Mention the words Chinese tea culture and the first images that surface are probably that of a tea ceremony and the method of brewing tea commonly known as gongfu brewing. Not inaccurate but hardly representative of the entire spectrum that Chinese tea culture entails.
Unfortunately, Chinese tea culture matcha bubble tea has been synonymous with Chayi (the Art of Tea) as opposed to Chadao (the Way of Tea). Hence, this beloved beverage and way of life has often been portrayed as a mystical, arcane ceremony that requires years of devoted training and the purest of hearts before one can begin to unravel the mysteries.
If that is the case, than tea would have been reserved for less than 1% of China’s (admittedly sizable) population, not a ubiquitous sight across the country spanning all walks of life. Contrary to what some may believe, not all Chinese are proficient in brewing gongfu tea or even drink tea the gongfu way. While we are at it- Chinese do not wear silk traditional costumes everyday either but I digress.
Chinese tea culture is more than ceremonies and performances. It can be as simple as throwing some leaves in a tall glass. It can be carrying a vacuum flask or tumbler full of brewed tea and sipping from it all day long. It can also be the famous Beijing big bowl tea (Da Wan Cha) or Taiwanese ‘bubble tea’ or Hong Kong’s ‘yum cha’ culture.
It would be unfair to assume Chinese tea culture begins and ends with the gongfu style or the ceremony that is more of a performance than about exacting the best possible taste from the leaves. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for it- there are few things more inherently relaxing than attending a tea performance but that is hardly representative of the full spectrum.
For tea to be considered a culture- it would have to be ingrained in the daily lives of the masses. Just like British tea culture entails afternoon teas which has embedded itself into a daily routine- Chinese culture has elements that are day-to-day affairs. Being a daily affair would exclude ceremonies, unless the subject matter in question is in that line of work.
For example in Chinese culture, tea is universally served at restaurants, virtually by default. When I was in China, I asked for plain water (after a whole day at the tea market, I was certain I wouldn’t be able to consume anymore caffeine without a bout of insomnia) and I was greeted with a look of incredulity. I had to repeat myself and endure those piercing stares before I eventually got my message across.
Yet teas served in restaurants are simply brewed in a metal or ceramic pot, not a Yixing pot with an elaborate show before being served. These may be a notch (or ten) below the teas served in ceremonies but they are undeniably as much a part of Chinese tea culture as their more illustrious counterparts.