Fit to a tea
Few people probably appreciate Chinese tea as much as Zheng Chunhui. Zheng is the sixth-generation owner of a family-run tea business in Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang province. For more than 240 years, the Zhengs have been purveying tea, particularly the region's iconic longjing or "Dragon Well" roasted green tea.
The nationally accredited tea master is also equally famous for promoting the art of tea appreciation in about 20 traditional shops in major Chinese cities under his Taiji Tea Ceremony House banner.
Zheng practices the Chinese Zen form of approaching tea, which involve prescribed rules and rituals to help cultivate the mind and spirit through the aesthetic experience of enjoying the beverage.
"Chinese tea is never about just drinking it," Zheng says. "It is about the atmosphere in which you drink it, the people around you, the utensils used, the service it is a holistic experience and ceremony of imbibing Chinese culture."
Authorities have similarly recognized Zheng's contributions in promoting the "national beverage" by naming his teahouse a "China Time-honored Brand" from among 60,000 other houses.
Zheng himself has trained two national "tea champions", who won the accolade by performing a variety of skills involved in the business, including tea-pouring acrobatics.
For the past few years, Zheng has also been riding on renewed interest in Chinese tea in the West by expanding his tea workshops and presence to more than 500 locations, including Asian cities like Singapore and Tokyo to European ones such as Brussels and Prague.
"More than a decade ago, Westerners were more interested in Chinese teas such as jasmine flower tea. But there is now significant interest in others like longjing and tieguanyin (Iron Buddha or oxidized oolong tea) that have always been very popular at home."
There are more than 10 major varieties of Chinese tea, but Hangzhou's longjing is widely considered to be among the best with its subtle taste favored by connoisseurs.
Zheng says Chinese mainland consumers still buy about 60 percent of the 1,000 tons of longjing produced a year in the country, with buyers from Taiwan and Hong Kong taking up most of the rest. The tea can sell for up to 60,000 yuan (6,500 euros) a kilogram.
He is now focusing on a "model" teahouse in Beijing's Olympic Park area to use the capital's international stature as a platform to showcase his business and practice.
Following business agreements last year, there are also plans to build up a chain of teahouses in the duty free areas of airports in cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai as well as in the southern island province of Hainan.
"We will provide a space for travelers to relax and appreciate Chinese tea. It will also be an excellent way to allow more foreigners to learn about this national drink as Chinese influence and culture grows globally."
These oases will be an extension of Zheng's iconic teahouse in Hangzhou's Hefang Street, where other famous products of the region are sold. In line with his Zen philosophy, Zheng uses only purified rainwater to make his teas. There are also priceless tea ceremony utensils and family heirlooms displayed in a private museum and alleys on the 1,000-square-meter site.
As a Zen practitioner charged with keeping alive a major aspect of Chinese culture, Zheng says there are some traditions and customs he must uphold. This includes forbidding women from entering a private room known as his "tea sanctuary".
"Some important officials and business leaders come to the teahouse wanting to bring their female companions to the room, but I always stand my ground," Zheng says.
"They usually get offended or leave in a huff, but they realize it's a matter of principle for me."
Still, Zheng is aware of the need to constantly balance his traditional beliefs with the latest trends and developments of the marketplace to keep his business competitive.
Other than expanding Chinese tea's profile overseas through his business, Zheng is also working on ways to make the beverage more accessible for young people at home.
These include coming up with new brews mixed with milk - to compete with a growing coffee-drinking culture among youths.
It is a formidable task. Figures from the market researching group Euromonitor International point to substantial coffee sales revenue in China at more than 5 billion yuan in 2010, with sales revenue growing to more than 8 billion yuan by 2015.
"Maintaining interest in Chinese tea among the younger generation will be challenging, but it is necessary because we are talking about something that is a foundation of our culture and way of life," Zheng says.