Traditional Chill-out

Article by Deborah Howard

If you’ve been reading these columns for a while, you might have noticed I quite often mention tea. And really, it is China – tea and China are pretty synonymous. So from being a gallon a day coffee drinker – black and strong, thanks – I morphed almost overnight into a tea fiend. The free tea at almost every meal helped (although why isn’t tea served for breakfast??) and then I was introduced to the tea shops, and from there the tea markets and that was the end of me. Those people in- trepid enough to travel with me know that if I see a tea market anywhere, they are in for a long wait a nice sit down and a cup or two while I range through all of the different teas. Everyone respects the process of wine tasting, well tea tasting is exactly the same – without ending up being unable to walk at the end of the day!!

Along with the tea tasting and buying, and collecting tea ‘stuff’ I started read- ing about tea, looking for the history of tea around the world and learning as much as I could. I was taught a baby beginner form of the Japanese tea cer- emony by a tea professor in Japan, sat watching open-mouthed at tea mas- ters who can pour tea from a metre long spout backwards and not spill a drop in Yunnan, and tried to emulate the elegance of the tea servers in up- market tea houses. (I failed!)

I was fascinated with the directions for making tea in some of the old books. Water from the exact middle of a par- ticular stream was to be collected just before dawn to make the perfect cup. Tea was meant to be sipped slowly and thoughtfully, accompanied by the genteel arts of writing poetry and mu- sic. Tea was a metaphor for life and its changes for each iteration of water ad- dition were clear indications of how our lives would be played out. The stories of the tea culture were stories about ‘old’ China, and brought some of that into my life in a busy, ever-changing modern city.

So you can imagine my delight when, at the beginning of the year, a tea market opened up not 500 metres from my place as the crow flies. The 2 floors of tea shops soon became used to the laowai popping in on a regular basis to stock up on favourites, or try new tastes. They took my number and be- gan to call me when something inter- esting was happening, like a tea festival or new stock in. I thought my tea cup runneth over, but… the best was yet to come.

This week, just outside the back gate of the university where I live, not even 300 metres as a really fast crow flies, a beautiful, traditional tea house opened. A tiny stair well leads to a beautifully decorated space, with gentle Buddhist music playing softly, fish swimming in a pool, the guqing just waiting to be played, calligraphy brushes and paper for practice, and Chinese chess and Go set up at tables.

Tea mistresses (can I call them mis- tresses??) greet you and let you decide where to sit – in the private rooms with cushioned chairs, or Japanese style seating on the floor, or on carved wood- en stools around beautifully carved tree root tables. A list of teas appears, and you are invited to choose snacks to eat with your tea. Once you choose your tea then the tea lady (is that better?) brings it to you, sitting gracefully at your table and demonstrates the elegant perfection of the Chinese cha dao or tea way.

After this first demonstration, she will leave you in peace, only returning to add more water to your kettle. A per- fect place for reading, writing, marking papers, or having relaxed chats with friends, this traditional tea house has free wi-fi and isn’t filled with middle school students figuring that coffee shops are THE place to be.

Part of the service is you can buy your own tea and leave it on the premises, and when next you need some quiet chill-out time, your tea will appear and the prices are discounted, and the whole venture becomes a very cheap easy way to spend an afternoon. For the next few weeks, this will be my es- cape from the maddening crowd.

The HuaiSu Tea House (怀素茶坊) promises simplicity, tranquillity and tradition. It’s situated close to the south–east gate of Xidian University on Guanghua Lu. Ph 88272183。