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In praise of tea
(Shanghai Daily)
Updated: 2004-10-16 16:15

Clad in a cream-colored Chinese robe, Xu Xiongting elegantly rinses his teapot with hot water before putting in some fragrant Pu-erh tea leaves from Yunnan Province.

The background folk music, also from Yunnan, the traditional blue-printed table cloth and an exquisite censer complete the setting of his tea table which is laid out on the theme,¡°Go into Pu-erh.¡±

After three cups of tea have been presented to the examiners, Xu seems much relieved. As one of only three male candidates for a senior¡°tea art¡±certificate in Shanghai this year, Xu has just finished a six-month course organized by the Shanghai Tea Institute, a governmentsponsored body which is promoting traditional Chinese tea culture.

The tea table design examination was the last test for Xu and some 30 other students on the course. Tea leaf appraisal, tea brewing and an oral English test were other sections of the examination.

¡°This (tea table design) is the most difficult,¡±says Xu, a young man in his 20s.

¡°I have spent half a month preparing for the test. You know, Pu-erh tea is not easy to brew but my previous work experience as a Pu-erh tea salesman did help me a lot.¡±

According to one of Xu¡¯s teachers, Qiao Musen, tea table design is a test of students¡¯all-round abilities which must include creativity, tea brewing skills and graceful posture.

¡°Tea is the soul of tea art. A tea art expert can let people know about the flavor of the tea through his body language and the design and setting of the delicate drinking utensils in use,¡±Qiao says.¡°It¡¯s not just the mere tea-making process¡ªit¡¯s a unique art form with a long history.¡±

To gain a better understanding of Chinese tea culture, Xu quit his job to attend the full-time training course.

¡°There¡¯s no gender barrier in taking up this traditional art form,¡±Xu says with a grin.¡°I¡¯m optimistic that I will become one of the best professional exponents of tea art.¡±

Unlike Xu, Gu Wei, a young woman on the course who graduated from university last summer, had to learn tea art from scratch.

¡°Before I came to the class, I had no idea about tea culture but I had a strong interest in it,¡±she says.¡°Covering tea culture, ikebana and posture, the course enabled me to gain a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture.¡±

Gu is wearing a qipao embroidered with pink plum blossoms to match the theme of her tea table¡ª¡°A Taste of Plum Blossom¡±¡ªin the test. The tea leaves she¡¯s brewing are a well-known black tea from Hangzhou, capital of neighboring Zhejiang Province.

¡°Drinking tea is an ideal way to relax,¡± Gu says.¡°It helps to keep me calm in the fast pace of life today. The feeling is great.¡±

Of the three main beverages in the world ¡ªtea, coffee and cocoa¡ªtea is preferred by most people. China is the homeland of tea. Legend has it that tea was discovered in the country about 5,000 years ago. The art of making tea, or chadao in Chinese, originated in the Jin Dynasty (265-420AD), but it didn¡¯t start to flourish as an art form until the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD).

In the 8th century, Lu Yu, a¡°sage of tea,¡±wrote the first recognized study of tea culture¡ª¡°Tea Sutra.¡±The book is the oundation of Chinese tea etiquette and

considerably influenced the development of tea culture.

¡°Lu stressed that the tea artist must understand the tea culture and the tea

himself before presenting the tea to his guests. It¡¯s not only a skill, but an art form,¡±says Guan Jianping, another teacher in the training course.¡°That¡¯s also what we ask our students to learn.¡±

According to a survey conducted by the Shanghai Tea Institute, there are more than 6,000 tea stores in town and some 50,000 people are employed in the tea industry.

¡°But sadly, not many have a clear idea about the profound nature of our tea culture,¡±says Liu Qigui, an official with the institute.

Before the institute introduced the training programs in 2002, there were fewer than 10 professional tea artists in Shanghai. The training course now has about 90 students, most of whom are university graduates. Others are tea industry employees or people who are interested in tea culture.

So far, about 70 have passed the examination and have been awarded certificates.

People under 35 years old, with a college degree and basic English skills may apply for the program, which is free of charge for Chinese people. As tea artists are also presenters of traditional Chinese tea culture, there is also a minimum height requirement¡ªmen must be at least 1.72 meters tall and women 1.62 meters.

Liu says they are working to ensure there will be enough tea art professionals by the time the 2010 World Expo opens in Shanghai.

¡°The city government sponsored the whole training program with the aim of attracting more young people to traditional tea art,¡±Liu says.¡°The World Expo will be a perfect opportunity to present Chinese culture to the world so we need to make sure the younger generation understands it and has the ability to present it to guests.¡±

The institute is also planning to initiate a ¡°Tea Image Ambassadors¡±project, selecting the best tea art professionals to present the traditional tea culture.

Asked if they would compete to become a¡°Tea Image Ambassador,¡±both Xu and Gu nodded.

¡°Why not?¡±they asked, beaming.¡°It will be a glorious task to showcase this splendid aspect of Chinese culture.¡±

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