Tea culture in the Song Dynasty

Chinese tea culture reached new heights in the Song dynasty. Song dynasty citizens inherited the tea drinking methods of their Tang dynasty predecessors, but were even more meticulous in their craft. Song dynasty tea cakes were carefully designed. Of particular note is the royal court crumby tea, which was popular during the Northern Song dynasty, where the founding emperor commissioned the creation of dragon and phoenix crumby tea, i.e. crumby tea with a dragon and phoenix emblem carved on top.

The tea culture in the Song dynasty had various characteristics, one of which was the popularization of “Battle tea”.  Now how does this “battle tea” work, one may ask? First of all one gathers some tea dust, some cups and a kettle, then one steeps the tea using the whisking tea method. Scatter the tea dust on the bottom of the cup, add small amounts of boiling water and stir evenly, making the tea into a paste like substance, this is called “adjusting the paste.” Then continue to fill the cup with more boiling water. This is called “whisking the soup.” At the same time as one is whisking the soup, one needs to appropriately beat and swirl the tea soup using a chasen, causing the tea soup to generate bubbles or “soup flowers” on its surface, the final product will have milky white “soup flowers”. Great care is taken to ensure the ratio of tea to tea soup is in proportion. The brewer is also mindful to steep with an even distribution of boiling water, and end the process smoothly, otherwise the “soup flowers” will be uneven.

The judge of the “battle tea” contest mainly judges through three criterions: the color of the tea soup, the tea soup flowers and the taste of the tea. The color of the tea is ranked according to the following order, milky white is best, followed by jade white, grey white, and yellow white. The milky white proves that the quality of the tea is fresh and tender, when the tea was being steamed the degree and duration of heating was just right, if the color tends towards jade then there was not enough heating, if the color tends toward gray there was too much heating, if the color tends towards yellow the tea was not collected on time, and if the color tends towards red it is because the tea’s curing process was overdone.

The second criterion concerns the tea soup flowers, there are two standards when it comes to judging the quality of the tea soup flowers, one is the color and the luster of the tea soup flowers (bubbles on the surface of the tea soup), the fresh white color is deemed to be of good quality, secondly, when the bubbles have been stirred up, the time it takes for the water markings to appear. When the tea dust has been finely ground, the steeping has been done just right, and the swirling has been performed with great skill, the bubbles will be even and uniform in content, and they will adhere to the surface of the cup, this phenomenon is called “biting the cup”, the longer the tea soup flowers bite the cup, the better is deemed to be the quality of the tea. The first tea product to have the water markings appear loses.

The third criterion has its own rules, and I will not go into detail here. Suffice to say, the contest of “Battle tea” was enjoyed by many among the nation, and it was endorsed by the emperor and the intelligentsia. And it is but one aspect of the endemic obsession with tea drinking in China at the time of the Song dynasty.

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