The Art of Tea-making

Chinese people generally drink tea by Chinese tea sets in two major ways. Some, according to their personal taste, like to add salt sugar, milk, shallot, orange peel, mint, longan, and Chinese date into tea while drinking, whereas some others only cook tea with boiled water without adding anything to spoil the original taste of tea. This is called "pure drinking," in which way some people drink with big bowls to satisfy thirst, and some others who emphasize the color, fragrance and taste of tea and are particular about the water quality would sip and appreciate the tea slowly. If equal importance is given to the drinking atmosphere, tea cooking technique, as well as public relations, one has to go to teahouse to appreciate "tea ceremony". Tea ceremonies are not mystic. They are both commonplace and elevated, just like the character of Chinese people, casual and natural, not restricted by certain patterns.

The Chinese have an inveterate habit of drinking tea. The way of drinking tea goes through a change from simplicity to complication and then back to simplicity again—from frying to cooking, from roll tea to loose tea. At the very beginning, people put leaves directly into the teapot to boil, just as Shen Nong did. Later, with the improvement of tea production and preservation skills, people ground tea leaves to make tea cake and added water when drinking it. Up to Ming Dynasty, loose tea leaves completely replaced tea cake to take the lead in tea drinking, and has continued ever since.

It's recorded in documents that as early as 2000 BC, Sichuan Province in southwest China already produced tea leaves, and even presented them as tribute to the royal family of Kingdom Zhou. Some scholars also found out that the discovery and usage of tea has a history of at least 10,000 years. Still, it has been a long time before tea was widely accepted as a kind of drink. Within a very long period, tea is as important as medicine, or even more important than, it is food and drink.

The earliest way of making use of tea is probably that people picked leaves off the tree and put them directly in mouth, just like what Shen Nong did. According to the record in ancient books of China, in the time of Spring and Autumn (770-476 BC), a chancellor named Yan Yin (?-500 BC) led a very frugal life. He ate rice and few meat dishes every day, with some Ming (meaning tea in Chinese) dishes. What is Ming dish? It is fresh tea leaves used as a dish to accompany rice. This custom of eating tea as a dish is still in action in some ethnic groups of China nowadays. Some ethnic groups in Yunnan pound tea leaves into little pieces, add garlic, pepper and salt, and make delicious cold dishes of them. Tea leaves can also be pickled in bamboo canisters. Knead the fresh leaves after steaming them soft, put them in a bamboo canister and pestle them tight dry them, and seal the canister for the leave pieces to ferment. After two or three months, the pieces are taken out put in a jar, and added spices suck as balm. You can take them out any time you want to eat. Even in the time of Wei and Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties, when drinking tea was in full swing because of the influence of Buddhism, the custom of having tea as a dish was not entirely extinct. At that time, some boiled tea with porridge, called Ming porridge. Some others boiled tea with flour, called flour tea. Today, whenever you enter a chop house in any city in China, you can almost always order tea eggs. Add tea leaves when boiling eggs, so the eggs will have the fragrance of tea leaves-this is an old tradition of China, in the time of Wei. Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties, it was popular to grind tea leaves and make them into tea cakes. The main processing method was "steaming green" to take out the grass flavor by steaming. It included steaming, drenching. pressing, grinding, baking and many other procedures. After picking and sorting the leaves, people washed them several times to scour off the dust and impurities. After being steamed in a hoi low ware, the leaves were drenched with cold water to cool. After that the water should be pressed out and leaves were put into certain containers for grinding. The ground leaves were made into the shape of cakes with holes in the middle for thread to string them together. These cakes were then put into a sealed room to bake and dry. after which cakes could be sealed up for keeping. When drinking the tea, the cakes were crumbled and shallot, ginger, orange and other condiments could be added.

Lu Yu and the book of tea made stipulations as to the drinking utensils, the choice of water, and elaborately introduced the drinking method of "Three Boil," which is as follows. First, bake the tea cake on fire a little while to get rid of the water in the cakes and to render the tea cakes hard and crisp. Then grind the cakes into powder with specially made tools. What follows is to fry tea, for which an ancient cooking vessel called Ding (a huge pot on three posts) or Fu (like a kettle) is used. Lu Yu thought that salt could add to the fresh flavor of tea, so he maintained that salt should be added when water just started boiling. When the water boils for the second time, scoop it out with a gourd ladle and stir the water with bamboo dips to even the temperature. After fully stirring the water, drop tea powder into it and go on stirring. When froth appears, pour the ladle of water just now out for tea to cool and for more froth. It is at this moment that Ding or Fu can be removed from the fire and tea can be drunk. It is also stated in the book that three bowls of tea would be enough If the tea is top class, five bowls for tea of a little less good quality. If there are guests, three bowls are drunk by each when there are five guests and five bowk are drunk by each if there are seven guests. After all, tea is not a drink that is the more the better. The amount of tea you drink has something to do with decorum as well as its taste.

It can be said that it was after Lu Yu wrote The Book of Tea that under the leadership of scholars, people elevated the state of tea from eating, drinking to appreciating. It has become a high- taste delight of life to appreciate tea. which gave people unworldly spiritual joy. On the other hand, it also showed that the state of plain tea and simple food' could no longer meet some one's requirements, and developing and summarizing tea techniques opened a new field for them to seek a better and more refined life style.

When it came to Song Dynasty, the pursuit for refinement of tea drinking reached its peak and became a ceremonial activity. Song Dynasty inherited the usage of tea cakes but abandoned the method of frying for cooking. There are a lot of preparations before cooking. First the tea cakes should be checked. If preserved for years, the cakes should be soaked in boiling water for a while to dispel about one Liang of grease. If it's a cake of the same year, it can be ground into powder directly. Song people chose narrow necked bottle to boil water and the water was better to be boiled just twice. Before cooking, the tea cups should be warmed with slow fire for fear that the boiling water poured into the cup would quickly cool down. Then put the ground tea powder into the cup and add little boiling water to mix them into the shape of cream. Then slowly add more water and keep stirring it with a little brushing broom to create froth. Song people liked the original taste of tea leaves and sneered at people's adding salt, ginger or other condiments into tea. The customs of tea drinking reached its height in Song Dynasty. Men of literature and writing not only held tea parties frequently, but competed in their skill at cooking tea in those parties. These were called "Contest of Tea" or "Competition of Ming." which were in vogue for quite a while.

During Tang and Song, the tribute tea exclusive for royal use was all cake tea, and tea rakes in Song were especially delicate. After the leaven were steamed and dried, they were ground with water and adjusted into glue, only then were they put into moulds to be molded into shape. Roll tea or cake tea made in this way was of various shapes-square, round, oval, polygon, etc. There were various vivid patterns on the surface as well. After the molding, cakes had to be baked from 6 to 15 times before they were drenched with hot water to make their color fresh and bright. Finally, the drenched cakes were put into a sealed room to be fanned to cool rapidly. The next day they should be baked and dried with slow fire. Only after all these steps was the beautiful and wonderful cake tea at last completed.

The tribute tea in Song was mostly in the pattern of dragon and phoenix, called Dragon & Phoenix Cake. Each tribute tea could only be presented for 5 years After 5 years new types should be developed, so local officers in charge of the collecting of tea always racked their brains to design something new. Cai Xiang, writer of Record of Tea, succeeded in inventing the more delicate small-dragon cake, based on the original big-dragon cake. 20 small-dragon cakes weighed about 0.5 kilo, worth as much as 1/10 kilo of gold Afterwards, a man named Jia Qing invented Miyun Dragon tea. Since every step in the making process wm made as perfect as possible, this new kind of In cake was greatly favored by the king for its refinement and delicacy. It even brought the king some troubles Mivun Dragon In was produced in a small amount. After sacrificed to the ancestors and enjoyed by the king of Song, there wasn't much left. However, it was so exquisite and renowned that royal relatives and dose ministers always asked the king (or some. The king w» very annoyed by the constant importuning, so he gave orders to stop the production of this tea. After this, Miyun Dragon tea was even more expensive.

In spite of its easy preservation, tea cake is time and energy consuming when being made, and inconvenient when being drunk, so it was less and less welcomed. What is more, leaves will lose part of their juice in the process of being made into cakes and are easy to produce grease, which is hardly acceptable for the tea lovers who attach much importance to the tranquility and natural charm of tea. Therefore, after Yuan Dynasty, the natural taste of tea was getting more and more attention. Taking over the regime from Yuan, the first emperor of Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, abolished the complicated and costly cake tea and accepted only loose tea as tribute, in order lo restore the country from the after-war state of ruin. He also advocated cooking lea with full leaves rather than grinding leaves into powder. A man named Lu Shusheng in Ming Dynasty wrote Book of Jasmine. in which he specifically pointed out the ways of cooking tea. In summer, boiled water should be poured into the apparatus before leaves were put in for fear the water would bum the leaves to be ripe. In winter, leaves came in before hot water for fear low water temperature couldn't bring out the taste of tea. Accordingly. Ming people changed their tea apparatus from large teapots to small pot. because in big pot, tea taste dispersed too quickly, while mini teapots could better keep its fragrance. In this way. with Zhu Yuanzhang's earnest advocacy, loose tea soon took the position of cake tea. By the middle of Ming Dynasty, the once highly fashionable tea cakes and competitions of Ming already belonged to the past, almost completely out of existence.

Loose tea was not an Invention of Ming people because the “frying green" method of making loose tea was recorded as early as in Tang Dynasty, though the technique of "frying green" was perfected in Ming. Frying green was far less complicated than steaming green, but there was still much to pay attention to. First, the tool should not be unused iron pan, which had the smell of iron. Second, the pan should not be tainted with oil, for the flavor of tea was thin and weak and could be easily spoiled by oil. When frying green, the pan should be first warmed with slow fire, and then leaves were put into it. The amount of tea leaves should not be too large at a time, only about 05 kilo. When the pan began making cracking sounds and leaves softened, we used quick fire and fried rapidly. Wooden fingertips should be used when frying green, quick stirring and frying made sure that the leaves were evenly heated. Meanwhile fans were used to let out the heat in time. When leaves were done, they were spread thinly on a dustpan, fanned to cool, and softly kneaded and twisted to let the tea oil thoroughly immerge. In the end, twisted leaves were put back into the pan and baked and dried with slow fire.

Heating is a crucial factor in steaming green or frying green. Too big fire ages and withers the leaves while too small fire can't dispel the grass smell and can't fully keep the tea fragrance. Therefore our ancestors set many regulations about fire. For instance, when frying green, it's better to choose branches as fuel rather than dry leaves, for dry leaves bum and go out very quickly, which makes it difficult to control the temperature. In order to better control temperature, some people suggest using charcoal fire, particularly when baking and drying.

It goes in the myths that tea attracted the recognition and advocacy of Shen Nong for its capability to detoxify. May be it's because of this that has long kept Chinese people's favor for its medical value. The famous litterateur Sima Xiangru (179-117 BC) of Western Han has recorded 20 kinds of medicine of Sichuan, tea being one of them. A celebrity in the Southern Dynasty drank a Dou (a Chinese measurement unit, about 10 liters) of tea a time, and was jokingly called by people as "Lou Zhi." meaning bottomless cup. Why did he drink so much tea? Contemporary people believed that tea could not only make drunken people sober up and keep people awake, but could remove tiredness and keep people strong and energetic. It could also help people dispel anxiety or irritation, and even elevated them to be celestial. An emperor of Sui Dynasty (581-618) fell ill and a monk told him that tea could cure his disease. The famous doctor of Ming Dynasty Li Shizhen (1518-1593) wrote in his Compendium of Materia Medica, "Tea is bitter and cold, the coldest of colds and most able to subdue human heat. Once the heat goes, the body goes right." As a result, for many years, tea is not only a drink, but is also used as a cheap herbal medicine.

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