Practically every village in China has its own school of tea ceremony. Even within a village, everybody adds a bit of personal flair, reinventing the process to fit their style and their priorities in sharing tea. Yet, across China, there are a few principles that tend to unite tea ceremonies, and make them a distinct element of Chinese tea culture. In the west, it is easy to write off the intricate pouring of water, the clinking of cups, the acrobatics of every gesture as simply an exotic fascination, but truly, every single motion of the ceremony is rooted in practical purpose and in a symbolism of the greater goals of the ceremony.
At heart, tea ceremony is about making a good cup of tea, and welcoming guests. It is a social gathering aimed at achieving humility and in seeing beauty. The equipment, the gestures, and even the tea itself are all ways to bridge the everyday world with the lofty devotions of the tea disciple. Tea is picked and brewed with the utmost care to evoke the greatest beauty. The beauty of the tea is meant to inspire a humility and admiration. The humility and admiration among company strengthen the bonds of guest and host, the bonds of friends and family.
If these are the ultimate goals in tea ceremony, then what are a few of the elements of ceremony common across China that work to strengthen the power of the tasting experience? First and foremost, tea is always sipped in small quantities. Even in the rustic villages where leaves are stuffed into a large cup and water is refilled throughout the day, the goal is to sip slowly and appreciate every flavor. Small cups reinforce this ideal by presenting a scarcity, and forcing the taster to really concentrate on the small amount of tea in front of them.
In China, when people ask what you think about a tea, the most common response is haohe, which literally means ‘good to drink.’ You use this to compliment any beverage. Foods that you eat are haochi, which means ‘good to eat.’ There is a sort of secret code in tea houses and among tea vendors. They will ask a new guest haohe ma? which means ‘did you like it?’ Normally, you would say haohe in response, but those in the know will say haopin. To pin is to taste with care, not to drink. This response shows that you understand that tea is not a beverage but an experience to be appreciated. This simple response will earn you a lot more respect. These simple word choices illustrate the importance of drinking small quantities of tea at a time. The little cups and little teapots are not there to be cute, they emphasize the scarcity and importance of the leaves before you and help you focus on the taste and smell more closely.
The small cups and small teapots don’t work the same way we use teapots in the west. We tend to use a teaspoon of leaf per cup of water. In China, teapots can be stuffed up to halfway with leaves. Some will use a gram of leaf per ounce of water. This means you can do much shorter infusions and steep the same leaves many times. The first infusions will be lighter, while later infusions grow in depth and complexity. After enough infusions, the leaves finally start to get lighter and eventually fade out. This whole experience in time keeps the tasters focused on the tea throughout the ceremony, and creates an exciting level of suspense in anticipating the next brew.
Another element common to most ceremonies across China, whether brewing in glasses, gaiwans, or teapots is ensuring an equal brew for everyone present. If you are brewing in a pot and pour out into cups, the first cup will have the lightest tea and the last cup will have the strongest. Some people would show a preference for their favorite guest by pouring them the best cup, and leaving the cups that were too light or too strong for lesser guests. Of course, this is completely against the ideal of humility in the tea ceremony, so two solutions have been incorporated. The first is to line up all the cups and pour back and forth in a row, giving each cup early, middle and later pours, blending them together for an equal taste experience. The second solution is to first pour into a pitcher or a second teapot to combine the flavor and then fill every cup.
There are actually many little gestures that you might notice if you are lucky enough to attend a Chinese tea ceremony. Boiling water is poured over every cup in front of the guests not only to heat the cups before filling them with tea, but to show the guests that you have prepared clean serving ware for them. Of course the cups are clean before they are brought out, but the gesture is a symbol of respect for the guests.
You might also notice that the first steeping of tea is often poured over the cups until they overflow and then discarded. The overflowing cup is a symbol of abundance and excess. It is related to the translation of gongfu tea as leisure tea. Tea tasting is something you do not out of necessity, but for the sheer appreciation of beauty. The tea is then discarded not only as a way to wake up the leaves, but also to show that this ritual is not about quenching thirst or wringing everything out of the leaf, but a slow and contemplative experience.
Some people may even pour the first steeping over little yixing clay tea animals, which start off dull and become dark and lustrous as they absorb tea oils. “Feeding” them is good luck, and a way to show that you have been drinking tea for a long time. The darker your tea animals, the more experienced a tea taster you are.
Ultimately, tea ceremony can take the most unlikely of forms. If tea is being prepared with care and respect, tasted with gratitude and attention, and contemplated as a full sensory experience, then even drinking out of a paper dixie cup would be welcomed into the schools of gongfu ceremony.
The concept of “white tea” originally referred to times when people were so poor that they could not afford tea leaves, but a guest would visit. Of course, any person of cultivation felt obligated to prepare tea for their guests, but without the leaves, they would go through the ritual of the ceremony, and pour their guest a cup of hot water with the same care as they would pour fine tea, saying “please accept this white tea.” All the objects, the rituals and the tea itself simply makes it easier to enter into the world of contemplation and reflect upon the simple beauty of flavor among friends.