In a world where food fads and trends swiftly come and go, Chinese tea has been seeing a slow but quiet resurgence as it finds its way into the buzzy halls of restaurants as well as the hands of those who seek a moment of solace and tranquillity. Kenny Leong reports on its rise.
A pithy Chinese adage asserts that there are seven basic items for daily sustenance: firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauces, vinegar and tea.
Of these, tea exclusively has captivated the imagination of countless writers, poets, painters, and even nobles and emperors, serving as a source of inspiration behind innumerable works and forms of art in Asia and beyond.
So intrinsic is tea to the Chinese way of life, that the development of classical Chinese culture, commerce and trade without this humble drink would be nigh unthinkable. But truth is often stranger than fiction, and a quick peek into Chinese history reveals the curious insight that tea drinking was once regarded as a lowly, laughable custom.
From rags to riches
Extant documents and archaeological evidence suggest that as early as the Han dynasty (202BC-220AD), some form of domestic tea trade and consumption existed on a considerable scale in China. As early as the Northern Wei, around 547AD, there is an account in Yang Xuanzhi’s A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang recounting official Wang Su’s fondness for drinking tea, which was then regarded scornfully as the beverage of the less civilised south.
But all this drastically changed when China entered the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), when tea grew in popularity among Buddhist monks, court officials and members of the literati. The most influential and revered among them is none other than Lu Yu, the author of Cha Jing (Classic of Tea). It was the world’s first monograph on tea agriculture, processing, preparation and appreciation. Imbued with Lu Yu’s knowledge of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the essay represents a watershed moment in the history and development of tea as it went from an “everyday drink” to one of an academic, artistic and leisurely pursuit.
Following his passing in 804AD, Lu Yu was quickly venerated as the Sage of Tea, inspiring later generations of tea masters both in China and Japan. However, he was not the first and certainly not the only person whose practice of tea was imbued with philosophical values. In one of the 28 tea poems written by Buddhist monk Jiao Ran, he contemplated: “Who could realise and comprehend the wholeness and
certainty of the way of tea?” Herein lies the first known use of the term cha dao – the “way of tea”, which was deemed a path to the attainment of wisdom and enlightenment.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279AD), China entered a phase of great aesthetic refinement and achievement. Tea became a pastime for the affluent class and the nobles, and the emphasis shifted to more meticulous and fanciful methods of tea preparation. The most notable literary work on tea affairs of this period is Emperor Huizong’s Da Guan Cha Lun (Great Tea Treatise), in which he documented in painstaking detail the intricacies of tea processing and preparation.
Visiting Japanese Zen Buddhist monks brought the Song custom of drinking whisked powdered tea back to their homeland where it is preserved to this day, although the method of preparation has evolved considerably since. And because it was introduced by way of monastic practices, tea affairs in Japan also took on fundamental religious sentiments, which contributed to the austere ritualistic formality of the Japanese whisked tea ceremony.
By the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644AD), loose-leaf tea had come to replace the whisked tea of the Song as the mainstream method of tea preparation and consumption. This custom was inherited and further practised during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD), when tea was widely enjoyed. Wuyishan in Fujian, which had become a hive of activity having earned itself a reputation for producing the world’s finest and most prohibitively priced tea, received countless visitors, many of whom were converted to drinking Wuyi oolong teas that are still loved today.
The root of the matter
In the most precise sense of the word, only a beverage made from the leaf of the camellia sinensis plant may be called a true tea. Infusions of flowers, herbs or other plants, such as mint, rooibos, chrysanthemum or jasmine, are known as tisanes to distinguish them from actual tea.
By definition, any tea produced in Taiwan or China are categorically and colloquially known as Chinese tea. Depending on processing styles and techniques, they are then generally classified into six main types: white, green, qing (oolong), yellow, red, and black or post-fermented. (Qing is usually translated as celadon in English, but in this specific context there is no accurate English equivalent, and it is better simply to call it oolong.) And while all of them are produced using the camellia sinensis species, distinct varieties and cultivars combined with complex processing techniques yield different tea types.
For much of the 20th century, tea in China and Taiwan suffered a general decline due to periods of civil and political unrest, but the emergence of stronger economic markets and affluence in the 1970s and 1980s heralded the renaissance of tea culture and practice. Tea and teaware, by virtue of its cultural age and association, was an understated way through which one could showcase one’s individuality, status, taste and sophistication. Not unlike the role wine plays in the West, fine tea was regarded as a status symbol. Detached from its lowly thirst-quencher image, it became the drink of choice not just to host distinguished visitors, but also to engender a more mindful and contemplative way of life.
In recent years especially, as consumers acquire a keener appreciation for fine beverages such as high-quality artisanal coffee and biodynamic or natural wines, tea too has found a greater audience among drinkers who are drawn to the tea’s refreshing naturalness and cultural significance.
All of this is further catapulted by China’s rise as a global superpower. With the growth of affluence in China, more consumers are willing to spend greater amounts of money to acquire good tea, leading farmers and producers rushing to meet the tremendous increase in demand for quality.
Quietly on the side, a cultural awakening and the growing focus on wellness are equally playing small but significant roles in the popularity of tea drinking. Practitioners of yoga, mindfulness and other related fields have started to recognise the benefits a sound and grounded tea practice can bring to their disciplines, which in turn has further prompted the search for a good, clean and ethical brew.
Turning over a new leaf
Currently, oolongs from Taiwan and Wuyi Mountains in Fujian account for the lion’s share of popular teas sold and consumed worldwide, followed by pu’er, a type of black or post-fermented tea from Yunnan. Dancong, a type of oolong from Chaozhou, has also historically been favoured by many. At Chinese tea merchants and retail shops here in Singapore, it is not uncommon to find these offerings alongside oolongs from Anxi and post-fermented teas such as Liubao.
Depending on where these teas are produced and consumed, drinkers also often pair them with local fare. Here in Singapore, one highly popular example of this is bak kut teh, where pork ribs cooked in a hot peppery broth is often washed down with rounds of dark, bittersweet oolong teas from Anxi or Wuyi. Climates and eating habits often determine the prevailing preferences for teas; Singapore’s climate tends to be hot, humid and wet, and our foods are usually richly seasoned with salt and spices, which then call for more assertive teas that can stand up to bold flavours.
Chinese tea has also found renewed interest in the fields of fine dining, which says a lot about what the age-old beverage has to offer in a world where dining trends get old very quickly. For some, tea even mirrors the Western appreciation of wine: Both tea and wine are perishables derived from natural plant ingredients; their quality and appeal are determined by provenance, terroir and craftsmanship; their value is influenced by natural scarcity and irreplaceability; and at the highest quality level, they gain in complexity and desirability as they age and mature.
One stellar example of this is a 20kg chest of Shuixian oolong that showed up at Hong Kong’s first rare tea auction in 2013. Valued at HK$1 million, the tea was produced in Wuyishan and had first been exported to Singapore in the 1960s before it went to a Chinese Malaysian collector in Penang. Vincent Chu Ying-wah, the auction organiser and himself a tea expert. He compared the Shuixian to a 1982 Château Pétrus, highlighting the tea’s flavours, softness, persistence and finish.
As a matter of fact, Wuyishan has long been home to the world’s most sought-after teas. Da Hong Pao, the most expensive tea globally, once traded at 5,200,000 yuan (S$1.08 million) per jin (500g) at its peak – a figure comparable to the most valuable wines at international auctions.
Like wine, it takes plenty of experience, knowledge, familiarity and some insider knowledge to nose out the wheat from the chaff. For the uninitiated, this might seem like a daunting exercise, but there are a few easy ways to get started.
Some tea merchants and collectors are happy to offer their experience and insights. For instance, Singapore-based vendor Eagle Tea Merchant values the importance of identifying the right teas to cater to each customer’s preferences. As a result, the customer experience here feels very bespoke, and the merchant has lots to offer in value-added services, insider information and knowledge, as well as general tea education.
For simple introductions to tea, Singapore’s oldest teahouse Tea Chapter offers short courses in tea-brewing skills and knowledge. Heritage tea merchant Pek Sin Choon is also a good place to start one’s foray casually, especially if you are interested in Singapore’s tea history and trade.
As a start, look no more than spending a few hundred dollars on your first purchase of tea. It costs just as much as having a nice meal at a restaurant, and it’s a good way to begin building a simple library of flavours in your mind, so you can start determining for yourself where your preferences lie.
It also helps to befriend and exchange encounters with veteran tea lovers and collectors – while some of these people possibly have vested interest to sell you their personal collections, they also have plenty of experiences and stories to share, which are often helpful in pointing you in a clearer direction.
This story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.