Drink Magazine

The Biggest Misconception About Chinese Tea Culture

By Dchew78 @peonyts

The biggest misconception about Chinese tea culture being perpetrated is simply this: that there is a single ‘Chinese tea culture’. I have read many statements like “in China, people don’t rinse their tea”, or “in China, everyone rinses their tea”, “Chinese people don’t drink black tea” and so forth. All of these assume that every one of the 1.1 billion people in China, consume tea in the exact same fashion.

The reality is that the culture across different Chinese provinces could vary as much as it does on the Isle of Brit. To say that Yunnan culture mirrors Beijing culture for example, is just as preposterous as saying there is no difference between English and Irish culture.

Let us look at some reasons behind the diversity.

Ethnicity

The vast majority, over 90% of Chinese population, of what constitutes ‘Chinese people’ are actually ‘Han Chinese’. However, there are 56 different ethnic groups in China, with over half of them found in Yunnan, widely considered- along with Sichuan and Chongqing- to be the original birthplace of tea. Many of these tribes have their own unique tea culture.

For example, the Bulang tribe in Yunnan has a unique tradition known as ‘Bamboo tea’. Not to be confused with infusions of bamboo shoots or leaves, these are infusions of the Camellia sinensis plant as well. How it got its name is the Bulang people slice bamboos and fill them with spring water, then boil the water with the bamboo. Thereafter, tea leaves are added to the bamboo, infused and then drank.

The Wa tribe, also of Yunnan, use a metal strip to roast finished tea leaves before adding them to the teapot and brewing ‘normally’.

There are many more interesting and unique ways of consuming tea, especially from the minority tribes in Yunnan and Xinjiang, none of which fit into the traditional perception of ‘Chinese tea culture.’

Local Culture

Even among the Han people, food and beverage culture varies significantly. In larger Chinese communities, instead of ‘Chinese food’, the description extends to Hunan cuisine, Cantonese, Teochew, Shanghai and so forth. Indeed Sichuan cuisine has as much in common with Hainanese as French and English cuisine.

While the scope of difference is lesser in tea, it exists as well. A lot of what non-Chinese nationals understand ‘Chinese tea culture’ to be, is in fact Southern Chinese- or more precisely Guangzhou and Fujian (otherwise known as Min Yue) tea culture. (Read here and here for further information) This is influenced by the dominant Chinese migrant communities all over the world including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and the various Chinatowns in America and Europe. As such, when ‘Chinese tea’ is mentioned, a lot of people think of wulong tea or Puer, the traditional favorite of Southern Fujian and Guangdong people respectively.

Similarly, many people assume gongfu tea IS Chinese tea culture.

Then they tend to be disappointed when they visit some major cities of China- such as Beijing and Shanghai- only to discover that locals aren’t enamored with wulong tea, or worst, not well-versed in gongfu tea. If you visit part of Guangzhou and Fujian- Anxi and Chaozhou for example- it would be a different scenario altogether.

For example, traditionally, until the last two decades, tea to Beijing locals, colloquially known as ‘Lao Beijing’, is basically huacha, be it scented teas like jasmine, or tisanes like chrysanthemum or Babao (lit. Eight Treasures) Tea. While the mix has increased since, in traditional Beijing teahouses, this would be the type of tea one expects to be served.

One reason is related to climate. In northern China, the climate is cold and arid compared to the hot and humid south. Tea is often referred to in traditional Chinese medicine nomenclature as ‘dispelling the heat’ and ‘dispelling the damp’. In the Beijing climate though, this has a less soothing impact compared with the south, as such the more ‘moderate’ huacha is preferred, especially during winter and spring.

At the same time, while green tea is the tea of choice for most of central and southern China- from Sichuan to Anhui and Zhejiang- and glass brewing is typically the preferred method, in Guangdong and Fujian it is a different proposition altogether. Of course Fuzhou tea culture (jasmine tea) from Anxi tea culture while both are within Fujian.

Even the method of using the same vessel can vary. For example, in the north- Beijing for example, the norm is to drink directly from the gaiwan where else the gaiwan may be used like a teapot in the south- i.e. brew, decant and serve.

With the vast disparity and scope, the next time someone tells you “This is not how people in China drink tea”, ask them specifically which part of China did they make this observation.


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