EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II

Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

A little over a month ago I led the tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”. As part of an ongoing series of tea talks I’ve been leading for over a decade, and a sequel to a talk I gave several years ago, this time I dove even deeper into tea’s history to investigate tea and tea culture during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Now, as many of us find ourselves sequestered in our homes, under self-quarantine against COVID-19, I want to offer up the video from this tea talk, filmed live at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Only two hours long, consider this video a crash course in ancient tea history as we discuss how tea developed from ancient medicine to lofty beverage, enjoyed by scholars, monks and emperors alike. Using ancient Sòng, as well as antique and contemporary reproductions of Sòng teawares, we’ll go into great detail of how tea during the Song period was prepared.

All 抹茶 mǒchá, unless stated otherwise, was hand-produced and hand-ground in the manner detailed in Sòng period texts, to approximate as closely the look, feel and flavor from this time. For reference, I have provided a list of what we tasted.

• First Tea: Hand-ground semi-wild 白茶 báichá from Fuding, Fujian, China.

• Second “Tea”: Powdered mugwort leaves grown and produced in South Korea.

• Third Tea: Hand-ground 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn grown in the Dongting mountains near Lake Tai, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

• Fourth Tea: Whole leaf 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn (brewed for comparative purposes).

• Fifth Tea: Fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha from Uji, Kyōto prefecture, Japan.

For additional insights on this topic, I have linked previous blog posts that discuss tea during the Sòng period:

“Everything for the First Time”

“A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk”

“Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style”

“EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”


To view “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II”, follow the link above.

For the first talk I delivered on tea in the Song period, please follow this link provided below:

If you are interested in attending or scheduling this tea talk or tea talks like this, please email me at scottttea888@gmail.com.

1 Comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Tea, Tea Tasting

Crossing the Divide of Spring

As the weather warms and Spring continues to emerge in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re given a moment to pause briefly and appreciate the transition that is brought about by the vernal equinox. Even as the world finds itself in the grip of a terrible pandemic, the view from my window echoes the many ancient and timeless shifts that the equinox heralds.

The crocus have pushed up through the dark earth. The 梅 ume plum blossoms have opened and are now being scattered in the wind. The first magnolias of the year are beginning to peek from their velvetine jackets, in vibrant bursts of white, pink and pale yellow. The 連翹 rengyō (liánqiáo in Mandarin, Forsythia in English) look like thousands of tiny golden bells ringing in the breeze. Even on a morning after the rain, the world seems bright, alive and full of energy.

The vernal equinox holds with it another meaning too. As the natural world comes to life, in Japan, practitioners of Buddhism in and 茶の湯 chanoyu alike observe 彼岸 Higan. Similar to the 盆 Bon, which is celebrated during the Autumn equinox, Higan is a moment to reflect upon the transitory nature of life, the passing of the dead, and the movement from a world of delusion to one of awakening and enlightenment.

Higan literally means “the other shore”, referring to crossing from a shore of suffering to the other shore of nirvana. 彼岸会 Higan-e are the series of rituals that are conducted in Japanese Buddhist temples during this time, done to aid in the removal of suffering and delusion for all sentient beings and those who have passed. Graves are cleansed. Altars are tidied. Flowers are offered. Sweets of pounded rice covered in red bean jelly are enjoyed (牡丹餅 botamochi). Tea is offered as well.

In my tearoom, I sit and listen to the gentle bubbling heating water inside my antique 茶釜 chagama.

As I wait for the water to boil, I set out a 黒楽茶碗 kuro Raku chawan by ceramics master 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

I pair with it a 若狭塗棗 Wakasanuri natsume, the multitude of colors upon its surface nodding to the five colors in Buddhism (panchavarna in Sanskrit), each of which refers to five buddhas and the transformation of delusions into awakenings.

With the kettle at a full boil, I begin to cleanse the tea objects to prepare a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. The sun shining through the grey clouds outside my window casts long shadows against the wooden floor beams. The natsume with the 茶杓 chashaku made of mottled bamboo set atop its lid sitting side-by-side the 茶筅 chasen.

A wooden 木魚 mokugyo.

A copper bell and book of Zen chants.

A ladle’s-worth of hot water from my iron kettle is poured into the chawan and I cleanse the chasen, warming the bowl as I do this.

I pause briefly after drying the bowl, only to move to distribute 抹茶 matcha into it. Three scoops and a gentle tap of the chashaku against the teabowl interior, shaking off the remaining tea dust.

Cool water from my 水指 mizusashi is drawn and mixed with the hot water inside the chagama; balance before creation. A half-ladle’s-worth of water is poured into the chawan, the remainders returned to the kettle; just enough to make a bowl of tea. With chasen lightly held in my right hand, I whisk the tea into a fine foam.

For a moment I sit to enjoy the colors. The blush-hued central node upon the bamboo stalk that makes the handle to my 柄杓 hishaku.

The bright electric green of the matcha radiating from a jet-black bowl. The shimmering gold, green, black, red and silver lacquer of the natsume. The swirling and smoky pattern upon the surface of the chashaku.

So easy it can be to get lost in this material world. In the refinement of objects. In the sensations that keep us bound to our bodies and the pleasures of the mundane. Yet what do pleasures and desires create? A veil? A mighty weight? From the same source of joy too brings suffering. To cross from one mind to the next. Is there a river to ford? One shore leading to another?

I look deep into the center of the chawan, a perfect plane of foam, a vast ocean of tea. My life submerged in this. Fragrant. Delicious. Satiated.

And yet as I drink this down to its final dregs, my mind still wanders. A bowl of tea made to mark the vernal equinox, to quell the cold in hope for warm months ahead. To abate delusion and awaken the mind. To build a bridge from suffering. To ebb desire that laps against the other shore.

5 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Tea in Time of Turmoil

For the past months, the world has seemed to grow increasingly more tense. In January, we saw the US and Iran lock horns in an episode that briefly saw both nations mobilize and perform acts of violent retaliation. Years of civil war in Yemen continues to spiral into a bloody quagmire. Protests in Hong Kong, France, Chile, Palestine, India, and Northern Syria are just a sampling of the ongoing and ever-worsening environment of instability. Even on a biological level, with the outbreak and worldwide spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19 (2019-nCoV), the fragility of our little world seems to be evermore at the whims and caprice of unforeseen and uncontrollable forces.

In such a situation, how can one even think of tea? Yet, perhaps it is at this very moment that tea is most needed. For the bulk of two decades now I have practiced 茶の湯 chanoyu, an art that has its origins in meditative self-cultivation of 禪 Zen Buddhism and collaborative arts like 連歌 renga and 香道 kōdō.

Yet, especially during times like we see today, I remain ever-aware that chanoyu was also an art appropriated and practiced by the warrior class of medieval Japan. Developed during an age of chaotic extremes, what today we call chanoyu emerged during the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States” (c. 1467 – c. 1615). In a period which saw endless military, political and social strife wreak havoc in all corners of the Japanese archipelago, the Way of Tea (茶道 chadō) was not merely a means to escape into a world of quietude, it was also a way to reclaim space and time, defiantly, if need be, against the pale of constant violence and upheaval.

While the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 virus may not be as violent, it is quite jarring. People are suffering and many have died. The word I knew a month ago is not the world I live in today. Governments at large seem to offer little guidance in this moment and, instead, the response has been largely grassroots. For the while, all we can do is remain in self isolation, hoping for the worst to pass and that our mere presence does not adversely affect those around us.

During this last week, as mandatory social distancing and quarantine swiftly became the new norm, I found myself far from my little tea room in New York City, instead lodged-up alone in a friend’s vacated and empty home in rural upstate New York. As I knew I would be here for a while, I managed to bring with me a small collection of teaware, just enough to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha during my sequestering, made portable through the means of packing the tea objects away in an old vintage metal tool box.

As I sat in the sparsely furnished attic of my friend’s house, spent a morning I arranging a small setting for tea. In lieu of 畳 tatami, I used a broad stretch of woven indigo cloth to define the impromptu tea space. Setting the tool box at the upper end of this cloth, I undid its mechanical latch, opening its machine-hewn lid, and pulling forth a simple 黒瀬戸茶碗 KuroSeto chawan, 茶筅 chasen, and 茶杓 chashaku. For a tea caddy, I opted to keep the matcha in the metal tin it came in, it seemingly harmonizing well with the old tool box.

Lacking any proper brazier or traditional iron kettle, I made due with a small mass-produced kettle. Wanting to keep everything together and self contained, I placed the kettle atop the old tool box, itself becoming something like an improvised shelf for a modified 点前 temae I hoped to perform.

Setting the teaware before me, I began to make a solitary bowl of tea. As I began, I could sense my mind shift from the din of world events to the silence of the tea space. The wares before set before me, having travelled in the small metal tool box, seemed smaller than before, as if they were all that remained of a life I left back in the bustling, chaotic city.

The black lacquered tea tin is cleansed with my folded 袱紗 fukusa and then is placed atop the old tool box.

Next, I turned my gaze to the chawan and assorted wares collected within it. I purified the chashaku.

I warmed the whisk. I waited and watched it sigh heavily, observing its submerged tines expand outward in the in the warm water collected within the teabowl.

I arrange each object, shifting from their place of rest into action and back to rest again. Where they had once begun, they since moved, ready to perform.

The bowl, now a vacant void, is ready to receive the matcha.

Scooping out three small portions of tea powder, I place each into the center of the chawan, creating a small heap in the vessel’s center.

Placing the chasen over the tiny mound, I then pour water over the thin bamboo blades, producing a delicate cascade and evenly distributing the liquid over the tea. As with every time before, the result of the hot water mixing with the freshly-ground green tea produced an effluence of bright, intense aroma. However, for some unknown reason, my response to this feels different. A sense of distance, of detachment from the world outside my window fills me, a feeling of longing for home yet not quite being able to locate where that is.

As I whisk the tea into a thick foam, my mind lingers on this thought, it floating buoyant amidst my otherwise focused mind which keeps in step with my task at hand. I sit back to appreciate the bowl of tea, first as it is set before me and then, again, as I place it against the wide expanse of woven indigo cloth.

The bowl and my mind seem to be adrift, caught upon an endless sea. I pause and take the first sip.

My eyes gaze upwards to exposed wooden beams that cut laterally across the apex of the attic’s ceiling.

I take another sip and my eyes settle upon a wound-up ball of hempen rope, its appearance reminiscent of the rope-bound 止め石 tomeishi that mark a closed path within the 露地 roji.

I finish the final dregs matcha and set the bowl back before me, appreciating the remnants of foam that cling to the inner walls of the black-glazed chawan. In this moment of meditation, I am reminded of the stories of the early warrior tea practitioners.

During the height of the “tea craze” that swept through Japan’s elite classes during the 16th century, it was not uncommon for high-ranking samurai to accept a bowl of tea before heading out to face battle. Often was the case that this would be their last. The notions of ephemerality and impermanence that permeates chanoyu was, in many ways, the very essence of these individuals whose lives were marked by endless martial conflict.

Words we now may casually admire upon a scroll such as 一期一会 ichigo ichie, were brutally realized by many in their own, often short lifetimes. Now facing these uncertain times, will I, too, or those near and dear to me come to realize this with the passing of their own lives? To avoid such realities is itself a delusion.

In tea, we practice recognizing the evanescence of all things that come and go. A season. A flower. A moment. A life. There is an uneasiness when we try to hold on to something that must, in truth, pass. We all feel this. To ignore it is a delusion as well. To sit with it, however, to meditate upon what it means and how it feels, perhaps this is the way.

As I cleanse the teabowl once again, I wipe away the remaining residue of tea from the ceramic vessel. Traces of green collect in the woven fabric of the white linen 茶巾 chakin. I brush off the remaining tea dust that clings to the chashaku, and shake this off into the 建水 kensui.

I place the objects back to rest, their purpose being met. I sit back once more and admire the wares.

The small kettle. The old tool box. The array of teawares of ceramic, bamboo, tin and cloth. All to be packed up again, collected into a box. Ready to make a move. Ready for action. Ready to create a space for tea and for time at any moment.

I remember looking up to the window peeking out the gabled roof. What world resides out on the other side? What world will that be tomorrow?

Now back in New York City, days since this bowl of tea, the moment long since faded, these questions still have no resolution. The tomorrow I had envisioned in the past never came. Something else, entirely unknown and unexpected, has come in its place. Yet the broad expanse of sky that I peered out upon back then is the same that I see today. What change will come?

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

The Fragility of Spring

With the first few true days of Spring upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, the world feels fresh, the air crisp and easy. While trees still appear barren from Winter’s icy grip, upon closer inspection, each branch is laden with tiny buds, waiting to burst into leaf or flower at any moment. The pines stand with their new needles clumped together in their bright electric green. The 梅 ume plum blossoms are deep sanguineous red. The magnolia flowers still remain wrapped in their thick and fuzzy sheaths. Below, the new shoots of bright green grass push up through the soil and a light Spring shower brings earthworms to the surface, frogs to the full creeks.

There exists a sense of newness everywhere. Yet, as with every moment we encounter, early Spring holds with it a sense of fragility. The season is not yet at its full apex. Its energy, while rising, presents itself through the most delicate of means. The ume plum blossoms can be pulled down by the slightest of breezes. The shoots of grass are thin and pliable. The pine needles are soft to the touch. On the warmer days, butterflies come out and dance on the early blooming flowers. Both blossoms’ petals and butterflies’ wings are translucent and transient, gone by season’s end.

In Japan, early March is marked with a number of observances that reflect the evanescence of life. On March 3rd, 雛祭り Hinamatsuri, “Dolls Festival” or “Girls’ Day” is celebrated. In ancient times, as is still done now, dolls made of fine paper and brocade depicting the ancient imperial court are arranged in celebration of childhood. Traditionally, dolls were also placed on small grass boats and sent down the river (流し雛 nagashibina) as a means to rid oneself of potentially dangerous impurities.

Older, still, was the practice of 曲水の宴 kyokusuinoen, where courtiers would float cups of wine down a winding river, sending them to other scholars downstream who, upon collecting and imbibing the contents, would compose an impromptu poem. Older than this, March 3rd was celebrated by the ancients as 桃の節句 Momo no Sekku, “Peach Festival”, marking the moment when the delicate peach blossoms would emerge.

With all this activity in early March, the days can feel full, a new page turning with every day that passes. For the tea practitioner, the emerging of Spring feels all the more palpable as each moment had with tea brings new opportunities to reflect upon the newest developments and those soon to come. For myself, I find this activity to drive me to wanting quietude and time in nature. While I have been planning a trip up the Hudson River, I find myself restless, still caught in New York City. With talk of a spreading international pandemic and the ever-swirling political environment of the United States churning, the sense of fragility seems all the more present in my mind.

Settling down in my tearoom, I find my 取り合わせ toriawase to be a mirror onto this moment. Rather than sit with my old bronze brazier, I bring forth my small ceramic 涼炉 ryōro, atop which I place a white clay ボーフラ bōfura kettle.

Equally informal, I pair this with a lacquered 盆 bon. For a teabowl, I use a blush-colored vintage 萩焼茶碗 Hagiyaki chawan.

For a tea container, I improvise with an antique Chinese enameled cloisonné box, decorated with a bright butterfly and flowers motif against a black background.

Removing teabowl and tea container from the bon, I go through the process of initially cleansing each item.

Wiping the surface of the tea caddy with the 袱紗 fukusa, I lift its lid to inspect the mound of 抹茶 matcha powder held within.

After cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku, I turn my attention to the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl, rinsing each with the warm water from the small clay kettle.

Once purified, I scoop matcha into the warm chawan. In the warm light of the day, the color of the Hagiyaki glaze glows, reminiscent of the pale hue of a peach blossom.

The color of the bright matcha beaming like a fresh leaf.

The remaining tea residue against the dark bamboo, bright like fine moss against a branch. Each ware, a celebration of this brief moment caught within the season.

Fully whisked, the tea looks inviting, as relaxing as a Spring day. Its aroma pungent and fresh. Its flavor full of vigor and vitality.

Lifting the bowl to my lips, I sip the tea down to its last dregs, enjoying the remnants of tea that still clings to the chawan’s interior.

Turning the bowl over, I enjoy its shape in my hand and the unctuous glaze that had collected along the edge of the exposed clay around the 高台 kōdai.

I sit and let this moment wash over me. The sound of a cardinal outside my window. The tinkling of the clay kettle chattering as it boils. The lingering warmth held within the walls of the teabowl’s clay. Each of these moments exist only for this one time and then vanish, never to return again as they are.

Seasons cycle and recycle themselves constantly. What you might expect to arise again upon Spring’s return comes later than supposed and emerges differently. What forms you once thought were unbreakable are in fact fragile. A teabowl. A butterfly’s wing. One’s childhood. One’s parents. All float down the river, we catch them if we can, compose thoughts that come to us, and send them on their way. Towards the river’s end. The ocean’s beginning. To the end of a moment. To its point of no return as we once knew it. Tea affords the practitioner a view into this dynamic, yet this, too, is fleeting.

I finish my time with tea by cleansing the wares once more. Wetting and whisking and wiping away the residue of the past until each object rests again pristine upon the round lacquered tray.

Uncharacteristically to this informal setting, I decide to arrange a small 拝見 haiken. Having just practiced 香道 kōdō earlier that morning, I pull out the old wooden 香盆 kōbon tray to double as a surface to present the wares upon. The improvised tea container is set beside the chashaku.

I open it to inspect the mound of matcha as I had when I first sat down to make a bowl of tea.

Its surface is marked now by the removal of three scoops. It is marked by the memory of a bowl of tea.

The chashaku, with the small node of a new bamboo shoot pressing out of its 節 fushi. A memory, too, of life, of time, of a moment of newness, of the fragility of Spring.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

In the Mist of the Morning

In the mist of the morning, I walk out onto the streets. A heavy gauze-like veil of fog softens shapes, dims light, electrifies colors from umber brick facades to wetted moss pushing through the grey concrete. Walking under leaf-bare trees of early Spring, I listen to the soft tapping of condensation falling from their archway branches. Over the bridge and viaduct that span across railway tracks, thin ribbons of iron stretch beneath me and disappear into the surrounding haze. Looking outward into the distance, there is no horizon line, no great city expanse to be seen. There is only a vast opaque atmosphere, thick and wet and enveloping.

Walking further down neighborhood pathways, sounds arise with greater clarity as the clutter of the visual world remains obscured. Birds’ songs echo and boom in empty alleyways and between tree-lined boulevards. The rolling of wheels of automobiles slide saturated along the wet pavement, crinkling and slipping away. The murmuring of men talking in the distance bends and carries across corners of buildings. A dog barks. A bell rings.

As I walk the long way home from my morning excursion, my mind clicks and conceives ideas for my next tea session. For a month I’ve felt the sluggish stupor of writer’s block drag on. One week burned into two, and soon enough the month of February had almost passed. Festivities and observations, from 宗有忌 Sōyū-ki to the opening of the 大炉 dai-ro have come and gone with a silent stillness. In the midst of all of this, my heart has not been moved. Yet there is something about a misty Spring morning that creates cause for inspiration to arise. The play of light, the muddled forms in the distance, the opacity of the air. As objects emerge from this murky realm, so too do ideas.

Huddled back in my abode, I set a kettle to boil. The dark red bronze of the antique 茶釜 chagama looks like one of the many wetted stones along the pathway I saw during my morning walk.

As I set out teaware to prepare a bowl of 抹茶 matcha, I include an 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, the color and texture of which is reminiscent of the soft grey haze that hangs heavy outside my window.

For a tea container, a simple wooden 平棗 hira-natsume.

For a 茶筅 chasen, one made of speckled dark bamboo.

Linen and wood, ceramic and stone.

The sound of the kettle coming to a gentle boil prompts me to warm and cleanse the bowl and whisk. Like a great inhalation, the thin tines of the chasen breathe and expand in the warmth of the water.

Emptying the bowl, it still remains hot in my hands, moments before I set it down again.

I pause and breathe once more before picking up the 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned from a piece of carved 胡麻竹 gomadake speckled bamboo.

Lifting three scoops of bright green matcha from the small tea caddy, I place each carefully into the center of the grey teabowl. The soft, irregular form and the bright green color of the tea dust mound reminds me of the scattered clumps of lichen that climb skyward the many towering trees in my neighborhood.

I pour half a ladle of hot water from my kettle into the teabowl and instantly the scent of tea rises throughout my tearoom. Breathing again, I begin to whisk the tea. As I whisk, the world around me seems to quiet. Even the sound of the whisk falls away. All that remains is the motion of my right hand moving the chasen through the tea, of my left hand holding the teabowl. Both working in unison focused on producing a fine and even foam. No sense of time of place seems to bind me. Instead, the world around me seems as if it were diffuse, hazy, opaque.

Sitting in the quietude of my tearoom, I finish whisking a bowl of tea. In the mist of the morning, the world does not readily reveal itself. Instead, objects remain hidden and obscured, perceptible but without clear detail. A bowl of tea, as clear as day, sits before me. A bright green pool of foam rises from its center. Amidst the earthen tones of the other wares assembled within the tea space, the tea beams like a glowing jewel. A light piercing through the fog.

I lift the bowl to my lips and thank this moment for arriving. A morning walk. The sound of water dripping from dew-laden trees. Soft figures in the mist. All of these appeared and caused ripples on my mind. Enough to motivate me to prepare a bowl of tea. Enough to inspire creativity. As I sip the tea, I am reminded of how readily available all of this is and, in all truth, that this quality had never disappeared.

As I finish the tea and savor its final dregs, I pause to inspect the chawan and its distinctive 高台 kōdai.

My eyes wander over the traces of the potter’s hand, over the imprints of the firing process and of the kiln’s heat. Details giving view into a landscape of sorts, into a world of possibilities.

As I turn the bowl back over and begin to cleanse the 茶道具 chadōgu to finish my session with tea, something in my mind has noticeably changed. Where once I had struggled to write and commit ideas to page I now feel boundless with creativity. Where once I held back thoughts, judging them before they could be shared, I now let them flow forth effortlessly.

As I set objects back into place, to rest before the next time I call upon them again, I feel as if the fog has lifted. A mist has dissipated in my mind. Clarity restored over a bowl of tea.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Like Spring, History Slowly Reveals Itself

img_5473The first days of February have come and gone and with it so too have the first vital days of Spring. While February 4th officially marked the beginning of Spring with 立春 Risshun (Lì Chūn in Mandarin), little evidence of Spring’s arrival exists. Even for what was a rather mild Winter in New York City, frost still collects in puddles and birds still hold on to their thick down. Yet, Spring has begun, slowly, creeping into the psyche of city dwellers and tea people alike.

Frigid rain has replaced the chance of snow and the red buds of 梅 ume blossoms plump in neat rows along the branches of once barren plum trees. In cold nights they burst open, revealing their bright, pale hue in the electric moonlight.

In accordance with this, I draw inspiration for a morning’s sitting with tea. Caught for weeks in my own research on the preparation of 抹茶 mǒchá (matcha in Japanese) during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), of which I will be presenting on later this week, I decide to take what I’ve learned and apply it to making a special bowl of tea.

What is known about the preparation of mǒchá is hazy. As a researcher and tea person, I rely upon an ever increasing variety of texts and images to work off of. Documents like 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng’s 茶錄 Chá Lù (“Record of Tea”, 1049) or Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng’s 大觀茶論 Dàguān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) may discuss the finer points of whisking-up a bowl of mǒcha in the 點茶 diǎn chá fashion, though these omit aspects such as the “between steps” that may dictate how a tea cloth is folded, the exact motion of the whisk, or the way the hand should lift something so mundane yet important as a tea scoop. Juxtaposing this research to my own tea practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, more often than not, I am left to “fill in the blanks” and make “educated guesses” as to how some of the more minute actions of Sòng tea preparation would have occurred.

With each year I study this approach to tea, however, the deeper my knowledge develops. Looking back at the previous year and the year before that when I first began to hone my skills in hand-grinding white tea to get an approximation of what would have been made during the Sòng period, I can see that I’ve made strides. Still, though, it has been a slow accumulation of knowledge, one akin to walking out in a heavy mist. Over time, one will become fully-saturated, drenched to the core. Yet something as boundless and as equally intangible as tea during the Sòng period (no known tea cakes from this time survive nor does the tea powder), what I feel that I’ve been chasing is a bit of a phantom. And yet, in practice, this specter of history begins to reveal itself.

As I sit down, kettle coming to a steady boil, I recognize that the water is ready for tea not by any modern technology but by the sound of bubbles breaking the surface. By the Sòng period, the allusion of “wind rushing through the pines” would have been a staple to any well-seasoned tea person’s practice.

img_5585-1From my shelf, I pull forth a collection of teawares, all of which are Japanese in origin, yet are explicitly crafted to replicate Sòng wares.

5ee310dc-e57c-4281-8bcc-11241795863bFor a tea caddy, I use a small 京焼茶入 Kyō-yaki chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver silk brocaded 仕服 shifuku.

32eaf6e3-63ee-49d3-8a50-270a33ea83dfRemoved from its pouch, it reveals a shape that would have been common to both tea practitioners and apothecaries of the Sòng period.

468cb4a2-31c4-4537-8a11-1bdf3b8814a1For a tea scoop, I opt for a more 真 shin (“formal”) 茶杓 chashaku. While crafted out of a single length of cedar, the slender, uninterrupted form with a curved tip harkens back to scoops of the Sòng period which were made out of gold, silver or ivory.

fd0f92ae-270d-4948-8351-917a817e9750The whisk is a modified Japanese 茶筅 chasen, one in which I have straightened the many thin bamboo tines to reproduce the style depicted in 審安老人 Shěn Ān Lǎorén’s 茶具圖贊 Chájù Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”, 1269).

1b7bc3ef-3693-4833-bf77-bac628240ce6Once emptied of its contents, the interior of the teabowl is exposed, revealing a dappled pattern with a scattered plum blossom motif. The style on display, called 黑釉剪紙貼花 hēi yòu jiǎnzhǐ tiē huā (“black glaze paper-cut appliqué”), was made famous by the 吉州窯 Jízhōu yáo kilns during the Sòng period.

img_5486This particular pattern is now considered to be quite formal in Japanese tea ceremony and, as it depicts ume blossoms, is only used at this time of year.

img_5489Warming the bowl and softening the whisk readies each of the implements to prepare a bowl of mǒchá. Practiced in chanoyu, these steps were originally noted during the Sòng period; the hot water softened the whisk, making it more flexible, and it purportedly allowed the tea powder to rise more easily off of the surface of the teabowl (to aid in the creation of a thick foam).

c8e8b905-a96c-4ba3-a0e8-284eae506b9bLifting the chashaku and chaire, I draw out six scoops of white tea I had hand-ground and sieved earlier that day.

img_5542-1Placed in the center of the teabowl, I pour a small amount of water along the inside edge of the ceramic vessel, allowing it to run down and under the mound of tea powder.

1425d03f-8fe2-491e-aff0-445ad3a8dd5fWhisk in hand, I begin to slowly knead the powdered tea and water into a thick paste.

img_5544Next, I gently pour water around the inside rim of the bowl, allowing it, again, to gently run down and mix into the thick concoction of tea and water. As this occurs, I begin to quicken the speed of whisking, loosening my wrist and allowing the whisk to move in broader strokes. Soon a soft, light foam begins to arise.

img_5547Again I issue water into the teabowl and, again, I whisk, further mixing the tea. The foam begins to mound.

img_5549A fourth pulse of water is issued, and again I whisk. The foam tightens, becoming finer, brighter in color and complexion.

img_5550A fifth round of water is poured into the teabowl and the foam rises higher, with an appearance akin to freshly fallen snow.

img_5552A sixth pouring of water and I begin to slow the pace of my whisking, causing the foam to become gentle and even.

img_5554Finally, a seventh gust of hot water is issued into the teabowl, and I finish whisking with a final circular motion around the circumference of the bowl’s interior, exited from the center of the foamy surface, resulting in a delicate peak.

21a45a98-3244-4223-9166-5135a905ee55For a brief moment I sit before the assembled collection of teaware. For a moment I ponder if what I’ve created is, indeed, what would have been enjoyed by literati, monks, emperors and skilled 鬥茶 dòuchá (“tea battle”) competitors of 建安 Jiàn’ān.

img_5556For a moment longer I wait to see if the foam holds, noting its edge against the dark glaze of the Jízhōu yáo-style teabowl. A minute passes and still it holds. A minute more and I cannot wait longer to drink the foamy concoction I’ve made.

img_5558Lifting the teabowl with the aid of a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I accept the bowl of tea in the formal manner I’ve learned from my tea teacher. Such formality is rather rare in modern tea practice, saved for when tea is served in ancient-styled wares, the origins of which are from Sòng period China.

This link is not lost on me as I realize that perhaps there remains within these motions the echoes of a practice not recorded by the essayists of the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These motions I had to learn. I had to turn teachings into muscle memory. Even the scribbled notes and scant recordings I have cannot inform me enough to know how to conduct myself at this moment. This cannot be recorded by any medium save for the mind. Once forgotten, these will be gone. Over years, and by way of my teacher and his teacher and teacher’s teacher, it has taken centuries to transmit this knowledge. History, like Spring, is slow to reveal itself; to be fully realized.

As I lift the bowl to my lips, I sip and savor the sweet, floral flavors of this creation. It is unlike any other kind of tea I’ve had. As I finish the bowl of tea, I am mindful not to drink the last dregs. As I have hand-ground the tea, the process is still rough, resulting in a small amount of tea grit to remain at the bottom of the bowl.

img_5569However, since I am using a Sòng-style 天目 tiānmù (tenmoku in Japanese) shaped bowl, there is a articulated indentation that runs along the inner rim of the teabowl. This indentation collects the final particles that remain, keeping them from being consumed. This simple form was the genius of the Sòng period potter, still practiced by ceramicists of this chawan style today.

img_5582As I finish cleansing the teabowl and wares, I finish today’s sitting with a final 拝見 haiken. Arranging the caddy, scoop and silk shifuku on a 香盆 kōban, I meditate on how history can sometimes, quite literally, shape the world we live in.

img_5573Objects for tea, beautiful and, at times mundane, contain within them volumes of stories, many of which still remain untold.

img_5574As my ability to read old texts continues to improve, will my appreciation of these forms deepen? Is it through the reading of ancient treatises that I will come to some greater realization? Or, perhaps, will it be through the actions they inspire?

img_5575Will this quest to recreate an ancient bowl of whisked tea become my practice? What will I learn by doing? What will be learned through this direct experience with the material world? An accumulation of knowledge? Of mist until I’m drenched? Of dust until I’m weighed down? A Spring slowly emerging. A history slowly revealing itself. A plum blossom bursting open to the light of the full moon.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting