The Tea Ceremony

Today’s Post by Ken MacAdams

Nestled close to Xi’an’s South Gate entrance, just inside the Old City Wall, is a section known as the “Art District.” Within this area you’ll find hundreds of galleries, art supply shops, and framing businesses. There’s also a interesting calligraphy museum, which details the development and refining of Chinese writing and art over the centuries. A contact had invited us to visit a gallery in the district. Mr. Chen’s gallery is just inside of the Old City wall, which we could see from his doorway.

We were give a warm welcome, and asked to sit for tea. Tea is taken seriously in China, and a tea ceremony is a serious undertaking! We were seated on low stools, around a special pouring table. On the table was a small teapot and six tiny cups, a pot of boiling water and another small container with tea leaves. The Master of Ceremonies begins by heating the teapot and each of the tiny cups with some boiling water, which is then discarded. Next, boiling water is poured over loose tea leaves, allowed to steep, and that blend is poured through a strainer into the warmed teapot. From the teapot, each tiny cup is filled. While you’re drinking tea, the tea master is back pouring more boiling water over the the tea leaf mixture. After straining, he promptly refills your mini cup! An empty little two-sip cup means you’ll get a refill, which they’ll do until your bladder bursts or you quit drinking!!

Time consuming? Yes, but a tea ceremony isn’t a chug and run affair! From ancient times it was a form of hospitality, a ceremony from the tea pot, the cups, to the tea. You may be familiar with white, red, green, or black teas, but blending is only one part that gives each tea its personality. Where the tea is grown, what it’s blended with, how it’s packaged, and how long it’s aged, all weigh in on its desirability! We’re not talking tea bags here, folks, this is about tea ‘bricks’! Bricks of tea come in all sizes, from small tins, to big blocks. Depending on the blending and aging, a block of compressed tea the size of a hard back novel, retails for $200, and upward!

Already seated at the tea table was a well known Chinese artist/teacher, who displayed and sold his artwork through this gallery. With ChuRen as interpreter, we visited with this interesting gentleman and the owner. During the tea ceremony, the artist learned that Mary was an artist, and interested in calligraphy. Hearing that, he rose and prepared a large 13″ X 20″ panel of rice paper. With all of us looking on, he selected a brush, and in large Chinese characters, painted “Happiness and Long Life”! After signing it, he presented it to Mary! What a special, generous gift!  

You may wonder how I mixed a tea ceremony with an art gallery experience? Mr. Chen’s business is a gallery, which also sells brushes, inks, and a variety of papers. But in the age old manner of doing business in China, there is the social aspect. Life used to be slower here, and the tea ceremony was an interaction between merchant and buyer. It’s not the only business we’ve seen with a tea table in place. But this day was an unique experience, a view into a slice of China life a tourist would never experience.

All images taken with a Panasonic Lumix G85, Lumix 12–60mm Image stabilized lens, AWB, Auto ISO, (with the range set between 1600 and limited to 3200), Program mode. All images handheld.