Although it is still common in Cantonese restaurants to serve big metal tea-pots of Jasmine tea to folk of European origin it is memories of family or individual trips out to Cantonese restaurants in the 1980’s and 90’s that is invoked when sampling jasmine tea today.
Jasmine tea remains popular in the background still today and often displays a good balance of green tea leaf and jasmine flower. In traditional Chinese medicine jasmine is seen as having cold and bitter properties, perhaps perfect when combined with green tea for the European constitution that is generally and anecdotally viewed as warm and dry.
Jasmine tea factually has a long history, and was popularised in the Qing dynasty (circa. 1644). During this period large amounts were indeed exported westward and perhaps cemented into occidental perceptions of the orient and Chinese tea.
Today Fuzhou, in Fujian province (the birthplace of oolong) is most noted for jasmine tea production, that aside there are some good productions from Yunnan. Fuzhou is most famous jasmine tea production as its most favorable climate for jasmine cultivation. It‘s in this city that the tea scenting was first invented more than 1000 years ago. Fuzhou has developed a interesting system of tea gardening and tea terraces that is of great ecological significance. This is because jasmine and tea trees grow in different environments. Together with the diversified micro-climates, they have influenced the shaping of the vertical landscapes around Fuzhou. When one looks from the mountain top to the river, there a visible stratification of tea plants, trees, buildings, jasmines and waterways. (and traditional Hakka buildings sometimes called tulou 土楼 – see below)
Its arguable what came first tea terracing or jasmine tea? However unlike Yunnan and Hunnan where traditionally tea was forest harvested and still remains somewhat today, terraces in Fujian province are very much an established part of historic agriculture.
Terraced fields decrease both erosion and surface runoff, and are effective in mountainous areas to support growing crops that require different micro-climates and level of rainfall. Hence terracing is an effective way of diversifying and increasing productivity in what is otherwise difficult agricultural conditions. It could be stated that jasmine tea medicine is the outcome of this harmonisation of the landscape, indeed the balance between astringent green tea and lubricating jasmine perfume encapsulates this yin yang agriculture.
When partaking in jasmine tea medicine it is still difficult for me to get beyond images of 90’s steamy cantonese restaurants and the ubiquitous sweetcorn soup. I’m working on this as I think the tea medicine invoked in jasmine tea should be perhaps more evocative of meeting of west and east and the harmonisation of the landscape to support micro-diversity.
That aside, the process of making jasmine tea itself should be noted as both a technological innovation and artistic skilled achievement. Generally, the manufacturing process for jasmine flower scented green tea includes multiple rounds of scenting and drying steps. For scenting, green tea processed in the conventional way is mixed with fully opened fresh jasmine flowers and piled up for several hours. Then, the flowers are removed and the scented tea leaves are heat-dried (at 90 to 100 degrees celcius). Depending on the desired aroma intensity, this scenting (and heating) process can be repeated several times. In this way, the characteristic jasmine scented tea aroma forms. Perhaps the aroma of jasmine tea is the most significant aspect of its tea medicine in that jasmine volatile oils is recognised as having both relaxing and mood enhancing affects. A study by Kuo (2017) demonstrated that breathing jasmine essential oil could inhibit central nerve system activity to make people feel relaxed.
Some interesting studies into the tea medicine of jasmine tea demonstrated that jasmine tea could increase norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain leading to positive mood enhancement and may help depression(Liu et al 2014).
Much in the same way Buddhist meditation can alter states of mind and tackle depression, the fact that we are increasingly incorporating this into health in the new wave of “mindfulness” practices, perhaps Jasmine tea could too? Interestingly enough there is an intimate link between Buddhism and Jasmine tea that is often forgotten. Both Buddhism and Jasmine cultivation arrived in China at the same time as an import from the West, both Buddhism and Jasmine cultivation were woven into local culture and local practice with tea medicine as the catalyst in the middle. To this day Jasmine flowers are offered to the Buddha at temples (Yu 2014) and the Buddha is often depicted wearing a garland of these flowers.
Jasmine tea is maybe the perfect tea medicine to enhance and supplement mindfulness practice of any tradition of meditation, forming a perfect triad of tea,jasmine and mind, stimulated but relaxed, mindful but calm.
Therefore it is perhaps time to get jasmine tea out of Cantonese restaurants and into our bowls as we sit down and take time out or adopt the lotus position in front of our shrines. I suspect that the occasional jasmine blossom even found itself in the bowls of tea drank at Shaolin Monastery during the times of Boddhidharma.