Wu-Yue Culture and Hangzhou Teahouses

Wu-Yue Culture and Hangzhou Teahouses

Situated a the remote area far from the national political center, the lower Yangtze River valley retained the cultural features that formed the unique style and characteristics of the ancient culture of the states of Wu and Yue (hereinafter referred to as Wu-Yue Culture). The area was long inhabited by the ancient tribes in the east It is one of China's famous tea-producing areas and the birthplace of Chinese tea culture, for green tea produced in Zhejiang Province played a decisive role. Several important factors contributed to the region's significance for tea culture.

Noted for its beautiful landscape, the area has not only suitable natural conditions for producing tea, but also the artistic environment for tasting tea. It is rich in famous teas, mountains and rivers. Chinese tea culture always advocates natural agreement Therefore, Wu-Yue Area, including Taihu Lake and the Qiantangjiang River valleys became a large natural "teahouse."

Southeastern China is a Buddhist and Taoist center. However, because people there respect ancient customs and local traditions, Buddhism has kept fewer of its original features in the area than in Qinghai, Tibet and other western regions. Any culture has to be Remoulded to suit local customs. Esoteric Buddhism is practiced most in the Qinghai-Tibet area, which has retained the original features of Indian Buddhism; in Beijing, the Vinaya school has been remoulded to suit Chinese culture; in the Wu-Yue area, Zen Practiced. It is a completely remoulded Buddhist school which is closer to Taoist and Confucian thought-China's "original" culture. Therefore the famous Wu-Yue tea producing region integrates Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought, a combination which created the system of Chinese tea culture.

The economy of the lower Yangtze River valley has flourished Knee the Sui and Tang dynasties. The Southern Song government had its capital in Lin'an, and as a result, the local culture developed rapidly. The area is greatly affected by the fresh cultural flavor of regions south of the Yangtze, and the local culture is also blended with ancient customs. The ancient Chinese tea culture has changed dramatically in modem times, but its essence has been retained secretly not only in the Wu-Yue area, but also in Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Up to now tea markets in Zhejiang Province have been the most flourishing, and various organizations has been established. These include the Lu Yu and Jiao Ran tea groups, folk lea parties in Huzhou City; the modernized China Tea Research Institute and the tea museum covering past and present tea lore in Huangzhou; the teahouses by West Lake, and the Tea Connoisseurs Association, a combination of teachouse, tea party and tea research institute.

Hangzhou teahouse culture originated in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). After the Jin people (an ethnic minority in North China which established the Jin Dynasty during 1115-1234) overthrew the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the Southem Song Dynasty established its capital in Hangzhou. The Confucian studies and palace culture of the Central Plains spread to the city, where tea markets and teahouses prospered. A book records that "Hangzhou teahouses keep up their appearances with seasonal flowers and famous paintings, sell excellent tea, soup and wine throughout the year, for instance, seven-treasure leicha tea, fried dough twists, onion or yangutang tea in winter, and meihua (plum blossom) wine in summer." Thus we can see that the custom of combining paintings and calligraphy in Hangzhou teahouses and various popular drinking methods were developed as far back as the Southem Song Dynasty. Leicha tea, a health drink made of pounded tea, sesame, rice flowers and other food, could work up an appetite. The Yangutang tea referred to might be yandou tea now popular in Zhejiang Province, It was a common practice to add onions and gingers to tea during the Song Dynasty.

The present teahouses in the Wu-Yue Area are fewer than those in Sichuan Province because most of the Zhejiang people drink tea at home. However, the cultural atmosphere of Hangzhou tearooms is much stronger.

Hie Hangzhou teahouses have several features. They emphasize making tea with famous water, and tasting it in an excellent environment, thus achieving the true objective of tea art.

Unlike Sichuan teahouses, which have tea seats, complete gongfu tea sets and skillful tearoom attendants, Hangzhou tearooms are valued in their genuineness. Longjing tea is regarded as the best tea in Hangzhou. The best-quality longjing tea is hard to come by, for it does not originate in Longjing Village, but from Lion Peak. However, people can taste the superfine or first-grade longjing tea. It is classified as green tea,which keeps tea's natural color. A cup of tea is a work of art with its clear tea water, beautiful leafbuds, and mild and sweet taste similar to that of sweet dew.

Good quality water is of vital importance to it. Water from the punning Tiger Spring is regarded as the best; the water quality in other areas, while inferior, is still much better than those of inland waters. People enjoy themselves visiting the West Lake and Temple of Inspired Seclusion, and drinking first-grade longjing tea pith water from the Running Spring. The charm lies in the fact that both tea and water keep their original color, fragrance, taste and and natural qualities when people drink in pavilions, terraces and open halls, or in mountain valleys.

Tearooms by the West Lake are full of celestial, Buddhist and learned and refined atmosphere.

In Hangzhou, most tearooms are elegant, simple and unsophisticated. Few are like the teahouses in Beijing and Tianjin, which combine shuochang (a genre of popular entertainment including mainly talking and singing) and quyi (Chinese folk art forms). None is like the Shanghai fuchaguan (teahouses which also serve as public baths). Few adopt the practice of drinking tea with refreshments and meat gruel comon in Guangzhou and Hong Kong teahouses. Scholars,reading rooms and Buddhist meditation rooms are both called rooms. Thus Hangzhou teahouses are called tearooms because of their elegant, quiet and beautiful artistic (conception. Small shops attached to the tearooms sell handiworks such as Hangzhou fans, bamboo carvings, small images of Ji Gong or West Lake lotus root starch.

People feel that the lake and sky, and they themselves and the tea are at one when they drink tea in the tearooms along the Su and Bai causeways; when they appreciate the gurgling Running Tiger Spring and its folk stories, they can sense the wonderful Taoist celestial atmosphere. When they drink longjing tea while listening to the gurgling spring and the clear and melodious sound of bells, watching the wreaths of incense smoke and the devoted Buddhists chanting in the Temple of Inspired Seclusion, visitors will realize the truth of Buddhist allegorical words or gestures even if they themselves are not Buddhists. Decorated with paintings, calligraphy and poetic prose works, the Association of Tea Connoisseurs beside the Xileng Printing Office has a learned and refined style. Thus people can feel tea's cultural flavor in Hangzhou tearooms not only because of the methods of brewing and making tea, but also because of the historic atmosphere. Tea is full of celestial airs, for it is produced in the area where the remains of holy hermits and immortals lie.

The beautiful scenery of Hangzhou City provides an excellent natural environment for the development of the tearooms by the West Lake.

The whole Hangzhou City is a large natural "teahouse." Tea integrates naturally with man, heaven and earth, mountains and rivers, cloud and mists, bamboo and stones, and flowers and trees. Humanity and nature,and tea culture and Wu-Yue culture also become melded. Local teahouses also have the function of settling civil disputes. When both sides agree,they may go to a teahouse to settle the dispute in public. Though opposing each other, the two sides have to speak in a mild tone when defending themselves in an elegant teahouse. The losing side will have to pay for tea, which is called chipincha. As a result, the parties are able to distinguish clearly between right and wrong without hurting each other, and manifest the golden mean principle and the theory of governing by doing nothing that is against nature.