Tuesday, May 26, 2009

All the Tea in China

Every town of any merit in China has its own version of a tea market, district, or "tea city," as the case may be. Examples are the Fang Cun market in Guangzhou (over 6,000 tea shops), or Maliandao in Beijing. These are arranged as a bourse, with numbers of individual merchants keen to sell their wares.

You see rather fantastic things at these markets: huge tea "sculptures," constructions, or compressed shapes (such as the Yunnanese "tea stupa" above), and all manner of implements, such as the carved stone serving platform pictured below.

There are also traditions associated with visiting these places -- Chinese market theatre. You wander from shop to shop, or stall to stall, and the owners invite you in for a sample. The tea is fresh-brewed in front of you, and served with a flourish, often preceded by splashing the tea over a stone, three-legged frog on the serving platform. I asked a fellow why, and he replied he really didn't know -- his father did it, his grandfather did it, and so on.

Everyone has their favorite markets -- I like the one in Shenzhen, and when I am able, I like the markets down in Yunnan province. I have a special connection with Yunnan (it would seem I was conceived there), and I have always favored Yunnan's justly famous Pu-Erh tea. It is, in fact, the only tea I ever drink, because the presence of caffeine is negligible.

Pu-Erh tea at its best is aged. It is not uncommon to hear of 300-year-old Pu-Erh tea coming up on the market, trading for high price. As one dealer wryly notes, "It is difficult to say how old the tea really is, but if you buy it and keep it, then you will know for certain."

Why all this on-and-on about tea, you ask? When you delve into the lore of Yunnan's Pu-Erh tea -- when you get past the ethnocentric origin legends and really delve in -- you may come upon a body of lore that suggests Pu-Erh tea was a gift to the world by the Medicine Buddha: a sort of agricultural terma, if you will. The argument is that tea actually began on the slopes of the Tibetan-Chinese border, and there are still unusual tea trees of remarkable age and size in this region. Pu-Erh tea is like a natural antistatin -- a natural Lipitor, with scientifically proven abilities to lower one's naughty cholesterol levels by around 13% in a month's time. There are also other beneficial properties, but I leave discovery of these to your own researches. Click the links above.

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