A soft thump echoes in the teahouse as Mrs. Ma gently places two thimble-sized cups on the long, wooden bar table in front of Ana and myself. This is the first time since arriving in China that I am served in clear, glass teacups. The others I've seen were opaque white ceramic, decorated with delicate accents of blue, red or gold. I pick one up to inspect it. Despite its small size, it feels solid between my fingers.
"Is there a reason these are clear?" I ask Ana, a German tour guide, who has been living in China and studying tea for several years.
Fluent in Chinese, she translates my question to Mrs. Ma who answers without taking her eyes off her tea tray.
"The cups are clear so you can see the quality of the tea. There's a terroire to tea just like there is for wine. You need to use all of your senses to fully enjoy the experience," Ana explains.
The kettle hisses to a rolling boil and Mrs. Ma sets the water aside to cool. She moves quickly and steadily behind the bar of her Hangzhou teahouse rinsing the glass tea jug and placing the thin wooden tea thongs in front of her. She gestures me to a bowl of dried leaves set on top of her gridded wooden tray. The leaves are flat-shaped strips and light green in colour.
"This is Hangzhou's Dragon Well green tea. It is very special," explains Ana. "For three weeks in the Spring when the leaves are first picked and young and fresh, this tea will sell for 3000 RMB a kilogram. That's 500 US dollars."
Mrs. Ma prepares the first serving, measuring seven grams of leaves into our cup and then adds water. Using the wooden thongs, she picks up the teacups and empties the steeped tea over a miniature turtle figurine sitting on the tray.
"The first serving goes to the tea pet to bring us luck," Ana explains, adding that the turtle is a common Chinese tea pet representing longevity.
Mrs. Ma refills the cup and this time places it in front of me. I press it between my index finger and thumb and lift it to my nose. Steam tickles my nostrils as I inhale a fragrance of earth and grass. I gently twirl the light-green hued tea around the cup before taking a small slurp. I hold it in my mouth and enjoy its surprisingly soft taste.
"It's good," I say after a few full sips. "But why does it cost so much?"
Ana doesn't translate my question to Mrs. Ma and instead answers herself.
"I'm reading this book about gifting in the government where it described these special bookmarks. The bookmarks are created by famous Chinese artists, gold-plated and presented in elaborate custom boxes. They cost $500 each."
The bookmarks are intended as gifts for government officials and in line with Chinese gift-giving etiquette you wouldn't just gift one, but two. It's also customary to find an indirect way to let the receiver know how much the bookmarks cost, explains Ana.
"It's much the same with Dragon Well tea. It's very rare, which makes it unique and expensive. Everyone in China knows how valuable it is, so when presented as a gift, it's meaningful."
I shake my head shocked at the thought of paying $500 for a bookmark, or tea.
"Would you pay that much for it?" I ask.
Ana shakes her head no and smiles, letting a glimpse of her teeth flash though.
It's the first time I notice a slight tea stain on her teeth. I'm slightly jealous.
Author's message to you:
This is one of six short based on my research about the Chinese teahouse culture. A lover of tea, and curious about culture, I spent a month visiting and participating in teahouse rituals across 4 Chinese cities. My goal was to understand and describe whether learning about teahouse culture could help tourists like me better understand and appreciate the Chinese culture. I chose to present my research in six (a lucky number in China) non-linear stories, which I found to be in line with the fluid nature of the Chinese culture.
I would very much appreciate your opinion on the following, or any other thoughts that come to mind:
- How (if at all) does the above story change/expand your understanding/appreciation about the Chinese culture?
- Do you have any personal tea experiences/stories that have helped you know a different culture more intimately?
- What are you thoughts about tea and the Chinese culture? Did this story change any ideas you previously held?
- Is your "culture" represented through any tea practices/rituals?
-Next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, make note of the colour, texture, taste, aftertaste and feel of the tea as it slides down your throat. Does it change your perception of the drink?