CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


No. 29, March 2012

Tea 茶

China Heritage Quarterly

When the empire is peaceful, Sichuan is the first to have a rebellion;
When order is established in the empire, Sichuan is still in chaos.

Tea and politics, teahouses and activism, gathering and gossiping, all of these things mark the life of tea in China's largest inland empire, that of Sichuan 四川. Given the dramatic events of the first months of the Dragon Year of 2012, an ancient saying about the restive nature of what was once the Kingdom of Shu 蜀 would appear to be an appropriate place to launch our issue-length meditation on tea.

Fig.1 人散後,一鈎新月天如水,TK(豐子愷)畫
'After everyone has departed/
The new moon a hook, the sky like water', TK (Feng Zikai), 1924

In Sichuan they call it 'laying out the dragon formation' 擺龍門陣. An ancient military tactic famous in China's southwest, the 'dragon formation' has, over the years, became a popular expression used to describe the setting of verbal stoushes and gossip. In teahouses throughout the province, men and women have gathered over the years, often sitting on bamboo stools or reclining chairs, with small tables scattered about, tea cups and teapots mixed among clutches of locals, visitors and passers-by. Amidst the clatter and the long, slow sipping of tea, people discuss matters pertaining to 'All-Under-Heaven' 天下事兒. Although the Internet has become the virtual space of choice for the movement of idle chatter in recent years, it is the heritage of tea and the teahouse that bound people in conversation and conviviality in the past.

In the teahouse people would engage in idle gossip 閒談, chat 聊天, rant 侃山 and brag shamelessly 吹牛. It was, and in many places throughout China, an environment in which tall tales 大話 and arrant nonsense 廢話 can hold the day; it's also where the chatter on the streets 道聽途說 is elaborated and circulates with the speed of a prairie fire. It is over tea too that people gather to play mah-jongg with clamorous concentration, although tea is just as much a boon companion that is suited to quieter moments of relaxed repose 閒適 and thoughtfulness 静思, as it is for conviviality and calm conversation.

As the Guest Editor of this issue Daniel Sanderson points out, this is the first time China Heritage Quarterly has focussed on a tangible consumer item, and it is a product, a drink and a status symbol that encompasses elements both democratic and autocratic. A few leaves brewed or steeped in boiling water create one of the most ubiquitous elements of everyday life in China. But the varieties and qualities of tea provide an equally unparalleled vehicle for the more noxious aspects of social behaviour, a civilizing process that relies on distinctions and discrimination. Tea is graded according to strict hierarchies relating to 'terroir', quality and price. In recent times lavishly packaged premium teas have become another means for people to engage in competitive displays of wealth 鬥富, to parade their profligacy 擺闊 and to ingratiate themselves 鑽營, be it with power-holders or business grandees. But, as our colleague Li Baoping 李寶平 points out, 'tea contending' 鬥茶, or competitive demonstration of techniques of brewing or whipping premium-grade tea, often in rare and expensive tea bowls, has been commonplace in China since the Song dynasty.

Tea People Talk Tea 茶人茶話 published in Beijing in 2007, collects some of the most important essayists writing on tea, teahouses and the culture of tea in the last century, including the master of the elegant essay Zhou Zuoren's famous 'On Bitter Tea' 關於苦茶. In 1935, Zhou published a book titled Jottings from the Studio of Bitter Tea 苦茶庵隨筆. It included works in which the acerbic taste of strong tea is likened to a particular kind of mature prose style: se 澀, an aesthetic that is simple yet demanding, one that imparts a lingering aftertaste. It is the kind of writing that is the natural enemy of New China Newspeak, a topic to which we devote an extended essay in Articles. Also in that section Mark Elliott contributes to our discussion of 'Prosperous China' 盛世, while we commemorate the memory of the thinker, scholar and liberal Hu Shi 胡適, who died half a century ago in Taiwan, in the words of Jerome B. Grieder, and discuss the social life of the most famous scenes of the Western Pavilions at the Garden of Perfect Brightness in Beijing 圓明園西洋樓. Also in Articles we continue our account of Mao Zedong's sojourns at West Lake in Hangzhou.

In T'ien Hsia, Joshua Fogel extends our discussion of New Sinology, and we carry another chapter from Pierre Ryckmans' (Simon Leys) 1996 Boyer Lectures, this time the subject he addresses is writing. We also re-introduce two pieces from the original T'ien Hsia Monthly: one by Yeh Ch'iu-yuan 葉秋原 on the subject of seals (璽 and 印), the other a short story by the essayist and scholar Yu Pingbo 俞平伯.

In New Scholarship we introduce an important discussion on ethics in contemporary Chinese documentary film-making by the young scholar Ying Qian 钱颖; a recently published volume on traditional Chinese humour; and, a report by William Sima on a major conference on Lin Yutang 林語堂 held in Hong Kong in late 2011. Lin and The China Critic 中國評論週報 will be the focus of the June 2012 issue of this journal.

The present issue of China Heritage Quarterly casts its net back in time to bring together material from Chinese and non-Chinese sources related to tea and its rich heritage. We also delve into the beclouded waters of the contemporary world of the Chinese Internet in pursuit of our topic. In doing so we have benefitted greatly from the advice and guidance of many friends, colleagues and tea aficionados in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Europe, North America and Australia. They include: Michelle Garnaut, Lawrence Zhang 張樂翔, Carma Hinton, Raymond Lum, Sang Ye 桑晔, Lois Conner, Jeremy Clarke, Charlene Wang 汪晓宁, Jeff Fuchs, Gary Sigley, Li Baoping, Maria Barbieri and Fuchsia Dunlop. We are also grateful to those authors who have generously granted us permission to reproduced their work here. And, above all, I would like to thank my colleague Daniel Sanderson for suggesting the topic of tea, and for agreeing to curate this issue with me as Guest Editor.

As ever, we are grateful to Lois Conner for providing an image to adorn the virtual pages of our journal through the year. In keeping with the disturbing nature of the ever-recurring Dragon Year, it is a stone dragon, from Chengdu in Sichuan.—Geremie R. Barmé, Editor

Editorial | China Heritage Quarterly

The Universal Drink

Daniel Sanderson, Guest Editor

In the development of the use of tea there is still the touch of the Chinese artist. Here is a small green leaf, but it is much more than a small green leaf. It is a world trade. It is the opening of a continent. It is the habit of half the world. It is a business deal between great merchants. It is respect shown to ancestors. It is courtesy at its best between official and subjects. It is affection and honour for the elders. It is heart-to-heart chatter between two women. It is solace to an old man, weak and cold and tottering with age. Lukewarm, it is a safe drink for a thirsty child. Steaming hot, it gives comfort to an ill-clad coolie stopping at a street-corner on a windy day. It is the clatter of bowls, laughter and hearty conversation in a tea-house or a theatre. It is all these because the Chinese have made it so.[1]

Improbably sandwiched between chapters on the folding screen and the native spirit of democracy, Grace Yaukey's encomium provides an interesting, if incomplete, catalogue of the multifarious meanings of tea in China. Most disquisitions on tea in English (or for that matter, in Chinese) tend either to over-simplify the subject or to exoticise it. A recent mass-market history of tea disposes of the history of tea in China in one of its seven chapters, and even that account is largely devoted to the role that tea played in the first Opium War.[2] Others overlook the origins of tea, or ignore the vastly divergent practices of tea manufacture and consumption across China to concentrate solely on the elaborate and largely invented tradition of Gongfu cha, something discussed by Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang below.

In this, the first issue of China Heritage Quarterly to be devoted to a single commodity, we seek to widen the discussion of tea in China. Through tea we can better appreciate the complex interplay between culture and commerce—from local growers and markets to the exigencies of international trade or a conversation among connoisseurs—that have affected the changing contours of Chinese society and the relations of China with the rest of the world. As many of our contributors note, tea is not only a social lubricant, but also a drink around which diverse forms of political struggle have unfolded over the past century.

Fig.1 Pouring tea, by Kurt Wiese (Source: Grace Yaukey (pseud. Cornelia Spencer), Made in China, London: George G. Harrap and Co, 1947, p.47.)

Tea—'a small green leaf', as Yaukey describes it; 'Asia's eternal green' according to a contributor to this issue, Jeff Fuchs—is in many ways a prosaic product, a cash crop requiring cultivation and harvest, manufacture, storage, transport and marketing. Like coffee or tobacco (or opium), it is prey to booms and slumps and subject to contamination and adulteration; official interference can help or hinder its production; the networks of its trade stretch, and sometimes tangle, around China and across the globe. The trade in tea was a vital element in the contact between the Chinese Qing empire and England, let alone the United States, from the seventeenth century onward; indeed, its control by the Chinese government became one of the motivations for the expansion and consolidation of Britain's own burgeoning empire.

Yet around this mundane commodity a talismanic air has developed. In his essay for this issue Fuchs notes the sacred meaning with which the indigenous peoples of Yunnan have invested their ancient tea trees, and the traditional practices of cultivation and harvest that have persisted there in the face political, social and technological upheaval. For more than a thousand years, the official traffic in so-called 'border tea' from Southwest China into Tibet and Mongolia provided a tangible symbol of the quasi-familial link between China and its restive neighbours. Gary Sigley examines recent attempts to revive the tradition of the so-called Ancient Tea Horse Road along which these links were forged—in effect, the commercialisation of the region's commercial heritage—and the controversy with which these attempts have been met.

In his essay on tea and friendship, the famed essayist and editor Lin Yutang notes the importance of sociability in the enjoyment of tea. Its role in the daily commerce between individuals, whether in a scholar's garden or a raucous teahouse, lies at the centre of tea's cultural significance. The experience of the late-Ming essayist Zhang Dai indicates the ways in which profound friendship can be built on a mutual appreciation of tea. Alfreda Murck's examination of Wang Shishen's painting, 'Asking for Snow Water', explores the role of tea in bringing together a community of like-minded enthusiasts across space and time. Such a community is the goal of Lawrence Zhang whose blog, A Tea Addict's Journal, excerpts of which are included in this issue, provides a site where the conversation over tea can be conducted, like its trade, on an international level.

The teahouse has traditionally been a place where the talk, rather than the tea itself, has been both a raison d'être and a source of anxiety. In an excerpt from his recent book on the history of Chengdu teahouses, Di Wang examines the role of the teahouse in the complex political environment of the Republican era. Qin Shao, meanwhile, discusses the discomfort felt by China's modernisers in their attempts to regulate these potentially subversive sites. In her reflection on Taipei's Wistaria Teahouse, Linda Jaivin describes a place where the refined sociability envisaged by Lin Yutang and the firebrand spirit of the teahouse have merged, with uniquely appealing results.

Tea too is the object of fads and fashions. The 'Way of Tea' 茶道 now much celebrated in China, actually has a divergent, and mostly recent history. In his essay on the art of tea 茶藝 in Taiwan, Scott Writer explains how a practice that finds its cultural roots in ancient aesthetics, has a far more modern heritage, while the satirist 'hetao' pokes fun at those for whom the ostentatiously equipped appreciation of tea has become a marker of social prestige.

Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang note the tendency in the West to romanticise Chinese tea and the culture that surrounds it. Perhaps the very mystery with which tea was shrouded for two centuries after its introduction to Western consumers has contributed to this romanticism. We include a number of early Western accounts of 'that excellent China Drink' notable for their intriguing blend of accuracy and guesswork. Western understanding of tea was placed on a surer footing by Robert Fortune, the naturalist and explorer charged by the East India Company with the task of discovering the secret of tea production and establishing a tea industry in India. In this, the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, we reproduce here excerpts from two of his works that are distinguished by their careful observation and calm rationality. Charlene Wang, a 'tea entrepreneur' based in Beijing, has spent time in the same tea-producing regions of China in which Fortune made his discoveries. Her article, based on an accurate record of personal experience, is recognisably part of a tradition initiated by Fortune 170 years ago.

In tea, then, commerce and culture converge, with fruitful and unsettling results. If, as Yaukey attests, there is 'still the touch of the Chinese artist' about tea in China, we should also remember the multiple roles played by merchant and physician, explorer and muleteer, radical and snob. In China at least, tea remains the Universal Drink.


[1] Grace Yaukey (pseud. Cornelia Spencer), Made in China: The Story of China's Expression, London: George G. Harrap and Co, 1947, p.52. Cornelia Spencer is the pen-name of Grace Yaukey, the younger sister of Pearl S. Buck, who published numerous popular works on Chinese history and culture during the 1930s and 1940s.

[2] Roy Moxham, Tea, London: Constable, 2003.

More Saliva than Tea

Geremie R. Barmé*
Editor, China Heritage Quarterly

Seven Bowls of Tea 七碗詩
Lu Tong 盧仝 (790-835)

The first bowl moistens my lips and throat; 一碗喉吻潤
The second bowl breaks my loneliness; 二碗破孤悶
The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find 三碗搜枯腸
Therein some five thousand scrolls; 惟有文字五千卷
The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration 四碗發輕汗
And all life's inequities pass out through my pores; 平生不平事盡向毛孔散
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones; 五碗肌骨清
The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals. 六碗通仙靈
The seventh bowl could not be drunk, 七碗吃不得也
only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves. 唯覺兩腋習習清風生
Where is Penglai Island, Yuchuanzi wishes to ride on this sweet breeze and go back. 蓬萊山在何處玉川子乘此清風欲歸去

translated by Steven R. Jones

A Teahouse Becalmed

The Yu Yuan Garden Pond-heart Teahouse 豫園湖心亭茶樓 in the old city of Shanghai is one of the most famous, and venerable in years, in China.[1] It is also one of the few genteel traditional-style tea establishments that survived even during the Cultural Revolution. It features in Michelangelo Antonioni's fascinating if somewhat notorious (although now generally forgotten) 1972 documentary film 'Chung Kuo, Cina'.[Fig.1]

Fig.1 A view of Yu Yuan Garden 豫園 and the Pond-heart Teahouse 湖心亭茶樓 looking towards Pudong, Shanghai, 1999. (Photograph: Lois Conner)

Earlier in the Shanghai segment of 'Chung Kuo', Antonioni had visited the site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in that city in July 1921 at a gathering of twelve men. They supposedly were seated around a table drinking tea. The Italian director shows the empty room now a display of what would be a momentous event. The camera pans over the surface of the highly polished conference table and notes the carefully arranged teacups and pot, all that remained to mark a spectral moment that altered the course of Chinese history.[2]

Even in the impoverished days of the early 1970s, the teahouse next to the Yu Yuan Garden continued to served desultory customers. The teahouse is housed in a building that was re-constructed in 1784, in the dying years of the Qianlong reign era. Renamed the Yeshi Pavilion 也是軒 in 1855, during the Xianfeng reign era, tea was sold there and today it is one of the most famous tea establishments in the People's Republic. Even in 1970s it was a popular spot. Although the various confections and delicacies for which it had once been renowned were reduced to naught, customers could meet friends there, visit with family members or simply read the paper while they sipped tea, chatted and looked out over the scenery.

In 'Chung Kuo, Cina', Antonioni's camera first pans over the lotus growing in the large pond in which the tea house is situated. It then follows the crowds along one arm of the zigzag bridge linking the shore to the double-storied tea pavilion. The voiceover claims that the teahouse is reserved for senior citizens and their families (this was definitely not the case when I first visited Yu Garden in early 1975). The bridges connect it on one side to the Ming-era Yu Garden, and on the other to the old Temple of the City God 城隍庙. The sounds of the time are recorded with the same care with the languid atmosphere of the teahouse is captured. The camera lingers on some of the sparse artwork on the walls of the pavilion; they include a large Mao slogan in golden lettering reading 'Long Live the Great Unity of the Peoples of the World' 全世界人民大团结万岁 and a poster from the film version of the Beijing Model Opera 'Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy' 智取威虎山. The voiceover tells us:

The atmosphere is strange: nostalgic and jovial at the same time. The recollections of the past mix with the confidence of the present.

The lens then loiters, seemingly transfixed by scenes of normal citizens of Mao's China in casual and relaxed conversation. Customers drink out of small teacups, not the elaborate covered bowls or lidded tea mugs that are now common; they play with children, smoke, sip tea, smoke, chat… Nonetheless, the sounds are muffled, a low din that reflects the de rigueur atmosphere of a world that had survived the Maoist-Lin Biao 'red terror' that had by then reigned for half a dozen years. Through an upstairs window we catch sight of the last words of a popular Mao slogan: 'Down with American imperialism and all reactionaries' 打倒美帝国主义和一切反动派.[3] 

Fig.2 Yu Yuan Garden 豫園 and the Pond-heart Teahouse 湖心亭茶樓, 1999. (Photograph: Lois Conner)

In early 1974, Antonioni's 'Chung Kuo, Cina' was vociferously denounced in the pages of the People's Daily.[Fig.2] The paper's commentator wrote in the over-blown prose favoured by Party hysterics at the time (and familiar to those inured to New China Newspeak):

More spiteful is Antonioni's use of devious language and insinuations to suggest to the audience that the Chinese people are repressed, have no ease of mind and are dissatisfied with their life. In the scene of the teahouse in Shanghai's Chenghuangmiao, he inserts an ill-intentioned narration, 'It is a strange atmosphere', 'thinking of the past, but loyal to the present'. He uses the phrase 'loyal to the present' but means just the opposite. Actually he is implying that the Chinese people are forced to support the new society but do not do so sincerely or honestly. Does not Antonioni again and again suggest that the Chinese people are not free?[4]
Fig.3 Tea trees that spell out 'Long Live Chairman Mao!' at the Chikou Tree Plantation, Dexing county, Jiangxi province 江西省德興縣池口林場

Tea drinking was not merely the remnant pastime of retirees. It was an element of traditional culture that flourished throughout the Mao era. Large enamel tea mugs 搪瓷茶缸 featured prominently in the lives of workers and peasants, even when they might only have boiling water 白開水 to drink. Porcelain tea settings were a necessary stage prop at Party meetings be they held in far-flung provinces or at the Great Hall of the People. Such attention was paid to tea finery that one of the penultimate speciality products designed and made for the Party Chairman Mao Zedong was a tea set. Produced in January 1975, it was known simply as the 'January '75 porcelain tea set' 7501毛泽东用瓷茶具. This 'Mao porcelain' 毛瓷 (also known as '7501 porcelain' 7501瓷) is now a collector's item.[5] Porcelain was not the only aspect of Maoist tea culture that survives today. In 1968, the revolutionary masses of Dexing county in Jiangxi cleared land at the Chikou Tree Plantation 江西省德興縣池口林場 to plant some 10,000 tea trees in a pattern that read 'Long live Chairman Mao' 毛主席万岁. Each character occupies 660 square metres. The tea trees, and the slogan, are still flourishing.[Fig.3]

Providing for the Leadership 特供茶

As early as 1942, some people at the war-time Communist base at Yan'an were expressing disquiet at the special privileges given to the Party nomenklatura. Yan'an would later be idealized as the 'golden age' of Party equality and fraternity. The reality was far from being halcyon. The most famous critic of the nascent bureaucratisation and hierarchy of the Party was the writer and translator, Wang Shiwei (王实味, d.1947). In 'Wild Lily' 野百合花, a 1942 essay that contributed directly to his downfall (and eventual execution), Wang wrote:

I am by no means an egalitarian, but to divide clothing into three and food into five different grades is definitely neither necessary nor rational, especially with regard to clothes. (I myself am graded as 'cadres' clothes and private kitchen', so this is not just a case of sour grapes.) All such problems should be resolved on the basis of need and reason. At present there is no noodle soup for sick comrades to eat and young students only get two meals of thin congee a day (when they're asked whether they have had enough to eat, Party members are expected to lead the rest in a chorus of 'Yes, we're full!'). What is more, relatively healthy 'big shots' get far more than they need or than is reasonable to eat and drink, with the result that their subordinates look upon them as a race apart, and not only do not love them, but even… . This makes me most uneasy.[6]

During the socialist (1949-64) and High-Maoist eras (1964-78), Party and state ranks and privileges proliferated. Among other things, leaders both in Beijing and elsewhere also enjoyed access to the finest teas grown in China. This was ensured by a system known then, as indeed now, as 'special needs provisioning' 特需供應, abbreviated as tegong 特供.

In 1950, the Ministry of Public Security established a Foodstuffs Security Office 食品安全處 (the more formal administrative designation of this group was Office Five, Bureau Eight, Ministry of Public Security 公安部八局五處). It had oversight of: a provisioning department; an acquisitions and purchasing department; and, a production department. Special provisioning was both a continuation of Yan'an-era practices, as well as forming a core of the perquisites enjoyed by ranked party-state bureaucrats. Known as 'revolutionary cadres' 革命干部, following the founding of People's China, this special class of men and women it was reasoned not only required, but deserved, access to material goods, services and luxuries denied their fellows. It was reasoned that, burdened as they were with duties of state, Party leaders deserved out-of-the-ordinary treatment to compensate them for their 'revolutionary exertions' 革命工作 on behalf of the broad masses 廣大人民群眾, of which they were, of course, but humble members. Apart from better-quality produce and foodstuffs, including high-quality teas, a range of perks provided for the 'particular care' 特殊照顧 of cadres that included spacious housing, telephones, work-related and private staff, cars, travel, security teams, access to holiday and health resorts, premium education for their children, etcetera.

The Foodstuffs Security Office was formally disbanded in 1953 and its personnel reassigned so as to serve better the needs of their growing, albeit covert, constituency. People from the production department of the original office, for example, went on to establish the central government's organic farm at Ju Shan 巨山農場; the provisioning department now staffed the relevant office at the Peking Hotel; and, the acquisitions and purchase department was instructed to set up a Special Provisions Station 特供站 under the Third Commerce Bureau of Beijing municipality 北京市第三商業局. In 1956, relevant staff from Peking Hotel and the Special Provisions Station were ordered to establish the Beijing Municipality Special Needs Foodstuffs Supply Point 北京市特需食品供應處. It (surreptitiously) opened its doors for business in June that year at No. 34 Donghua Men Street. Due to its location it was known as the 'No. 34 Supply Store' 34号供应部. (Today, these special provisioning tasks are carried out by the Eastern Friendship Foodstuffs Delivery Company 東方友誼食品配送公司, which is under the management of the Second Commercial Group of Beijing).

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the Beijing Special Needs Foodstuffs Supply Point only served party-state cadres of vice-ministerial rank and above. Unlike other foodstuffs at the time, jasmine tea could be purchased there without ration coupons. Other 'specialty teas' such as Longjing Dragon Well 龍井 and Anhui Houkui 猴魁, as well as 'unique teas' such as those with large leaves or black teas (favoured by the 'internally exiled' Panchen Lama) were available to a restricted clientele at the Bichun Teahouse on Wangfujing 王府井大街碧春茶莊, also without coupons.

The most commonly supplied tea was jasmine 茉莉花茶. Mao himself would drink jasmine tea, also provided by the Special Needs Supply Point. From the time of the Great Leap Forward in 1959, the grades of this popular drink were renamed to reflect better the revolutionary ethos of the day. Thus, the highest-quality tea was now called 'Red Flag' 紅旗, premium grade became 'Leap' 躍進, while second-grade tea was dubbed 'Vanguard' 先鋒. Only seven one-kilogram boxes of the high-quality tea was produced a year; four of these were supplied to Mao and his family while the other three were sold by weight to other party-state cadres and their dependants. The Great Leap nomenclature remained in use until the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Fig.4 Chairman Mao inspecting tea trees at Longjing in Hangzhou 杭州龍井

The Chairman also had a taste for Lion's Peak Longjing Dragon Well 獅峰龍井 green tea.[Fig.4] According to the account of Li Zhisui, one of Mao's doctors and author of The Private Life of Chairman Mao, he rarely brushed his teeth, preferring rather to rinse his mouth with tea after waking. He also had a habit of chewing tealeaves. Oral hygiene was not one of the leader's priorities. 'He resisted all attempts to get him to see a dentist', Li wrote. 'One aide said "the chairman's teeth looked as if they were painted with green paint".... Mao's teeth were indeed covered with a heavy greenish film. When I touched the gums, puss oozed out. An infection of that sort usually causes considerable pain. Mao hated doctors and illness so much that he often endured pain in silence.'

At 22.5 yuan for 500 grams in the 1960s, the Chairman's favourite Lion's Peak Longjing Dragon Well tea was the most expensive, and exclusive tea in China at the time. (Lion's Peak is one of five Longjing Dragon Well teas, the others being: plain Longjing 龍井, Yunqi 雲棲, Hupao 虎跑 and Meijia Wu 梅家塢.) By comparison, the finest jasmine tea was only 18.80 yuan for 500 grams, while premium grade was 9.5 yuan, second grade was 6.4 yuan. Teas of the third grade or lower were not available at the Special Needs Supply Point.

Water for Tea 以水代茶

Around 1960, at the time that the country was still in the grip of the murderous economic depredations caused by the Great Leap, in the relatively privileged open market of Beijing comrades in the street could buy 500 grams of twelfth grade jasmine tea for 1.3 yuan per 500 grams, but only around the time of the 1 October National Day celebrations, and then only with ration coupons. In 1961 and 1962, the farmers in the outlying districts of Beijing finally had access to this low-quality product, while Beijing urban residents were upgraded allowing them to enjoy sixth to ninth grade jasmine teas. At 1.6 yuan for 500 grams, high-grade jasmine 'tea dust' or sweepings 高級茉莉花茶末 (also known simply as 高末兒) was even more expensive than twelfth-grade tea.

Although during these years the Great Hall of the People fared somewhat better than the general population, the Special Needs Supply Point would only sell its caterers 'Vanguard' jasmine tea of the second grade. Given the impoverishment of the society from 1959 (the year that the Great Hall was completed and went into operation), it was no small boast to be able to claim that one had drunk tea that sold for the equivalent of 6.4 yuan a catty. It was not until the economic situation improved in 1965 that the Great Hall was given permission to purchase Dragon Well Longjing, Maojian 毛尖, and Tieguan Yin 鐵觀音 teas for that year's Spring Festival banquet. As one wag put it, the soon-to-be-purged state president Liu Shaoqi had his last drink of Maojian in the Great Hall of the People.

As for the broad masses, during the materially most deprived eras of the late 1950s and again during the 1960s, people would more often than not simply drink boiled water 白開水 instead of tea. The rituals pertaining to tea drinking were, however, for the most part maintained. Making a virtue out of necessity, whether entertaining visitors or just as enjoying a snatched private moment, people would 'substitute water for tea' 以水代茶.[Fig.5]

Fig.5 A general store in Pingyao county, Shanxi province 山西省平遙縣, 1998. (Photograph: Lois Conner)

As with the accoutrements of daily life, the tea cup too was reduced to proletarian simplicity, although from the Great Leap porcelain and enamel mugs were at least festooned with revolutionary art and uplifting exhortations. Following the years of state-planning poverty, tea mugs were made out of a variety of vessels and containers. The most common were glass jars that had originally contained dried Nescafé coffee granules. Long before the protective sleave was developed for thin-skinned aficionados of McDonalds and Starbucks, Chinese tea drinkers (from taxi drivers to workers, blue or white collar) would cover their improvised glass tea mugs in woven plastic sleaves, which were often colourful and heavily patterned. From the late 1970s, as the fledgling market economy began to develop, street-side vendors would also offer 'big bowl tea' 大碗茶 that consisted of a murky liquid usually protected from dust and insects by panes of glass over a wide-lipped shallow bowl. ('Big bowl tea' was a pre-1949 Beijing specialty, and it is so once more; but in the decades of austerity it was shorn of taste, ceremony and style.)

Tea on the Screen

'Chrysanthemum Tea', by Jin Chen, 2000
'Green Tea', by Zhang Yuan, 2003
'Delamu', by Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2004
'Tea in Love', by Meng Qi, 2006
'All in this Tea', by Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht, 2007
'Tea in the Blood', by Na Sha, 2010
'The Chinese Way of Tea' 中國茶道, (2010)[7]

Do Not Discuss Affairs of State 莫談國事

As Daniel Sanderson, the Guest Editor of this issue of China Heritage Quarterly notes in his Editorial Introduction, tea is a product/drink/art that straddles the social and the artistic, the communal and the individual, as well as the commercial and the political. Tea in China has a history and a heritage that have been readily turned into a constituent part of China's modern ineffable cultural essence. Tea too is the object of fads and fashions—the rise and fall of pu'er tea both in popularity and price over the last twenty years, for instance, is reminiscent of the tulip mania in Holland in the 1630s.

Today, the 'Way of Tea' 茶道 is much celebrated in China, but as the contributors to this issue of China Heritage Quarterly demonstrate, this art actually has a divergent, and mostly recent history. In his study of the Taiwan art of tea 茶藝, Scott Writer explains how a practice that finds its cultural roots in ancient aesthetics, has a far more modern heritage. Similarly, Loretta Kim and Lawrence Zhang trace the venerable traditions of Gongfu cha back to the 1970s. As many of our contributors also note, tea is not only a social lubricant, it is also a drink around which diverse forms of political struggle have unfolded throughout the past century.

Tea and politics are never very far apart (see, for instance, the contributions of W. Gilbert Walshe, Di Wang, Qin Shao, Ying Ruocheng and Linda Jaivin to this issue). In Republican China (1912-1949), teahouses were places where groups gathered not only to socialise but also to debate, agitate and organize. In Rickshaw Beijing his study of the former imperial capital in the Republican era, David Strand notes the role played by teahouses in labour activism. But they were also a place where impoverished labourers, in particular rickshaw men, found respite:

During their working day, these, mainly young, rickshaw men congregated in teahouses to refresh themselves. They could afford to spend money on simple pleasures, like a cup of good tea in pleasant surroundings in the company of men of similar standing. While struggling to save money toward the purchase of a new rickshaw, Xiangzi hovers on the edges of these small communities, anxious that he not squander his savings.

Strand the quotes from the novelist Lao She's 老舍 famous depiction of 'Camel Xiangzi' 駱駝祥子 in the novel of that name:

In teahouses rickshaw men of his rank, out of breath after a feipao ['fast run'—Ed.], like to have a good, ten-cent cup of tea with two lumps of sugar in order to cool off and recuperate. When Xiangzi had run until he was dripping with sweat and his chest was burning, he really felt like doing the same. But for him, this was a bad habit and wasteful. When he really needed tea to quench his thirst he would gulp down a one-cent cup made from tea-sweepings.[8]

It was with rather with the labour rights agitation of Beijing's rickshaw pullers in mind that Lao She would make a point of featuring the admonishment 'Do Not Discuss Affairs of State' 莫談國事 (an expression also commonly formulated as 休談國事) on the wall of the Yutai Teahouse 裕泰茶館. It is at this fictitious locale where the action of his famous play 'Tea House' 茶館 takes place. The chronicles the fate of his characters from the late-Qing era until the founding of the People's Republic of China. After many decades it was in 2011 that the old interdiction 'Do Not Discuss Affairs of State' was linked to tea once more.

Tea, in particular jasmine tea, a drink familiar to those who visit Cantonese-style yum-cha restaurants which serve dimsum/dimsim 点心/茶点, became the focus of a particular form of political discontent and frustrated protest in China.

Tea on the Web

Hangzhou National Tea Museum 中國茶葉博物館
China Tea-net 茶網
The Pu'er Teasite 普洱
Hecha net 喝茶網
On Teahouses 茶樓、茶館
Tea in Dream of the Red Chamber《紅樓夢》與茶文化
Tea-smoked Duck 樟茶鴨
Tea-boiled Eggs 茶葉蛋 and Tea-and-Coke-boiled Eggs 可樂茶葉蛋
Great Wall Green Tea Ice-cream 長城抹茶冰激凌: The walnuts represent the Great Wall, while the ice cream represents the mountains surrounding the wall. The mint sprigs represent the trees next to the wall, and the frosted cornflakes, scattered all over the dish, symbolize autumnal leaves (or use a dusting of icing sugar to symbolize snow in winter!).

The Trouble with Jasmine Tea 好一朵茉莉花

Fig.6 Marshalling teacups for a party-state conference in Beijing

After enjoying nearly three decades outside the realm of direct politics, jasmine tea once again became a focus for China's leaders. In February 2011, Chinese protesters attempted to gather outside the McDonalds on Wangfu Jing, the main shopping mall of the capital. Via Internet postings and text messages, activists thought to emulate the Jasmine Revolution that was sweeping the Middle East, creating a Chinese campaign in favour of long-frustrated political reforms and freedoms.[Fig.6]

As Gloria Davies, a contributor to China Story Yearbook 2012, writes in her chapter for that volume, 'Discontent in Digital China':

…police turned out in force at the chosen protest venues. …In the weeks that followed, an increased police presence in Beijing and other cities ensured that the movement could not any traction, let alone visibility. And so China's 'Jasmine Movement' was thwarted before it had even begun. Nonetheless, what was an open and brazen attempt to hold the party-state to account caused such acute anxiety among the country's officials that on the Chinese-controlled Internet a blanket ban was imposed on the word 'jasmine' 茉莉花, something that lead to the removal of all material that even contained the word. One widely noted, and gloated over, casualty of this censorship was a video featuring Hu Jintao, the Party General Secretary and China's President, singing the well-known Chinese folk song 'Jasmine' [好一朵茉莉花; for an audio-video version of this ditty, see here.—Ed.].

Official panic mounted as news of the 'dissident flower' spread. On 10 May 2011, The New York Times reported that the annual International Jasmine Festival in Guangxi province 廣西橫縣茉莉花節 had been cancelled. The festival venue and a major producer of jasmine tea, Heng County, has China's largest jasmine plantation; it is locally known as 'the hometown of jasmine'. Sales of the flower and the plant were also halted. Meanwhile, flower vendors in Beijing were called in by local police and forced to sign pledges not to carry jasmine. One jasmine grower was described as 'glancing forlornly at a mound of unsold bushes whose blossoms were beginning to fade' as he observed that the plant had plunged to a third of its market value the previous year.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media in China was silent about the absurd ban on jasmine, even as it was imposed nationwide. Three months passed before the authorities felt sufficiently confident to allow Guangxi to hold its jasmine festival.[9]

Heng county in Guangxi would use as its official web address, but from late 2010 a 'Chinese Jasmine Revolution' site with the domain name had also come into being.

A Hand for a Head 以手代叩

In Hong Kong and more broadly Guangdong (and among overseas Chinese communities) the expression 'invite me to drink tea' 請喝茶 is generally a jocular way for a someone who feels they have suffered a slight, be it large or small, to demand reparation from a friend or family member. Tea drinking has many other far more amiable social functions, too, as well as a few that can leave a bitter taste in the mouth. In the south 'to drink tea' it is yum cha 飲茶, in East China it is chi cha 吃茶, in the argot of the north it can be za cha 咂茶, but in the Chinese capital people know the often-sinister dimension of the more universal and seemingly innocuous words he cha 喝茶.

In contemporary mainland Chinese parlance, 'to drink tea' 喝茶 more likely than not means that one has been called to 'have a chat' with the shadowy, or even overt, operatives working for China's public or state security organs. In the past tea was the beverage of choice for such intimate tête-à-tête, but in recent time the menu has expanded to include coffee or, for more thick-skinned and practiced recalcitrants, expensive foreign wines and spirits. One thing remains constant, however, there is more talking than drinking.

The use of tea to intimidate is hardly something new; for Party apparatchiks however 'to drink tea' is always about the guest kowtowing to the requests of the host.

People have often observed that while the political power of the north extends its sway over the south of China, cultural influence from the south just as often penetrates the north. Just as the culture of 'drinking morning tea' 喝早茶 or yum-cha 飲茶 and eating dimsum 點心 have percolated northwards so too has the habit of the 'finger kowtow'. Once the unique province of Hong Kong, in recent years it has leached into the behaviour of all classes of people in central, western, eastern and northern China as well.

The generally accepted story about the origin of this practice dates it in the Qianlong reign era of the eighteenth century. There are fictional accounts that claim that the emperor—well known not only for his imperial hubris, but also for a tireless, sticky-beaking curiosity—when travelling through the wealthy provinces of the Yangtze Valley on his noted Southern Tours of inspection, sometimes set out incognito, or 微服出行. On one such occasion it is said that one of his eunuch retainers dressed for the occasion as the emperor's superior was horrified when his master, who was dressed as his servant, poured some tea for him. Mindful that under no circumstances could he reveal Qianlong's true identity, the eunuch nonetheless felt compelled by etiquette to kowtow to the ruler. Instead of kneeling and banging his head on the ground as ritual required, the quick-witted retainer resorted to a sham kowtow by tapping three fingers on the table nine times. This 'finger kowtow' representing thereby the formal ritual of three genuflections and nine kowtows 三跪九叩之禮.

It is reasoned that since the words for hand shou/手 and head shou 首 are homophones it is natural to think of the polite gesture marking thanks to someone who pours tea during a chat or over a meal as being a miniature version of the elaborate traditional kowtow ceremony. As noted above, the three fingers supposedly represent 'three genuflections' while the nine taps on the table are supposed to replace the 'nine knocks' or kowtows a person makes on the ground with their head to their superior. Whether Qianlong was involved in the evolution of what is known as the 'kow-shou ceremony' 叩手禮 (the ceremony where one bows with one's hand as opposed to one's head) or not, people are adamant that the symbolism is traditional.[Fig.7]

Fig.7 The lotus pond at Yu Yuan Garden at night 豫園夜景, 1999. (Photograph: Lois Conner)

When Guests Depart, Tea Cools 人走茶凉

The novelist and librettist Wang Zengqi (汪曾祺, d.1997) is said to have made up the expression 'when guests depart, tea cools' 人走茶凉 when he was writing the libretto for the Beijing model revolutionary opera Shajia Bang 沙家浜 in the 1960s (the production was based on an earlier, 1950s work, 'Seeds of Fire in the Reeds' 蘆蕩火種). The phrase occurs in an aria sung by Elder Sister Ahqing 阿慶嫂, an underground Party member who manages a teashop in the countryside in Yangtze Valley near Shanghai. The teashop—which is the centre of the action of the opera—is a cover for her political activities as a member of the Communist Party during the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance in the 1940s. Duty-bound to help wounded comrades of the New Fourth-route Army to safety she engages in a battle of wits with local political turn-coats and thugs. Due to the quality of the writing and the striking figure of Ahqing, material from this model opera remain popular, in particular Act Four, 'A Battle of Wits' 智鬥, in which this line occurs.[10]

A Battle of Wits 智鬥

This extract from Act Four of Shajia bang features Elder Sister Ahqing's description of her teahouse and her relationship with her customers—be they revolutionaries under the leadership of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party, or traitors. Her nemesis is a local turncoat with the telling name of Diao Deyi 刁得一:





阿慶嫂 (接唱)

胡傳魁 哈哈哈……

刁德一 嘿嘿嘿……阿慶嫂真不愧是個開茶館的,說出話來滴水不漏。佩服!佩服!

阿慶嫂 胡司令,這是甚麼意思呀?

胡傳魁 他就是這麼個人,陰陽怪氣的!阿慶嫂別多心啊!

For a link to the scene, see:, from 00.6.55 to 00.8.55.

Fig.8 Covered teacups being lined up according to the official pecking order

Tea, talk, plotting and conniving feature throughout this issue of China Heritage Quarterly, as do the more civil arts of conversation, reading and conviviality. In this year of political transition in China, however, another battle of wits unfolded amidst the teacups and conference papers of the meeting of that country's formal legislative body, the National People's Congress. In March the political fate of the country's most controversial politician was all but decided. 'People leave, the tea grows cold': it is a shorthand expression for what happens after power is lost (without power all privileges disappear).[Fig.8] In days past, comical discussions of the political fiasco unfolding in Beijing in 2012 would have been a hotly debated feature of conversations in teahouses and among ribald storytellers. The culture of gossip and the art of the raconteur were fitfully revived in the late 1970s, but rumour-mongering among storytellers around the time of the Xidan Democracy Wall saw such 'feudal remnants' swept away once more. Today, it is not in the teahouses of Beijing, many of which are commercialized tourist traps, that political white noise finds an outlet, rather it is in the virtual salons of the Internet.[Fig.9]

Party and state congresses, receptions and meetings of various types are marked not merely by lugubrious speeches and staid political performance, but also by the large lidded tea mugs and the hot-water thermoses that are used to keep them constantly filled. In the exchange of favours and trade in influence, wine and cigarettes continue to be staples, but luxury teas in elaborate packaging have gained a marked prominence in recent years. For those attending the highly ritualised public meetings of China's government each year, it is the strict regimentation of teacups that presages the orderly political performances of those for whom, as the Cantonese say, 'there is more saliva than tea' (that is, more is said than done).

Fig.9 A teahouse in Chengdu, Sichuan province 四川省成都市, 1985. (Photograph: Lois Conner)


* My thanks to Gloria Davies for permission to quote from her chapter, to Sang Ye for his suggestions and visual materials and to Lois Conner for permission to reproduce her work here.

[1] For the official website of the Yu Garden, see:

[2] For this scene, see: at 9:10-9:35. See also the scene in the 2011 film by Han Sanping 韓三平 and Huang Jianxin 黄建新 'Beginning of the Great Revival' 建黨偉業, produced to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Party.

[3] For these scenes, see: at 12:55-14:45; and: at 00:00-3:30.

[4] See the booklet by the Renmin Ribao Commentator, A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks—A Criticism of M. Antonioni's Anti-China Film China, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1974. The Chinese original was published by People's Daily on 30 January 1974.

[5] See Xu Xiaolong 须小龙, 'The Secrets of the Chairman's Dedicated January '75 Porcelain Revealed (I)' 7501瓷主席专用瓷揭秘(上), 30 January 2012, online at:

[6] Translated and published by New Left Review, Issue 92 (July-August 1975), reproduced online at:

[7] My thanks to Maria Barbieri for suggesting these titles.

[8] See David Strand, Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989, p.58. On teahouses and labour agitation in Beijing, see also, pp.32, 58, 145, 154, 155 & 196.

[9] Gloria Davies, 'Discontent in Digital China', in China Story Yearbook, 2012: Red Rising, Red Eclispse, Canberra, ACT: Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU (forthcoming August 2012).

[10] For the full Chinese libretto, see: For the English text see Shachiapang: a modern revolutionary Peking opera, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972.