A tea leaf may weigh next to nothing, but dedicated tea drinkers say it can bring pleasure and peace, in a respite from a busy day. With a little meditation, tea offers more than aroma, taste and a bit of caffeine.
Tea can be enjoyed both formally and in a relaxed way.
The tea ceremony, or cha dao (茶道), is a ritualized way of making tea that combines art with brewing, and every step from preparation to serving is part of a performance. Etiquette and the proper tea pot, cups and utensils also play important roles in the performance.
Cha dao is a way of socializing, or it can be useful for meditation and reflection. To perform a proper tea ceremony, it's not necessary to have a large, elaborate space; a quiet corner at home is fine, as long as it's a place where people feel relaxed, such as a living room or study, says Jiang Yi, who has been studying cha dao since 2005. With just a small, palm-sized pot and a cup, some hot water and a favorite tea, anyone can lower their stress and enjoy the beverage.
Tea ceremony as a lifestyle can be enjoyed by everyone, though not many young people favor this way of unwinding and prefer beverages with a more straightforward taste.
"Young people have less life experience, while tea is just like life," says Shi Jue, founder of the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Fund. "Tea has a rich texture, not just the subjective experience of the presentation."
Still, some young people are taking up tea culture.
Jiang, who's in her 30s, runs a factory and says she becomes happier as she learns more about tea. "The culture is so rich that you can never finish learning about it," she says.
Jiang drinks tea every day. It's not addiction, but a way of life. She can spend 10 or 15 minutes to calm down and brew some tea.
"Having the opportunity to stop for a moment in life is very nice, and your own pace slows as well," she says.
Originally, tea was used as a medicinal herb and cooking ingredient. The art of tea making started in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and people considered it a way to cultivate the mind and spirit.
From noblemen to monks, scholars to ordinary people, almost everyone would drink tea and it became very common, certainly appreciated because it improves alertness. Scholars and writers started to combine preparing and savoring tea with writing and poetry.
Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu (AD 733-804) is known as "Sage of Tea" for his contribution to Chinese tea culture. He wrote "The Classic of Tea," or "Cha Jing," the very first monograph on tea in the world, including chapters on its origin, history, implements, methods of preparation and other subjects.
In the Song dynasty (960-1279), tea was one of the most important export both by land and sea, and Chinese teas found their way to Arabia and even Africa.
Japanese monk My¨-an Eisai came to China in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) to study Zen Buddhism and returned home in 1193, taking tea from China to Japan. It was the beginning of tea cultivation and tea culture in Japan.
The most important part of cha dao is not all about expensive equipment and tea leaves. It varies with different people.
Though Chinese people have many standards and forms of etiquette for drinking tea, it is not religious, but a necessary part of life.
"The most important thing of cha dao is inspiration to the heart," says Shen Jiong, founder of Ji Xiang Cao Tang (Auspicious Thatched Cottage), a tea house on Yuyuan Road.
Shen opened Ji Xiang Cao Tang in the spring of 2011, hoping to provide a cultural platform for everyone with tea as the medium.
"We teach students both the fancy cha dao performance and practical tea-making skills for daily life. We emphasize that tea is for drinking, rather than for seeing," Sheng says.
Marketing specialist Zhou Xun first learned about cha dao three years ago at a casual gathering with friends.
"A friend brought along a set of teapot and tea cups and started to make tea for us," the 30-year-old Shanghai native recalls. "Every step was so gentle and elegant, and just watching it relaxed me."
Zhou was enamored right away by both the fragrance and the whole process of making and serving tea. He now has his own tea set and does cha dao at times.
"Performing cha dao should not be a routine; do it with ease, you will take pleasure in it," he says. "Every time I find myself too stressed out, I will bring out my 'treasure' and sit in the sitting room to 'play' with it and soon I will calm down."
To understand cha dao, it's crucial to study the knowledge and art of tea. Learning the right way to make tea, developing the skills for tasting and appreciating traditional culture will give tea lovers a deeper appreciation.
"One can say that every Chinese cannot live without tea, whether it's you or the people around you, there are always people drinking tea in various ways, some using big cups and some preferring elegant tea ware," Shen says.
Not only is tea healthy and a way to satisfy thirst, it is also the drink for mind and soul.
"If someone drinks tea for his entire life and cannot feel the pleasure it brings, that's probably because he's not focused during the process," he says.
Tea is one of the seven traditional daily necessaries in Chinese life - firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea. It is something very common, yet still elegant.
Shi says that cha dao is about aesthetic appreciation and "humanistic" care.
"In the process of tea tasting, don't think too much and try to feel the most direct experience," Shi says. "Tea is not something material, it's very personalized and there's no fixed standard."
Though tea is part of the daily routine of many people, there are two extreme ways of drinking tea, according to Shi.
"Either people drink it casually, whether it is good or bad, or they get too subtle and particular, which can't reflect real life," he says. "Some people worship tea as a belief, too far away from the daily life."
Tips on tea ceremony at home
There are three most important factors in tea ceremony - water temperature, quantity of tea and brewing time.
It is essential to remove the tea leaves from water after a certain time, to achieve the best taste and not over-steep or brew.
For one person who wants just one cup, a small pot and tea bowl (or cup) are sufficient.
Green tea is best brewed in small glasses, so that the color and floating of the leaves in the water can be appreciated.
Here are some basics in cha dao.
1-Use one 150cc cup, add 2.5-3g tea leaves, and after two or three minutes add the hot water. Then put the drink into another cup; this way, the taste is not affected and the tea will not be bitter.
2-To serve Iron Guanyin tea for guests, prepare a 200-250cc pot and three or four cups. Fill the pot with 7-8g tea leaves, or one-fifth of the pot's capacity.
3-Using boiling water, fill the pot; this first round should brew for about a minute and 40 seconds; the second is the shortest, around 45 seconds, and the third should be around 70 seconds. As the tea is weaker, the fourth time takes longer than three minutes. Change the tea leaves after adding water thee or four times.