After crossing Asia, I discovered that the word for “tea” was the only universally common word across all the major language groups and local dialects on the continent – cha(i). All tea is actually made from the leaves of one plant – Camellia sinensis, but each ethnic group has its own preparation methods and China is no different. So within China, which is a few square miles short of the United States in land area, there are many variations. As a result, buying tea in China can be somewhat of a bewildering experience – but a cultural experience that a visitor must have! Some shops have sales people thrusting Dixie cups filled with tea at you, while other shops are tucked away in anonymous alleys with miscellaneous drums of tea stacked silently along a wall. If you are wary of getting a bad deal, you can head to a Wuyutai (www.wuyutai.com.cn) – a tea shop chain of sorts that is a well-respected brand in China. It is not just for foreigners; Chinese people definitely shop there too. You won’t find the best prices at Wuyutai, but you will get good service and top-quality product.
If I could give a foreigner three pieces of advice before going tea shopping in China, they would be:
Know the Different Kinds of Teas – People in tea shops don’t speak English (not even at Wuyutai) and I would be wary of those that do have staff who speak English. So it is important to at least know the variety of tea that you are interested in as a starting point. In China, there are seven different varieties of tea – they are:
Lù chá (lue-chah – lue is pronounced like ‘lieu’tenant): Green tea. If you can’t think of what kind of tea you want or want to buy tea as a gift, a safe bet is to ask for xī hú lóng jĭng (shee-hoo-lohng-jean). This was the Dowager Empress’s favorite tea and is a favorite throughout China. The best way to prepare it is to pour water at just-sub-boiling temperatures over the leaves in an uncovered cup. The leaves will unfurl and when they sink to the bottom, the tea is ready to drink. Most Chinese teas and all green teas come in two different forms: míngqían chá (ming-chien-chah) and yŭqían chá (yu-chien-chah). Míngqían chá is the most expensive and is the first picking of the season. Yŭqían chá is less expensive and is from “after the rains” or later in the season. A reasonable price for good quality green tea of the former is about 150 yuan for 50 grams and a reasonable price of the latter is about 40 yuan for 50 grams. Although truth be told, yŭqían chá can have such low prices that it is basically free. If you are going to go for it and buy some míngqían chá, make sure that it is refrigerated or otherwise temperature controlled.
Gōngfu chá (Gong-foo-chah): Ceremonial tea. This type of tea is used for ceremonial purposes (and also casual drinking) in China and Japan. Oolong tea, which is known in China by that name, is the most common kind of tea of this variety.
Heī chá (hey-chah): Black tea. The most common kind is pu-er and in China, it is also known by that name. Objectively speaking, pu-er kind of tastes like subtley-flavored dirty water. So it is an acquired taste and this is coming from someone who likes it.
Hóng chá (hong-chah): Red tea. This tea is found throughout the Middle East. In most places outside of China and Japan, if you are served tea – it is either black or red. Within China and Japan, it is available, but not commonly served.
Baí chá (buy-chah): White tea. Recently popular in the United States, this tea is not very popular in China. You can find it in some stores, but not all. White tea is very subtle. If you aren’t a tea drinker, this tea will always taste like you didn’t put enough leaves in the strainer.
Huáng chá (hwang-chah): Yellow tea. Like white tea, you can find it in China, but it isn’t very popular. The yellow tea that I have tried has been pretty plain, but I do not want to give it a bad reputation. If you have had a yellow tea that you particularly like, please leave me the name in the comments below.
Huā chá (Hwaah-chah): Flower tea. This is the only tea variety that does not come from a tea plant. This variety consists of flowers that are added to water to give flavor. The most common types of flowers are rosebuds (they make for a somewhat bitter tea) and chrysanthemums. While attractive, flower tea is some of the cheapest tea that you can buy, so if you are being quoted a price that seems expensive or along the lines of the average tea – you are being taken.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask to Try The Teas – Trying the teas is often central to the shopping experience. Shop-keepers will not begrudge you the opportunity to try different teas and indeed, will welcome the opportunity to push you into more expensive categories once they reveal to you the merits of trading up. If you are in a store that seems to have the infrastructure to allow you to sample teas (i.e. not at a counter in a shopping mall) – such as oddly shaped wooden tables that allow water to runoff into one place – ask to try certain teas. The way to ask to try a tea is to say – cháng yī cháng (chahng-ee-chahng) or more properly wŏ kĕyĭ cháng yī cháng (woe kuh-yee chahng-ee-chahng). This question may lead you to be escorted to a seat to try the teas or the response may be – nĭ kĕyĭ kàn yī kàn – which means you can’t try the teas, but you can look at them. If you aren’t permitted to try a tea, don’t be afraid to get up close to the tea and smell it. If you do get a chance to taste the teas, the process will allow you to note the differences between the varieties and to determine whether you can tell the difference between a good tea and a bad tea before you spend $1 per gram on a first-class xī hú lóng jĭng tea. I am always amazed by how much tea is spilled while sampling; it is a sight to see.
Prices Are Not Quoted In The Metric System – The prices quoted on the tea drums will be per 500 grams in the metric system not per kilo. The standard Chinese weight (jīn) is half a kilo. So if you are buying a good tea that costs a 1,000 yuan per the quoted price on the drum – this price corresponds to one jīn. So if you ask for 100 grams (kè), you are actually asking for 20% of a jīn, rather than 10% of a kilo. In other words, you will be buying 200 yuan worth of tea rather than 100 yuan worth. To make things more confusing, the scales used throughout China are on the metric system, so it will show that you are buying 100 grams, but you will be quoted a price that is double what you thought it would be. This is the case from Xinjiang to Shanghai whether you are buying fruit, fish or anything by weight. Understand that this is the case – you aren’t being screwed because you are a foreigner.
While I am usually a voracious bargainer, tea is one area where I usually restrain myself from bargaining. This is particularly the case if I have tried many teas in the shopping process. At places such as Wuyutai, negotiating is not an option and the prices are clearly posted. At a more humble store, where there may be no prices clearly posted, a subtle way of negotiating would be to ask for prices of teas you don’t really want and be silent or look somewhat displeased. And then ask for prices on the teas that you do want. If the prices seem outrageous in comparison to some of those discussed above, you should feel free to walk away.