Chinese tea is an art.
While alcohol reinforces the sense of vacancy, tea grants delight and serenity.
China is the home of tea. It is believed there were tea plants growing in China as long as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, and human cultivation of tea plants here dates back to 2,000 years ago.
According to popular belief, all tea trees in other countries came, either directly or indirectly, from China.
The words for tea in many countries are also derivatives from the Chinese character "cha." The Russians call it "cha'i," which sounds like "chaye" (tea leaves) as it is pronounced in northern China, and the English word "tea" sounds similar to the pronunciation of its counterpart in Xiamen, east China's Fujian Province.
Tea drinking spread from China to Japan in the 6th century, and to Europe in the 17th century.
All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia Sinesis. However, Chinese tea is categorized into five kinds: green tea, black tea, oolong tea, compressed tea and scented tea.
The categories are the result of differences in the tea manufacturing process, particularly in the degrees of fermentation.
Through fermentation, the original green leaves become reddish-brown. The longer the fermentation, the darker the color and the stronger the flavor.
Depending on the degree of fermentation, the fragrance can range from floral to fruity to malty.
Green tea - represented by the Biluochun and Longjing, or Dragon Well, varieties - is non-fermented, while oolong tea stands at the other end of the spectrum.
Water is essential to the brewing of a cup of tea.
According to the Book of Tea by Lu Yu (733-804 AD), the quality of water is even more important than the quality of the tea leaves. Nice water can compensate for the imperfection of tea leaves but not the other way around.
Spring water is the best, followed by river water. Well water is recommended only in desperate circumstances.
Chinese tradition lists some unlikely sources of water. Rain and snow were regarded in ancient China as "spring water falling from the sky" and in the Chinese literary classic, A Dream of Red Mansions, there is a famous passage in which a beautiful nun named Miao Yu makes tea with snow on plum blossoms.
Finding suitable water inside cities can be a difficult task. Unpolluted natural water is practically nonexistent, and tap water is often highly chlorinated.
Experts say people can minimize the chlorine content by storing tap water in a clean glass for a whole night, which allows most of the chlorine to evaporate.
Other than tea leaves and water, a well-designed tea set is also important.
According to Lu Yu, genuine tea sets have more than 29 pieces, including a tea pot, cups, a tray, saucers, and a water ladle.
Besides metal and porcelain, the tea set can also be made of carnelian, crystal, lacquered ware, ceramic, bamboo and plastics.
The two most famous tea pot producing areas in China are Yixing in east China's Jiangsu Province and Xingtai in north China's Hebei Province. The "Purple Sand" tea pots from Yixing are especially prized.
(China Daily 04/05/2001)