Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Tea plays an important role in many cultures, from being part of religious ceremonies in Japan, to being a daily ritual for people in England. A new documentary explores how the drink affects the lives of millions of people.
Chinese people started to drink tea 2,000 years ago and The Classic of Tea, written by Lu Yu (AD 733-804) in the eighth century, elevated the humble beverage to an important part of Chinese culture. It is said tea was introduced to India in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) and later spread around the world.
A new six-part documentary, Tea, The Story of a Leaf, explores how the universally loved and widely consumed beverage affects people's lives around the world. It premiered on CCTV-1 on Nov 18 and is now being aired on CCTV-9, the documentary channel.
Director Wang Chongxiao, a tea aficionado himself, says he was fed up with the stories told when the origin of a certain type of tea was introduced, which were always about legends involving gods or emperors.
"The deep mountains where the tea leaves were grown all seemed to be garnished with a mysterious veil. It sounds awesome but is surreal to me," Wang says.
Three years ago, Wang proposed the documentary to demystify tea and delve into the cultures surrounding the drink around the world.
The production team started shooting last March, traveling to 13 Chinese provinces including Fujian, Yunnan and Zhejiang, and seven foreign countries known for either their tea plantations or tea culture, such as England, India and Japan. Filming took over 18 months.
But the enormity of the subject meant a huge amount of homework had to be done before filming began. The research and consultation with tea experts, scholars and consultants started at the beginning of 2011.
Previous documentaries about tea usually followed a similar pattern, focusing on the history of tea and its intricate production procedure, Wang says.
"The program didn't continue the cliche. Instead, it centers on individuals whose lives are intertwined with tea — from tea growers to common tea drinkers. That was the tone we decided on during the brainstorming," Wang says.
About 800 people were interviewed. To find the right people in foreign countries, the team hired foreign directors and documentary makers to help with the research.
Some 60 characters were finally selected for the documentary, whose stories serve as the episodes' narrative threads.
The documentary focuses on some eminent figures in tea circles, such as Stephen Twining, the 10th-generation heir to the London-based tea maker Twinings, a Royal Warrant holder, and Zhang Tianfu, a 104-year-old tea expert who invented China's first tea-rolling machine.
But most of the subjects are common people whose lives are intertwined with tea, Wang says.
One episode followed a Tibetan's pilgrimage to Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region.
"In her long and exhausting journey, she had to draw energy from the yak-butter tea, which served as a strong back-up in her spiritual quest," Wang says.
As the woman proceeded in the religious fashion, the production team had to walk alongside her to record the trek. It took the crew more than 20 days to finish the 200-km journey.
Wang says at times the crew risked their lives for the shoot.
A dangerous cliff road challenged the team as they searched for snow chrysanthemum, a highly valuable plant grown in the Kunlun Mountains in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Chrysanthemum flowers are popular for herbal tea in China.
Episode 1 - The Spirit of Tea
Episode 2 - The Road’s End
Episode 3 - Making Tea
Episode 4 - Foreign Lands, Homeland
Episode 5 - Time Stops for Tea
Episode 6 - Humanity in a Teacup