This is for all my tea-drinking friends out there. The March edition of the China Heritage Quarterly, one of my favorite online sources for all things Chinese is completely devoted to a subject that is near and dear to pretty much every Chinese heart — TEA!
I realize this may seem strange, but even after almost thirty years here I’m still not a huge tea-drinker. It’s not that I don’t like tea — I do. It’s just not a drink I tend to go out of my way to have. If it’s served I’m happy enough to drink it, but I’m not likely to make myself a “cuppa” (as the Brits say) at home or carry it around with me in a thermos. Iced tea is fine, so long as it does NOT have either lemon or sugar in it.
I grew up in Pakistan where we drank a lot of “chai”—a brew of tea, milk, and sugar, all boiled together. I chuckle whenever I walk into a coffee shop or cafe that takes itself a bit too seriously and see that they are selling ‘chai’ as a trendy drink. Chai? Trendy? Give me a break. Chai is best drunk by pouring some onto a saucer and drinking from the saucer. Try doing that in Starbucks someday and see what happens!
The only times I consume large quantities of tea here are when I hang out at my friend’s tea house and drink Pu’er tea all afternoon. We have to drink seven rounds as part of the ceremony….and THEN the serious drinking begins. If I have a group of visitors in tow (which is usually the case) I have to translate her 30 minute tea ceremony, which includes a half dozen poems. Since there’s no way I can translate a poem, I just toss in the phrase “she just recited a poem about how wonderful tea is.” Works every time!
Which brings us back to the China Heritage Quarterly. If I can steep myself in this issue, I’m sure I’ll be a better translator of the tea ceremony the next time I take a group to the tea house.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to this month’s issue:
Tea and politics, teahouses and activism, gathering and gossiping, all of these things mark the life of tea in China’s largest inland empire, that of Sichuan 四川. Given the dramatic events of the first months of the Dragon Year of 2012, an ancient saying about the restive nature of what was once the Kingdom of Shu 蜀 would appear to be an appropriate place to launch our issue-length meditation on tea.
In Sichuan they call it ‘laying out the dragon formation’ 擺龍門陣. An ancient military tactic famous in China’s southwest, the ‘dragon formation’ has, over the years, became a popular expression used to describe the setting of verbal stoushes and gossip. In teahouses throughout the province, men and women have gathered over the years, often sitting on bamboo stools or reclining chairs, with small tables scattered about, tea cups and teapots mixed among clutches of locals, visitors and passers-by. Amidst the clatter and the long, slow sipping of tea, people discuss matters pertaining to ‘All-Under-Heaven’ 天下事兒. Although the Internet has become the virtual space of choice for the movement of idle chatter in recent years, it is the heritage of tea and the teahouse that bound people in conversation and conviviality in the past.
In the teahouse people would engage in idle gossip 閒談, chat 聊天, rant 侃山 and brag shamelessly 吹牛. It was, and in many places throughout China, an environment in which tall tales 大話 and arrant nonsense 廢話 can hold the day; it’s also where the chatter on the streets 道聽途說 is elaborated and circulates with the speed of a prairie fire. It is over tea too that people gather to play mah-jongg with clamorous concentration, although tea is just as much a boon companion that is suited to quieter moments of relaxed repose 閒適 and thoughtfulness 静思, as it is for conviviality and calm conversation.
Here is a taste of some of the articles that you will find in the magazine this month: