Category Archives: History

EXCLUSIVE: All About Wulong

IMG_3195Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

As we huddle closer to the warmth of the boiling kettle, we cannot help but to be drawn to tea, especially those we like to brew hotter and stronger. As part of my regular “circuit” of tea-focused lectures, I recently led a tea talk and interactive workshop at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side that concentrated on one such tea type. Titled “All About Wulong”, it was a deep dive and exploration into one of the world’s most diverse categories of tea.

As with most of my tea talks (of which you can find many of them linked within this blog either in posts or under the “Education” tab), I began “All About Wulong” with a brief but detailed discussion on the meaning of wulong (note I am using the Chinese written form “wulong”, which in Pinyin is wūlóng, in Wade-Giles it is “oolong”, and in tradition Chinese script it is 烏龍). Next I outlined the historical origins and context of wulong tea production, consumption, and brewing methods. Following this, we spent the rest of the evening tasting a variety of select wulong teas, reflecting varieties that originated in (or were influenced by) Taiwan, Anxi, Chaozhou, and Wuyishan. Teas ranged from freshly-harvested to aged. In this, we examined they myriad of different processing styles and how to approach them from both a brewing method and from the many aspects of connoisseurship.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture and tea production, “All About Wulong” was a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, which not only sought to educate minds and palates, but to also encourage inquiry and help to hone participants’ tea appreciation and brewing skills (i.e. their 功夫茶 gōngfūchá skills). As part of this continuing effort, I offer you, my beloved readers, the video and notes to this event, for you to enjoy and learn from it.

“All About Wulong”

Link to video

All about Wulong Presentation Grid ImageTo aid in the watching of this 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first third of the tea talk is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Defining Wulong Tea
  • Locating Wulong Tea
  • Origins of Wulong Tea
    • During the Song Period
    • During the Ming Period
  • Wulong Tea’s Constant Evolution
    • During the Ming Period
    • During the Qing Period
    • During the Late Qing to Modern Period
  • Brewing Wulong Tea
    • “Mind & Materiality of Wulong Tea”
    • The Skill & Challenge of Wulong Tea
  • Final Thoughts

Break-Out Discussion: Teas Tasted:

  • 阿里山高山烏龍茶 Ālǐshān gāoshān wūlóngchá (Alishan High Mountain wulong), Spring 2018 from Alishan, Taiwan (elevation 1300m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Bodhisattva” wulong tea), Winter 2017 from Muzha, Taiwan (elevation 600m). Sourced from Tillerman Tea, Napa, California.
  • 老柚花香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Lǎo yòu huāxiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Old Pomelo Flower Fragrance” Phoenix single bush wulong tea) from 350 year-old bushes, Chaozhou, Guangdong province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 鐵羅漢武夷山岩茶 Tiě luóhàn Wǔyíshān yánchá (“Iron Arhat” Wuyi Mountain “rock/cliff tea”), Wuyishan, Fujian province, China. Sourced from Floating Mountain Tea House, New York, New York.
  • 1980年 凍頂烏龍茶 Dòng Dǐng wūlóngchá (1980 “Frozen Summit” wulong tea), Nantou county, Taiwan. Personally sourced.

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Every Season Has Two Faces

Part of the enjoyment of tea is the continual meditation it provides on time and the constant changing of the seasons. In Winter, this change is marked in many ways. The transition from the 風炉 furo (portable briazier) to the sunken hearth of the 炉 ro, types of incense used in the tearoom, and even the shape of teabowls from shallow to deep; all are mindful adjustments made in reflection of the subtle shifts in the environment and the desire to stay warm.

Even as a season may be conceived as a “single moment”, it, too, is made up of many smaller moments. This may be the appearance of certain flowers or animals, the enjoyment of particular foods that become available during the cold months, and even specific celebrations. In tea these abound and offer ample opportunity to center one’s self and focus on “the now”.

Today is no exception as I sit down in my tearoom to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha.

Pulling together items that I feel will harmonize with this moment in time, I bring out an array of objects from my tea cabinet.

A vintage 赤津焼 Akazu-yaki 茶碗 chawan paired with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume (a type of tea caddy) and a weathered bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop).

For the tea, I select a fine matcha produced from tea plants grown in Uji, freshly-ground by my friends at Setsugekka, a local tea shop in Manhattan’s East Village.

The teabowl, produced by famed Seto-based ceramicist 中島春草 Nakajima Shunsō, is unique in that it has two “faces” (正面 shōmen).

As one prepares the tea and serves it to the guest, the bowl shows the abbreviated image of two 柿 kaki (persimmons), drying from the eaves of a roof (to produce dried persimmon, 干柿 hoshigaki, a favorite early wintertime treat).

However, as one turns the bowl to respectfully drink from the obverse side, the bowl reveals another image: two 梅 ume plum blossoms, a flower that only blooms during the coldest days of Winter.

The meaning here is subtle but direct. What we enjoy now in early Winter (dried persimmons) is fleeting. What is to come (the ume blossoms) will come sooner than you can realize. Enjoy this moment, for it is in this moment that life is truly actualized.

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A Gathering for Thick Tea

After filling a 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container) with 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”), one can sit to make tea. Clearing the mind, one can give with their heart. Purifying the utensils encourages this and clarifies intention.

First the chaire is removed from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch and is purified with the folded 袱紗 fukusa. Next, the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) is cleansed.

Finally, the 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) is cleansed along with the teabowl itself.

Preparing koicha is a process, one that involves giving everything to the gathered guests. In this, tea is first scooped from the chaire and, then, the remaining tea left inside the tiny ceramic caddy is poured into the teabowl.

Everything is offered up. Nothing is left over.

Unlike 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”), koicha is not whisked.

Instead, it is “kneeded” into a thick, glossy liquid. The flavor is intoxicating, inescapable, memorable.

A single bowl is shared between the guests. A single moment is enjoyed. A single spirit emerges.

Even when the guests have left and gone their separate ways, they are forever joined in this memory. A gathering for thick tea.

As we gather around together, whether it be over a feast or over nothing at all, let our spirits join together. In the receiving of a bowl of tea, we first bow to host who made it so careful. Then, next, we raise the bowl as if offering thanks to the universe, to the myriad of forces that united together to enable a moment to occur. Tea is always a thanksgiving. It is always a feast, for the eyes, for the heart.

Today, fill your heart, your mind, and open your spirit to the moment at hand.

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

Red, White, and Blue-and-White

I am not typically political in my writings (at least on such a public and tea-focused forum). Alas, to remain politically inactive and indifferent is not only a fallacious privilege but is also callous to the many ills and terrible abuses that our political system has engendered (and continues to engender).

On this day, a cold, rainy Tuesday in November, I encourage all who can vote to vote (I voted by mail). Remember, many have fought and dedicated their lives to ensure this right. To vote is to honor this and protect your own agency in this world.

As dark storm clouds gather outside my window, a 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”) softly bubbles atop the warm, glowing embers inside an antique 火鉢 hibachi. Deciding to drink a bowl of hand-ground powdered white tea, I pull-together the implements needed to properly whip-up a delicate bowl of Song-style 抹茶 mǒchá (matcha in Japanese).

A 15th century Vietnamese blue and white teabowl. A red and black 根来塗り Negoro-nuri lacquer 茶杓 chashaku teascoop. A carved Song period-style lacquer tea caddy. A bamboo tea whisk made in Nara, Japan. A lacquered tray atop which all the items are carried. With everything assembled tea can be made.

Opting to make tea today in a relaxed style, I decide to adapt the informal 盆点前 bon temae of the 宗徧流 Sōhen Ryū school to make a bowl of Song period-style white tea. Against the dark crimson field of the red lacquered tray, the assembled items seem to harmonize, their subtle differences still shining through.

Against the rich hues of scarlet, the rough and refined qualities of the Negoro lacquer are evermore apparent. In this style of lacquer, famously produced by the monks at Negoro-ji Buddhist temple in Wakayama prefecture in Japan, layers of black lacquer emerge beneath top layers of red lacquer. The result is an understated elegance.

With all tea objects purified and readied, the moment arrives to make tea. For a brief instance, I sit and enjoy seeing each item as they exist and interplay with each other.

Gathered from around the world, spanning through history, from a multitude of cultures, each have by some unique way come together to enable something beautiful to be made.

A bowl of tea and a moment to meditate. A calm within a violent storm. What will come from this day is not entirely up to me. Which way will the wind bend? In what direction will the storm blow?

To sit and observe these moments is not enough. To act and act with right intention is a start.

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

To Encounter a Distant Memory and Invite it for Tea

IMG_2160In late Summer I found myself ambling through the streets of my youth, the tight alleyways and rolling broad avenues of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Falling back into my old patterns, I paid a visit to all of my favorite old haunts: the Hong Kong-style diner, the apothecary, the jade dealer. On my last stop, an old porcelain shop, I by chance found this rather large vintage hand-painted famille jaune 蓋碗 gàiwǎn.

IMG_2161Pulled from stacks of the usual mass-produced transfer-printed blue-and-white plates and cups, this gaiwan seemed to glow an unearthly golden color. Unabashedly kitschy with bright roses, peonies, plum blossoms, and lotuses painted upon an electric yellow field, the gaiwan echoed memories of my youth when such teaware were all one could find in 1980s/1990s Chinatown.

IMG_2162During these years, tea existed side-by-side jars of dried herbs, boxes of Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, and ceramic figures of 關羽 (Guānyǔ) with offerings of tangerines. So much has changed since then. People have become fancier, perhaps more sophisticated. Porcelain wares like this are now not as coveted. But that’s the thing about memories; sometimes you can recall them fondly, sometimes you can invite them for tea.

IMG_2163In this spirit, I decide to do just that. Pulling from a dusty tea tin that I’ve kept for years, I place a handful of thin, curly leaves of an aged 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) onto an antique banana leaf-shaped 白銅 báitóng (“white copper”) 茶荷 chá hé (tea leaf presentation vessel). Like the vintage gaiwan, such presentation vessels were once ubiquitous in my youth, something easily found (and often passed-over) in the many curio shops and curb-side vendors that once vied for attention along the many side streets that radiated outward from Chinatown’s Grant Avenue. Nowadays, these, too, are a rarity, a modest treasure from time.

IMG_2164Warming the large gaiwan for the first time, it brings me to attention in a way that I was not expecting. Like opening a time capsule, I cannot help but be drawn into the vacant void of its gleaming white interior as if in search for some unresolved answer.

IMG_2165Placed into the center of the wide white bowl, the thin, twisted leaves of the aged Phoenix oolong seem small, dwarfed by the great circumference of the vintage gaiwan. Like a mirror offering up a clear vision of the self, the warmed and wetted porcelain instantly reflects back the vibrant, fragrant aromas of the aged tea. As bright and floral as the gaiwan itself, this tea seems to answer back to the vintage gaiwan with an assurance that time cannot diminish the quality of something so skillfully made and lovingly saved.

IMG_2166Closing the lid upon the steeping leaves, the tea is left for a moment to brew. Minutes later and the lid is lifted, revealing a broad field of colors. A bouquet of yellow, green, red, and orange emerge upon the bright white backdrop of the gaiwan’s porcelain interior. Enjoyed alongside the rich and splashy colors of the hand-painted flowers that adorn the vintage gaiwan, the tea and the vessel seem to converse with one another. What words do such things utter when they awake from a long sleep? What memories arise when we bring an object from our past back to use? What can such memories still teach us that we did not yet know?

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

Things That Are Hidden Become Revealed

There is something mysterious about tea. Not that tea, itself, tries to obscure or rarify itself, nor is it “exotic” (in fact, it can be quite ordinary), but tea does not present itself wholly upon first view. To better know tea, one must become quite intimate with it.

In some cases, this means climbing a mountain to see where tea plants are grown. In other instances, it means working in the hot and sweaty processing stations where raw tea leaves are tossed, steamed and roasted to express the desired flavors. In other instances still, one must focus in very closely on the specific ways certain cultures present tea to truly understand it.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) is kept within a small ceramic container called a 茶入 chaire. This small vessel is, in turn, enveloped in a cloth sleeve (雌伏 shifuku), tied together with a piece of cord.

In the case of this specific chaire I have chosen today for a koicha gathering, it is a mid-20th century 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki (“shouldered”) chaire.

Rather than fully reveal itself to those gathered, I (as the host) must first go through a methodical process of untying the cord and removing the little tea jar from the shifuku. The modest Seto-yaki chaire slowly appears from the soft folds of the glistening silk pouch. Its glossy brown glaze contrasts with rich blue, gold and purple thread.

Pulled from the shifuku, the chaire is purified with the purple silk cloth of the 袱紗 fukusa and then set down before tea is made.

For the briefest of moment, both host and guest are able to enjoy the shape of the chaire.

Prior to making tea, the chaire is placed next to the shifuku. Images of travelers on the Silk Road emblazoned on the silk seem to remind those who see it of tea’s ancient past.

With tea, time slows, revealing everything at a meditative pace. Slowly, the pouch is removed and set aside. Slowly, powdered tea is scooped and tumbled from the tea jar.

Slowly, small moments and vistas reveal themselves. Slowly, a mystery becomes understood. In time, tea, too, becomes ordinary.

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

The Exuberance of Imperfection

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With Autumn in full swing and the chill of Winter creeping in, I sit down to enjoy an afternoon of tea within the warmth of my tearoom. The sky is a muted grey, framed by bright, white clouds above and the emerging Fall colors upon the tops of every tree.

IMG_1122As I sit and take in this changing view I pull a treasured antique 石灣窯 Shíwān yáo (Shiwan pottery) teapot from my tea cabinet. In the soft light of the day that filters through the tearoom window, the bottle-green/blue glaze of the tiny teapot seems to glow and radiate in flamboyant swirls and unctuous pools. Paired with two 織部焼 Oribe-yaki cups (upon which the abstract motif of rain and/or 簾/すだれ sudare “blinds” are inferred upon their surface with an iron-oxide glaze) from a now-extinct kiln, the tea objects seem to be in a sort of silent conversation.

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Deciding to brew a beautiful 九龍袍 Jiǔlóng páo (literally “Nine Dragon Robe”) Wuyishan oolong tea with this vessel, I pull a scoop-full of dark, twisted leaves from a large ceramic tea leaf storage vessel. On closer inspection, they appear slightly purple in cast, due to a specific mutation found within this variety. As such the tea is sometimes referred to as 紫紅袍 Zǐhóng páo (“Purple-Red Robe”, as it is a mutation from the famous 大紅袍 Dàhóng páo, “Big Red Robe”).

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The curling leaves enter the dark, empty void of the Shiwan teapot like a dragon entering a cave.

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The roughly-hewn shape of the teapot becomes more apparent with every passing moment. Often unseen, the underside of the lid bares the marks of simple hand construction, the subtle indentations of the maker’s fingers visible from when they last touched the soft, unfired clay.

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Filled with hot water from an antique 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”), a fine foam bubbles to the top of the Shiwan teapot and the tea leaves begin to wake. Gentle aromas evocative of wet wood, incense and warm spices rise from the open tiny ceramic vessel.

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The teapot, made in the bustling kilns of Nanfeng (located in Shiwan town of Foshan City) during the late-Qing/Republican period, is a loving tribute to the mass-produced common-ware that once dominated the Pearl River Delta of southern China. Enticed by the more luxurious (and expensive) works of the famous kilns of the Song, Ming, and Qing (Shiwan potters were highly active starting in the late Ming), the artisans of Shiwan pottery developed their own style that both made reference to and “riffed” upon antique forms. The result were the employing of beautiful glazes, and pure forms. Now a relative rarity at the tea table, this little Shiwan teapot still exudes a simple elegance.

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Rough in form and full of imperfections, from the way the lid rests awkwardly or how liquid pours unevenly from its spout, the little teapot has a vibrant sense of character that most other teaware lack. Unlike the crisp, precise forms found in the teapots from 宜興 Yíxìng (the shape of which this vessel is undoubtedly attempting to replicate), the Shiwan teapot, in contrast, feels softer, more natural, humble, human.

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Brewing the beautiful 九龍袍 Jiǔlóng páo, its deep flavor unfolds over the course of the afternoon. Hints of carob, marigold, rose water and blueberry swirl and emerge from every cup the little teapot produces.

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Light shifts and clouds lift and the little Shiwan teapot is emptied and left to dry, waiting for the next time it is invited to brew tea. Even in its resting state, there is a sense of liveliness in this antique pot. From the soft impression of the artisan’s stamp to the ice-like crackles upon its glazed surface, to the sandy grit of the exposed clay; every aspect of this tiny vessel is a celebration of imperfection.

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If you are interested in learning more about Shiwan ceramics, I highly recommend the book Shiwan Ceramics: Beauty, Color, and Passion by Fredrikke S. Scollard, Terese Tse Bartholomew, and the Chinese Culture Foundation (1995).

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