Since I came to China four and a half years ago, I have been seeking out tea teachers and experiences. I went to tea markets with fellow tea afficionados, marvelling at the exquisite – and expensive – tiny yixing tea pots. We enjoyed drinking tea with tea vendors and learning about all the utensils needed for gong fu cha 功夫茶 – the Chinese tea ceremony. I was discovering cha dao 茶道 – the way of tea – even if I wasn’t fully aware of it.
For one semester I studied with Mabol Zhong from Discover Cha. She is a Kunming teacher who holds a Master’s degree in tea studies. In 2019 I joined her on a tea excursion through Yunnan’s Southern tea region.
My latest teacher was my neighbour Zhu Liyua. She is the one who taught me a lot about the practice of tea ceremony and how to correctly brew different varieties of tea. Throughout, I have sat down for tea with many different people and served tea to friends. This afternoon, I will join a long tea meditation ceremony hosted by one of my neighbours.
In a way, my cha dao tea journey started decades earlier. I never liked coffee all that much. I knew that there had to be something better out there than poor quality tea bags brewed with microwaved water. My curiosity was peaked by finding the Special Gunpowder tea in Eindhoven’s Chinese Winkel. Having to use a tea egg for loose leaf tea was the first glimpse of some sort of tea ritual. Flash forward and here I am, doing a daily morning tea ceremony. I keep notes on taste, fragrance and thoughts, feelings and questions that arise.
At the same time, my departure from China is coming close. I have been thinking about how to keep China – and especially Yunnan – in my life. I didn’t want China to just become a slowly fading memory. Continuing Chinese language study has been one approach. I knew I wanted to maintain a daily tea ceremony practice. I bought everything I need to set up a tea table in my new house in Bulgaria.
Listening to the tea
A few days ago the tea ceremony gave me the obvious answer. In a surprising way, it felt as if I finally started listening to what the tea was trying to say to me. I started reaching out to the global gong fu cha community and have been asking questions about courses. The idea arose that I want to continue to study tea and become a certified tea practitioner. I don’t have the time or money to do a full three year Master’s study here in China, and on the other end of the spectrum there are a lot of ‘tea academies’ that give out tea sommelier and tea ‘master’ certifications, but none of these are universally recognized. Since they are quite expensive and I feel I already know at least half of what they teach I continued looking around.
Then, I found Eastern Leaves. This is a company that provides courses that will result in an accreditation as Chinese Tea Taster and Connoisseur. It is recognized by the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, a Chinese government subsidiary. Even better, Eastern Leaves are based in Yunnan, where they have their own organic tea plantation, close to the Myanmar border. The owners are Vivian Zhang, who holds a Master’s in tea studies, and Lorenzo Barbieri, who graduated from Bocconi University in Italy with a degree in media, cultures and consumption. I will meet with them later today to discuss the program, and they will want to know about my experience and study to date.
On my way
I’m very excited that I have finally recognized I have been on cha dao 茶道 – the way of tea – for some time already. Excited that I can continue on this path and continue to dive deeper into the culture, the history, the practice. It is something that I can share with others when I go back home. I will maintain a deep connection with Yunnan through study and practice of tea. Tea after all originates from ‘my’ province in China. The Chinese tea ceremony for me brings together all aspects of China that I love – history, (minority) culture, tradition, a region that I deeply love, nature, a grounding spiritual practice, a global community, the joy of hosting guests, deliciousness and beauty, a topic that I can study and share for years to come.
I’m glad that in Dali I found the time and the headspace to do some soul searching and make this discovery. I am on the way – the way of tea.