A rendezvous with tea and culture in Cambridge
Ai Yan, Du Yubin

When in Britain, it's always a nice gesture to ask a guest "Do you fancy a cup of tea?"

First introduced to the UK from China in 1650s, tea has remained one of the British people's favorite beverages ever since, and an important part of their daily lives. One might say that you've not experienced London without going for afternoon tea.

Britain is the world's third largest tea-consuming country – and tea is still binding British and Chinese culture and people together.


Tea bags or tea leaves? Milk or no milk?

The inaugural Cambridge Tea Festival took place on May 21 – International Tea Day – and attracted people from numerous cultural backgrounds to hear explanations of Chinese and Japanese tea culture. Both are quite different from the British way of drinking tea.

So what's the biggest difference between Chinese and British tea?

Sophie Song, who described herself as a "tea-holic," has been studying and teaching Chinese tea culture in the UK for more than a decade.

"A cup of tea – what English people talk about – is more about actually having a tea bag drop into a mug and put in some milk," said Song. "That's why they hardly see any tea leaves."

During her lessons Song demonstrated many different tea types before asking people to have a taste.

"I was emphasizing in the demonstration to let them know there is another way of drinking, so is there another way of thinking," she told CGTN Europe.

Song's point was echoed by Professor Alan Macfarlane and George Pippas, former mayor of Cambridge.

Macfarlane grew up the son of a tea planter and has been drinking Chinese tea for more than 20 years.

"The fact that I'm sitting here at quite an elderly age, still talking to you, is partly because I drink three glasses of green tea every day," he joked. Ever since his first sip of Chinese tea many years ago, Macfarlane has been deeply attracted to the taste and culture behind it. For him one of the biggest differences between Chinese and British tea drinking is the use of milk.

"The British had lots of cows and they drank a lot of milk, so when tea came from China, we started putting milk in it," said Macfarlane. He pointed out that adding sugar is another British custom. "And we don't have the elaborate tea ceremony that the Chinese have," he stressed.

Pippas, Cambridge's mayor from 2017-20, spoke to CGTN Euripe while enjoying a cup of Chinese rock tea (Yancha) at the festival.

"I have been to China many times, and I never knew what a tea tree looks like," he said. "I asked the people to take me to the mountains while in Yunnan to see the tea plants, and I was fascinated," he said. "When you smell it, you can smell the mountains, you can smell the flowers, and you can smell China."


Tea as a bond between two cultures

Not only could visitors enjoy a taste of different Chinese tea at the event, but they also got to learn about the popular tea drinking ceremony widely practiced in China today.

Last year, the Chinese traditional tea process techniques and associated social practices were included in UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 

The drinking and sharing of tea has been one of the most important parts of social life in China since ancient times, while its shared part of Chinese and British cultures can be traced back hundreds of years.

"It changed European history," pronounced Macfarlane. He explained that after tea was imported in the middle of the 18th century its drinking helped prevent water-borne diseases in British cities.

"This was the time they were just beginning the Industrial Revolution," said Macfarlane. "Without tea, we would not have been the first industrial nation. And then our whole empire was based on tea because the East India Company, which was trading with India and then China, its main trade was tea, and that's what led into the Opium Wars in China." 

Today, with China being the world's largest tea-exporting country and the UK the third largest tea-consuming country, the bond between the two has been maintained, despite there being so many other beverages to choose from in the modern era.


According to the UK's National Statistics Office, the UK imported $78.6 billion of goods from China in 2021, accounting for 13.3 percent of all imports. This has made China the UK's largest importing partner. Meanwhile, with $23.24 billion of goods exports to China, the country is the UK's sixth largest exporting partner.

In addition to the figures, the links between the two nations' people remain strong.

"We learn from you and you learn from us, and this is an amazing experience," said Pippas.

As for Song, she believes it is her duty to help strengthen the bond between the two cultures. "We don't need to talk, tea is the language," she said. "That's how we unify together. It's not only about culture and religion. It's a way of life and nature."

Reporter: Du Yubin

Photographer, Writer and Video Editor: Ai Yan

A rendezvous with tea and culture in Cambridge

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