What’s the most British thing you can think of? One of the first things that springs to mind is a steaming cup of tea, with (possibly, if you’re feeling luxurious) a biscuit to dunk according to the strict British dunk regulations.
But in China, tea is not just an enjoyable drink for a cold afternoon, but medicine, a ceremony and is even takes on spiritual and deep cultural meanings. Chinese children are taught the fairy tale of Shen Nong. According to some versions of the tale, after walking for a long while, he stopped and boiled some water. Some leaves fell into it and after drinking it, he suddenly felt lively and refreshed. In other versions, he tries 72 varieties of poisonous plant and finally, whilst dying, eats some tea leaves. They detoxified his body and all the poison.
Whether or not it has spiritual properties, tea has always played a key role in Chinese societies. ‘The Book of Tea’ was written around 760 CE, and it’s author Lu Yu was dubbed ‘The Saint of Tea’. You could be forgiven that ‘General Remarks on Tea’ was a parody of an academic article written in the 21st century, but no – Emperor Huizong wrote this very serious book in the 12th century CE. One Chinese minister of finance was even fired for imposing too heavy taxes on tea – so beware digestive taxes!
Many of the different types of tea are representative of mood and spirit. Forget English Breakfast, green tea is simple and light which is recommended for periods of study, black tea is rather ‘ladylike’, Oolong tea (which, I am ashamed to admit, I had to google) which is warm and deep, for philosophers, and dark tea symbolises the wisdom of the elderly. Tea has been favoured above wine for being reserved and polite, compared to the ‘violent and intoxicating’ alcohol in Chinese gentry.
Things I’ve learned this week:
- Don’t worry if you’ve been poisoned 72 times – a cup of tea is always the answer
- No-one in China found ‘General Remarks on Tea’ hilarious. I guess I’ll just return to my 21st century immaturity.
- Don’t tax tea. Just don’t do it.
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