Kate in China - Unexpected Tea Ceremonies


What an unexpected afternoon. After stilted phone conversations with a young Chinese artist I thought that returning artwork to them (for a NZ friend) could be difficult. I was so wrong.

They organised for a taxi to pick me up to take me to their nearby village. On the way was a dubious museum, what looked like farmland, small poorer villages and a new gated community of semi detached apartments – bizarrely its fence emblazoned in 2 metre high brick letters proclaiming this as ‘REAL LIFE’. Around the corner was the more humble artist village I was heading to.

I arrived at Lao Xiang’s house within 10 minutes and was rewarded, for my journey, with an hour long tea ceremony. This included soaking the beautiful clay teapot and cups in tea – the tea eventually poured into tiny, low, circular vessels. The delicate cups were constantly refilled.

His studio was adjoined to his living quarters with a small courtyard in the centre. The lounge was separated from the bedroom by a giant wooden cabinet, made with only joins and no nails. 

Lao had been trained in sculpture but now primarily works in photography. However, he works with Red Gate Gallery helping numerous artists to realise their models as larger sculptures. He showed me images of a recent project – turning a 30 centimetre high figure of a monkey into a 2 metre high sculpture filling up half his studio. We discussed many things including comparing Chinese and New Zealand universities and galleries. Much was similar including our generation of artists being trained in just one art form but now working in another or many instead.

I then got on the back of his scooter to visit his friend, a Chinese painter. It was an exhilarating, nerve-racking ride as smaller vehicles here sometimes travel on the wrong side of the road, towards oncoming traffic, to get where they are going faster.

Lao’s friend Li Xuan showed me his studio, full of large abstract paintings and then generously sat us down for another tea ceremony. This one was even more elaborate. Li’s tea paraphernalia covered a whole table and included a mechanical drainage system installed into the table to remove excess tea. The tea was from the Fujian region, in Southern China, where both Lao and Li were originally from.

Even with only a small amount of language we were able to communicate and I found out that Li had been a university teacher but was now a full time artist. He had also trained in Zen Buddhism on a mountain for two years with a master. Meditation is a large part his practise – he sometimes meditates for 7 hours at a time. He also showed me images of a recent residency in Vermont where he did his meditation paintings alongside performances incorporating nature.

After three hours of constant tea drinking I had to leave but will take Li Xuan’s art motto with me  - translated on Lao’s i-phone as “to play”.