Wherever Chinese go, the custom of drinking tea follows. The
Chinese were the first to discover the tea leaf, and have drunk tea for
uncounted ages. When you arrive in the beautiful island of
Taiwan, you may see
some elderly gentlemen seated in twos and threes, perhaps in a temple up some
old street. They may be leisurely gathered around a simple but attractive teapot
about the size of a fist, each holding a small cup, mixing chat with drink. This
is the traditional Chinese "old men's tea" ceremony (lao-jen ch'a). While
strolling down the bustling streets of metropolitan Taipei, your nose might also
lead you to a "tea art" shop, identified by a large sign with the Chinese
character for "tea" (ch'a) on it. If the prospect of a tea-tasting experience
intrigues you, an expert on the beverage will initiate you in the basics of
"kung fu tea," or the traditional tea-steeping and drinking ritual.
Chinese Tea is an
indispensable part of the life of the Chinese
culture. A Chinese saying identifies the
seven basic daily necessities as fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and
tea. The custom of drinking tea is deeply ingrained in almost every Chinese, and
has been for over a thousand years. During the mid-Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.),
a man named Lu Yu entered the Buddhist monkhood early in life, but returned when
older to secular life. He was later best known for summarizing the knowledge and
experience of his predecessors and contemporaries into the first compendium in
the world on tea--the Tea Classic (ch'a Ching). This work helped to popularize
the art of tea drinking all across China, making avid tea drinkers of everyone
from emperor and minister to street hawker and soldier. Even the neighboring
countries of Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia came to adopt the tea drinking
Chinese were the first to discover tea.
In the early 17th
century, the Dutch East India Company introduced Chinese tea for the first time
to Europe. By the mid-17th century, afternoon tea had become a standard ritual
of the British nobility. It is interesting to note that the two different
pronunciations for "tea" most common in languages that borrowed the word from
Chinese-cha and tee-originate from different dialects of Chinese. Languages of
countries that once imported the leaves from the north of China, such as
Japan, adopted some variation of the sound cha, such as chay, chai, or chya.
Countries on the southern maritime lines of China, such as Spain,
England, borrowed the
word in the forms of te, Tee, and tea respectively, based on the southern
Tea is made from
the young, tender leaves of the tea tree. The differences among the many kinds
of tea available are based on the particular methods used to process the leaves.
The key to the whole process is the roasting and fermentation. Through
fermentation, the originally deep green leaves become reddish-brown in color.
The longer the fermentation, the darker the color. Depending on the length of
the roasting and degree of fermentation, the fragrance can range from floral, to
fruity, to malty.
Tea that has not been fermented is called "green tea." Tea
steeped from green tea leaves is jade green to yellow-green in color, and gives
off the fragrance of fresh vegetables. Examples of green tea are "Dragon Well"
(Lung-ching) and "Green Snail Spring" (Pi-lo-ch'un). The Chinese call tea that
undergoes full fermentation "red tea" (hung-ch'a); in the West it is known as
"black tea." Tea made from black tea leaves is reddish-brown in color and has a
malt-like aroma. Oolong, or "Black Dragon" (Wu-Lung) tea is an example of a
partially-fermented tea. This tea is unique to China, and Taiwan is one of its
most representative areas of production.
Oolong tea comes
in three degrees of fermentation: lightly fermented, moderately fermented, and
fully fermented. The identifying features of lightly fermented Oolong tea, such
as Paochung, are a full aroma, clarity, and a golden color. Moderately fermented
types such as "lron Buddha" (T'ie-kuan-yin), "Narcissus" (Shui-hsien), and
"Frozen Peak" (Tung-ting), have a brown color, a full "mature" flavor that
appeals more to the sense of taste than that of smell, and a vaguely sweet
aftertaste. Tea infused from moderately to heavily fermented tea leaves like
"White Hair" Oolong (Pai-hao Wu-lung) has a red-orange color and a fruity aroma.
To make a good pot of tea, special attention must be paled
to the quality of the water, water temperature, the amount of tea leaves used,
and the type of teapot. Soft water (water with a low mineral content) that is
clear and fresh is required to steep tea; hard water should by all means be
avoided. The correct water temperature varies from tea to tea; for most fully
fermented and moderately fermented kinds it should be near boiling (100 or 212);
however, it may be low as 90 (194) or less for lightly fermented or green teas.
"Cultivating teapots" through repeated use is a popular
and refined pastime in Taiwan.
of tea leaves to water also depends on the kind of tea leaves used. The teapot
may be filled from one-quarter to three-quarters full with tea leaves, depending
mainly on how tightly curled the tea leaves are as a result of the rolling and
roasting processes. The teapot is then filled with water. Steeping time starts
at one minute, but varies from tea to tea. The time required for subsequent
brews from the same leaves must be proportionally lengthened. The best kind of
teapot to use for most fermented teas is a purple clay ceramic pot. The size of
the pot should be in correct proportion to the size of the cups. Ideally, the
cups should have white interiors, to facilitate accurate assessment of the color
of the tea.
People enamored of tea drinking also usually enjoy the
beauty and feel of teapots. Small teapots are used to steep tea (in the "kung
fu" steeping method) in most homes in the Taiwan today. This particular method
has been passed down to the present day from the days of Ming Dynasty Emperor
Shen Tsung in 16th century China, so it boasts a 400-year history. The full
aroma and sweetness of the tea can be brought out when using a small teapot to
steep tea. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) dynasties, the
purple clay ceramic teapots of Yihsing, Kiangsu were the most famous. Any pieces
made by a master potter are sought after everywhere, and are worth their weight
in gold. While master potters in the Taiwan continue to produce traditional
purple clay ceramic teapots, they have also developed a number of creative new
teapot designs which have received enthusiastic public response. Collecting
teapots has become a fashionable pastime.
Tea is China's
national drink. Tea contains vitamins, tea derivatives, essential oils, and
fluoride. It is a diuretic, attributed with the properties of improving the
eyesight and increasing alertness, so Chinese believe that frequent tea drinkers
enjoy an increased life span. Its medical properties and benefits to the human
body have in fact been scientifically proven, and tea has come to be generally
recognized as a natural health food.
Tea is a cash crop in Taiwan.
Tea is a cash crop in Taiwan, an agricultural product that
is a source of foreign exchange earnings. Specialized tea shops all over the
island continue to actively promote the art of tea drinking. New style "tea art
houses" with elegant, classical interiors have quickly become a common sight
around the island. Each local area also holds its own tea-tasting competitions,
attracting the participation of large numbers of tea farmers, tea merchants, and
tea connoisseurs. The price of any tea that is designated as a superior grade in
one of these competitions immediately soars. This feature gives tea competitions
extra appeal and vigor. The custom of tea drinking has become part of a
sophisticated spiritual life; and the "tea art" spirit, which reveres nature and
knows no bounds, is just like Chinese interpersonal relations : warm and mellow.