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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tea and Sympathy . . .

It's the rainy season here in North China, although South China is experiencing a heat wave and droughts, and I woke this morning to another day of constant rain. I was tempted to have a lazy day and stay indoors but broke the top of my glass teapot so decided to venture to Sihui market again to buy a replacement and stock up on some tea. Sihui is a huge market that has it all, including a meat market, a tea market, spices, clothing and household goods, and seems to be a supplier to hotels and restaurants as well as the individuals who go there. I went there last week to purchase linens and bath mats for my apartment and left with a teapot also that was exactly what I'd been looking for at a fraction of the price I'd seen elsewhere (25 kwai rather than 200 and up). At that price, I didn't mind making the trip to replace it.

The shopkeeper recognized me from last week, which probably isn't too surprising as I didn't see another foreign face on either trip, so poured me a small glass cup of green tea (the cup was almost a shot size, but far more elegant) and gestured for me to sit down. Again not surprisingly, she had next to no English and my Putonghua is still non-existent (I keep answering in Korean by accident) so our transaction was conducted mainly in mime, with a few quick looks at my phrase book or referral to my Pleco app. But we got along swimmingly.

I wanted to buy some loose tea as well, and had established last week that she didn't stock chamomile, so I settled on chrysanthemum, of which she had several different types, sorted according to the age and quality of the flowers. I chose some small, high-quality flowers and she told me the price per kilo. A kilo is a lot of tea but, as I said, these markets deal with a lot of wholesale customers. She understood the English for half, but not quarter, so we settled on half-half and she showed me the .25 weight on her scales as she scooped it into a bag for me. She then offered another flower I have yet to work out (the name sounded like huanggang but huang simply means yellow so I'll look more carefully at it once I return home). I wasn't sure so she brewed a pot of the two mixed for me to taste.

And introduced me to the Art of Tea - a serious business in China.

Having read about the Art of Tea on a friend's blog, I already knew brewing tea was an act of ceremony and it was here also, even though performed in a brisker fashion for this laowai. The flowers were placed in a pot and hot water added, then the first brew was poured out on the tea pets.

The tea tray, with tea pets in front left corner

Yes, I said tea pets.

As explained in Brian's blog:

A tea pet symbolises wealth and fortune and is basically a small work of art made of different kinds of clay, just like the tea pots, and is normally placed on a tea tray. During the ceremony, tea is poured over them and over time they darken and mature into …errr… darker and more mature – and even coloured and shiny – tea pets! (I told you it was messy!) Many people have large collections of them. A popular type is Jinchan (a type of three-legged toad, which is said to be able to spit out money - perhaps because it sounds like jinqian - meaning money!

Being an animal lover, I was happy to meet some tea pets myself.

She then refilled the pot, let it sit a little, then poured me a  cup of the tea, which did taste much better than chrysanthemum on its own. She then explained, mainly with gestures and examples, that if I refilled the water more than three times, I should remove or replace the yellow flowers after the third time. And, because I had explained when I arrived that I had broken the lid of last week's teapot, she also told me to hold the top on when I poured my tea. I shall obey both directions faithfully.

I bought 250 grams of the yellow flowers also, paid and thanked her and headed home with a quick stop at the spice store for a large tub of Tom Yum paste.

I could easily start collecting teapots living here.

Another successful mission in The China Project . . .

NB: "Tea and Sympathy" is one of my favorite Janis Ian songs, of which the lyrics are particularly meaningful to me right now.

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