Tea is invariably associated with the Chinese, and rightly so. After all the word tea itself has its roots from "teh", the expression of the plant and beverage used in Fujian from where Dutch traders first brought its leaves to Europe in the 17th century.
Teochews Drink More Tea Than All
"Teh" of course is also what the Teochew people call tea. Though the Teochew region is less famous as a tea producer, its inhabitants hold the reputation of consuming more tea per capita than anywhere else in China. According to a local news report in 2006, residents in Swatow alone spent 720 million yuan (approximately US$110 million) on tea every year, while a typical household used up more than one kilogram of tea leaves every month. The Teochew perception of tea as a daily staple is reflected in its language, wherein tea leaves are called te-bi (茶米) and tea is not said to be drank, but eaten ziah-te (食茶). Thus the reported amount of tea consumed did not surprise many, though how this feat was achieved by the use of the tinniest of tea-cups does amaze!
The founder of Taoism Lao Tzu described tea as the elixir of life. The health benefits of drinking tea need no elaboration here. In general Chinese teas can be categorised into six different groups, namely green tea, white tea, yellow tea, black tea, Oolong and Pu'er. Various types of Oolong (烏龍, literally "black dragon"), such as Tieguanyin (鐵觀音), Da Hong Pao (大紅袍) and Dancong (單樅, tuan-zang) are commonly drank in Teochew. Only Dancong is cultivated natively on the Phoenix Mountain (鳳凰山, Honghuang-sua). It is easily recognisable by its long slender leaves, but is rarely seen on supermarket shelves outside the Teochew region due to the simple reason that its annual production barely suffices to meet domestic demand.
Kanghu-te: the "Effort Tea"
The taste of Dancong is said to be discovered when soldiers in escort of the Song emperor in his flight from the invading Mongols had nothing up in the Phoenix Mountain to soothe the parched throat of their sovereign, and so plucked some of its leaves to concoct refreshment. It worked to wonderful effect. Of course this is merely a legend for the emperor and his ministers were refugees by sea. However it captured the fact that the tea-drinking was introduced into the Teochew region during the Song dynasty (960 to 1279) when thriving export of fine porcelain on the Maritime Silk Road turned its cities and towns into centres of wealth and high culture.
Preparing tea in the old days was an ostentatious affair. According to the prescriptions of the 8th century Tea Classic, brewing and serving involved at least six key stages and the use of some 28 utensils. Rather aptly tea culture is aptly referred in Teochew as kanghu-te (工夫茶) - directly translated as the "effort tea", which is often mistakenly written in Chinese as 功夫茶 konghu-te - the “martial arts tea"! It is claimed that in families here children start to drink tea as soon as they are weaned off milk. No doubt there is some exaggeration, though you'd find from a visit to any home that the appreciation of tea drinking and the art of its serving (careful of the boiling hot water!) are acquired from young age.
Watch a demonstration of how tea is typically prepared at homes in Teochew, first by washing the leaves and utensils, and then pouring the tea equally into the cups. If there are more people than cups, the cups are washed each time as the host serves everyone around the table by turn.
No Differences in Class or Opinions
As may be observed in the video above, the steps to prepare tea today is much simplified. Tea drinking in Teochew has evolved over the centuries from a cultured for the educated to an enjoyment for the masses. Having said this, you would be hard-pressed to find a tea-house when travelling in Teochew. This is because virtually every house and workplace has at least a tea set, which renders unnecessary the need for any Starbucks equivalent.
The popularisation of tea-drinking however has by no means diminished the "effort" in the kanghu-te is by no means diminished. For its object was never about ceremony, or even the quenching of thirst. Instead miniature tea-cups are used deliberately for the purpose of fostering interaction and opportunities for opening up of the soul. Over each round of tea served, the host and his guests are invigorated not only in body and mind, but also induced to indulgence in the four essences of the kanghu-te: togetherness, respect, refinement and pleasure (和、敬、精、樂).
Though each might be burdened by differences in status and opinions when they came to gather, they leave with divisions washed away by the elixir that gives life.
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