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Song in a cup

By Yang Feiyue | China Daily| Updated: March 22, 2022 L M S


In Han Zheming's skilled hands, the image of a bamboo appears on a cup of tea. CHINA DAILY

A graphic designer seeks to revive an old tea-drinking ritual, Yang Feiyue reports.

It's common to see a barista create coffee art, but it's a whole different ballgame doing same thing with tea. Han Zheming has managed to perfect the skill, creating tea art in cups, or dian cha in Chinese, which used to be a ritual during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Over the past six years, the 40-year-old Shanghai resident has used tea and spoons to create nearly 200 patterns based on ancient paintings.

"It's like adding bells and whistles to tea and giving people a stronger sense of occasion, so drinking tea is more fun," Han says.

It's also his intention to bring the old ritual back to modern life and have more people appreciate its charm. Dian cha in modern brewing enhances the taste of tea, Han says. "It is similar to the foam on top of a cup of coffee, except that it is made of tea rather than milk."

Chinese tea culture started to enjoy popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and flourished throughout the Song Dynasty, when tea had become a necessity for almost everyone, from nobles and scholars to common people, just like other indispensable items, such as rice, oil and salt, as suggested by Song politician and thinker Wang Anshi.

Different from the method of brewing tea during the Tang period, in the Song Dynasty, the prevalent way of having tea was through dian cha. The process begins with hot water being poured over fine powdered tea creating a paste, then more hot water is slowly added as the tea is constantly whisked by hand with a bamboo stick. It is believed that this method later spread to other parts of East Asia, including Japan, where similarities can be seen in the way matcha is prepared today.

This action of pouring hot water is called dian, hence the name dian cha, which was listed as an intangible cultural heritage of Runzhou district, Zhenjiang city, Jiangsu province, in 2019.

"It is sort of like how you mix baby formula with water," Han says about tea-whisking, adding that the key is to practice coordination between the wrist and the arm. "It usually requires whisking the mixture between 180 and 200 times before the water and the tea are fully blended and the froth appears."

Then, one can take the liberty of making artistic designs in the froth with the concocted tea paste.

Han has been fascinated by the culture and art of the Song Dynasty, and has engaged in its artistic practices since childhood.

"My mother loves traditional culture and I have been leaning toward it under her influence," Han says.

In 2002, Han was admitted to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and spent four years learning design.

After graduating in 2006, he worked as a graphic designer for a games company in Shanghai, and took great delight in drinking tea. This led him to learning about traditional tea culture and buying ceramic tea sets, especially those made in the style of the Song Dynasty. During the process, he also met people with the same interest.

"We exchanged notes and compared our collections," Han says.

While studying history journals trying to figure out the reasons behind the use of tea sets, he stumbled upon the art of tea-whisking.

"I was amazed by this exquisite way of drinking tea, which was also loved by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty," Han says.

The emperor's book, Treatise on Tea, exposed Han to the details of tea-whisking. In the eyes of people of that time, good tea should be white and fine, Han explains. The better the tea, the whiter it should be, and the longer the froth should last.

Han experimented with several kinds of tea, such as green and black, eventually settling on using white tea.

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