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China Sips Back Into Its Past as Tea Gets Hot

After falling out of favor, traditional drink makes a comeback. Upscale shops and even a theme park are popular.

January 05, 2003|Martin Fackler | Associated Press Writer

PANTUO, China — In a remote valley between steep, rocky peaks in the southeastern province of Fujian sits one of China's newest attractions -- an amusement park dedicated entirely to tea.

Smiling attendants dressed as Song Dynasty noblewomen and Tibetan nomads greet visitors to a collection of fake imperial pavilions, man-made hills and ponds decorated by stone lanterns and full-size plaster models of tea trees.

Tenfu Tea Museum, deep in the region that grows China's famous Oolong tea, is hours from the nearest airport. But thousands of Chinese tourists have made the journey since it opened a year ago.

"I brought my 11-year-old son here because I felt he needed to learn more about China's cultural heritage," said Guo Zuchun, 36, an engineer who drove six hours from neighboring Guangdong province. "No one taught me about this when I was growing up."

Chinese are rediscovering tea, their culture's quintessential drink.

Legend has it that tea was discovered by a Chinese emperor 5,000 years ago when some leaves accidentally fell into his cup. From there, the drink spread around the globe. The Chinese word "cha" became "chai" in Arabic, "chay" in Russian and "tea" in English.

The blend of cured leaves and hot water is one of the bedrocks of China's identity. It was once a staple of imperial courtiers and poets, who practiced elaborate preparation rituals and wrote volumes on the drink.

But tea seemed to fall out of favor in modern times. In the 1960s, fervent Communists smashed priceless teapots as symbols of an unwanted past. More recently, urban youth embraced a Western-style latte culture.

In the last few years, however, tea consumption has begun to skyrocket, and to appeal to increasingly up-market tastes.

In Shanghai, China's largest and richest city, average annual consumption has more than quadrupled since 1992 to 2 pounds per person, said Liu Qigui, head of the Shanghai Tea Institute, a government group that promotes tea.

During the same decade, the number of cafes in the city specializing in tea jumped from three to 3,000, he said. That compares with 25 Starbucks coffeehouses.

Most of those gains have come since 1998, as rising wealth has brought a newfound sense of self-confidence in China's past, Liu said.

"People are turning to tea again as they grow more enthusiastic about Chinese tradition," he said.

Many new tea shops draw younger crowds by playing pop music and offering cold teas flavored with chocolate and strawberry. Sweet, chewy "pearls" the size of cherries float in the tall glasses, to be sucked out by fat straws.

Other shops cater to more traditional palates.

Along one of Shanghai's most chic streets, the Tangyun Tea House is marked by paper lanterns and an entrance lined with thickets of young bamboo. Behind the door stands a wooden statue of Lu Yu, a Tang Dynasty poet revered as the "saint of tea."

Inside, in rooms filled with elegant wooden furniture, traditional music plays in the background as customers pay as much as 88 yuan, or $11, per cup for brews with names like "Pearl Over Seashell" and "Plum and Bamboo."

"Chinese now drink coffee and tea," said Tao Yuan, 39, as he sipped a tiny brown cup of Oolong tea poured from an equally tiny brown pot. "Coffee is fine for the office, but when we want to chat and brainstorm, tea is best." Yuan is president of a computer company.

Another appeal of tea lies in its association with traditional Chinese medicine.

Tao favors Oolong, a brown, mildly bitter tea prized for its reputed ability to burn away fat and reduce weight. It's one of more than 1,000 types of tea in China, ranging from the delicate, green Longjing favored by Chinese President Jiang Zemin to sweet, hardy Babaocha, or "eight treasures tea" -- a mixture of herbs, nuts, sugar and dried fruit nuggets.

Tea shops display the leaves in rows of glass jars, charging as much as $250 a pound. Buyers judge aroma, texture and color.

Visitors at the Tenfu museum in Pantuo show a keen interest in tea's painstaking production process and ancient history, curators said.

"We want to learn more about what we once had," said Li Shuzhen, head of research at the museum, which is partly owned by a Taiwanese tea company.

In a corner of the park, near a fountain shaped as an enormous teapot spewing water into a cup, sits a tile-roofed hall billed as the largest tea museum in China.

Inside, exhibits show how newly picked leaves are sun-dried, fermented on bamboo trays and baked in ovens in more than a dozen steps to become top-grade tea.

Employees in silk robes and ornately braided hair demonstrate imperial China's intricate ceremonies for measuring, boiling and serving tea. The rituals date to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, when emperors favored gold tea-making utensils and leaves were accepted as currency for tribute from the provinces.

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