The 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.
From my shelf, I pull forth a collection of teawares, all of which are Japanese in origin, yet are explicitly crafted to replicate Sòng wares.
For 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.
Removed from its pouch, it reveals a shape that would have been common to both tea practitioners and apothecaries of the Sòng period.
For 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.
The 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 Tú Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”, 1269).
Once 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.
This 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.
Warming 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).
Lifting the chashaku and chaire, I draw out six scoops of white tea I had hand-ground and sieved earlier that day.
Placed 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.
Whisk in hand, I begin to slowly knead the powdered tea and water into a thick paste.
Next, 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.
Again I issue water into the teabowl and, again, I whisk, further mixing the tea. The foam begins to mound.
A fourth pulse of water is issued, and again I whisk. The foam tightens, becoming finer, brighter in color and complexion.
A fifth round of water is poured into the teabowl and the foam rises higher, with an appearance akin to freshly fallen snow.
A sixth pouring of water and I begin to slow the pace of my whisking, causing the foam to become gentle and even.
Finally, 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.
For 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.
For 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.
Lifting the teabowl with the aid of a wooden 天目台 tenmoku–dai, 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.
However, 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.
As 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.
Objects for tea, beautiful and, at times mundane, contain within them volumes of stories, many of which still remain untold.
As 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?
Will 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.