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TEA AROUND THE WORLD

There are many things that cause divisions between cultures, and it's tempting to think that we'll never bridge those gaps. But a cup of tea can really make a difference, quietly opening doors and breaking down barriers between people. In that regard, tea really can bring people together and maybe start to heal rifts.

TEA AND HOSPITALITY IN CHINESE CULTURE

China has the world's oldest tea culture and sets great store on its power to bring people together. When a Chinese person offers tea to a guest, he or she is expressing his or her esteem for them. The Chinese understanding of tea has been influenced by the three major philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. These world-views continue to exert an influence over China today and have shaped philosophy, the arts, medicine and ethics in the country. The goal of drinking tea in China is always mutual understanding, a deeper encounter with the other. Tea creates a peaceful and conciliatory atmosphere for a conversation and helps to cut through entrenched views by promoting dialogue. Alongside these hopes, Chinese culture sees the enjoyment of tea as tantamount to the enjoyment of life itself. So the famous Gongfu Cha ritual centres on the colour of Oolong tea, the sound it makes when poured into drinking bowls, its aroma and taste. It is a celebration of our physical embodiment and sets the tone for a profoundly philosophical conversation to take place in the midst of the ceremony. Other tea ceremonies in China have a similar theme: helping participants celebrate their existence through the ritual of making and sharing tea together. They make use of special utensils, all of which are laden with significance. Even when there isn't a tea ceremony taking place, Chinese culture makes space for tea to be appreciated. The country is strewn with tea houses, where people come to meet friends and talk about life. Chinese culture, betrothed couples are given traditional "gifts of tea", and tea is often drunk throughout marriage ceremonies. These examples indicate the centrality of this drink to people's lives in the country. For the Chinese, one thing is clear, they would sooner do without food than without tea. It is integral not just to the daily lives, but to their flourishing as a people.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD

High up in the Himalayas is Tibet, the world's highest region. It is the home of Tibetan Buddhism, which - as you'd expect - has its own distinctive tea culture. Here, tea is regarded as the holy drink of the Buddha and is greatly valued by Tibetan people. Tea has a special place in the rituals of Buddhist monks and signifies honour, friendship, purity and joy among all Tibetans. Tibetan tea is usually made from green tea that is milled and pressed into blocks, with added yak butter and salt. A section of the block is then pounded with a pestle and boiled in water. The slabs of brick tea are often adorned with Chinese characters and beautiful ornamentation, so they become objects of beauty in their own right.

By most people's standards, this tipple is more like soup than tea, and it's very much an acquired taste - especially to Westerners. This brick tea, served with salt, milk or yak or sheep fat, is also popular in Mongolia, which is another country that has been heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. In this country where large steppes stretch from the Siberian taiga forest to the deserts of Central Asia, it is often impossible to cultivate crops. As a result, milk and meat are the mainstays of the Mongolian diet, with liberal quantities of tea to wash them down.