The Ch’i of Tea

“I’m not interested in immortality but only in tea flavor.” –  Lu Tung


Chung Du City, Szechwan Province, China, 1904, 6 a.m., Li Zhang’s great-grandma Zhang stops at the local tea house for her daily cup of tea before resuming the journey to the outdoor markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. The tea leaves she orders are the most common and affordable for everyday consumption as opposed to what might be bought for entertaining guests or giving as gifts. “Gift tea would have come from the tips of the stems that are freshly sprouted,” as it still does today explained Li. “Everyday tea would come from the lower part of the stem and be strong enough to last throughout the day.”

She takes a few precious sips to awaken her day’s journey, greeting friends and neighbors all the while. Not to linger too long, “after enjoying the first two refills” she covers her half-finished tea cup with a lid and places a leaf on top. “This would signify to the hostess of the tea house that grandma [Zhang] would return that day to have the tea refreshed with hot water. As long as the leaf remains on top throughout the day, no one would remove my great grandmother’s cup. She could again relax, sip tea and visit with friends in the afternoon when she had nothing to do. This was traditional Chinese life-style.”

The only rule of the tea houses, at this period of time before the Communist Revolution, was that no tea could be left over night. Tea leaves had to be refreshed and repurchased every morning.

Li Zhang grew up in Cheng Du, Szechwan, People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.). He followed in the steps of his father and studied medicine at the Cheng Du University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Later he came to the United States to finish his studies at ISCM, the International Institute of Chinese Medicine in Santa Fe, NM.

A cup of tea could still be purchased according to an unofficial sliding scale when he was growing up in the 1980s, according to Li. A cup at the local tea house may have been 15 cents but if a person’s salary only allowed one to afford 5 cents a day, the tea house would accept this reduced rate. Li would only pay 1 cent for a cup when he was still a young student in the 1980s.  For those engaged in hard labor or were running around as messengers and deliverers, tea would be given freely since their pay did not allow for the price of tea, “but they, more than anyone,” claims Li, “needed to remain hydrated throughout the day. Tea is supposed to do something for people’s lives, to meet their needs.”

“We [Chinese] don’t keep the tea cold, we keep the tea warm. The reason is that if you are sweating, a cold cup of tea of course makes you feel better, but if you take a big glass of hot tea, your body will keep on sweating, and your body will cool down naturally. So instead of blocking the pores with a cold drink, which is bad in regards to Chinese medicine, it allows your heat to move.”

In the winter, when one is cold, warm tea works as a tonifyer (something that makes the body more comfortable) and is still good for the body. “Just as when the hands are cold someone will hold a warm cup with both their hands and they feel much better.”

“The tea is supposed to do something for people’s lives.” Li says tea has been given many meanings. For one, it is a type of life-style. Tea, he claims, is not to be drunk quickly. It seems that only when people are relaxed will they have tea. Coffee is drunk quickly when people are on the go, but in China people will carry jars and cups (with lids on them, called Gai Wan) all day long, refreshing it with hot water. “You will also not see very busy business people with a pot of tea on their desk because they have no time to stop and enjoy it.”

Drinking tea helps people to slow down and value life more. It is considered “a daily life ingredient” and its appreciation, an art form. It must be enjoyed in each drinkers individual way.  “Life must be enjoyed or it doesn’t make sense.”  Chinese often give tea meaning that is specific to their own experiences, memories, and personal philosophy.

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