Don’t Stand on Ceremony

On New Year’s Day (not lunar calender), I was invited by a Mr Shi to his tea house. This particular gentleman had been photographing my “shoe-box sessions” (see work blog) with the high school children for several weeks. He couldn’t speak any English but kept asking my translator if I would like to have tea with him. Now, after my disastrous “tea” episode in Beijing, ( for those of you who haven’t heard, I was conned into paying £89 for three cups of jasmine tea which I poured myself and the occasion lasted no m0re than 20 minutes,) I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. However I didn’t want to appear rude and finally accepted his invitation on condition that I could bring a couple of friends with me.

We all arrived at an office block at the appointed time. There was no sign of a tea house and it wasn’t in an area where there were any shops or  people. I started to get worried.  Eventually the guard at the desk unlocked a heavy metal door and ushered us through. He told us to take the lift to the second floor and as we got out of the lift, there was Mr Shi waiting to greet us. He opened a door and  we entered another world.

The Tea House was not open to the public as it was a “school” where the Art of Tea was taught. Women were trained there in the art of the tea ceremony – the typical course lasts for two years.We were ushered into a small side room where we were introduced to a musician friend of Mr Shi’s. I realised that he had been invited especially for me as I had told Mr Shi that I played the flute. Tea Houses are rather like the Paris salons of the 17th and 18th centuries. Historically it was a place where the Chinese aristocracy, court officials, intellectuals and poets would meet. Today, it is a place to enjoy the sensory experience of tea as well as a place where musicians, artists, calligraphers and writers meet.

Well, the tea drinking went on for over two hours! We were told to make ourselves at home and to enjoy the tea. We were educated in the different types of tea – An Ji white tea, Shou Mei white and green tea, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong black/red tea. All types were served by the lovely hostess in small china cups. The woman who served us was exceptionally knowledgeable and exuded a aura of tranquillity and competence. When I asked her how long she had been studying tea, she replied, “since I was in my mother’s womb”. She came from a family of tea growers and it was in her blood. She explained the different boiling points for the different teas as she skilfully poured from the pot. Each pot served 3 to 4 rounds and her mastery was to ensure the flavour was consistent throughout. She tried to get us to appreciate the smell of the tea as well as the flavour. The tea could be bitter but the after-taste was sweet, leaving the mouth feeling pleasant and refreshed. We were encouraged to eat fruit with the red tea and sweet pastries with the green tea.

Most of the subtleties of the comparisons of the teas were lost on someone like me, who usually drinks Earl Grey with milk, although since coming to China I have been drinking green tea.  The spiritual side of the art of tea drinking is the emphasis on “he, jing, yi and zhen” – peace, quiet, enjoyment and truth – reflecting the underlying philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The musician told us about his “hut” in the mountains where he goes on retreat regularly. Just when I thought I might sink if I drank another cup, this lovely man said he would play for us. He played an ancient Chinese instrument called the Gu Qin and also tried to teach us how to play. Then he entertained us with some more traditional music on his flute.

It was a wonderful way to spend New Year’s Day and we were willing to pose for the obligatory photographs at the end so that Mr Shi could put some foreigners’ photos on his web site. I’ll put in a link at the end if you’re interested. It certainly put to rest my uncomfortable memory of the Beijing incident, especially when I discovered how expensive the teas were that we had been drinking, for free, all afternoon.

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