Photographer Jie Deng and writer Estelle Tracy take us inside the beauty and serenity of a Chinese tea ceremony.
Story by Estelle Tracy Photography by Jie Deng
It’s a chilly Sunday and I’m standing by the door of a house in Valley Forge. I’ve never been here before, but my friend Jie Deng assured me it was worth the trip from Kennett Square.
May Tu lets me in, hands me slippers, then leads me to the dining room. There, we sit for the first cup of tea of the day. As I sip the hot, orange-scented beverage, the remaining guests come in, settling around the table. I’m filling the guest book with a calligraphy pen when Yun Lu and Jie arrive. Our tea ceremony can finally start.
A Chinese tea ceremony is an invitation to sit down, slow down, and tune into the moment through tea. The word tea refers to the leaf of camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub originating from Asia. In China, there are six types of teas: green, white, yellow, Oolong, black, and dark teas, all of which come from the same plant.
While green tea refers to unoxidized leaves, black tea refers to fully oxidized leaves. White and yellow teas are slightly oxidized leaves, while Oolong teas range from lightly to heavily oxidized. Dark tea, also known as Pu-erh, is fermented tea which originated in Yunnan province in China.
May’s passion for tea is evidenced by her extensive loose tea collection, which is sorted by variety and harvest year, in a designated cabinet. Just like grapes for wine, tea harvests vary from year to year based on temperature and precipitation, affecting appearance and taste.
As the water heats up in the black silver kettle, May hands me a napkin to wipe my lipstick. I blush as I wipe the make-up, then relax. I’m ready for the first cup, a delicate white tea whose dried leaves we all inspect before steeping.
You can hear a pin drop as our hostess pours teas into small clay vessels. Chinese tradition prohibits blowing to cool the beverage. Instead, we slurp tea. If the practice feels awkward at first for the Western palate, slurping tea helps cool the beverage down, while enhancing our perception of delicate aromas. After a couple of slurps, it’s official: I’ll bring the slurping custom home.
Each tea is steeped multiple times throughout the ceremony, allowing us to experience the potential of each leaf. That’s perhaps the beauty of quality loose teas. You can steep multiple times and marvel at the diversity of flavor contained within.
The journey takes us to the bolder, stronger flavors of Pu-erh. The ceremony is punctuated by May’s tea knowledge. “White tea is energizing,” explains May, “while dark tea can help digest meats. People in Mongolia and Tibetan areas eat lots of meat, but they also drink lots of dark tea. Tea’s fundamental to their diet.”
As the afternoon goes by, our cups continue to be filled and our breath slows down. The air in the room feels still, while our hands warm and the mood lightens. “Tea can change your feelings,” says May.
The ceremony eventually wraps up, pushing us back to the dining room, where a purple taro cake awaits us. The sun starts to set as I wipe my plate clean. I thank my hostess for sharing her culture and traditions with me. On my drive home, I know tea is the drink I’ll slurp by the window on a slow afternoon.
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