I’ve heard this phrase many times during my lifetime and have always wondered why I would care about the price of tea in China. Does it really matter? Honestly, I never really cared enough to find out because it wasn’t relevant to me. I mean, really, China’s all the way on the other side of the world. Fast forward a decade and here I am in a very old teahouse with Ellen, my guide through the complexity that is tea. It started innocently enough, with an old man coming up to me and my buddies, offering us a chance to experience China in a way we never had. He sweetened the pot by saying that it would cost only 30 Yuan, or $4.70. My first thought was, well I guess I now know the price of tea in China! So, we settled into a quiet, peaceful area. He brought us to Ellen who began the tea ceremony dressed in a traditional robe. She told us that drinking tea is about freedom and release. In my mind, I had visions of formal Japanese tea ceremonies, but this was nothing like that. She had a tray under all of her pots so that she could be free to pour and miss at will. It struck me that she said the teas have two purposes. Some teas were chosen for both their taste and healing properties. My favorite of this group, the fermented Lychee Black Tea, is rich in antioxidants and has a robust, but sweet flavor. In contrast, their herbal teas had relatively little flavor but are used solely for functions such as relaxation or the elimination of toxins. This belief is deeply rooted in their culture. In 3 B.C., the Chinese discovered the healing and medicinal benefits of tea, and they universally believe that tea contributes to a long and healthy life. This significantly increases the price of tea in my mind, but I do not have a dollar figure defined as of yet. It is mind-boggling to think that this tradition spans the ages from the time of Christ until now. It is a unifying tradition that many Chinese enjoy to one degree or another. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even possible to put a price on such a valuable commodity.
I later took a different journey that changed my view of tea profoundly. As we stopped off at one of our lookout points, I discovered a small art gallery. There my have been eight or nine pieces in it, all by Chen Linggang. You can see his work at http://www.chenlinggang.cn/ along with the process he uses. I was fascinated by his work because it highlights a second common heritage that all Chinese have—their written language. There are over 200 spoken dialects in China, but they are unified by one set of written characters that is well over 1,000 years old. As I looked at his work, it was certainly beautiful, but it was also very interesting because he purposefully makes the characters look distorted and slightly difficult to make out. I spent about 30 minutes there and left very relaxed. Afterwards, when I read through his brochure on the bus, I was completely amazed and my view of the youth in China changed dramatically. All of the nuance that I had noticed during my stay now had context, which made the art even more amazing. During the 20th century, in an effort to create a new unified identity, China’s current ruling party systematically destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage and ancient history. It was so devastating and thorough that the artist said, “Today’s youth have a crisis of identity and feel an extreme cultural loss.” Imagine if our government destroyed the Declaration of Independence, or the Liberty Bell, or tried to alter or ban historical sites simply because of a change in ideology. We would feel torn and violated much like Chinese youth feel today. In an effort to bridge the gap, Chen incorporates copies of ancient manuscripts from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 – 1911) and uses them as his canvas. He then writes modern script over it, in an attempt to combine the old and the new. The purposeful distortion is a reminder that the view is skewed because of the destruction and loss that their culture endured. I now look at these two symbols of China’s heritage that survived the destruction, tea and calligraphy, and realize that there can be no price placed on all the tea in China because it is absolutely priceless.