All the Tea in China

I’m so excited to feature guest blogger Stuart Beaton’s fabulous post about the tea culture in China. I learned to drink tea in China, first as a survival tactic during my initial experience with a Chinese winter (Nanjing, 1991), and then as a true connoisseur. Stu’s podcasts can be found at

When I was young, my Nan would often say that she wouldn’t swap something “for all the tea in China” – which used to confuse me no end, as tea box she took her tea from was clearly stamped “Ceylon”, and from time to time “Formosa”.

Formosa, 1965

Neither of which were in China, as my Geography teacher often pointed out.

As time wore on, and I got more interested in all things Oriental, I began to explore tea and its role in Chinese and Japanese culture and history. I started to buy small batches of different types of teas sourced from different areas.

It was about this time that I discovered that adding milk and sugar to green tea was bloody horrible, too.

A spell with the military taught me that the best cup of tea was one that was warm and wet – and NATO Standard (white and two sugars). Often it was indistinguishable from coffee, but when it’s lashing rain, you don’t stop to question the origins.

So it came as a great surprise to upon arriving in China that there didn’t seem to be a lot of people drinking tea. Hot water was the drink of choice, which certainly took some getting used to. I remember well the first time a glass was plonked in front of me, and, thirsty after a long flight, I grabbed it, only to burn my fingers.

Green tea seemed to be in short supply, and Chinese members of staff seemed to only be allowed a pinch of them a day. They’d put them in old screw top jars, and add hot water from ancient Thermos flasks, sipping gently from the jar from time to time, before topping it up again with water.

By the end of the day, the contents of the jar didn’t resemble tea so much as some kind of strange soup, as the leaves parted with every last possible trace of tea. Then the leaves and dregs would be sloshed out in the street, to form clumps and mounds in the gutter, where they’d harden and dry into Rorschach patterns.

Black tea – or “Red” tea as it is called in China – was unavailable, even though myself and other foreign staff members scoured the city for it. Eventually I managed to prevail upon my parents to send me a few boxes of teabags, after endless protests by them that “Tea comes from China, you idiot, go out and buy some!”

Even then, it wasn’t the most satisfying experience. Without kettles, we relied on electric water heaters that didn’t boil the water, producing lukewarm cups of tea, into which unrefrigerated UHT full fat milk was splashed. Despite this, teabags were rationed out, and jealously hoarded.

In the last few years, tea has undergone something of a revolution in China. The screw top jar is being abandoned in favour of purpose made flasks, and the type and variety of tea on offer has greatly expanded.

Two major chains of tea stores are in close competition – often having stores next to each other in supermarket complexes. I’ve watched, amazed, as rival shop assistants will grab and pull people away from the other store to buy only their wares.

A desire for all things foreign has also seen an explosion of new tea products hitting the shelves of even ordinary supermarkets, with Liptons alone producing a range of black teas, and Hong Kong style powdered milk teas in sachets. Twinings is attempting to seize the higher end of the market, with a huge campaign running in department stores.

These days it seems that there are an awful lot of people who want to drink all the tea in China.


  1. says

    Oh no, I can’t stand milk or sugar in tea. UGH! :) How interesting that there was a tea shortage!

    I can’t drink cold water after living in China. We leave our filtered water out so that it’s room temperature before we drink it. Whenever I’m at someone’s house and they serve me ice water I practically gag. :)

    I’ve seen lots of people using those screw topped lidded jar things. Ahh, brings back memories!

    … And I’m sure that butter in Tibet is yak butter, isn’t it? Which is stronger than normal butter. In Mongolia they drink salted horse milk. I can’t imagine anything worse than that!

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      I used to drink hot water when I lived in Hong Kong and wasn’t much of a cold water person–until I had my first child. I still don’t drink it with ice, though.

      I remember people used old Tang jars for their tea in China. I didn’t know Tang was even in China until then.

      My brother has sampled fermented mare’s milk and got violently ill both times. Not something I’m going to try anytime soon. :)

  2. says

    Tea is part of China. They claim that their Emperor discovered Tea about 4,700 years ago, with a cute story. My novel is partly set in Chengdu, which has the most Tea houses in China, so I had to learn about Tea in China in order to insert some facts and stories about it. The most interesting, probably, is the Tea with Butter in Tibet.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Wow, that’s so great your novel is set in Chengdu. I had no idea Chengdu had the most tea houses in China. Tea with butter might help with the cold in Tibet, but I’d rather take it straight!

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Yes, never milk or sugar in Chinese tea! I have some Taiwanese tea, but most of what I have comes from friends from China (Fujian).

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