The Chinese character for tea (chá) 茶 – a person standing beneath grass but above a tree – the character’s three components – is a Chinese riddle in itself.
There is an old Chinese saying that everyday life proceeds on seven fundamentals – firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea. Tea is a universally popular beverage in China, consumed at home and served at formal events as well. Throughout history, a specific etiquette has evolved on how to make, serve and drink it under the auspices of 茶文化 (chá wén huà), tea culture.
There are many Chinese expressions that include 茶, such as 粗茶淡饭 (cū chá dàn fàn), meaning coarse tea and simple food. But bear in mind that Chinese people intend to be self-effacing, so a so-called 粗茶淡饭 is unlikely to be the homely meal the expression implies. 人走茶凉 (rén zǒu chá liáng) literally means that when a guest leaves, his or her tea will cool. It is a metaphor for the situation where once an official is removed from a high position, people will give him the cold shoulder because he can no longer grant them favors.
The discovery of tea is attributed to Shennong, a legendary figure from prehistory believed to have founded Chinese agriculture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. To distinguish edible and medicinal plants from weeds, Shennong scoured mountainous areas and personally sampled various plant species. One day he felt sick after eating a toxic plant, and had to sit down to recover. When a few leaves fell from a nearby tree, he instinctively chewed them. They tasted good and soon dispelled the dizziness the toxin had caused. Shennong collected more 茶叶 (chá yè), tea leaves, for future analysis, and eventually invented the beverage.
China produces various teas, including 绿茶 (lǜ chá), green tea, 红茶 (hóng chá), black tea, 乌龙茶 (wū lóng chá), Oolong tea, 白茶 (bái chá), white tea, 黄茶 (huáng chá), yellow tea, and 黑茶 (hēi chá), dark tea. 花茶 (huā chá), jasmine tea, is also popular. It is a mixture of flowers and tea leaves, mostly green but also with elements of black or Oolong tea. The two are finely blended and sealed for a time to let the sweet scent of the flowers pervade tea leaves.
Preparing green tea entails the techniques of fixation, sweltering, rolling, drying, curing and more. As it is unfermented, green tea has a comparatively refreshing, raw flavor. 龙井茶 (lóng jǐng chá), Longjing or Dragon Well tea, is a prime green tea that stands head and shoulders above others by virtue of its delicate shade of green, the shape of its leaves and mellow, lingering taste. Genuine Longjing tea is hard to come by in the market, as the output is small.