There are as many teas in China as there are mountain villages, but regardless of whether you are drinking the Golden needle of sub-tropical Yunnan, or the Laoshan green from rocky Shandong province in the North, every tea is cultivated with hospitality in mind. Removed from the villages and the humble farmers, it is easy to let tea turn into an object of snobbery, arguing over the best way to process Tieguanyin, or the seasonal difference between autumn and spring harvests, but this is absolutely not what farmers like Mr. He of Laoshan Village have in mind.
Ultimately, tea is for serving, not drinking. What does this mean? The culture of tea in China revolves around creating a comfortable and positive experience for guests. The host is the server, selecting a tea to fit his or her guests’ taste, and preparing it in a way that makes everybody happy.
This tradition goes back to Song dynasty aristocrats using tea as an excuse to hold gatherings to discuss philosophy, poetry and politics. At these gatherings, several people would prepare their absolute best tea, and the guests would watch and taste every cup. The glory would go to whomever left the best impression on their guests. Tea is so essential to social life in China that the famous Chinese playwright Lao She wrote an entire play called The Teahouse, where each act revolves around the social intrigues and interactions at a local teahouse.
It is quite rare to be invited into somebody’s home in China, but if you are, you can be sure that tea will be served or at the very least offered. Neglecting this basic rule as the host would be like leaving your guests standing in your front door without inviting them in.
Within the act of preparing tea, there are subtle cues that the guests and hosts can give each other. Cups are always filled to two thirds, as less would be a hostile symbol, of withholding, while more is too excessive and decadent, in addition to making it difficult for your guests not to spill. Guests who finish a cup to the bottom should expect to have it refilled immediately, as the host wants to show that he or she is attentive to the guests’ needs. However, if your guest asks you if you want more tea three times, especially if you still have tea in your cup, that is a subtle way of saying that it is getting late and you should go. When a host pours counter-clockwise, they are mimicking the welcoming gesture of “come in,” while pouring clockwise is the gesture of “get out.”
This said, don’t think that tea in China is overly finicky or difficult to grasp. In fact, the whole goal of tea is to make people feel welcome. Tea stimulates good conversation, familiarity, and engagement. If someone serves you tea, it is a compliment. It means that they want to get to know you better.
Take for example the story of white tea. My good friend, Professor Qu of Qingdao University, who specialized in tea culture, was helping me set up meetings with various farmers, tea shops etc while I was in China doing research. One day I came to him rather discouraged, describing how modern tea culture seemed to revolve around bragging over who could afford the finest tea, without any attention paid to the leaves themselves or to the guests. I have moved beyond these conclusions, having met some incredible people who shared their lives with me, but Professor Qu set me on the right path, asking “have you ever heard of white tea?”
It seemed like an irrelevant and simple question to ask, so I said “of course. White tea is usually picked from bud material in Fujian province, and steamed to prevent oxidization.” Professor Qu just shook his head.
“No, I mean real white tea.” At this point I was confused. My research had covered every major category of tea. What was Professor Qu hiding? Was it some super-rare crop I had never heard of? “Real white tea was first served by peasants to their guests. If a family member was visiting, or a traveler asked for lodging for the night, any family, rich or poor, would serve a pot of tea. However, during famine and drought, many farmers were too poor to afford tea leaves. This didn’t stop their hospitality though. Farmers would set a kettle of freshly drawn water on the fire, bring it to a boil, pour it through the teapot and allow it to sit the appropriate time, and finally serve it to the guests, offering a cup and saying ‘please drink this white tea.’ That is tea culture.”
I was awed by both the simplicity and the grandeur of such a gesture. Through the ritual of preparing the tea, the farmers could achieve the hospitality and beauty of offering the cup without the aid of the leaf. This seemed to me the absolute central pillar of tea culture, before even the tea itself.
Where then, does the tea come in to the picture? What need do we have for fine, fresh tea, grown and sold with integrity? This question is best answered by Mr He of Laoshan village. Mr. He has been growing tea for several generations. Before teas was produced on the ocean-facing slopes of Laoshan, his ancestors grew corn, and before that, sorghum.
One day I was out walking with Mr. He along the edge of his property. It was a beautiful day, with just a bit of morning mist rolling in from the ocean. We breathed in the fresh air, and Mr. He looked supremely satisfied. “This is why we have to grow tea,” he said decisively.
“What do you mean?”
“It is too perfect here. It would be a shame not to grow tea on such beautiful land, with such clean water. Even the Feng Shui is perfect.”
“It is. I have been all over China and your farm is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. It reminds me a bit of the ranches in Northern California I see when I visit family. But why tea? Why does tea have to be grown here instead of corn or sorghum. Because it is more valuable?”
“No, because it is the only plant that shares the farm with everyone who drinks it. Every leaf I pick and roll and dry, I do it with the spirit of hospitality. My whole family does. I am sad that I cannot invite everyone to visit my home here. I don’t think all of China or America would want to fly out here. We don’t have any tourist attractions really. Instead of inviting people to visit, I bring them to the farm when they drink the tea. If the tea is good enough, people will taste the rocky mountain, the crisp mist of the ocean. That way it is like I am inviting everyone to my farm even if they stay in their own homes.”
I will never forget that daring aspiration of the He family. It is one of my greatest motivations for sharing their tea and the tea of those like them on a large scale. The finest teas in the world are more than a beverage. They are an open invitation. Drink them with friends, and you find yourself deep in discussion, first of the tea itself, and then on to other deep issues. Tasting encourages interaction. The most exquisite teas can be so moving that they inspire intense emotions.
It is my hope that by connecting innovative farmers with a receptive audience, I can have a small part in creating dialog, and deepening the sense of hospitality that tea imparts. Next time you have guests over, make a pot of tea. See where it takes you. For a truly fun evening, pick up a selection of fine teas, or a sample pack, and brew up a “flight” of teas to drink with friends. Discuss the differences between each tea and describe what you like in each. It is surprising how much you can learn about a person through their taste in tea.
While I may prepare tea in the traditional Chinese methods for my guests, there is no reason to wait to share a tasting experience for when you have a full gongfu set. Drop the leaves in cups and fill with hot water. I have even had customers tell me that they improvised a gongfu set by steeping in a cereal bowl, straining into a gravy pitcher and pouring tea into bottle caps. The story of “true” white tea reminds us that the important thing in drinking tea is enjoying it, with or without the equipment. In the right company, a fine cup of Laoshan Green, or perhaps an aged Xingyang Pu’er can be almost magical. This is what tea culture is fundamentally all about.