Chinese Tea

by Andrew Stein

After three very full days in Beijing, I was ready for a slight change of pace. I tried to sleep late, although this was not an easy task given the 16 hour time difference. Beijing is eight hours behind and a day ahead of California. I woke up, called home, showered, and reorganized my things in preparation for my upcoming overnight train ride to Shanghai. Then, situated comfortably in the common room of the hostel, I wrote a little and talked with the staff. Soon after, they asked if I’d like to join them tea and lunch, and I immediately agreed.

I’ve always made tea using a tea bag in a mug of hot water. This is so far from what I experienced here that it seems like a completely different drink, and because I want to remember how to make the tea that I had this morning, this will serve as instructions for how to make said tea.

chinese tea

The supplies for this operation include small tea cups that hold less than an ounce of tea, one tea pot to steep the tea, one tea pot to serve the tea, hot water, and obviously, the tea leaves. One person will act as server and all other participants will only drink and enjoy the finished product. The rules to be observed by the non-serving participants are as follows:

  • Hold the tea cup with your thumb and index finger, and place your other three fingers underneath. Note: Men should have their ring and pinkie fingers tucked below their middle finger, while women can have their ring and pinkie fingers more free form.
  • Smell the tea, note its color, and then taste.
  • If you want more tea, place the tea cup back on the serving tray.
  • If you are no longer thirsty, place the tea cup on the table in front of you.
  • If you re-find your thirst, you can move the tea cup from the table in front of you to the serving tray.
  • Gestures indicating “cheers” or “l’chaim” are encouraged but not required.

The instructions for the server are necessarily more sequential and more involved than those for the drinking participants, and I unfortunately I will probably be unable to recap this process perfectly as much was lost in translation while I was being taught.

  1. Warm the water. Note: If working with tap water in a foreign environment, bring to boil for at least one minute.
  2. Pour hot water in the empty steeping pot to both cleanse and warm the pot.
  3. Place strainer on top of serving pot in preparation to catch tea leaves, and transfer hot water to serving pot for same reasons as above.
  4. Transfer hot water once again to tea cups and pour out all remaining water. Note: If working on a tray that drains water, pour out water directly on tray. If not, dispose of water into a separate designated receptacle.
  5. Place tea leaves in steeping pot and pour in hot water. Note: Temperature of water will depend on type of tea leaves used.
  6. Let steep in pot for amount of time determined by type of tea leaves used.
  7. Pour from steeping pot through the strainer to the serving pot while attempting to prevent tea leaves from escaping the steeping pot.
  8. Remove strainer and serve tea into tea cups.
  9. The same tea leaves can be re-used many times, which again is determined by the type of tea leaves used.
  10. Subsequent of steeping will require a different amount of time than the first.
  11. Adhere to the rules governing the drinking participants and serve until all participants are satisfied.

Later this same day after walking through Baihai park, I ventured to a shopping district where I found a great tea shop. I walk in, get approached by several employees, and after showing the faintest bit of interest, get escorted throughout the store as I learn more about tea. After making it clear that I might not purchase anything, they still sit me down at a private table, and I begin tasting a variety of teas including Oolang, Green, and Jasmine. The Jasmine tea is tightly wrapped in handmade small balls, which eventually unravel as they encounter hot water. After tasting these teas and trying new snacks in-between tastings, I realize two things. First that tea could make a very good gift, and second that gift giving is an elegant Chinese tradition for saying thank you and showing respect. In the end, I purchase tea to give to William and the other hostel staff, who have all treated me so warmly.