Tea Ceremony Part II: Do One and Teach…

After the tea ceremony, Erin asked me if I would like to learn how to make tea. I said yes (of course!), and so I gave Erin 600rmb (about $100) to buy me a red clay teapot. I think that the red clay teapots are the pretty because they have a great old look to them. Over time, they will absorb the flavor of the tea they carry, so it’s best to brew only one type of tea in a red clay pot. They will also change color, developing a rich patina after many uses.

This photo was borrowed from the internet, as I don't have a fancy white background.

This photo was borrowed from the internet, as I don’t have a fancy white background.

If you are a fan of the new Sherlock Holmes series “Sherlock,” then you should recognize the following tea pot from the episode “The Blind Banker.” The historian at the museum does the tea ceremony in order to keep the tea sets beautiful.

Lily provided me some oolong tea to use – so my traditional red clay pot will be an oolong tea pot, which is also very traditional.

Before I can use my teapot, I have to learn the ceremony. Erin teaches me a modified version, so that I don’t have to pause after each motion. “This is if you have friends over,” she explains as the water boils. We’re using her tea set, and my cups.

In essence, with oolong tea and a red clay pot, it’s rinsing, heating, and repeating. The first infusion is used to rinse the cups and then discarded. With the second infusion, one overfills the pot, then uses the lid to scrape the bubbles off in a circular motion.

The hardest thing about the whole deal is holding the pot while it’s piping hot. In the proper serving of tea in China, one does not grip the handle of anything. Erin adjusts my fingers on the pot, making me feel like I have hands like mutton roasts. I know this is not true – I actually feel as though I have graceful hands – but there is nothing like someone chuckling at your finger placement to get you reevaluating. Then, to pour, you place two fingertips on the side of the lid. It sounds straightforward, but to make oolong tea you rinse the outside of the pot with boiling water to equalize temperature, so you are touching extremely hot clay. And you have to maintain grace.

Beauty is supposed to be worth a little pain, right? Based on the complements, this seems correct.

Each cup is rinsed by holding the outsides with the thumb, index, and middle fingers and rotating in opposing circles. The second infusion of the tea is poured first into a glass pitcher, and then into the taller smelling cups. The tasting cup is put over the smelling cup, and then (this is tricky), holding the two pressed together between the three fingers, the pair is flipped over in one smooth motion. The smelling cup is lifted gently up, making small circles along the interior of the tasting cup. This releases the tea.

Smell the remains of the tea in the smelling cup. Some suggest rolling the cup along the face, as the heat is like a mini massage. I would smell the tea cup first, even if you don’t roll the cup along your face. Always pour from left to right.

This, in my halting explanation, is the basics for one type of tea.

I’ve never seen a guy do the tea ceremony, not in all my months here. Perhaps if I stay long enough, I’ll see it. The whole thing – the time commitment, the burning fingertips, the need for grace, the expectations – I can’t tell if I think it’s sexist or not. Perhaps it’s just a different definition of what makes something “feminine.” And perhaps I’ve been conditioned to balk at any attempt at such definitions.

Now that I have learned, Erin instructs me on how to season my red clay pot before I use it. Like seasoning cast iron, there are steps which need to be taken in order to ensure my teapot will have a new life.

How to season a red clay pot:

1. Put the teapot in cold water and then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove and let cool completely.
2. Fill the teapot with tofu (bean curd).
3. Put in cold water and simmer until you can “smell the bean curd in the kitchen.” Remove and let cool completely.
4. Wash/rinse pot in warm water. DO NOT USE SOAP.
5. Add sugar to a pot of cold water. Put teapot in water and simmer again, until you can “smell the sugar.”
6. Remove and rinse in warm water. Let cool completely.
7. Take one package of tea (tea to be used in future) and add to cold water. Place teapot in water, and simmer for one hour.
8. Rinse and let cool.

Note: If the teapot goes unused for a few days, rinse in warm water and let dry completely – roughly eight hours was the recommendation I got.

Got it? Go forth, and enjoy your tea!



Tea Ceremony Part I : See one…

The English language teachers, having realized that my door is always unlocked, that I am in the office about fourteen hours a day, and that I am by myself for about twelve of them, have decided that it is time for me, as I near the end of my trial stay, to learn all about Chinese culture.

Biting back my cynicism, I agree. It is better to learn and enjoy than to wallow in self-pity and snarky observations.

First, I learn about the Chinese tea ceremony. Erin invites the teacher who is in charge of teaching the tea ceremonies down to the office. The teachers arrange the desks and set out the tea tray, kettle, pots, cups, spoons, carafes, tongs and tea containers on the desk, creating a scene that would be beautiful on any other surface than a generic white IKEA desk. The tea trays are nifty little devices, with slatted tops and a bit of tube on the bottom, which allows for water and discarded tea to drain into a bucket on the floor.

Beautiful setting, utilitarian locale

Beautiful setting, utilitarian locale

I don’t know the tea ceremony teacher, and she does not speak English. Luckily, I have five teachers who are eager to practice their translation skills. The school’s photographer shows up (I don’t know who the informant is), and immediately starts snapping pictures.

Did you know that there are different ways of brewing different types of teas? For example, you put jasmine tea into the larger teacup, and use the lid to brush away the leaves when you drink. For oolong, you use the first infusion to wash both the tasting and smelling cups, and drink the following. Green tea is made in a tall clear glass so you can watch the leaves “dance.” I learned the basics of this when I was in Shanghai and went to a tea shop.

There is something much more lovely about the ceremony. The teacher is the epitome of grace. After every motion she flourishes with her hands in a small arc. She only uses her fingertips to touch most things, even though the pots and cups are very hot. And each tea has its own ceremony and its own history. I like it much more than the store ceremonies, even though I know the teacher trains students for just that purpose. In the store, they push what each tea will cure – black tea for diabetes, ginseng oolong for detox, green for fighting cancer, etc. It’s not about the history, or the beauty or symbolism in the gestures – it’s business and sales and money. I respect that, but seeing a ceremony done simply for the ceremony is a far more enlightening experience.

And by going slow and smelling and sipping, a tea ceremony is respectful of your time. It puts a value on your presence. There is no hurrying the kettle. You sit and drink, chat and wait, and become more aware of yourself and those around you. I found it to be incredibly relaxing, even though conversation was a little scattered because of the language barriers.

The slow pace of drinking tea here and the small portions makes taking tea almost like tasting wine. There is much more character in the leaves than I would have thought, many more layers of flavor. I really like pu’er tea, a dark red tea that has a smoky taste. I also like oolong because one infusion can be smooth and light, the second infusion bitter and woody, and the third sweet and mellow. Oolong is the like the chameleon of teas. Green tea is a workhorse tea, though green tea with jasmine is floral and pleasant. The men who drive the pedal taxis have clear glass thermoses packed with green tea, which lasts them throughout the day. My “last a whole day” tea is buckwheat tea, with its sweet, earthen taste that smells of fields.

At the supermarket (which I will write on later), there’s a buffet of tea options. Dried lemons, dried rose hips, dried flowers and fruits – it’s like a build-a-bear workshop, but with teas. You can see how tea is ingrained in their culture, their mindset. It’s served in place of water in the restaurants (though this is more because tap water is not quite potable unless boiled).

I make tea at home with a kettle, and I will, on occasion steep leaves and take my time. I try to avoid using the microwave. I make my tea in a big coffee mug with a handle. I do not drink my tea delicately, though I do savor the taste. I drink my big mug of tea while I write, or do needlepoint. I tried having a glass tea pot for my flowering teas – twice, actually. Both times my family cracked them through disrespectful usage, and so I gave up delicacy in favor of thick ceramic mugs.

It’s nice to pretend that I could drink tea from a cup which holds less than a shot glass, that drinking tea can be such a delicate, tiny affair.

And don’t you fret, coffee pot – you are still my morning ritual.


I decided to put one of my videos of the ceremony here – this is the making of jasmine green tea. I want to mildly apologize for the quality of this video – I took it on my phone and didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere by moving around.