This is my first full day at home after my visit to China, and I’ve just enjoyed a nice cup of tea. Tea is one of our national clichés – the universal British remedy for everything, from broken hearts to bereavement, and also the beverage that most Brits look forward to the most when returning home from foreign adventures. However, I can hardly claim to have been tea-deprived during my five-day sojourn in Shanghai or the two days I spent in Beijing. Tea is what you drink with every meal in China, and there are hundreds of different kinds. I managed to sample a few of them, sometimes in very special surroundings. It is served with some ceremony in restaurants: waiters hover with teapots and fill your cup again as soon as you’ve drained it. As with wine, special kinds of tea are recommended for some types of food: for example, a rich, smoky tea accompanied the duck that I ate in the original Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (more of this in a separate post). Tea is also used in very traditional restaurants to cleanse crockery and cutlery at the table.
I had only two half-days to myself, as mine was a business trip, not a holiday, but, aided by some kind Asian colleagues, I was able to make the most of them. On the Sunday after I arrived in Shanghai, I took a taxi to the Yu Garden,
a mesmerising complex of temples, waterways and ancient shops, and, after an hour or two of sightseeing, found myself standing outside the fabled Huxinting Tea House, the oldest tea house in Shanghai (the building is about 230 years old, becoming a tea house in 1855).
Naturally, I went in and was delighted to find that I’d chanced upon a mid-afternoon lull in business, so it wasn’t too crowded.
Inside, the tea house is opulent but not flamboyant. The waitresses are dressed in a uniform based on one of the many forms of Chinese national dress and they are attentive but unobtrusive. There are scores of types of tea to choose from, some of them extremely expensive. I chose jasmine, which came in a glass jug and was accompanied by two aromatic sweetmeats.
It was quite delicious: fragrant and refreshing, exotic without being strange. It wasn’t cheap, either: it cost the same as a couple of lattes from Starbucks would have cost in the UK, which by Chinese standards is very expensive indeed. But it was well worth the price: I understand why Chinese people think that the tea house is so special and come here for a treat. It’s not only the ambience inside the building itself that gives so much pleasure; it is also being able to look out across the water of the lake in which it stands on stilts to the picturesque buildings beyond. The paths and walkways are always teeming with people and the tea house itself offers a haven of tranquillity from which to observe them, as well as a feeling of privilege. The elderly couple sitting next to me were obviously savouring every moment, whilst also engaging in a very animated conversation.
Each type of tea is served in a different type of vessel and theirs was in terracotta pots with lids, which they had refilled more than once. I’d have loved to have been able to ask them what their choice had been.
Since I came home, I’ve read about the Huxinting Tea House online and discovered that the Queen has visited it. I don’t suppose that she had to worry about the cost of her tea, but I do wonder if, having imbibed its product, Her Maj was constrained to use the establishment’s facilities. If so, I’d like to know what she made of the shaft-style convenience,
which was the first, but by no means the last, of this type of porcelain that I encountered in China. (I should add that the one in the Huxinting Tea House was spotless.)
I wanted to bring some tea home with me, but was advised against buying it from one of the specialist purveyors of tea or at the airport as being prohibitively expensive in either. On my last day in Beijing, I therefore walked to a local supermarket and bought two types of tea there, one of them a chrysanthemum tea that I’d first seen earlier in the week when it was ordered by a librarian during a conference that took place at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. On that occasion, it was served in a tall glass mug with a mash of dried chrysanthemum flowers floating on the surface of the hot water. More prosaically, I think that my own purchase will consist of more conventional-looking tea leaves, albeit made out of chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemum tea sounds unpleasant – I was sceptical until I tried it, thinking that it might taste as the half-dead ‘chrysanths’ which I remember adorning the graves in Spalding Cemetery used to smell, but in fact it is delicate to the taste-buds and very refreshing.
Going to the supermarket offered me one of only a few rare opportunities to encounter ordinary Chinese people as they went about their business. I was grateful for this experience. Once again, I was also astounded by how expensive the tea was and how greatly prized. In the supermarket where I bought mine, it was kept upstairs with the alcohol and closely guarded by a security man. It cost about three times as much as a packet of ‘builder’s tea’ in England. I wonder what Chinese builders drink? I’d like to think that their day is fuelled by an infusion of chrysanthemums!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James