos bottles of hot water and "flower tea".
I still remember a class that I gave to some three-year-olds. Obviously, like all children, they were always thirsty. “Wo xiang he shui” (literally, "I want to drink some water") - nothing surprising there. The really astonishing thing to see was that, instead of juice or soda, they drank warm water with jasmine or chamomile.
In fact, you are more likely to be served warm water, even in summer. It's considered a remedy for almost everything. I have now given up sodas and also carry my thermos bottle filled with tea!