Ancient tea traditions are making a comeback

Shanghai Daily journalist finds the earliest tea culture relic in one of Hangzhou's lesser known temple. 


Hidden on the hillside in Lingyin, there is a temple not even locals are familiar with. Named Taoguang after its founder, it is a place that enshrines gods and immortals from both Buddhism and Taoism.

Even fewer know its connection with Zen tea. The history of growing tea in temples could at least be dated back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). In Lu Yu’s “The Classic of Tea,” he graded the tea produced in this area as “famous in nation.”

Historical remains can still be found in Taoguang Temple. The peng ming jing (tea-brewing well) is said to be the place where the then mayor of Hangzhou Bai Juyi tasted tea together with monk Taoguang.

But it is the neighboring Yongfu Temple that picks up this tradition again. With the same origin and founded by the same monk (Huili), Yongfu Temple is as old as Lingyin Temple.

Yongfu Temple

Unlike other temples, there is no central axis in this temple. Houses can be found on your way up the hills, where some trees are over 100 years old and creeks and waterfalls are scattered around.

Some say it resembles more a Chinese garden than a temple.

The present-day Yongfu Temple was restored in 2006. It is also one of the few temples in the nation to have its own tea garden. The self-grown and self-produced Longjing tea is served inside the temple with water from the nearby creek.

The connection of Zen and tea actually has an even longer history in written records. It was common to have a tea hall in a temple back then. When the drum is hit in the northwestern corner at the Dharma Hall, monks leave meditation and take a cup of tea instead.

Apart from the tea hall inside, Yongfu Temple has set up two Fuquan Academy outlets in downtown Hangzhou to accommodate more people, with one near the Zijingang campus of Zhejiang University and the other close to Huanglong Stadium. 

Fuquan Academy offers a variety of vegetarian food and tea. Recommended dishes include lotus root in sweet and sour source, kung pao king trumpet mushrooms and broad vermicelli sour soup. Shanghai Daily’s favorite is “fresh shiitake in the shape of flowers.”

Poured with a special kind of soy source, the umami of the shiitake awakens the taste buds. Tea choices range from black to green to Pu’er. 

Cooking classes, reading classes, photography classes and seminars on Chinese classics can be found at their outlet near Zijingang.

In 2014, two more tea academies — Songpin and Suye — opened in Hangzhou.

Traditional setting at Songpin Tea Academy

The Yunnan Province-based Songpin Tea Co came here to open its biggest tea academy in southern China. Songpin is a trademark with a history dating from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

It sells only Pu’er tea produced in the mountains of Yiwu in Yunnan Province. An aged Pu’er cake carrying the trademark of Songpin sold for 2.2 million yuan (US$328,657) in an auction in 2016.

Due to historical reasons, the trademark of Songpin vanished for decades and was revived by its present manager, Shi Jiquan.

Asked about the decision to open a tea academy in Hangzhou, Shi said it was the rich tea culture here that prompted him to do so.

“Originally tea is sold where it is produced. But we see large potential of tea consumption here?” Shi said in a video interview.

And teahouse customers are no longer content just sipping tea — now they cram themselves with refreshments.

Located in a creative industrial park far from central Hangzhou, the Songpin Tea Academy was transformed from a factory building. It houses a display area with Pu’er, teaware and tea-related books, a tea room furnished with tatami, a main hall to deliver courses on guqin (a stringed instrument), ikebana (flower arranging) and incense appreciation.

A staff member at Suye Tea Academy prepares teas for guests.

These are all closely related to the shuyuan (academy) tradition of tea culture. The academies are private schools which began to prosper in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and was rejuvenated by Confucius scholars such as Zhu Xi (1130-1200) in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), during which Hangzhou was the capital.

“There are three types of tea spaces in Hangzhou: the old style offering tea and food; teahouses with no food; and, academies which boast a kind of lifestyle,” said Chen Yifang, manager and founder of the Suye Tea Academy.

At Suye, one can enjoy tea quietly accompanied by the sound of guqin. Or you can watch a tea ceremony and talk to fellow tea sippers from time to time. Courses and custom tea trips are offered here.

One of the more interesting is a course in making tea wine. 

“We want to attract more young people. The tea culture we see in China has actually been disrupted. We are in a process of recovering,” Chen told Shanghai Daily.

“But it is definitely on the rise again and gaining significance.”

You can also simply drop by any of the tea academies and ask for a tea service. Songpin offers free tea refreshments, and a cup of Pu’er costs 30 to 50 yuan with two free refills. 

At Suye, tea service costs 168 yuan per person with a tea ceremony included. The manager will also be willing to tell you more about tea.



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