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Mar 18, 2017

Back in December, China’s State Council decided to abolish official support for certain vocational qualifications. The move affected a number of professionals in the tea industry, including tea growers and tea masters, both of which are no longer accredited jobs. Only China’s tea tasters have been listed in the revised national accreditations catalog.

Several of my friends are certified tea masters, the name given to China’s experts on tea culture and ceremony. In the aftermath of the decision, many of them posted on my WeChat moments news feeds, joking about framing their now “limited edition” accreditation certificates. The news has certainly made waves in the Chinese media, with online platforms Sohu, Baidu, and iQIYI all running stories on the decision.

The long history of China’s tea-drinking culture is well-known. Two millennia ago, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, it was written that the doctor Shen Nong had discovered the properties of various teas. Despite tea’s hallowed position in Chinese culture, however, certified tea masters have only been around for about two decades.

The Chinese have all sorts of local customs for drinking tea. In some regions, tea leaves are grilled before hot water is added to them; other people elect to steep or boil the leaves. Historically, members of the country’s literati class would compete to see who could brew the best tea. Up to the end of the imperial era, so-called tea doctors would attract customers to China’s teahouses, furnishing them with snacks and a restorative brew.

The appearance of professional tea masters in the 1980s marked the modernization and commercialization of Chinese tea culture. Tea masters are required to demonstrate an exceptional knowledge of the historical background of all kinds of tea leaves. They assiduously study brewing methods and carefully select the equipment most suited to bring out the flavor of each strain of tea. Hangzhou’s famous Longjing tea, for example, is traditionally prepared in a transparent glass in water heated to 85 degrees Celsius. Earthy, fermented Pu’er tea, native to southwest China’s Yunnan province, is served in a heavy teapot or a lidded tea bowl, with a higher ratio of tea to boiling water.

A typical tea master’s workplace is a serene tea room. Dressed in plain garments, the master lights incense, washes their hands, purifies the environment around them, and finally brews the tea for their guests, explaining certain rituals throughout.

Despite its roots in tradition, tea masters only came to prominence in the 1980s, when China’s tea production exceeded the country’s export need. The backlog this produced led the Ministry of Commerce to encourage the domestic popularization of tea culture and the health benefits to be gained from drinking tea.

Whether tea masters hold a paper certificate declaring professional competence is less important than cultivating their personal artistry.

Interest in tea culture peaked in 1989, when Huang Zhengmin and Cai Rongzhang, two high-profile tea experts from Taiwan, made two visits to the mainland and performed the tea ceremony in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Since the ’90s, the country has played host to various international tea festivals. By the turn of the century, tea ceremonies were a common sight even in provinces not traditionally known for producing the beverage. Tea had been restored as a significant part of Chinese life.

The success of the campaign led the Ministry of Labor and Social Security to list “tea master” as one of 1,800 officially accredited occupations in 1999. Seven years later, the government published a set of work standards and gave agencies in the ministries of agriculture and human resources the right to issue certificates. Although the standards decreed that tea specialists had to pass an exam before obtaining a certificate, the rule was never stringently enforced.

The difficulty in enforcing standards seems a good enough reason to abolish the tea master certificate. In addition to their knowledge of tea, masters engage in various forms of ceremonial performance that remain difficult to objectively evaluate. Tea tasters, meanwhile, face many more challenges in getting certified. Only the Ministry of Agriculture has the right to issue accreditations to tasters. When would-be tasters apply for licenses through tea corporations, they have to meet as many mandatory requirements as other high-level professionals, such as accountants, lawyers, or teachers.

Several high-profile industry observers applauded the abolition of tea master certificates. Ding Yishou, a professor of at Anhui Agricultural University in eastern China, claimed that the lack of unified vocational training had led to masters and their institutions acting without proper leadership in blind pursuit of money, thereby undermining and devaluing the tea master qualification itself.

Others, however, recognized that that retaining “tea master” as a professional title would play a positive role in promoting tea culture and training new professionals. But there will still be leeway for certain organizations to continue issuing certificates at a local level. Many cities in China maintain tea master training schools. Qualifications from these schools will continue to be issued, though they will no longer carry the force of a national-level accreditation.

In my opinion, whether tea masters hold a paper certificate declaring professional competence is less important than mastering their knowledge of tea, sharpening their brewing skills, and cultivating their personal artistry. Now that the accreditation has been abolished, we will hopefully see prospective tea masters turn away from purely qualification-oriented learning and back toward a holistic embrace of their role as China’s connoisseurs of culture. In doing so, they will hopefully relieve the industry of the unnecessary training schools and commercial profiteering that serves only to distract them from the essence of performing one of the most quintessential Chinese traditions.

Translator: Xia Ran; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A tea master demonstrates the tea brewing process in Wuhan, Hubei province, Sept. 3, 2013. IC)