China’s tea culture is undoubtedly the granddaddy of all the tea cultures in the world. We succeeded in making tea-drinking ceremonial long before most countries know what tea was. Most people, however, tend to focus on the classification of Chinese tea when they introduce our tea culture to others, and hence neglecting the cultural part: the ritual as well as the imposing names adopted in a tea tasting event. An egregious mistake, at least in my point of view. Because the formal steps in serving and tasting Chinese tea, and for that matter, all the poetical and emotional names associated with it, are a vivid showcase of how we Chinese interweave our culture with our food. So without further ado, I would like to translate and introduce here the seven steps in a formal Chinese tea tasting event (Oolong tea is used here for example).
Step one: 白鶴沐浴 The bathing of the white crane (heron). This is the move where the fine white porcelain cups with lid (the gaiwans) are washed by hot boiling water. In China, the white crane is commonly regarded as a heavenly creature, one that redolent of many romance affections and its gracefulness has long hailed in poetries. For example, when we say someone’s dead, one way to put it euphemistically is to say the deceased is riding the white crane to the west (the direction of the Nirvana).
Step two: 烏龍入宮 The dark dragon marching to the palace. This is the part where the precise portion of Oolong is put into the cups (the palace). ‘Dark dragon’ is a double entendres here because a) it is homophone to Oolong in Chinese and b) the use of dragon imposes a kind of grandeur sentiment to the tea.
Step three: 懸壺高掛 The plunging fall from the high-hanging kettle. In this step, the waitress pour the boiling water into the cups from the kettle in a high-arching position to a) show off her sinuous skill and b) break the tea with the boiling water hastens the uplifting of the tea's fragrance.
Step four: 春風拂面 The breeze of spring brushing the cheek. This is the move where the froth of the tea is brush away (smooth off) from the cup with its lid. The move is done with extra care, reminiscent the spring breeze caressing one’s cheek gently. An utterly 'Shakespearian' term for a step in tea-drinking, if you ask me.
Step five: 夢裹尋芳 Tracing the fragrance in a dream. After about one and a half minutes, the tea is ready for drink. The patron will remove the lid and sniff the dreamy, godsend scent of the tea. The patron can only enjoy the tea with his olfactory sense at this stage because there’re 2 more steps waiting to finish.
Step six: 關公巡城 Kuan Yu (the God of War) patrolling the fortress. This move means to pour the tea from the big cups to the smaller ones (the number depends on that of the drinkers). It bears the resemblance to a wily general checking every corners of the fortress meticulously. Instead of pouring the tea from high-arching position like in Step three, the big cups kiss the lips of the smaller ones in this move and the tea is poured slowly, almost in a dripping fashion, to ensure only the tea, not the leaves, is flowed into the smaller ones.
Step seven: 韓信點兵 The roll call by Han Shin. This is the finale. In this part, each smaller cup is poured with tea again to even the portion. The roll call by Han Shin is a Chinese idiom made famous by general Han Shin's astute deployment of his battalion. The second part of this idiom, which is not used here, is equally famous - the more the better - which somehow reflects truely what's in every tea aficionado’s mind during the tea ceremony.