The Chinese are romantic about tea—not that tea is used as a means to create romance, but that tea is the end in itself. China’s love affair with tea spans nearly 5000 years, from the time the first tea leaf serendipitously landed in Emperor Shennong’s cup of hot water in 2737 BC. Since then, their stories and their histories have been inextricably linked. Tea was medicine, imperial potable, mode of currency, object of trade, national drink—it has become become a soothing, comforting presence in Chinese life.
In the simplicity of Chinese tea-drinking ritual, an intimacy between the drinker and the beverage is forged, so that tea seems to become the object of romance, devotion, and commitment.
Attention is lavished on the tea. For it really is all about the tea, its tastes and smells. It is the the center around which the ritual revolves. There are no scones and cucumber sandwiches to distract from the drink, no milk nor honey to hide its true essence. There is no arbitrary prop, process or flourish to steal the show. Every single step and utensil is meant to bring more focus and enjoyment to the drinking experience.
The tea is gently wooed and coaxed to surrender its flavors. Before the actual brewing, the pot and the cups are heated by filling them with hot water, then emptying them. Tea leaves are then slowly swept into the teapot. The tea is then roused from its slumber when the pot is filled with hot water and almost immediately emptied out, thereby cleansing and priming the leaves for the first of many infusions. And with each successive steep, the tea leaves expand and unfurl, giving up its secrets, revealing ever new nuances, enriching and deepening the enjoyment.
The brewing and consumption of tea make a spiritual experience. The tea drinker’s eagerness is tempered by the slowness and deliberate-ness of the brewing process and the smallness of the vessels. The cyclic filling and emptying becomes a metaphor for the soul’s periodic gorging and purging, and one just lives and breathes the tea. Patience and discipline are learned; gong fu—excellence in the art—is earned; intimate knowledge of the tea is reached.