As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.
In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.
As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.
To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.
Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.
Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.
Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.
Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.
Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.
Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.
I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.
Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.
Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.
If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).
“Xià rì shānzhōng”
Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.
Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.
“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”
The white feather fan too lazy to use,
In the green grove I simply go naked.
Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,
Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.