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Arts
Following the Scent of Jasmine
By Pamela Tobey | NO. 3 JANUARY 18, 2018
A tea worker introduces the steps of making Jasmine tea in a tea workshop in Fuzhou, southeast China's Fujian Province, on November 21, 2017 (PAMELA TOBEY)

Tea has been linked with China for centuries, but I grew up knowing little about China's tea or even China. Before coming to Beijing, I was familiar with green tea and black tea, but not much else. As an American with southern roots, black tea was usually served over ice in the summer, with sugar (which counteracted the bitter taste produced by over-brewing the tea). I discovered green tea after college, and learned to love it hot, with no sugar.

When I had the opportunity to move to China, I discovered there were more than two types of tea and many flavors between them. When dining with friends, my hosts would often order jasmine tea, and the delicate floral aroma and flavor of the brew quickly became my favorite.

I attended tea workshops and learned about the six types of tea, in order of the processing used: green, yellow, white, blue (wulong or oolong), red (black to the West) and dark. They go from no oxidization to fully oxidized, fermented and scented. I learned that the proper water temperature varies, with the darker the tea, the hotter the water, that the different kinds of tea are often drunk during different seasons, and that there are proper steps to brewing tea, down to the water temperature.

I began to discover the many varieties of tea, such as white peony and moonlight white, Longjing green and Dahongpao wulong. But I always make sure I have my favorite jasmine tea on hand.

I recently took part in a Maritime Silk Road tourism festival in Fuzhou. I knew the reputation of Fujian Province as a big tea-producing region. After I arrived, I found out that jasmine tea was created in Fuzhou centuries ago and holds a special place in the hearts of the city's people. Upon entering the auditorium for the opening ceremony of the festival, each person was given a bracelet of fragrant white jasmine blossoms. The sweet floral scent followed me around all afternoon.

One of the tours given to festival attendees was a trip to the Chunlun Creative Garden of Jasmine Tea Culture, created by the Fujian Chunlun Tea Group, a Fuzhou tea producer that began as a family tea business in the mid-19th century. Outside, we could see some of the varieties of jasmine they grow, complete with the fragrant blossoms that make Fuzhou's jasmine tea so memorable.

I knew nothing about how jasmine made its way into tea. I thought all that was done was to stir some green tea with some jasmine flowers and stick it in a bag to sell to tea drinkers. A staff member gave a demonstration and lecture detailing the seven steps taken to create jasmine tea, which were represented by seven traditional Chinese characters on the wall behind him. It takes up to 100 days to create the tea, and each main step can have several steps within, especially during the scenting of the tea leaves with jasmine flowers. The tea is scented up to seven times before the final refinement step.

I learned that Fuzhou was the first to begin making jasmine tea, about 1,000 years ago. Jasmine itself was introduced as a tribute to the emperor during the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to A.D. 8), and the flowering plant grew well in the wet and frost-free Fuzhou. During the fifth century Song Dynasty, doctors found jasmine to be soothing and to counteract summer heat, and it was then combined with tea. Jasmine tea gained fame during the Ming Dynasty when traders brought it from Fuzhou to countries on the old Maritime Silk Road. That fact fits neatly into the promotion of tourism along the new Maritime Silk Road.

During the Qing Dynasty, Empress Cixi was fond of jasmine tea and often sent gifts of it to foreign rulers and ambassadors. I also learned that before the opening up of the People's Republic of China, all jasmine tea was produced only in Fuzhou. So the tea served in 1972 by Chairman Mao to visiting American President Richard Nixon to welcome him to his study was Fuzhou's jasmine tea.

Now, every time I brew a cup of jasmine tea, the scent and delicate flavor will carry me back to Fuzhou and the memories made there.

The author is an American living in Beijing

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to baishi@bjreview.com

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