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Viewers take tea, feasting their eyes on an ancient creative art

China Daily | Updated: 2022-07-06 09:45
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For most people in fast-paced modern society, drinking a cup of tea is a good way to relax and quench their thirst.

In the hit online series A Dream of Splendor, the complex and exquisite rituals involved in serving the beverage have focused attention on cha bai xi, (tea acrobatics), an ancient art that dates to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and which uses tea paste as a raw material.

In one of the drama's most-reviewed scenes, actress Liu Yifei, starring as a teahouse keeper, is forced to take part in a "duel" initiated by her jealous business rivals. For "weapons", they use a delicate array of tea sets and tea leaves.

Clad in a purple-and-white dress, the young female protagonist combines her versatile talents of dancing and playing stringed instruments with the skills of tea acrobatics. She creates a pattern on the foamed surface of a plate of hot tea that resembles a flower blooming in moonlight.

This scene was devised for A Dream of Splendor by a student of Zhang Zhifeng, a representative inheritor of cha bai xi, which has been inscribed as a provincial-level intangible cultural heritage in Fujian province.

Zhang acted as tea culture consultant for the drama. Due to the pandemic, he coached the cast and crew online last year in the history and skills of tea acrobatics.

A graduate who majored in tea culture at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, Zhang stumbled across an essay detailing cha bai xi in Song Dynasty author Tao Gu's Chuan Ming Lu (Tea Journals) in 1983, triggering his curiosity to delve deeper into the ancient art.

After putting a lot of effort into researching numerous ancient books, and also traveling twice to Japan to study the tea art technique-which was introduced to Japan from China about 1,000 years ago-Zhang managed to replicate this skill, which has almost disappeared.

He said he first ground tea leaves into a fine powder. After pouring on hot water to dissolve the powder, he used a small, brush-like utensil to whisk the liquid, transforming it into a fine, white froth. The final, and most pivotal part of the process, involved using a spoon like a pen to drip water slowly on the froth to form delicate patterns, ranging from fish to birds and flowers.

Noting that the popularity of cha bai xi reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Zhang said many renowned authors and poets such as Su Shi, Lu You and Yang Wanli depicted or praised the art in their works.

"Cha bai xi raised the status of tea from a type of beverage to a creative art, providing an important 'window' to view aesthetic values and cultures of the Song Dynasty," Zhang said.

"More than 1,000 poems written during this dynasty feature the tea art. In addition to refined scholars, who mostly regarded tea acrobatics as an elegant pastime, Buddhist monks and Taoist priests were also fond of the technique as a way to improve their spiritual life.

"A successful tea acrobat's work depends on the quality of the ingredients and the temperature of the water," Zhang said, adding that the art could take several minutes to half an hour to perform.

Zhang said China's rich tea culture has attracted a wider audience, due to popular television series and movies, including the 2014 film King Tea Storm, starring actress Yang Zi.

He added that he hopes the centuries-old legacy will be inherited and learned by more young people.

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