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TEA Talks: Lillian Li, tea artist

This past summer, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden launched its tea ceremony experience, offering visitors the opportunity to experience an authentic Chinese tea ceremony in the classical surroundings of the garden. Between servings of fragrant tea, guests learn about Chinese tea culture and customs, as well as the distinctions between Chinese and Western teas. Leading the tea ceremonies is the Garden’s resident tea expert and artist, Lillian Li. With a warm cup of tea being just the thing to keep the autumn chills at bay, I sat down with Lillian to get her thoughts on tea art, her favourite teas for the season, and why your Chanel no. 5 really has no place at the tea table.

Preparing for a special tea ceremony at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. (Photo: Deanna Chan)

Lillian, what’s in your teacup?

Lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of Bing Dao raw Pu’erh, Oriental Beauty Oolong, and aged White Tea.

Tell us your tea artist origin story.

I was born and raised in China. My grandfather was a doctor of traditional medicine, and growing up, I would see him drinking tea and join him. So tea has always been a part of my life, but as an adult, I became interested in learning about it in a more comprehensive way. In my spare time, I started going to a tea art college to learn about tea tasting and other aspects of Chinese tea art. After several years, I reached the senior level and got my tea tasting and tea artist certification. My passion for tea has guided my travels as well, to major tea-growing regions in China (Yunnan, Fujian, Anhui, and Zhejiang), Taiwan, Sri Lanka, India, and Japan.

What does it mean to be a tea artist?

Being a tea artist is a lifestyle, and tea is like a religion for those who really love it. It’s not just about drinking the tea, but experiencing the flavours and fragrances, and the connections to Chinese culture and philosophy. Of course, you need to be a tea expert and have a deep knowledge of tea – how to grow and harvest it, how to make it and bring out the perfect flavours, how to distinguish between qualities of tea. But for me, tea art is also a mindset: to keep things simple, appreciate nature, and respect others, embodying the Daoist philosophy of harmony among humans and with the natural world. When I am making tea, I feel at peace and in the moment, no longer affected by trivial annoyances. There’s a saying I love that describes this connection: 禅茶一味 (Zen and tea share one flavour).

Impart some tea wisdom on us.

Chinese tea is artisanal, as the leaves are handpicked and the tea is hand-made, with many complex processes used to bring out different flavours. We drink it plain to get the full taste and effect—it would be a sin to add milk or sugar! That’s why we also avoid wearing any perfume, cologne, or scented lotion at the tea table, as these can overpower the delicate fragrances of the tea and prevent us from enjoying all the subtly layered notes.

Do you have any seasonal recommendations?

I think Oolong really matches the atmosphere of fall, as it’s quite fragrant. Black tea and aged Pu’erh tea keep you warm in winter; green tea and raw Pu’erh keep you cool in summer. Green tea is good in the spring as well, as the leaves have just been harvested and it’s very fresh.

What tea is at the top of your wish list? 

Red Mark aged Pu’erh. It’s like the Dom Pérignon of tea.

How can people learn more about tea art?

Take part in a tea ceremony at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden! There are also some great books about tea art and culture; one of my favourites is The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo.

Lillian Li is a certified tea artist and the Cultural Experience Specialist at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Traditional tea ceremony experiences for the public and private/group bookings are offered year-round at the Garden. A range of specialty teas, tea ware, and The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo are available for purchase at the Eight Treasures Shop.

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