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The Tao of Tea
In her Wufu Tea House (Beijing Theatre Branch), Tan Bo throws herself into a large chair and ponders why she got into the tea business.

“I like making my living from tea, it makes me feel like I’m in heaven.” Though she’s busier with her business than most of her friends ever thought she would be, she still finds time to sip tea, stare off into the distance and wonder what it’s all about Six years ago, Tan Bo’s title on her business card was just “tea lover”. Now her card reads: President of Wu Fu Teahouse, Associate Director of China International Tea Culture Research Institute, Vice Secretary of Tea Industry Development statute, writer of the book Tea Artist, a member of the China Tea Association and a member of China Businesswomen’s Association. “I don’t care much about my titles, but I have to put them on my card, because now not only belong to myself but also the teahouse.”

What’s the big deal about tea? Tan Bo has always drunk tea virtually every day but not until eight years ago when she was 24 did she really think about appreciating it. It was an encounter with friends from Taiwan that opened her eyes. “I was surprised to see what an elaborate set my friends had brought over from Taiwan just for making tea.” Tan Bo’s friends didn’t explain anything but just handed her a cup of tea. “You can’t imagine what a sweet smell and flavor the tea had! I was totally amazed. “Tea is the most common drink in China, but I reckon most people don’t really know how to make and taste. It seemed a pity to me. I decided I should show others how to drink tea and spread this happiness.” Tan Bo opened her first teahouse in Di’anmen in August 1994. It was the first of its kind in Beijing, in that it aids up-market.

Tan Bo advanced the concept of “tea art” when she opened the teahouse. She wanted to challenge the traditional bracketing of “firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea”. Rather than seeing it a basic commodity of life, she wanted her customers to put it up there of the more refined elements of Chinese culture. There also appeared to be a gap in the market. “In 1994, there were few bars or coffee rooms, and no proper teahouses. There was nowhere for businessmen to find a quiet place to chat and bargain. My instinct told me there was a large teahouse market waiting for someone to dig it out.” It was to take a lot of digging. To traditional eyes, teahouses should be cheap places for satisfying the thirst, and it used to be possible to pay little for a large cup of tea. “I remember the early days of my teahouse. Many old people rushed in with vegetable baskets in their arms, just wishing to satisfy their thirst.” This wasn’t the kind of teahouse Tan Bo was aiming for. No one could understand why the prices were so high and business was slow at first. The teahouse lost money for a long time and many of Tan Bo’s friends advised her to give up. “We were in a difficult position. Though others might have given up after half a year, I kept on.Her tenacity paid off. There are now ten teahouses in the Wu Fu chain in Beijing and a tealeaf company was set up to deal with the import of special Tanwan Wulong tealeaves.

“It was a cruel beginning, but I made it,” she says with a big smile. e were the forerunners, and fortunately we didn’t become martyrs.Life changing

Tea totally changed Tan Bo’s life. Going to the disco used to be her main passion but tea has become a way of life. Tan Bo feels getting into tea culture helps her discover the quiet and gentle, more feminine side of her character. “Making tea is a simple process, but it’s also elegant. I just wanted to set up a tea house people knew or had read about us had never seen, a teahouse people would really like to see, something really out there and surprising, but something which also makes sense.” “I knew little about tea at first and all my knowledge of it has been collected as I discussed, negotiated and even argued with other tea businessmen. I don’t want to cater just to expert to ordinary customers.” Somewhat surprisingly for a successful businesswoman, who is known as “Lord of tea” by her employees and friends, Tan Bo longs for a more domestic existence. The advantage of bei a woman, she says, is that “a woman can marry someone with prospects. Then, instead of being independent and the breadwinner, she can sit at home, without worrying about paying for the house and car. Family life is always more important for women than anything else,” she says. “Why should someone want to be the richest person in the world?” She said it was four years ago when she spent a year living in England that she really began to realize that she wanted more from life than money. “I was quite moved by my English friends. Maybe they were working hard to earn money but they weren’t stingy and always helped the poor. My friends told me the happiness you get when you can give others in life beats anything you can get from work.” This doesn’t mean that she’s slackening off on the day job, though. Tan Bo’s next plan is to create a world-famous tea brand. Unlike existing tea brands, this one will be more authentic and up-market. “I plan to do it in the next ten years. It will remind everybody of how Chinese tea should taste,” she says. In between her various projects, Tan Bo has also found time to hold classes in various aspects of tea culture. “I have had nearly 3000 students, many of whom are now regulars at my teahouse.Balancing everything, that’s the key. Jing Qi, a manger of one of the teahouses, says Tan Bo combines tradition and fashion as well as art and business. “She reminds me of Zhang Sanfeng, who created shadowboxing. She’s always calm."

(Beijing Today January 20, 2003)

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