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Delight in a Fujianese Tea Ceremony on Gulangyu Island

Published by Camilla Cheung, Writer

Country: China

The Experience

A hiss of steam from the kettle accompanies the fragrance of Oolong tea leaves, as our host scoops a small green mound of tea into a bowl. After a quick rinse and refill, the young woman pours the tea into a small jug with a flourish, and portions out the tea into our tiny, delicately painted teacups. The first whiff is delicious, but the first sip, even more so. This is not your average Lipton brew, but whole Oolong tea leaves of the finest local quality. A perfect blend of full tea flavour with a hint of sweetness, infused with natural spring water.

If China is a tea-obsessed country, Gulangyu Island, a short ferry ride from the city of Xiamen in Southern Fujian province, is a tea-lover’s paradise. Even in a nation of tea addicts, the Southern Fujianese people have refined tea drinking into a highly distinguished art. No matter what their station in life, rich or poor, the inhabitants of Gulangyu have one common fixture in their home, a Fujianese tea set. A set consists of a covered teapot resembling a tall bowl, a jug for pouring, a set of miniature handle-less teacups, wooden scoops, and a bamboo or wood tray to catch spillage. These tea sets range in price from a few dollars to a few hundred.

Fujianese tea ceremony is a variation of Gongfu tea ceremony, most popularly practiced in the South of China. Unlike a Japanese tea ceremony, which prizes social ritual and precision, a Gongfu tea ceremony focuses on the taste of the tea itself, and all the controllable factors that can influence it. Therefore, particular attention is given to the temperature of the tea, the quality of the tea leaves, having the tea pot warmed before filling, the method of infusing the tea (the second infusion is the best), and sometimes even the material of the tea pot can play an influencing factor. Pouring the tea alike requires an equally special circular motion to ensure that each of the tiny teacups contains a balanced concentration of the beverage. The Chinese tea ceremony is less formal than its Japanese counterpart, and is an important part of traditional hospitality.

Gulangyu Island is a perfect place to experience this quintessential part of Chinese culture, with its clean beaches, colonial architecture, and motor-vehicle ban. A foreign concession in the 1800s, Gulangyu is now a charming mix of Victorian manors in various states of disrepair, and traditional Chinese culture. Here, teashops and teahouses mingle with beachfront cafés. Long rambles in the hills and classical Chinese gardens lead to lovely views over the South China Sea. In addition to its natural beauty, Gulangyu also enjoys a reputation for music appreciation as the hometown of several famous Chinese pianists. It purportedly has more pianos per capita than any other place in the country, which has earned it the moniker, "Piano Island".

One of the few tourist attractions in China that could properly be termed “laid-back”, or “relaxing”, Gulangyu is a beautiful place to spend a few days hanging out on the beach, absorbing the culture, and enjoying a fresh cup of tea.

When to Go to Chinese Tea Ceremony

Gulangyu is a 5-minute ferry ride from the city of Xiamen, located on the coast in Southern Fujian province. The weather is mild year round, but be prepared for heat and humidity June-August, and chilly temperatures November-February, though not freezing. Although views are beautiful throughout the year, the summer months are best if you plan to soak in the sun on the beach, or swim in Gulangyu's relatively less polluted waters.

Avoid Chinese public holidays and weekends if you can help it, as Gulangyu will be packed with Chinese vacationers. There are plenty of cheap hotels and hostels to be found on the island.

Odds n' Ends

Tea tasting, including the tea ceremony, is free of charge in tea shops geared to tourists on Gulangyu, with the tacit understanding that you will buy some of the tea that you sample. Oolong tea is produced in this region, and the premium Tie Guan Yin variety is a specialty. Try several kinds of tea, and you will be surprised at the difference in taste between different varieties. Loose tea leaves are priced by the “jin”, (about 500g), but you can ask for any quantity by the “ke” (gram). Other varieties of tea include “Lü Cha” (green tea), “Mei Gui Cha” (rose tea), “Mo Li Hua Cha” (jasmine tea), and “Bai Cha” (white tea). Chinese tea sets will set you back anywhere from fifty to thousands of yuan (RMB). Remember to bargain!

Gulangyu's various tourist attractions such as Sunlight Rock, the Aviary, ShuZhuang Gardens, the Piano Museum, and the Aquarium charge entrance fees at quite expensive rates. A combined ticket can be bought upon arrival for about 80 yuan for entrance to several of the sites. It doesn't cost anything to wander the streets and beaches though, and your time would be better spent in this way rather than in joining the tour groups flocking to the paid attractions.

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