Twee Cups of Tea
To drum up interest for the upcoming 2022 Asian Games, event organizers in the host city of Hangzhou in eastern China recently released a promotional video showcasing the area’s culture and history. However, at least one scene left netizens more bewildered than proud. In it, an attractive young woman is shown solemnly using the reverse end of a pair of tea tongs to scrape tea leaves into a cup, a mistake so basic that viewers could only wonder how filmmakers could get it wrong.
The mistake is doubly embarrassing, because Hangzhou is known in China as a hub of tea production and tea culture. It would be akin to France releasing a tourism video in which vintners drink wine out of plastic sippy cups. Sensing an opening, the China-based industry publication “Tea Weekly” joined the chorus of critics and published a scathing article listing all the ways the etiquette and meaning of the Chinese tea ceremony have been distorted by modern hobbyists.
The core problem isn’t the misuse of tongs; it’s that modern tea ceremonies have become more performance art than substance. Although form has always been important, it was never supposed to be more than a means to an end: good-tasting tea. The ceremonies emphasized how to make good tea on a technical level, and the etiquette and rules surrounding tea ceremonies were primarily designed to prepare drinkers both physically and mentally for the experience.
Prior to about 30 years ago, these indulgences were only available to the wealthy. It was not until the 1980s that China’s leaders seized on the tea ceremony as a means of boosting domestic market demand. Soon, tea and tea ceremonies were being treated as symbols of Chinese culture, even in parts of the country not traditionally associated with the beverage.
This decision’s effects haven’t been all negative. Compared with 20 years ago, the material standards of the country’s tea ceremonies have improved dramatically. Now consumers have access to finely crafted tea sets and can visit beautifully apportioned teahouses to relax with a cup of high-grade tea. But as external elements have become more and more valued, quality has seemingly become less and less important. People today visit teahouses to admire their attractive young waitstaff, kitschy decorations, and the shows on display.
In response, contemporary tea ceremonies now center almost entirely on their aesthetic, to the detriment of everything else. Increasingly baroque ceremonies have become weighted down by plays, dances, and martial arts performances, with some even being turned into short films. Admittedly, some of the spectacles can be quite entertaining, but as tea masters set aside the art of tea-making in favor of rebranding themselves as actors, dancers, or experts on Chinese culture, they drift farther and farther from what matters most: the tea.
A good cup of tea requires the server to control three variables: the quantity of leaves, water temperature, and steep time. It’s simple enough in theory, but true mastery requires years of practice, preferably under the guidance of an experienced teacher. A true tea master knows these three factors well enough to suit anyone’s palate, regardless of their gender, age, or where they grew up.
Recently, however, attempts to standardize tea ceremonies have turned these variables into constants, and sapped the practice of much of its nuance. This makes the job of instructors much easier, but it also cheapens the title of “tea master.” Today, the standards for what makes good tea can be boiled down to purely external factors like the price of the leaves, the quality of the implements used, and the attractiveness of the drinking environment — including the physical appearance of the server.
Whenever I find myself having to explain my aversion to modern tea culture, I always think back to the time over a decade ago when I attended a tea ceremony performed by a famous Shanghai master. The master, a young woman who had been selected to serve tea at a number of state events, was dressed flawlessly in a spotless white traditional Chinese dress. As she prepared our tea, she launched into a nonstop barrage of patter on mundane subjects such as how many kinds of tea you should drink each day, whether you should ever drink it on an empty stomach, and how may varieties of tea there are in China. Afterward, she segued into her own story — how she was selected to serve tea to state leaders as a child and how she grew up to become a Chinese cultural ambassador, pouring tea all over the world.
Finally, she began softly reciting the words to one of China’s most famous poems about tea: “Seven Bowls of Tea,” by the Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tong. She then explained that we would all get the chance to experience what Lu once felt, as no one would be allowed to leave until they had consumed seven cups.
Whether due to the authority she projected or out of a fear of losing face, everyone present — myself included — all did as she said. With each cup of scalding hot tea, we furrowed our brows and did our best to gulp it down. As we did so, she corrected our mistakes and gave us tips on the proper movements, actions, and rhythm for drinking tea properly.
By the time we downed the last bowl, the looks on my companions’ faces were nigh-indescribable. All I can say is that when she finally pronounced the day’s tea ceremony over, the dozen or so of us there practically jumped to our feet and rushed off in search of the nearest restroom.
Although years have passed since then, I think of that day every time I hear the words “high-end” or “private” to describe a tea party. Tea drinking should be a comfortable and relaxing experience. As long as the basic principles of tea infusion aren’t violated and the flavors full, there’s no need to stand on ceremony.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with wanting to create a pleasant environment through setting-appropriate music and garb, but we must remember that the key word in tea ceremony isn’t “ceremony,” but “tea.” Everything else is just for show.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: UIG/VCG)