Chinese New Year - Many Tea Cultures of China
The Many Tea Cultures of China : Appreciating Tea on Special Occasions
Across the world, the Lunar New Year is celebrated in a myriad of ways. For many, the dazzling shows of evening fireworks and firecrackers may be the most exciting and memorable event of the holiday. And while we here at Yezi Tea certainly love that time honored tradition, we thought that there would be no better way to usher in the Year of the Sheep than by taking time to appreciate a quieter moment of the holiday. Just what moment? Well, the sharing of tea, of course!
Although tea is not often associated with Chinese New Year, for some families, the beginning of the day starts off with just that. Frequently offered from the youngest generation to the eldest, this cup of tea is shared as a gesture of respect and a symbol of prosperity in the coming year. The offering of tea as a gift on special occasions has been a custom for centuries and spans many cultures for many different reasons. In China, tea is considered by many to be a gift of humility. However, in its humility, there is a great deal of power that the gift still holds. Even though the tea itself may be a common, everyday commodity, appreciating it as a gift requires the understanding of not only the tea’s inherent and extraordinary nuances, but also the understanding of the meaning behind it. It is the purpose of the act of giving that is important, and not the price or luxuriousness of the gift used to impart such a meaning. And while this may be a well understood and widely used practice, we can see by the uncommonness of its presence during New Year celebrations, that sharing tea in this way is just one part of a very heterogeneous tea culture within the country.
The Tea Cultures of China - Delectably Diverse
Just as throughout China different towns, regions, cities, and cultures have different ways of celebrating the Lunar New Year, there are numerous ways in which tea is appreciated, as well. The tea culture in China is not a singular one but is instead multifaceted. Even though there may be some similar wares and customs across the country, each community has their own unique spin on how they incorporate tea into their lives, if they do at all.
Let's take the tea houses of two of China’s largest cities as an example. In Beijing, tea houses are favored for their quietness, and give an ideal atmosphere for business meetings and chats with friends. There you will find that prices exceed those of other provinces, and as such the houses are not meant for all day rejuvenation but instead as a way to retreat from the hustle and commotion of the big city. In Beijing's tea houses, you will also find that tisanes (herbal teas) and scented teas (jasmine, for example) are prevalent. Comparing Beijing to Guangzhou, Guangdong's largest city, there is a stark difference in both atmosphere and purpose. Guangdong morning tea, which is a breakfast consisting of dim sum and tea, is often taken at tea houses in Guangzhou. Some tea houses open quite early for this purpose and many who have the time will spend hours upon hours in a tea house for morning tea. After morning tea, there is afternoon tea and finally evening/night tea, which is the time most taken by those with busier schedules. Tea houses in Guangzhou are better suited for lengthy visits and many make their visitations a daily ritual. The teas of choice in Guangzhou? Oolong teas and puerh.
The differences in tea houses is just the beginning when it comes to tea cultures in China, as there is even more variance in preferred preparation of teas. Let’s look at a few examples of tea recipes from around the country. First, let’s begin with a recipe popular in some parts of northeast China, Mongolian milk tea - a blend of milk, salt, and either green or black (red) tea. Tibetan butter tea, as another example, is prepared by boiling brick teas and then combining the tea with fresh yak butter. Dai bamboo tea is another traditional drink hailing from southern China that requires tea leaves to be baked inside of a tube of bamboo. Once the tube is completely filled and all the leaves have been baked thoroughly, the bamboo is cut open and the tea within is scooped out for brewing. And one with a more creative name is “eight treasures tea” or ba bao cha, a blend of eight different ingredients that originated in Yunnan, and also maintains popularity in other areas, particularly Beijing. Although this is a good overview of the numerous flavors and styles of tea that can be found, the ones listed here are just a small sampling of a much greater palette. Each of these different teas is as distinct as the region that it hails from, and helps to contribute to the variety of culture in China as a whole.
Another great area of variety in tea culture is the wares used for its preparation. Though many may see the gongfu cha way of brewing tea as the standard image of Chinese tea preparation, there is actually a lot more variety in this between regions. As it is most likely that gongfu cha originated in either Fujian or Guangdong, when visiting regions outside of those, the prevalence of that style of tea making becomes much more scarce. With that said, let’s expand on Fujian and its tea culture a bit. We are a Fujian tea company after all!
Fujian Tea Culture - Making Tea with Skill
Upon visiting Fujian, you will find that in many homes preparing tea is solely done in the gongfu cha style and requires very specific wares. A Fujian gongfu cha set consists of a bamboo tea tray, a brewing vessel, a six-piece tea utensil set, a sharing pitcher (cha hai), and drinking cups. The bamboo tea tray serves as the base for all other wares, but also has an additional function of catching any excess tea or water that is spilled or emptied during the brewing process. This is made possible by small holes carved into the top of the tray, so that liquid may drain into its center and be emptied out when all is finished. The brewing vessel itself can either be a small teapot or a small gaiwan. Most often they are made out of porcelain with the most popular vessels toting colors of red and gold. As for the volume, they can typically hold 120ml or less and are usually at least double the size of the drinking cups used. The sharing pitcher (cha hai) is used to hold the tea that was just made in the brewing vessel. After the tea collects and mixes together in the sharing pitcher, the tea is poured into separate cups for all to enjoy, which ensures that everybody gets the same flavor of tea. The six-piece tea utensil set is typically made out of bamboo, although some varieties consist of other materials like ebony or metal. First in the set is a scoop, which is simply used for moving the tea from its original container and into the brewing vessel. Then there is a funnel, which may be used to help get the tea from the brewing vessel into the sharing pitcher. In case the tea cups become uncomfortably hot to the touch, the set also includes a pair of tongs. Lastly, there is a needle, scraper, and poker to remove leaves from a teapot and clean its spout.
The term gongfu cha itself means “making tea with skill/effort.” This way of making tea is believed by many to be part of the “natural way” of life, meaning to exist close to the rhythm of nature. This focus on the “natural way” of life is believed strongly to be an exercise of self reflection, one that emphasizes humility and peacefulness. Preparing tea in the gongfu cha way is not only a great way to reach these qualities, but it is also an amazing way of experiencing the nuances of teas that would not be found when prepared by other means. Visit our tea steeping page to learn more about how to prepare and drink tea in the gongfu cha way! There you will find instructions for the method, although because a gaiwan is used for the brewing vessel, the instructions do not include the use of some of the tea utensils listed above.
Despite the clear and complete steps described in the link above for gongfu cha preparation, the method does not always require each step. As with many daily or near-daily routines, people find a way to simplify and refine what they do, and making tea - no matter how delicious and special - is no exception! Some people may, in fact, alter their tea sessions to only include a brewing vessel, cha hai, tray, and cups. For solo sessions, sometimes the cha hai is even removed and the tea itself it poured into a larger cup. With all of this said, however, the focus is still squarely on the tea itself, as the effort and skill that is necessarily involved in the gongfu cha brewing process is brought out even with fewer steps and utensils involved. Making tea in Fujian is normally a very informal experience, after all, and most often does not require any strict adherence to rules, or an air of unnatural ceremony or ritual! You will find that in Fujian, when preparing gongfu cha for others, though skill is important and cultivated, sharing tea with others and cultivating bonds through the experience is equally as important, if not more.
Yezi’s Lunar New Year - Celebrating in New York Citea
So, with all of this wonderful variety in tea cultures and practices, how does a Fujian tea company such as Yezi incorporate tea into the Lunar New Year? As mentioned earlier, tea is not often associated with the holiday, however, it is an incredibly special occasion and here at Yezi Tea, special occasions always call for tea! It's rare that a day goes by that we don't begin our mornings with a cup of tea, and during the New Year it will be no different. Typically, we like to use a simple gongfu cha set to prepare tea consisting of a small bamboo tray, porcelain gaiwan, cha hai, and cups. Now, as for the tea itself, Fujian tradition would dictate that a red tea be the first choice - as it is said to aid digestion. However, here at Yezi we do not discriminate, and know that any tea can be made be to a part of this memorable and special occasion! And as always, it is best to spend time conversing over tea before continuing on with the day.
Here in New York City, we are lucky to be a part of a bustling community that celebrates the Lunar New Year in a variety of exciting ways. After our morning tea, there are numerous traditions throughout the city that boast holiday cheer. From restaurants offering holiday feasts to the annual firecracker ceremony, the city that never sleeps definitely knows how to celebrate! With that said, one of our favorite traditions is watching the Chinese New Year parade that courses through Chinatown. Filled with live music, acrobatics, dragon dances, and dazzling floats, the parade transforms Chinatown into an awe-inspiring festival of sights and sounds. One good way that we have found to enjoy our tea culture while watching the festivities is by bringing some along with with us, in an insulated tumbler or bottle. As the parade excites your senses, the tea can warm your body and spirit against the chilly winter weather.
Conclusion - Sharing Simplicity
Regardless of what culture you are a part of, it is always important to take a moment to enjoy the simple things in life, and appreciate all that you have. Sharing a cup of tea is a perfect way to show appreciation to those that you love and hold dear, while enjoying something delicious and significant. In honor of the Year of the Sheep, we wish you and yours the best of health as well as a prosperous, peaceful, and tranquil new year!