Learning all about Chinese tea ceremony ... in China

Xiao pouring from the fairness cup into the tea cups during the ceremony. — Photos: FLOREY D. MIKIL/The Star

There is just something inherently calming and relaxing about sitting by the window and sipping a steaming cup of tea, while listening to the pitter-patter of the falling rain.

At the Phoenix Tea House Wo in Shenzen, China you don’t even have to wait for it to rain to enjoy this tranquil setting. A water feature set outside the windows of the tea house’s largest seating area cascades gently down, simulating the soothing sound of rainfall.

The traditional set-up of this seating area, with its low tables, floor cushions and wooden partitions, add to the peaceful ambience.

This tea-themed oasis is a welcome find amid the concrete jungle of Shenzhen, a modern metropolis that’s filled with looming high-rises and skyscrapers. Its location, almost discreet as it is tucked to the side of the futuristic-looking Steel Structure Museum, further accentuates its sense of sanctuary.

There are a total of five Phoenix Tea House outlets throughout Shenzen, but this particular one carries the suffix Wo, as it represents the warmth and cosiness one might feel in one’s “nest” (which is what “wo” means in Mandarin) or abode. A fitting name as it does exude a cosy feeling, especially juxtaposed against the cold steel of the museum next door.

Natural elements feature prominently from the exterior to the interior of the tea house.Natural elements feature prominently from the exterior to the interior of the tea house.

Traditional meets modern

Having been dropped off by the roadside during our visit to the tea house, all we could see at first was the dome-shaped museum. Only after descending the steps to the paved courtyard below did we notice the tea house’s welcoming entrance.

The stone statues guarding the wooden door, the stone slabs and little pebbles forming the pathway beyond it that led further into the tea house, the plants adding touches of green amid the neutral greys and browns – these natural elements immediately eased our senses from the moment we entered.

We were given a tour of the place by the tea house host, May, and language interpreter, Liz. We peeked into the different tea rooms, some inspired by Japanese designs (which had low tables and floor seating) while some are more traditionally Chinese (with dining tables that typically seat five).

We marvelled at the collection of tea pots and tea cups. “We use these clear cups for a reason,” May explained, gesturing at the welcome drinks they had laid out for us.

“Chinese tea cups are traditionally made from ceramic, but we decided to use cups made from clear glass to showcase the tea’s beautiful colour.”

A brilliant decision, as this allows tea drinkers to admire and appreciate the tea they’re drinking while engaging more than just their sense of taste and smell.

Time to make tea

Through a small enclave with clay walls and a pathway made of stones that are originally from courtyards of traditional Chinese dwellings, we entered the room named Nanshan – each tea room had its own name. There, we would learn how to perform a tea ceremony.

After cleansing our hands with rose water, we took our seats at the long table. Our instructor, Xiao Xing Xing, began quietly making the tea. We watched in silent fascination as she poured – and poured and poured some more.

The liquid flowing from the tea pot into the cups and back again, several times, gradually turned from clear water to light golden tea as she continued her pouring.

Her moves were calculated, yet elegant. At times, she would sit still, controlling her breathing, during the steeping process.

Finally, we were served with the freshly-brewed tea. First, appreciate the smell, we were told. Then we could proceed to slowly sip the tea.

The dim sum served to accompany the tea.The dim sum served to accompany the tea.

Subtly fragranced and with a light taste, the Phoenix Pearl Tea that was developed exclusively for the tea house by a local master in the Yunnan Province paired perfectly with the accompanying “dim sum” – a collection of bite-sized food meant to complement the tea, which included small pieces of cakes and fresh blueberries topped with a little homemade sweet.

The tea ceremony resumed, this time with each step explained out loud to us. Next, we were asked to select our own tea making set. From the tea pot to the little stand for the stick-like teaspoon, we arranged them neatly in front of us, ready to brew our tea.

We did a simplified version of the tea ceremony, requiring only one round of pouring the tea into the fairness cup, to ensure a standardised taste. Several rounds are usually required to reduce the tea’s strength.

As such, with the single round, our cup of pine tea was remarkably strong and definitely energised us for the day. We decided to try going a few more rounds and noticed that the taste did have a mellower profile afterwards. Now we understood the seemingly endless pouring Xiao was doing earlier.

This particular Phoenix Tea House may be a tad hard to locate for first-timers, but a visit is highly warranted as not only does it conduct tea ceremony lessons, it also sells high quality tea leaves and tea wares. Such establishments play an important part in preserving the Chinese tea culture.

Pay a visit and who knows, like us, you might just walk away enlightened after the tea ceremony – and feeling fully energised by a particularly strong cup of tea.

A kettle hanging in the corner, used to boil water for making tea.A kettle hanging in the corner, used to boil water for making tea.

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