Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Cicada Emerges and Sheds Its Skin

IMG_1470Within the month of August, Summer’s heat gradually fades, giving way to Autumn’s cool. While the days remain hot, breezes push through the canopies of the large, broad-leafed deciduous trees, and press through the fields of grass, creating great waves upon an emerald ocean.

Amidst the gentle rustling of the wind, the cacophonous sound of cicadas is unavoidable, like an endless chorus, with each species offering-up a different melody. While rarely present to the eye, the melodious cicada we may encounter, in fact, is the final growth stage of what is often a decade’s-old being. Crawling out from its underground burrow, the cicada nymph will climb the nearest tree and break-through its old dull-colored skin, emerging as a brightly-colored, fully-formed adult.

This transformation and the shedding of skin is laden with symbolism. In East Asia, this can mark the exchanging of Summer for Autumn, but also may represent rebirth, analogous to spirits rising up to take on a purer form as they pass into the transient realm. For this reason, in ancient China, cicada-shaped amulets made of jade were often placed in the mouths of the dead.

It also comes as no surprise that in many East Asian cultures, August is the month when people collectively observe the passing of those who had died during the year. While to many this may seem grim, to those who regularly take note of the ever-changing seasons, this is just part of the way time holds sway over all aspects of our lives.

6696AF57-34FE-4B05-BF72-13A4A10D3DCEIn my tearoom, this feeling is ever-present. Outside my window, the cicadas cry from early morning through the evening. Even today, they make their presence known. To celebrate their lives (and eventual passing), I offer them a bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). For this, I bring out a special collection of teaware: a small 茄子茶入 nasu-chaire (“eggplant-shaped tea container”) and 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako-yū tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl).

IMG_1402As I begin the process of cleansing each object, I can’t help but to see the connection between removing the small ceramic chaire from its silk brocade 仕服 shifuku pouch and the emergence of the cicada from its discarded skin.

5A1F25F5-5138-44E6-9914-89F7B97B8D7EEach movement is calculated, revealing more and more of the hidden object.

65BACCB0-9BE0-48E8-8E4B-8CDEC2F57AF6A thin sheath, to reveal a jewel within.

E41C2279-8B7F-4CE3-9AF5-726BA6F9AC85The teabowl, too, bears a resemblance to the often vibrantly-colored insect, with nebulous pools of blue intermingling with threads of white set against a deep chocolate brown.

2F62AB52-29EC-45A1-B6C4-9B7551F1C01BOnce cleansed, each object, from the chaire to the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), are set into motion.

BF8E1D7A-BCEF-4FFA-990A-F641D244D480Upon doling-out three scoops of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) from the chaire, I then pour the remainder of the tea left in the tea container into the teabowl.

IMG_1471Rather than whisk the tea (as is done when making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha, “thin tea”), I knead the concoction of tea powder and water into a thick slurry.

7E6C3640-A37B-4EF0-B244-5A7E289726FDThe end result is a slick liquid with a lacquer-like shine.

D7E8D031-DC7E-4D2A-9786-ED5E27381F16Set atop a silk brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (a thick square of brocaded silk used to present a tea object), I take the first sip from the teabowl to honor the thousands of tiny sonorous guests outside my window.

IMG_1452With the rich flavor of koicha still lingering and the chiming of the cicadas still audible, I begin to close the private tea gathering.

24F61BC6-15BC-420D-B86D-9FF3092A3B38Before I put each object back into their respective 桐箱 kiribako (boxes made of paulownia wood), I perform a simple 拝見 haiken. Shifuku, chashaku, and chaire are set together. Implements brought into the service of making tea for but a brief moment. Like a flash, they appear and then recede from sight. To pause to appreciate this fleeting interaction, the interplay of colors and textures, materials and shapes, is akin to the recognition of the passing of time itself.

As one season transforms into another, as a cicada sheds its skin, we, too, are changed by this subtle process. We, too, are moved by it.

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

As Summer Wanes, No Autumn Leaves

Late Summer sees the loosening of heat’s grip over the day. Cool breezes flutter even as the asphalt of the streets outside simmers in the sun. Day after day is met with rain and thunder, and I am left to make tea indoors.

On such a day, I pull together a teaset to brew a sample of tea recently sent to me from a tea farmer in China’s Wuyishan tea growing region. The tea, a 老欉水仙 Lǎo Cóng Shuǐ Xiān (lit. “Old Bush/Grove Water Immortal”), is a long-leaf dark oolong, harvested from tea bushes over fifty years old.

To brew this, I select a teapot I rarely use, a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot). In the murky light of a rainy day of early Autumn, the teapot’s crisp form casts hazy shadows from the sharply-hewn lines.

The subtle dome of the lid rises gently off the conical body. The bridge-like handle atop the lid seems to be carved as if emerging out from a mist. The delicate pattern of grains in the clay give the piece an overall glow.

In contrast, the clean white surface of three contemporary 哥窯 Gē yáo cups beam brightly against the warm wooden top of my tea table. Thin lines of crazing, long-ago given the poetic name 鐵弦 tiě xián (lit. “iron wire/thread”), cover each cup and break their circular form into minute fractures for the mind to wander through.

In preparation for brewing, I issue-out a portion of the Shuǐ Xiān leaves into an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”, nickel silver) scoop, itself in the shape of a broad banana leaf that were commonly featured in the classic gardens of scholars and poets of China.

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, I open the teapot and pour hot water inside to warm the tiny vessel.

Emptied, I place the tea leaves into the pot’s warmed interior.

Filling the teapot once again, I close the lid and pour hot water over its exterior, further warming the tea within.

Moments pass and the sound of rain fades. I pour the tea out into each cup until the pot is completely empty. Lifting the lid and placing it against the ridge of the handle, the hot, moist air caught inside the teapot is allowed to escape, rising upward, cooling the tea leaves for subsequent steepings.

Peering upon the copper-colored liqueur of the brewed oolong, my mind is caught in the anticipation of Autumn’s arrival.

As I look out of my tearoom window, the leaves on the trees still shine a slick emerald green, not yet ready to transform into the lacquer-like reds and golds of Fall. As I quiet my mind, the sound of thunder rises in the distance, sounding against the cacophony of the cicada’s cries. As I sip from the first cup, I am reminded of the scent of fallen leaves, of cold weather’s warming spices, and the clean crisp air of Autumn.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style

An ancient Chinese myth tells of two celestial lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) kept apart, only united on the seventh evening of the seventh month. It is believed at this time, these stars align and a bridge made of magpies stretches across the Milky Way, linking the two sky-bound lovers. While some within East Asia may observe this day on July 7th in accordance with the Western calendar, the true date of 七夕 Qīxī is variable, dependent on the lunar month and day.

On this 7th of August, I sit down to prepare a very special bowl of tea in observance of Qīxī, one in the style of the Song period (960-1279). To give as accurate of an approximation of this approach, I utilize methods described in such texts as Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng’s 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) and 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng’s 茶錄 Chá Lù (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053). Additionally, I use teaware that closely reflect those which are depicted in Song period paintings and in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù Tú Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān Lǎo Rén (Old man Shenan).

Much of my time making tea in this manner is spent not with the boiling of water or the whisking of tea, but in the hours-long process of sorting, sifting, and grinding leaves of a wild white tea to make a fine powder.

Once ground-down to a fine enough powder, I place this Song style 抹茶 mǒchá (powdered tea) into a small gourd-shaped celadon container.

Boiling water and assembling teaware becomes its own meditation, set to the scent of incense wafting in the air of my tearoom. Once put together, I offer up what is as close of an approximation to tea during the Song period that I can muster.

A vintage Japanese-made 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan made in reproduction of a Song period 建窯 Jiàn yáo teabowl sitting atop a wooden cup stand.

A bright celadon tea container. A simple scoop fashioned from wood.

A bamboo whisk modified to approximate that which would have been used during the mid-to-late Song period. All items I place atop a tray carved from mulberry wood.

Each item is then cleansed and readied to prepare a bowl of Song style mǒchá.

With the teabowl warmed, I draw-forth six scoops of powdered tea from the small celadon tea container.

Placed in the center of the tenmoku chawan, the faint aroma of tea can already be detected.

Next, I pour a small measure of boiled water over the tea powder and begin to knead it into a thick, consistent paste with the tea whisk.

Once fully kneaded, I add a little more water, just enough to turn the tea paste into a thick liquid.

Whisking slightly faster, I begin to whip the tea into a light foam.

More water is added and I whisk faster.

More water is added and more foam is produced.

Seven times I add water before the tea is fully whisked into a proper bowl of mǒchá as described by Huīzōng during the 12th century.

The soft foam and minuscule patterns of collected tea upon the surface poetically resembling freshly-fallen snow.

Served atop the wooden cup stand, the tea is exceedingly fragrant, surpassing the light aroma of aloeswood that still lingers in the air.

In observance of two star-crossed lovers, as they make their way silently across the sky, I slack my thirst with tea prepared in accordance to an ancient style. The flavor of tea and the time of year melding together into a moment of meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Matcha, Tea, White Tea