Everything Stops for Tea

The Blang harvest the tea; the Dai press it. As the suspicious linguists among you might have already guessed, the Dai are basically Thai – all fiddly-roofed pagodas and bows with hands clasped together. The Dai are another of China’s ethnic minorities, and 33% of them are huddled in this single prefecture.

In the factory, the tea is shoved into sieve-bottomed buckets, shrunk on a steamer, shoved into muslin patties and then crushed into plate-sized discs under stone weights. The pressure is applied by standing on the mill-stone sized weight and doing a little jig on top of it.

The afternoon shoot sounds like a cake-walk, because we are literally across the road from our hotel, filming a tea ceremony in a tea shop. But it is open to the street, and we are passed constantly by mopeds, speeding taxis, and water-cannon trucks playing an endless rondo of It’s a Small World After All. The owner, who has volunteered her tea shop because she thinks it will make our life easier, is instead left aghast at the trillion filming issues that she never had to consider before a film crew descended. The tea shop is too cramped for good angles, it’s noisy and open to the street and passers-by. Fortunately, our camera will have something to look at, in the form of the owner’s daughter Yangxi, a perky Dai girl in a two-tone mini-dress.

Yangxi is an adept at the Chinese tea ceremony, which is to say, the same ritual not all that different from the one specified in Lu Yu’s original Tang-dynasty Classic of Tea. It is a faffy affair in the tea is washed, the bowls are heated, and a series of medieval implements ill-fitted for their purpose have to be held just-so or you will insult your guest’s mother and/or scald your hands.

It takes Yangxi about half an hour to put two and two together, and to realise that she is going to be on TELEVISION, in a programme slated to be broadcast in over thirty countries. Some interviewees react to this realisation with paralysing stage-fright, but she dives right in. She becomes increasingly animated and performative, to the extent that by the time it is my turn to attempt the tea ceremony, she is ready with a series of sarcastic comments, grimaces and howls of dissent, as I hold the cup wrong, point the jug spout at her, mis-use the tongs, and otherwise cock it up.

“YOU’RE STICKING YOUR SPOUT OUT AT ME AGAIN!” she wails, after I have put the jug in the wrong place for the nth time.

Finally, I have successfully done all the necessary twists and turns, and deposit a single thimble-full of Pu’er tea in front of her.

“Remember,” she cautions. “You must smell the tea, appreciate its aroma, and then gently sip, before sitting back and assessing its flavours.” She sniffs the cup, and then knocks it back.

“OH MY GOD, THAT’S AWFUL!” she says.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E06 (2016).

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