The 5000-year story of tea in China

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Some may chalk this up to fanciful mythology, but legend has it that tea was first discovered when Shen Nong, the Chinese emperor accredited with inventing agriculture, was sipping on hot water under a tree around 2740 BC when a leaf was blown into his mug. Medicine, Asian culture, and the planet’s drinking habits have been indelibly tea-stained since.

Given the simplicity of pouring hot water over leaves, it’s hard to pin down the exact origin of the humble cup of steeped Camellia sinensis, or tea plant, but historians generally believe that the southwest of China is the birthplace of what is now the most-consumed drink on the planet after water. Thanks to its subtropical climate and mountainous terrain, the southeastern Fujian province has historically been a hub of production and therefore home to many cultural elements that then spread throughout China and further afield. Cultivation techniques for oolong, black, white, and jasmine tea were invented in the region centuries ago, as well as the Gong Fu brewing method; a theatrical preparation and presentation method involving a complex routine of pouring, swirling, waiting, decanting, and repeating. (Note: After such a ritualistic process, the British are advised not to add milk.)

Guests of Tsingpu Tulou Retreat—near the UNESCO-listed Gaobei Tulou Cluster—are invited to take part in tea-making workshops involving specialist equipment such as clay brewing vessels, special tongs, thermometers, and strainers, or to simply visit the tearoom to enjoy the area’s offerings after a mountain walk or tea plantation visit.

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The Fengshui-inspired retreat is also set within earthen buildings and structures dating back to the Qing dynasty, an era spanning almost three centuries that saw tea turn from a status symbol for royals and nobles to a standard social convention for the many. Stories abound that a Qing dynasty emperor was once traveling incognito and unconventionally poured tea for a servant—a highly unusual act that seemed to ignore the existing hierarchical protocol. Normally, one would perform a formal bow at such an act of respect from above, but the quick-thinking servant simply tapped his “bowed” fingers on the table to show gratitude, while keeping the emperor’s identity a secret. This cultural curiosity epitomizes the popularization of tea and its disentanglement with social stratification during the Qing years.

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Fast-forward to January 1999, and China’s rock-steady relationship with tea is thrown into question with the fanfare-arrival of the country’s first Starbucks, in Beijing’s World Trade Center. Since then, many young Chinese city-dwellers have turned their backs on tea in favor of exotic-sounding Western novelties and a distinctly American strain of caffeinated consumerism. Despite the wave of coffee shops hitting Chinese cities, tea houses still provide a foundation for many social and familial traditions, and a cultural thirst has opened up a market for tea products dressed up in more fashionable packaging.

The way that these age-old customs and traditions are seen by young consumers is shifting, however: perhaps the wait-and-repeat steps of a Gong Fu tea ceremony provide a perfect antidote to the inner-city caffeine buzz. Either way, tea still sits comfortably in the hearts of the Chinese, with plenty of tea houses between the coffee chains. The new Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat, located just north of Yangzhou’s Slender West Lake, plays host to tea ceremonies and a dedicated tea garden, as well as being a short walk from the city’s historic Fùchun Teahouse. We recommend the dumplings and a cup of Kui Long Zhu.

Friday, March 22nd, 2019