(As I have been writing my book and not had much time to blog, once again here’s a chapter from it. Please comment as it really helps!)
The spiritual, and actual, Home of Tea.
Since the invention of tea; China has been many things. Ruled from within, ruled from without. A Communist Worker’s Paradise; a capitalist dream. Suppressed by Empires; addicted to opium, lost in tradition, forward thinking, backward thinking, sideways thinking. A country of civil wars and uncivil peaces; home to poets and dictators; a pace of fecundity and a place of unthinkable female infanticide.
The one thing that the rest of the world, from Marco Polo onwards has always got wrong about China is the belief that those outside of China can understand it.
And what have they – and haven’t they done – in the name of tea?
Do you fancy a cup of Fe7(CN)18? When the Chinese found that the British believed that a strong green colour indicated tea quality, some producers added Prussian Blue. It’s a non-toxic cyanide-based compound, but hands up who wants it in their tea?
From Genghis Khan to Chairman Mao to the current guy whose name no one can remember; Emperors and commoners, policemen and politicians, housewives and helicopter pilots; China drinks tea.
The first recorded drinking of tea is in China. The legend of Shen Nong ‘discovering’ tea is from China. Whilst India and Burma also most likely had teas bushes – and the chance to be first – the Chinese took water, leaves and mystery and made them special.
It’s green. It’s black, though they call it red. It’s oolong. It’s pu-erh. It’s Chinese tea. It’s impossible to ignore. There’s over a million tonnes of it per year. And even though they only rank a seemingly lowly 33rd on the world per capita tea consumption at .82 kilogrames per head; they have a billion heads.
It’s still giving the rest of the world about 300,000 tonnes in leftovers. Like India, it grows tea for internal consumption primarily, so the export-focussed Sri Lanka and the virtually export-only Kenya give us more.
But China gives us sweet greens from the South; not-so-sweet gunpowder greens from all over. Delicate whites and Lapsang Souchong. The only Chinese I speak is tea: Yunnan, Keemun Mao Feng, Panyong Congou, Bai Mu Dan. They have pu-erhs that taste of heaven, and pu-erhs that taste like a dog blanket. Oolongs that are redolent of the earth, oolongs that are redolent of other oolongs. Delicate rose-, jasmine-, osthmanthus-, chrysanthemum-added teas.
You can like or loathe teas from any corner of the globe; but every corner of the tea globe traces back to China. You can worship Chinese tea or you can worship tea from Vietnam to the Azores, but it always traces back, along glistening liquid silvery threads, to China.