Have you ever heard the line, “All the tea in China?” Well, I think I saw most of it in one tea district in South China. I was in the city of Guangzhou with my Chinese son, Zhang Yijun, also known as Crescent. I had mentioned the day before while we were eating lunch that I really liked the tea that was being served at the restaurant. I casually mentioned that I would like to find some tea like this to take home with me. Chinese friends never forget statements such as these and especially never miss a chance to give a foreigner, or friend, a gift.
On Sunday, after our excursion to the old Langtao Village, Yijun had told his parents of my desire to buy some good tea. Yijun told me where they were now taking me to a Tea Market. He also said that his Baba loves tea as well and he was going to take me to the tea market where he shopped for his tea supply. I was expecting a store… WOW, it was so much more than a store! The tea market was several blocks in all directions of nothing but tea shops. Now to be sure, this was a central distribution center for much of the tea in China to be packaged and shipped around the world, but most of the various companies had a store front to shop and peruse for the tea of your delight and the various accessories that accompanied the tea industry.
I walked around a bit, taking pictures of what I was seeing in front of me. This was an experience that is not on the usual tourist track of those visiting China, but it was amazing. After I was somewhat satisfied that I was digitally capturing the moment, Yijun’s Baba motioned for us to follow him. We walked a block or so more and entered what I later found out was his favorite store in the market. He knew the proprietor, spoke some Chinese to her while pointing to me and Crescent. She smiled, welcomed me in a dialect that I didn’t recognize. Crescent told me she was from another city where her family owned the tea farm and she ran the distribution in Guangzhou. They showed me around the large barrels of various tea varieties and many unique paraphernalia needed for properly preparing tea with its Chinese.
It was time to shop for tea. I was escorted to the back of the store where they had a glassed off room with a large ornately designed table that looked like it was carved and crafted out of one large piece of wood for the table top. The proprietor was a young Chinese woman that was well dressed, unlike many of the worker-bees, and she seemed to command the authority of the management of this operation. I was probably told her name but I can’t recall. She was a Tea Master in that she was trained in the art of expertly brewing and serving the tea her family grew and sold. It is called a Kung Fu Tea Ceremony.
According to Wikipedia, “The Kung Fu Tea Ceremony (Chinese: 工夫茶 or 功夫茶), involves the ritual preparation and presentation of tea. It is probably based on the tea preparation approaches originated in Fujian and the Chaoshan area of eastern Guangdong. The term literally means "making tea with skill." Today, the approach is used popularly by teashops carrying tea of Chinese origins, and by tea connoisseurs as a way to maximize the taste of a tea selection, especially a finer one.”
The table and seating had plumbing running to it so that she could prepare the next tea flavor while we were tasting her current offering of tea. The Tea Master made sure the water was steeped to a certain temperature but not quite boiling. Through Yijun translating for me she explained the various ways that each tea was grown, harvested, dried and prepared for drinking. Yijun and his father told her what they knew I liked in tea based on some of the teas I had consumed while eating meals with them. They went back in forth in conversation with the Tea Master before she finally turned to a few assistants and directed them with loud language and waiving of her hand.
Soon they had a variety of teas for which she was planning on brewing for my tasting. As she opened up each container she allowed me to smell the tea before passing it to the others to do so. Then with lots of conversation she told of the origins of each tea, how to best brew them, what to eat with each tea and what the nutritional value was for each sample. Yujin had to work overtime to try and keep up with his translation for me to understand what she was communicating. As we tasted each tea the Zhang’s waited to see the expression on my face to see if I like it. Unfortunately for them, I liked all of them. In fact, while I could taste some slight difference in each, I really had no preference from one to another, and to be honest, there was so much information being delivered in another language, translated to English and in a very rapid pace that it was all a bit confusing. After the brewing and tasting of each they asked me if I liked that tea? “Yes, yes I did,” I said. They took that to mean I wanted to take that flavor home. What I didn’t know was that Yijun’s parents were planning on paying for all of this. I really didn’t want them to do that, but I had a hard time keeping that from happening. After serving me one particular tea, she looked at me and told they others that it would help me lose weight and reduce my bulging belly!
About half way through the Kung Fu Tea Service I noticed that a few different young people would wander into the room for no apparent reason. These were girls from about 14-15 years old down to a little girl As an extrovert I always wanted to say hello, and upon doing so I was always told that they were related to the tea master in some way and wanted to see what we were doing. More likely, said Yijun, they wanted to see the American. The tea service all started sounding the same and I was honestly more interested in the people and the business. One of the younger girls looked like she was about five years old. She walked up to the Tea Master and promptly crawled up into her lap. I asked if that was her daughter and she smiled affirmatively. She apologized for her daughter’s intrusion but I assured her that I thought it was endearing and encouraged her to continue with her daughter in her lap. The little girl was very ku ai! (cute)
I decided to engage these young girls, so I pulled out Flat Stanley! There were all confused with what I was doing with this “paper doll” but listened carefully as I explained. The more I explained, and Yijun translated, the bigger their smiles got, until they were all laughing in agreement with the fun I was having with Flat! What else was I supposed to do but make sure Flat had his picture made with each of his new friends. I had used Flat in many ways during this adventure but he never was more valuable to me than he was at this moment.
As we began the final descent into conclusion of the Kung Fu Teas Service, I wanted to get up and greet each person a little bit more. I had my photo made with the Tea Master and tried to thank her in my limited Chinese. Unfortunately, most of what I could say was in Mandarin and they spoke primarily Cantonese. However, I’ve found that “thank you” is expressed with and without words in a universal manner. She knew exactly what I was trying to communicate and she reciprocated with a warm gesture of appreciation for me being there. I left the Kung Fu Tea Ceremony with what seemed like a lifetime supply of Chinese tea. I’m really anxious to see if my waist-line is reduced after a few weeks of drinking this tea.
Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at email@example.com.