I am an avid tea drinker. I have more cups of tea a day than I have cups of coffee a year. And, I am fascinated by the history and culture of China, which has to include understanding tea – 茶 （chá). So, when the Chéngdū Foreign Affairs Office, Chéngdū Education Bureau and PŭJiāng County Government invited teachers from Raymond’s school to a tea picking event, I (and therefore we) jumped at the chance.
There are Chinese records of tea consumption dating back to the 10th century, and the world’s earliest physical record indicates that Hàn Dynasty emperors were drinking tea for medicinal purposes in 2nd century BC. A popular Chinese tale takes it further, saying that in 2737 BC the legendary Emperor of China was drinking a bowl of just boiled water (interestingly, having decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking it) and leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water. He took a sip, liked the flavour and tea was born. The first record of cultivation of tea, also from the 10th century, shows tea being cultivated on Méng Mountain (蒙山) near our beloved Chéngdū .
Tea spread to the rest of Asia from 6th century BC, was introduced from China to Portuguese priests and merchants in the 16th century and made it to Britain (and my ancestors) during the 17th century. Then the British, as they tended to do, actively changed the order of things, by introducing tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with China’s monopoly on tea.
Last Saturday, at 7.50am, with some of Raymond’s colleagues and their family members, we hopped on a bus the school provided, and traveled 1.5 hours from Chéngdū to PŭJiāng. I had that kiwi assumption thing going on – visiting tea plantations would mean a rural environment. So when the bus stopped in an urban environment, I was quite surprised. We were ushered to a registration table with people everywhere, then into a nearby room with long log tables and two women performing a synchronised tea ceremony. We were given cups of tea in not-so-traditional paper cups, and some interesting looking biscuits that tasted very nice. A Chinese gentleman siting nearby told us, in broken English, that we were drinking the sparrow tongue tea famous in this region. It didn’t look like it was made from real sparrow tongues.
Next we were led out to a large number of seats and taken to those with the school’s name on. We were quite bemused by all of this because we had only skimmed the invitation email and had missed the fact that we were being invited to the opening ceremony for the annual Pu Jiang Tea Picking Festival. Luckily, we are getting used to going with the flow. We had translation headsets so could understand what was happening. We watched the Festival officially opened, the best tea pickers given their awards, a couple of contracts signed, and a number of dances.
Then we followed the crowd to the restaurant where we had an amazing lunch. We must have only eaten half of what was crammed onto our table. There were the usual local dishes, with our usual coping strategies. Avoid the dishes with the reddest sauce, pick out the chillies where necessary, only take the vegetables when unsure of the animal part in the meat dishes, and enjoy the dumplings and plain vegetables. The four foreigners at our table enjoyed the meatballs, which we have not seen here before. They tasted like I might have made (a few herbs, no spice, gravy rather than oily sauce) and the locals did not touch them. Maybe the chef made them specially.
After lunch, we followed the crowd again, donned our hats and tied on our tea picking baskets. Then we went behind the manicured gardens around the restaurant and there was a tea plantation – hiding behind all the buildings. We picked our way past the basketball court, through the mud and to the bushes. We were with Raymond’s colleague who speaks Chinese and his Chinese wife, so we found out exactly which bits to pick – take the sparrow tongue shaped bud in the centre and leave the outer leaves. When we reconvened others had not been so well trained. Most had picked the leaves and the centre, and one guy had only taken the leaves, leaving the central bud so the plant could survive. We laugh a lot here.
We handed in our leaves and traveled in the bus to a local school where they teach tea craft. We learned a bit of theory from sculptures depicting the eight steps of tea making. I remember three things. Traditionally, only young virgins were allowed to pick tea thanks to their purity. The leaves were rolled in bags using feet and hands – now they use machines. And, the text by the sculptures linked tea making and approaches to education – but I don’t remember the details – sorry.
Then we went into the school’s small factory, and saw the machines they use. We had a go at drying leaves in large electric heating bowls – wearing gloves to protect our hands. Fascinating, but luckily, we did not have to wait until our tea was dry enough to use. It got very repetitive after a short time. It must have been even more so for those doing it by hand over fires years ago.Then we were taken to try our hands at calligraphy and watch school children perform a short tàijí session.
Our last stop was a classroom set up to train students in tea ceremony. We were taken through a ceremony in all its detail. I don’t think we managed such graceful flourishes as our teacher, although I tried – and got rewarded by the official photographer grabbing his camera to capture the moment. I hope they got a good laugh from it later. And I am sure we spilled more tea into the tray below the beautiful wooden stand. However, we did glimpse the tradition and sense of occasion that a tea ceremony brings. We must appear boorish with our quick jiggle of a tea bag in our massive cups, and even more so if they saw my system in our kitchen for reusing tea bags. Even I think this looks unseemly – but it is practical in a world of limited tea bag access.
As we left, we were given a beautiful box with four types of tea in it.I tend to be set in my ways with tea. In our apartment, I usually use Liptons or Twinings English Breakfast, Early Grey or ‘gumboot’ teabags, just like back in New Zealand. We did buy some barley tea after enjoying it during our trip north east, and we occasionally drink that – but need to be in the mood. When I first started at work, my business partner gave me some Chinese black tea (hóng chá, literally red tea – it is as red as it is black if you think about it). I have branched out enough to drink this like a Chinese person – putting my leaves in a cup each morning and topping it up with water all through the day. One day I tried another colleague’s chrysanthemum tea – literally dried chrysanthemums in hot water. Mine was too weak for me to taste anything, but now I know what those things are that I see floating in others’ plastic bottles.
I have almost finished my box of black tea at work, so will take our new ones in and see if I can become more adventurous as well as more informed.