I met two tourists in People’s Square, Shanghai who were attending a “tea performance.” Curious about this cultural event, I joined them and was led into a tiny room in a mall just big enough for a table and a few stools tightly gathered around it. Thankfully, one of the tourists was an English teacher from Beijing and translated this whole experience thoroughly. I was impressed that she even understood the word “suburbs” when I described where I was from in New York.
The performance started when a young girl with dyed light brown hair entered the room – brown hair is currently popular in Shanghai and people sometimes don’t believe that mine is real. She wore a traditional silk jacket that barely covered her American name-brand t-shirt, though the tea table hid her jeans well for most of the tea performance. I thought it hypocritical that she declared the event too traditional for photos, so I snapped the one above while she was briefly absent from the room.
Before the tea performance started, the girl explained the history of her teas while pointing to an illustrated one-line diagram in the menu that I think was supposed to be a map of tea country, perhaps so ancient that it predated the discovery of 2-D space. Next, some hot water was poured over a three-legged frog statue that represented the “tea god.” Once we all touched the statue for good luck, the six tastings commenced, brewed from the six glass jars pictured above. Our first tea was Ginseng, which is naturally sweet and considered good for the heart and lungs. I learned that it is polite to drink Chinese tea in three sips and hold the cup with three fingers. The thumb and index finger straddle the delicate hemisphere of a tea cup and the middle finger supports the bottom. As a woman, I was supposed to extend my pinky outward to express my supposed elegance while the man at the end of the table knew to hold his pinky in to display masculine power.
The second tea, jasmine, was delicious but had a second purpose, reducing “panda eyes,” or dark shadows around the eyes. Pink Lady, our third tea, was also sweet, comprised of 12 fruits with no sugar added. It is recommended for the elderly, children, and pregnant women, since it has many vitamins and is good for the stomach. The fourth, Guan Yin, is an oolong tea also known as “Iron Buddha’s Tea.” It is popular for lowering blood pressure and treating hangovers. As we appreciated this famous tea from the Fujian province, the girl identified the traits of good green tea: a slightly bitter taste, light green color, and fresh smell.
The fifth tea used lychee juice and was poured using dragon and phoenix cups with painted decorations that actually changed color when the hot tea was poured into them. According to the girl, such cups were used to detect water temperature in ancient times. She then served us by grasping cylindrical vessels that funneled outward with tongs and pouring the tea into our cups from about a half meter above the tabletop. After we drank the tea in three sips, we placed the cups over our eyes for good eyesight and rolled the still-warm porcelain cylinders on the sides of our faces beside our eyes. This motion supposedly prevented wrinkles.
The sixth and final tea resembled an authentic owl pellet on first glance. It was lowered into a wine glass of hot water. After a few seconds, the outer leaves unraveled and I learned that the infusion consisted of six different types of flowers wrapped in tea leaves, including a chrysanthemum and jasmine. It took at least a minute of the girl poking the pellet and stirring the glass until you see could flowers blossoming from the drab leaves. This tea is considered to be good for the throat, especially for smokers.
At the end of the ceremony, they asked each of us to pay 40 USD which suspiciously seemed to be more than the prices I had been told at the beginning. I only had 20 USD on me at the time and the other two tourists covered for me.
Much afterward, I realized that the tea ceremony is a well known scam in Shanghai and the other “tourists” were not actually paying with their money.