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Game Tea in the Song Dynasty

Game tea, a method in ancient China for people to value the quality of different teas in company, was well under way in the Tang Dynasty and occurred at all social strata in the Song.

Game tea first appeared in Jian an, where the tribute tea was produced, At that time there were 1,336 official and private baking shops in the Beiyuan hills, so it was natural for game tea to be created for appraising the quality of various teas from different workshops. Fan Zhongyan, a famous man of letters of the Song ,once wrote the Song of Game Tea, in which he described, "Before presenting the tribute tea to the emperor,tea men in the Beiyuan hills gathered to compete with each other. Baking pods scattering around, clear water from the Zhongling River boiling in cooking pots, tea dusts flying in mortars, snow-white tea foams bubbling in the cups of the tea men, the game tea was a grand view. The delicate fragrance of the tea, more pleasant than any other smelly floated in the air, greatly refreshing peopled mind. When the game was set, die winner would be elated as if walking on air, and the loser feel as ashamed as a defeated soldier." The game tea soon spread to ordinary people and literati, and later even to the imperial family. Tea and Gambling Houses, painted by a Song artist named Lui Songnian, gave a vivid description of the scene of the game tea.

The game tea blazed a new trail for the art of tea as recorded in Book of Tea by Lu Yu. Traditionally, when tea leaves were directly cooked in a pot, drinkers often sat aside to observe the changes in the tea water, meditating on the profound mystery of nature. In the Song Dynasty, however, people usually poured boiling water into cups where tea dust was placed, and stilted the water with a bamboo brash to make the tea and water completely bend with each other and foam grew like the head on a glass of beer. The person who could stir up the most and nicest foam would win. Actually what counted were the quality of the tea leaves and the skills of the competitors. In the modem Japanese tea ceremony [tea is still made from dusts, but the art of making foam has been lost In recent years, however, the Fuzhou Tea Ceremony House of China has brought this special and ancient art to light again after long-term research.

As the game tea flourished throughout the whole country, gongfu tea sets, especially the cups, were given more importance by the Song people. They were fond of light-colored tea, so tea things made of black porcelain and celadon, which could better set off the tea, were highly prized.

In the view of ancient Chinese literati, the game tea relied too heavily on people's skills and lacked natural charm. They paid more attention to the environment and atmosphere of the tea ceremony. For instance, Fan Zhongyan, the great thinker of the period, liked to chant poems and play the zither in a riverside pavilion and have rare birds and ancient trees around him while cooking a pot of tea. The famous Song poet Su Dongpo thought the natural rhythm contained in tea could only be perfectly learned while collecting water from the river and cooking the tea in the wilds on a moon night when the toll from an ancient temple and the sound of the watch from the old city echoed around.