Module 8: Chinese Tea Art, Tea Culture and Alcohol

Listen to this episode of the Kitchen Survival Guide podcast here or on your favourite podcast listening platform.

When tea houses emerged, they offered a variety of teas and sweets. They ranged from exclusive and refined to gritty stands for ordinary employees with the finest tea and foods. They acted as meeting houses, offices for the poor, and political and social activity centres.

Chinese jiou, translates to "wine," but beer and ale were invented well before the Shang dynasty. It was typically made of millet and rice in the south. Shang wine vessels were of heroic dimensions, and feasting was accompanied by intense wine consumption. Supposedly, Xia's last emperor like to indulge and had a wine lake and a meat forest - a forest where meat strips were wind-cured hanging from trees. Intense drinking was part of Shang feasting and is well known for Zhou. An excellent food guide is Zhou ritual texts, Zhou Li and Li Ji. These were compiled from destroyed documents in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), but presumably represent Zhou's truth in food. These references affirm wine's value, citing several styles, including herb-flavoured wines. Later, Han seems to have developed alcohol distillation.

Tea and distilled liquor followed alcohol as popular beverages, and tea and wines took drastic types. For example, tea produced with water from melting snow falling on flowering-apricot blossoms; the latter's carnation fragrance perfumed tea quite delicately.

Since 4000 B.C.E. in Dawenkou, Shandong, alcoholic drinks appear to have been available in China; the earliest written records come from the Shang dynasty, 1324–1066 B.C.E., written by Du Kang, documenting the manufacture of jiu. Jiu meant all alcoholic drinks, typically 10–15% alcohol, obtained by fermenting cereals, millet and wheat.

The procedure was first to create a fermented cake, which produced moulds and yeasts that began fermentation in a mash of cooked cereals. During the T'ang dynasty, 618–907 C.E., cereals were either glutinous millet or glutinous rice. Until this phase started in Japan, brewers would break down the complex carbohydrates of rice into simple sugars by chewing boiled and raw rice. China had the first lager, Tsingtao, in 1904.

Unique occasions call for a long breakfast throughout tim sam and tea. This practice is known as yam ch'a "drinking tea," which has spread throughout brunch or lunchtime, becoming a fixture for the weekend: the day's staple meal at midday, mid-afternoon, or evening with a focus on fried rice. Typically one will find a steamed plate, a stir-fried dish, and possibly another steamed dish. Steamed fish and stir-fried vegetables are the usual combinations. It is popular to prepare a four-dish meal in one pot by positioning tiny saucers of raw food on top of the rice, boiling it all in a closed pot, while the other dishes steam as the rice cooks. There is almost always broth, typically towards the end of dinner. Water is considered to be unpotable unless boiled, but boiled water is neither delicious nor nourishing. Tea is pricey. By comparison, soup is said to extract significant nutrients from food products and can be produced from hard vegetables and other cheap products. It is the chosen way to prepare liquids. The other meal (lunch or informal dinner) would typically contain soup with noodles or an equivalently substantial yet unassuming bowl. Banquets contain huge quantities of meat and seafood, little to no rice. Whole fish and other spectacular kinds of seafood are typically the most expensive products. Pork and duck tend to make an appearance as well.

Fujianese Tea is grown in the north and it is preferred black, but is more appropriately named red because of its brew colour. The local variety is the most popular; it is named tit guan yin or "Iron Goddess of Mercy."

Beverages contain some of China's finest tea, grown in the mountainous regions. Yunnan is especially popular for tea. The plant emerged in the area where Tibet, Burma, and India intersect. Tea spread to metropolitan China at some unknown point in early history. It became prominent during the Tang dynasty, and at the time, it was considered an exotic southwestern luxury. It only became widespread as a daily beverage during the Sung dynasty. Certain herbal teas and beverages are popular and used for different illnesses.

Alcoholic beverages are the typical grain-based "wines" and distilled liquors. Gueizhou is renowned for its Maotai, a strong, distilled clear liquor, historically made from millet. Many ethnic communities brew distinctive "wines" or beers made of rice or other grains. Drinking these local items is essential on festive occasions, including the widespread spring festivals where teenage boys sing courting songs to girls who reciprocate the act.

The mountains that surround the Yangzi delta are typically too high for grain farming but suitable for tea. This tea area, which includes most of Fujian and includes northern Taiwan, produces what is widely considered the best globally. Green (unfermented) and oolong (slightly fermented) teas prevail, as compared to less essential black (fermented) teas. Extreme tea expertise exists in the city. Gourmets discriminated against teas from specific mountains and estates and preserved snow water for tea or collected water from special wells and springs.

Besides tea, there are exquisite grain "wines" linked to Japanese sake. Shaoxing's is the most popular variety. Ningbo and other towns create unique, complicated brews. Technically, these "wines" are beers or ales, distilled from barley, but not carbonated, and in Chinese society, are synonymous with wine in Europe. However, they are brewed differently with a complicated combination of ferments containing yeasts, fungi and bacteria: each brewery has distinct strains and preparations. The resulting brews vary significantly from place to place, with deep, nuanced, delicate flavours. There are gourmets similar to the connoisseurs of tea or French wine. Yangzi delta "wines" are usually deemed the most exquisite.

Historically, plants can make or break society. Aside from plants being food staples of specific cultures, plants are often incorporated into society to strengthen or negatively influence its history. In many Asian communities, the tea tree has tremendous cultural importance. Methods of planting and preparing tea started in China and later extended to Japan, where the tea ritual was connected to Zen Buddhist beliefs.

The Chinese have a famous phrase, "Seven things in the house: firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea," demonstrating that "tea" has become an integral part of everyday social life and a daily consumer commodity. Tea contains vitamins, theine, fluorides, and as a result, tea may enhance vision, calm thinking, benefit diuretic functions, etc. Drinking tea daily is thought to prolong life and health benefits, and modern research has often demonstrated that tea is a natural health drink that is beneficial for the body. Southwest China, the sub-tropical mountainous area, is the initial birthplace of wild tea trees. Initially, tea was only used for ritual offerings or food. When Buddhism was at its height of prominence and power during the Tang Dynasty, Buddhists discovered that tea could alleviate drowsiness during meditation and aid with digestion. Tea drinking was encouraged, and shortly after, nearly every monastery or temple had tea. Crowds welcomed tea, from exceedingly noble royal families to humble traders and peasants, and eventually, everyone drank tea. As it goes, "From the days of old, famous temples have produced famous tea," since most temples and monasteries have land and agricultural produce. Local faith-believers help plant and cultivate crops. Highly trained and cultured monks supported improvements in tea leaf production and the promotion of tea-drinking art.

After that, Chinese tea art was introduced to Japan, along with Buddhism. Japanese tea art took form from the Naryo era around the early 15th century. Tea-drinking customs have affected Korea, as well as Southeast Asian nations. Owing to variations in culture and geography, the Chinese term "tea" primarily has two pronunciations. One is based on the northern dialects that pronounce it as "cha," the other is the southern dialect from places like Fujian that reads it as "tee." Some countries that imported tea from northern China, like Japan and India, have identical terms for "tea" that are similar to "cha;" the Russian pronunciation is "chai," and the Turkish pronounce it "chay."

In Europe, the British were the first tea drinkers. The record reveals that the English had already sampled tea from China in the early 17th century, arousing considerable curiosity and tea demand. To ensure a continuous supply of tea beverages, the British government directed its East India Subsidiary to guarantee in-store tea supply. As tea gained prominence even among the general population, Europe's tea market grew as time passed. By the early 19th century, China had 40 million tons of tea shipments to England, generating massive Sino-British trade deficits. To reverse the unfavourable condition, British merchants attempted to trade opium from India to China to purchase Chinese tea without paying with money, which ignited the notorious "Opium Wars."

China, including Taiwan, has seventeen tea-producing provinces and counties, including northern Shandong, Shaanxi, and Henan. After the Tang Dynasty, Northern and Northwestern nomadic nationalities started trading horses for tea regions, spurring a whole new industry. It wasn't until the mid-Qing Dynasty that they began substituting horse-tea trading with currency. Tea is now necessary for citizens in these regions and is produced from tea trees' plucked leaves. Various manufacturing techniques result in gray, red (black), oolong, white, yellow and dark black teas. Popular high-grade teas are made possible by several influences, including an ideal growing climate, preferred tea breed, careful picking methods, and excellent care. High-grade teas still have a significant market place because the critical link in producing tea is its "fermentation." Non-fermented teas are "green teas" and use fresh tea buds. By dry heating or steaming, fermentation ceases, and it's twisted onto strings for the final touch. Tea beverages produced with green tea are bright or have hints of yellow, and a slight bitterness complements its fresh scent. Green tea has the longest history, with the highest output volume and the most expansive production area, of all tea forms. In which Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangxi provinces have the highest output and best efficiency. From ancient times, green teas have involved a whole line-up of popular high-quality teas like West Lake Longjing, Longting Lake Biluochun, Mount Huang Maofeng, Mengding Ganlu, Mount Lu Yunwu Tea, Xinyang Maojian, Liu'an Guapian, etc. Through fermentation, tealeaves progressively turn from their initial dark green to dark reddish tint (black), and the longer the fermentation time, the redder the colour. Its scent also shifts to a more floral, fruity, or malt sugar aroma, depending on the degree of fermentation. The fully fermented tea is called "red tea," or black tea in English. The tea leaves are made first by selecting fresh tea leaves and using a "withering" process. Then it goes indoors for cooling, making the tea even more fragrant. Then the tea is kneaded, fermented, and put through a sequence of processing steps. When dry, and when made into a drink, it is called "red" or "black" tea, due to its dark red colour. Red (or black) tea in its treatment phase passes through a series of chemical reactions, where the chemical composition of the fresh leaves significantly varies. Its scent is more noticeable than fresh leaves. Popular black teas include Qimen Red Tea, Ninghong Gongfu Tea, Fujian Minhong, etc.

Semi-fermented tea is a rare Chinese specialty. Oolong's most significant production region is Anxi in Fujian Province. Oolong tea can be classified into three groups: light, medium and heavy fermentation, and lightly fermented oolong teas have good fragrant qualities and high refinement, creating a golden-coloured beverage. The drink colour is brown with a steady flavour. The strong fermented oolong like Baihao Oolong makes an orange-coloured drink with ripe fruit sweetness and aroma. Those in Northern China prefer rich and fragrant huacha (flower tea) or red (black) tea, and people south of the Yangtze River love Longjing, Maojian or Biluochun. In contrast, people in southwestern provinces are used to pure and rich Pu'er, and people in Fujian and Guangdong use oolong to create "gongfu" tea.

China's nomads consume different forms of milk teas. South of the Yangtze River, some people claim that green tea symbolizes the Jiangnan people's deep scholarly air. Red (black) tea has a feminine flavour, offering a feeling of calm. Oolong represents mature, rich and refined knowledge. Drinking huacha is like wandering the busy streets and has a direct and full-bodied flavour. Thus, tea can provide several clues about where a person is from, the nature of the individual, and the degree of self-cultivation. In most of China's tea-producing areas, tea plucking typically happens in spring, summer, and autumn. Tea leaves in various seasons have different looks and consistency.

Tea leaves that are picked from the beginning of March to the Qingming Festival, also known as the Pure and Bright Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day, around the 5th of April each year, are called "pre-ming tea" or "first tea." Its colour is light jade green and tastes pure with sour undertones. Two weeks after Qingming is the Chinese lunar calendar's Guyu solar term. During this time, the Jiangnan region encounters a rainy season that waters the crops, bringing the second peak tea picking season. Tea leaves harvested after Qingming, but before Guyu are called "pre-rain tea," and spring tea picked after that is called "post-rain tea." Spring tea prices differ depending on when the tea leaves are picked, with higher prices for earlier teas and lower prices for tea picked later. Early-spring green tea can be the highest quality tea available throughout the year. Tea picked in the same year is considered fresh, whereas older tea is considered aged. Green tea and oolong tea are best when young, though old Pu'er tea has a great flavour.

Green teas are perfect for spring, while Chrysanthemum tea is ideal for fall. Chrysanthemum tea is made from chrysanthemum flower dried under intense sunlight, and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province produces the most popular chrysanthemum tea. Oolong, Pu'er and Tie Guanyin are perfect for cold weather in the late fall and winter. With the variety of seasonal tea options throughout the year, experienced tea drinkers can distinguish between fresh and aged tea. The Chinese culture has profound roots in tea drinking. In the mid-Tang Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Yu, who lived from 733–804 A.D., spent his youth in a monastery compiling older tea writings and merging them with his detailed studies. Eventually, he finished the world's first tea writing called Cha Jing. This classic study extensively documented tea trees' properties, tea leaves' characteristics, tea-growing, picking and making; tea-brewing techniques and tea drinks; tea knowledge, and more. The manuscript also presented tea sources and tea-related problems before the Tang Dynasty while also naming and designating tea processing areas. The book is a significant contribution to Chinese tea culture.

In the middle of the Tang Dynasty, drinking tea with white porcelain or black porcelain appeared, offering a different and competitive way to evaluate artistic feeling. The white porcelain offered the tea drinker all the tea-brewing quality from the star, while the black porcelain is humble with eternal feelings. Ming Zhan's techniques mean "tea battle," representing the highest form of tea sampling in ancient times. When tea drinking became popular in the Song Dynasty, it became a time in history that citizens paid the most attention to the "tea battles." From princes, generals and prime ministers to ordinary people, everyone engaged in the art. Not only were there contests between popular tea production areas and revered temples, but citizens would also compete at street markets to sell tea.

Many forms of popular tea and tea used as imperial homage were derived either explicitly or indirectly from the tea battles. Typically two or three people would gather in a tea battle, each offering their best teas. After brewing the teas, the most potent tea reigned champion. Tea art stresses several philosophies, like "freshness is noble" and "liveliness is noble." Tea flavour relies on "fragrance and smoothness" for optimal consistency, and the tea's fragrance should be the tea leaves' authentic fragrance and aroma. As for its colour, pure white (clear) tea is preferable. Using black porcelain teacups became the leading trend as a substitute for blue porcelain. Although it was aesthetically pleasing, the teacup's importance was its ability to create an enjoyable experience while drinking tea, guided by touch, sight, smell and taste. White tea inside a black porcelain teacup casts elegance and artistic satisfaction. It is an art valued by all social classes, from imperial tea feasts to merchant and servant meetings.

The tea battles had a profound influence on Chinese tea culture. Tea sampling, assessment, and inspection criteria are drawn from Cha Jing's book in several respects. Not only are high-grade tea leaves to be used to produce a fine pot of tea, the water content, temperature, quantity and form of teaware must also be considered. The ancient Chinese claimed that mountain spring water was perfect for making tea. River water, ice melt, and rainwater are second in quality, with the worst water being from earth wells. Modernly, good-quality water means freshwater with low mineral content. The water temperature should be modified depending on the tea. Nearly 100 degrees Celsius is a suitable temperature for most teas. For green teas and teas with low fermentation, the water temperature should not reach 90 degrees Celsius.

The number of tea leaves used to produce a drink often depends on the tea form. As for "teaware," the best experience relies on the style of tea. For huacha, a porcelain pot is used to seal its aroma. Green tea is light in flavour, and zisha (meaning "purple sand") made in earthenware pots can absorb taste and fragrance, so it is better to use glass to retain the aroma and get the right colour. As for black tea and semi-fermented tea, the easiest is clay containers. Knowing the pleasure of consuming tea and feeling the authentic flavour of tea involves high society and creative cultivation. One achieves creative pleasure from the journey to finding self-cultivation and enlightenment. Drinking tea thus embodies the Chinese perception of life as an art.

Before the Tang Dynasty, tea and food vessels were indistinguishable. As tea consumption rose, tea containers became more refined. The perfect teaware was invented by Tang's end, the zisha, or purple sand, pot. It varies from other earthenware as it uses quality maroon-coloured clay material. It becomes a brownish-purple pot with a subtle, smooth touch through skillful craftsmanship, offering a primitive and simplistic beauty. When heated to about 1,100 degrees Celsius, this kind of pottery has no glaze either inside or outside. When looking through a 600-fold magnification microscope, tiny pores can be seen on the top, enabling air to pass, but not water, and thereby locking in the tea's aroma.

With several literati and progressive intellectuals closely interested in modelling and crafting pots during this period, pottery pieces fused poetry and rhymes, sculptures, seal impressions and sculpture into one art form that warranted creative and practical merit. The porous zisha pots were popular after the Ming Dynasty due to improvements in tea-drinking customs. At the period, consuming tuancha, or bunched discus-shaped tea, gave way to loose tea. However, boiling loose tea in tiny cups was unsanitary and difficult to control temperature, so teapots were used. Using tiny teapots to produce tea is a custom that originated in the sixteenth century and persisted to this day, with over four hundred years of history. When using a zisha pot to brew tea, the low heat conductivity and a hole on the cover stops drops of water vapour from coagulating under the lid so that the flavour is not ruined by it dropping into the tea. Because the teapots were heat-processed when made, except when heated on a burner, it would not crack or split. The more a zisha pot is used, the brighter and more transparent it becomes, and the better the aroma of the tea becomes.

Teapot aficionados enjoy using various pots to produce different teas to keep the teapot seasoning pure, consistent, and long-lasting. Zisha pots' birthplace is in the famous "pottery city"—Yixing. It is on the Taihu Lakeshore at the shared border of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces. Yixing was already a famous tea development center during the Tang Dynasty, from which several famous tea varieties were sold to imperial courts. Yixing's zisha pots were the most famous in the Northern Song Dynasty. Yixing had several master pot-makers by the Ming Dynasty, making many pots with exotic styles and simplistic beauty that became the benchmark for teaware. Some tea lovers collect teapots.

There are some exquisite teapots on the market, some as expensive as pure gold. Collecting pottery and "raising" pots is perceived as a classy hobby. Yixing gongfu teapots have been standard in southern China since the Ming and Qing dynasties. Well-crafted zisha porcelains once depicted the academic, social, and status positions of local men. Regardless of high officials, the wealthy or ordinary citizens, they all leave no stones unturned in getting their hands on a zisha pot and treasuring it. Several people have even taken zisha pots to the grave.

In the region of southern Jiangsu, people prefer green tea. As tea-making techniques improve, more people choose to make green tea using other means than a zisha pot, with a preference for white porcelain or glass. In recent years, the zisha pot's value as an art object has increased. Authentic zisha bowls are passed down to the next generation, often not kept as funerary objects. Culturally, guests are treated with tea, and some people advocate having tea in place of alcohol. Serving tea is straightforward: before serving tea, ask the guests how they prefer it. The tea water should not be heated too hot for guests to avoid burns. When pouring tea, one should leave enough space in the cup. The standard rule is a full cup for wine and half the cup for tea. The guest expresses gratitude by tapping their index and middle fingers softly against the table when provided with tea, a custom stemming from the Qing Dynasty.

Gong Fu tea is a tea art form from Chaozhou, Guangdong, since the Sui Dynasty. It is not just a courtesy since Chaozhou people who travel or reside overseas also use it to show respect for the ancestors. Real Chaozhou gongfu tea upholds the old traditions by limiting the number of participants and typically consists of only the host and four guests, congruent with the belief that tea can promote harmony among groups. When guests enter the room, they must enter in order based on seniority or social status, starting from the host's right side and seating themselves in two rows.

Teaware is an intriguing subject of study, as are the qualities of tea leaves, water, brewing, pouring, and tea drinking. The gongfu teapot used in making gongfu tea is petite, elegant and about the size of a fist. The teacups are significantly smaller, about half the size of a standard Ping-Pong ball. Oolong tea is a green tea that is aromatic and flavourful. Tealeaves are tightly stuffed in the pot, almost to the top. Packing the tea leaves tightly together helps the tea to become more flavorful. It is best to use settled water to make tea. When making tea, pour boiling water directly into the pot. The first two batches of tea water are not drinkable since they are used to rinse the tea leaves and the cups. In tea pouring, pour the tea into only one teacup and then move on to the next cup. Rather than filling each cup, one should alternate between the different cups, filling each little by little until all cups are about seven-tenths full. When the thickest tea water is left, it is recommended to evenly distribute it into each of the four teacups to assure a similar taste and fragrance strength.

When drinking gongfu tea, it should not be drunk immediately. One should rinse the mouth with cool water first to get the authentic flavour of the tea. The tea should be sipped slowly, using the tongue to taste the tea fully. Gongfu tea is robust with a strong base, so it initially has bitter undertones but becomes smooth and sweet after sipping. While drinking, the tea becomes more aromatic as the drinker becomes more energized by the tea. When drinking gongfu tea, people can chat to their heart's content, feeling a peaceful state of mind, which is the true definition of gongfu and demonstrates the tea art's unique characteristic of upholding nature and freedom, reflecting an extraordinary kindness that is honest and rich, with long-lasting charm.

From gongfu tea, one can connect the various teahouses found throughout China. In China, being a service professional at a tea house is quite popular. In Jiangnan, teahouses can be found in every corner of a small village, town, or large city. There are traditional tea houses that maintain older traditions, while others include cafés and bars, and many include dining services. Tea houses flourished at the start of the Song dynasty, with teahouses for every social class. Upscale locations are adorned with paintings, calligraphy pieces, fresh flowers, bonsai trees, and background music for an elegant ambiance. During the Qing Dynasty, famous teahouses combined music and folk arts into an unforgettable musical and visual treat. Customers could enjoy live entertainment while drinking tea or could bring tea and pay only for water. As a result, the opera theatres in Beijing were called Tea Gardens. Nowadays, the specialty of large bowl tea or Dawan Cha is not found in Beijing. However, in the old days, one could sip a bowl of Dawan Cha under just about any tree while sitting at a table on a seat with a large bowl of tea.

Sichuan natives have a long history of tea drinking, and tea houses are prevalent. In its capital of Chengdu, tea houses have a few to hundreds of seats, depending on their size. They have gaiwan, which is a complete set of the tea bowl, stand, and lid. A long-mouthed bronze pot is regularly used to pour tea and is a Sichuan specialty, where a stream of tea water fills the bowl and stops just as it reaches the mouth, with no drops wasted. Older men prefer to enjoy tea during Chinese opera performances or while chatting with friends. White-collared professionals are attracted to teahouses to socialize, relax or talk about business. There is a typical Chinese phrase, "Tea can purify the heart." The tranquillity of the tea culture is different from a society full of triviality. People who enjoy tea can find a state of contentment and purity in its art.

In northwest China, people enjoy the unique taste of "brick tea" when dining at a qingzhen (Hui Muslim). In western China, there are various forms of "compressed teas." New zisha pottery teapots should be completely submerged in a clean pot with cold water with a handful of tea. Red clay teapots are used with black tea, and teapots made with other clays are for green tea. After thirty minutes, the teapot is removed, and any unwanted smell or wax is washed away. With this method, the teapots can be maintained to make high-quality tea.

Before the invention of distillation machines, only primitive wine-making methods were possible. Using wine-making crops is a unique aspect of Chinese alcohol-making culture. Yellow wine or rice wine, one of the three primary styles of alcoholic liquor (rice wine, grape wine and beer), is considered an Asian wine-making model. Wine-making and drinking emerged in China a long time ago. Ancient texts refer to the various alcohol sources, but only a limited amount are considere