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Ye Jun
2005-06-03 09:13

To Zhao Yingli, a cup of tea is a lot more than a mixture of water and tealeaves.

"When I look at tea, it speaks its own language," the tea expert based in Beijing said. "To really get to know it, you need to learn to talk with it."

And that is exactly what Zhao, a teacher of professional tea ceremony presenters, tells his student to do.

"People can learn the skills of tea ceremony in just three days. But to acquire respect for tea and to learn to communicate with tea takes at least three years."

Zhao is a member of the China International Tea Culture Research Association. He is also a tea adviser at Beijing Lao She Teahouse and Biluxuan Teahouse, two of the most renowned teahouses in Beijing.

When he teaches his students to perform tea ceremonies, only one third of his teaching is about tea, the rest includes Chinese history, tea-related ancient Chinese poetry and traditional Chinese culture including Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

The reason he teaches in this way is because he believes: "The most important part of the study of tea is not about the tea itself."

The first person known to use tea in China is probably Shennongshi, a legendary pioneer of Chinese agriculture and medicine, who lived 5,000 years ago. He tasted herbs and fruits to tell if they were edible. It is said that he was poisoned more than 70 times. Each time he used tea to remedy the poison. (See health benefits of tea on page 8)

But the first serious book about tea was penned in 765 AC. The author was Lu Yu (about 733 AC-804 AC), dubbed the Chinese "tea saint."

The book discusses not just the botanical characteristics of tea, but also tea planting, picking, preparing and drinking.

Lu Yu was born in the most prosperous part of Chinese history, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AC), when tea became immensely popular among Chinese people.

Around that time, tea was introduced into the Korean peninsula and into Japan, where it was developed into a special form of artthe tea ceremony.

In China, it is called Cha Dao, the Tao of Tea.

Tea became an important part of Chinese culture, because it was part of Chinese scholars' lives. It is listed in ancient China along with the most elegant forms of art, namely qin (a musical instrument), qi (Chinese chess), shu (calligraphy), hua (painting) and shi (poetry). There are hundreds of poems about tea in ancient Chinese literature. There are also numerous books describing the nature of tea.

One poem by Lu Tong in the Tang Dynasty is still famous for its vivid description of the poet's experience of drinking seven cups of tea. While the first bowl of tea moistens the mouth and throat, when he finishes the 7th cup, the poet felt as if he had become an immortal.

"Tea carries with it all the human and literary characteristics people endowed on it," revealed Zhao. "Chinese tea culture is the accumulation of discoveries and definitions about the inherent spiritual property of tea throughout China's history."

But enjoying tea does not only require knowledge of Chinese culture, it also requires a heart that enjoys serenity, and a purse that is not short of cash.

For many common people, tea is simply a nice drink to quench their thirst. For tea growers, for example, it is just what they do for a living.

At the Siheyuan Teahouse, a part of the famed Lao She Teahouse, drinking middle-level priced tea for an hour with four or five people will cost you around 300 yuan (US$36).

"The tea business only becomes more prosperous when the country becomes richer," said Wang Ye, manager of Courtyard Teahouse. "Otherwise tea is just a drink to quench your thirst."

It is estimated that there are more than 700 specialized teahouses in Beijing. Wang thinks only one third turn a profit, one third are in the process of closing down, and the remaining third can just keep a balance between costs and earnings.

Green tea is the best seller in China. And huacha, flower tea, is the most popular in Beijing.

Zhao Yingli predicts that with the fast growth of the Chinese economy, the business of tea and its related culture will make big leaps forward.

(China Daily 06/03/2005 page4)


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