It is said that “All roads lead to Rome” but if we trace the origins of our favorite beverage back to the source, we find ourselves in Southwest China, in the mountains of modern day Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. In the second millennium BC, the broth from fresh leaves which were boiled in water, was consumed to treat all manner of maladies. Some native peoples ate the leaves raw or included them in various dishes.

Since those ancient days tea and tea culture have evolved through many generations and journeyed far from home to foreign lands. Still, within its homeland, today the enjoyment of the leaf takes many forms. China’s geographical expanse and diverse ethnic groups have equally influenced how tea-drinking habits have been formed.

Over the years I have had the good fortune to travel to many wonderful places in China and observe, experience and enjoy tea in many different ways. In this series I am pleased to share some of my favorite tea drinking experiences from across this fascinating country.

Wuyi Mountians

One of my early memorable tea experiences was in the enchanting mountains of Northern Fujian province – Wuyi Shan. Legend has it that fairies inhabit the many picturesque peaks. Often these peaks are cloaked in a veil of misty clouds. The verdant landscape, mesmerizing cadence of the waters of the 9-bend stream, distant call of exotic birds and the perfumed air – lightly scented with Osmanthus, leaves the observer with a blurred sense of time and place. This is also the birthplace of the Black Dragon a.k.a. Oolong tea.

Near dusk on a warm September day, I was visiting a teahouse, which was nestled between the stream and fairy peaks. As I sat on a stool made from a tree trunk, before me was set a low table, with a variety of objects; a brass oil-can like vessel, a deep edged plate, some walnut sized handleless cups, a wooden container brimming with some sort of strange tools, a clay jar of something, a sand-filled urn containing a single incense stick, and a baseball sized teapot. These items were brought in and meticulously placed on the table by a pair of slender young maidens dressed in elegant yet simple Chinese long dresses. The girls processed in, one taking a seat at the center of the table, the other to her right acting as an assistant. After pausing to collect her thoughts and unite with the moment, the tea mistress lifted a delicate hand, grasped the incense stick, lit it, and then dipped her head reverently as the fragrant smoke ascended in curling wisps.

She was beginning the formal tea ceremony. As her deft hands touched the various items on the table, their use became clear, even obvious. A kettle of hot water, a dish for washing the cups, a caddy of oolong tea, a funnel and scoop for filling the teapot with the long, twisted leaves; all tools implemented with graceful efficiency. This “gong fu”, this artful skill gained through attentive practice was performed for one purpose, to encapsulate the magic of a single moment into a simple teacup.

As the cup was placed with delicate fingers on the table in front of me, I was suddenly lost. The beauty of the performance, the cool breeze bringing the tea’s sweet aroma to my nose, the glow of the light, all had me in a kind of trance. As I lifted the cup to my lips to take a sip, my gaze drifted up beyond the table, past the performers, out the open window to the mist covered peaks. I realized at that moment that I could be in that very place, experiencing the same performance, enjoying that very same cup of tea, a thousand years ago. Overwhelmed for an instant, I held the elixir in my mouth. The first delicious swallow brought me back to my senses but the profound impression remained. It was then that I knew; tea would be a part of my life forever.