Shanshan Guo sits in her Shanghai tea studio and gently holds up a clay teacup, tilting it toward me so I can see the inside.
" memory," she says, emphasizing the word "memory."
This cup has memories.
She instructs me to touch the inside of the cup. It's rough. That's what Guo means by memory. Because clay is highly porous, it absorbs flavor well.
She puts the cups back on her table and resumes the ceremony. She reaches for the large, ashen kettle in the back and pours out water in a circular motion in her gai wan—a porcelain-capped cup used for tea infusions. The gai wan is an alternative to the teapot. It's filled with Phoenix Dancong Oolong sourced from Guangdong. It's considered one of the best teas in the world and one of Guo's favorites. She leans into the flow, as if the water was coming out of her body. She breathes in slowly, caps the cup, and exhales.
Guo is a tea teacher by way of Taiwan currently residing in Shanghai. In China and Taiwan, tea masters are aplenty and you can get a proper cup brewed at any regular teahouse or shop. But Guo's performance is unique in that she doesn't use a slotted tray to hold wastewater or even a filter. She's part of a new wave of tea masters who are redefining Chinese tea culture. The main difference is that they do a dry pour; not a single drop falls onto the table.
It's a big contrast to what is usually seen in teahouses, where water and tea purposefully overflow out of cups and where accessories (like tea pets, which change color over time, and brushes that push off excess water) frequently appear.
The dry pour, however is an extremely skilled ritual—seriously, try pouring with a Chinese tea set without getting water everywhere on the table. Dried leaves are filtered beforehand to rid them of finer particles, and wastewater is dumped in a beautiful porcelain bowl on the side. This style is also much more minimalistic. Students of this new practice are doing away with flashy qipao dresses, frivolous accessories, and fanciful hand movements.
"Until I stumbled across this movement, I had grown up thinking that tea culture was something very black," Guo says. The word "black" in this context means chaotic. Guo brings up imagery of men on the streets using tea parties as a way to settle up debts. It's not unlike what I see on the streets of Shanghai—it's loud, cigarette smoke lingers. "Also, the tea tray gets really dirty," she adds.
At teahouses or private clubs, you might see a young woman dressed in traditional Chinese garb doing the pouring, employing elegant hand motions, with pinkies up. Many of these women are professionally certified as tea practitioners. There are three levels, and it takes about half a year to complete each portion.
"They are focused more on performance," Guo says. "Honestly, it's all very tacky. Tea pouring was a private affair between good friends. It wasn't an elaborate show."
At Guo's tea studio, there are no frills in her pouring methods. It's the décor that stands out. Her table is pristine and dry. It's adorned with mono-color cloths that she had custom made. Soft music chimes in the background. She says that the dry pour trend is a throwback to what it was like within aristocratic circles during the Ming Dynasty (the period that came right before the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty, when tea trays were extremely popular).
A vase of flowers sits on her right side; she changes it weekly. She has an assistant in the back who quietly helps her refill water and set the table. For Guo, using the right vessels is of utmost importance to the tea ceremony. Atmosphere is key.
The dry pour movement started in the early 1990s in Taiwan as enthusiasts looked to the history books for inspiration. I asked Sara Xue, a teashop owner in Shanghai, to confirm this new trend. Xue agrees that it's an extremely popular style, and that because of it, she's having a hard time selling tea trays and tables. "It's just a difference of preferences," Xue says. "This dry discipline comes from Taiwan and is strongly influencing the mainland."
"Chinese dynasties were really good at destroying the art of past dynasties," Guo muses. "This is about ushering in a new era of tea, based on ancient traditions that have been forgotten." Guo explains that China's culture had been compromised in the past hundred years due to uprisings and political unrest. "These people could barely feed themselves; of course culture and the arts were not a priority," she says. She credits the Japanese with preserving a part of Chinese tea history and assimilating it into their own customs. "The Japanese took back Song and Tang Dynasty tea technologies and made them their own," she says. She gives an example: "Matcha was originally from China."
She shows me a video of a woman named Zhizhang Xie (解致璋), a well-respected dry pour tea teacher in Taiwan. The video is serene, calm. Jie talks about how she uses her tea studio as a space to meditate and seeks inspiration through nature.
After all, tea used to be a social affair linked to the arts and nature. "Tea was integrated in the day-to-day lifestyle," Guo says. "You didn't use a big plate." People would pour tea for each other while playing a musical instrument or writing calligraphy. They would pack their tea-ware into picnic baskets and drink outside. Guo cites tea books that would detail how a vase of flowers would sit on the side of a table and would be changed often, according to the seasons.
For these teachers, what's old is new; and they hold tea conferences in China and Taiwan to spread the doctrine.
Guo lifts up the gai wan, adjusts the cap, and tilts the cup slightly until a honey amber liquid flows out gently into the teacups. This is called the , or "soup." She passes a cup to me. I take a whiff; the scent is extremely fragrant. The taste has strong almond tones, with a bit of a milky aftertaste. We try the pour again, but with stone teacups. The experience is completely different. It's warmer, heartier.
At the heart of this new movement are the vessels that are used. Materials— whether glass, clay, or porcelain—can affect the entire experience.
Here's a basic guide:
Gai Wan (盖碗)
Definition: a three-part tea infuser (used as an alternative to a teapot), composed of a saucer, a cup, and a lid.
"The most important thing when choosing a gai wan is making sure you have control of the lid," she says. Guo recommends a thin, porcelain gai wan for younger teas and a thicker one for older teas. (The latter requires hotter temperatures.) Also, a gai wan is appropriate and preferable to a teapot when you're sampling many types of tea because its pour speed is quite quick.
Definition: a container with a lid, spout, and handle used for tea infusions. In this context, they're usually quite small.
Teapots can be quite complicated, and even Guo admits that they're an advanced topic. Here are some of the classifications: ju lun zhu (巨轮珠) has a short spout; long dan (龙旦) has a round cap; han fang (汉方) is boxy; and ju bian (菊辨) looks like a pumpkin.
Material is also very important. Purple clay teapots, produced in Yixing City, are highly prized and very expensive. Clay teapots retain flavor well; one should dedicate each teapot to a specific type of tea so that the flavor doesn't become corrupted. Never wash clay pots with soap because "clay has memory."
When choosing a teapot, make sure the top does not leak. For clay teapots, the sound of the handle when you click it with the lid will indicate what temperature the pot was baked at and how thick or thin the product is.
Gong Dao Cup (公道杯)
Definition: A gong dao is a small pitcher or decanter used to hold the tea after it has been infused.
Guo holds up two gong daos and makes examples out of them. "Look at this one. When you pour it, a drop of water drips out of the mouth, to the table," she says. "This was a bad find." She demonstrates with the other gong dao and pours out water. Not a drop falls to the table.
She also says that the inner color of a gong dao is extremely important; lighter colors are prioritized. That way, one can properly enjoy the vibrant hue of the tea.
She also recommends a glass gong dao if you're looking to really highlight the beauty of the tea "soup." Glass is smooth, so the gong dao won't absorb any of the tea flavor.
Definition: the cup in which the final "soup" is served.
Shorter, thinner tea cups are brought out during the summer so that the tea cools down faster, and thicker cups are used during the winter because they have exact opposite properties. Taller cups are much better at holding in scent.
Also, hand-painted blue porcelain teacups are a very beloved style among the Chinese. This type of design is called qinghua (青花).
Guo recommends bamboo tea utensils for scooping out dry leaves because bamboo doesn't hold on to scent. It's a very neutral material that can be used over and over.
"Also, bamboo is a very straight plant, which has a lot of meaning," she says. "It symbolizes straight virtues and the value of being earnest."
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.