Tag Archives: Chinese New Year

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.

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

Major Cold: Looking Down the Long, Dark Tunnel of Winter

It is late January and, by now, many of us begin to anticipate the warmth of Spring. However, as nature would have it, the coldest days of Winter are finally upon us. In the interim, between the New Year of the Gregorian calendar and before the New Year of the traditional lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the period of what is called 大寒 Daikan in Japanese (Dàhán in Mandarin), “Major Cold”, begins.

Extending from January 20th to February 3rd (changing slightly depending on the given year), this time sees the most extreme point of Winter’s chill, with winds that are wild and biting, the earth frozen and solid, and the ice ever-present. In the world of tea, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu take heart and double-down on their commitment to live according to Rikyū’s old adage, “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. So dedicated to this latter notion are tea people that all manner of accommodations are made to ensure that the guests’ needs for warmth are met.

Warm water with ginger is often served to the guests as they wait to enter the tearoom. More charcoal may be added to the 炉 ro to boil the water and heat the tea space. Even the type of teaware used is adjusted to increase the warmth of the tea. It is during this time of year that the host will bring out the 筒茶碗 tsutsuchawan.

Named for its distinctive “tube-like” shape, the tsutsuchawan casts a visually different form in the tearoom when compared to the typical shape of the teabowl. Comprising of a vessel that is taller than it is wide, the height of the tsutsuchawan ensures that the hot tea made within it remains hot by the moment the guest receives it. Given that traditionally 茶室 chashitsu are constructed out of nothing more than wood, paper, grass, and mud, any means taken to retain heat is vital. Tea was (and still is) a medicine at its core.

As I sit in my own modern (and, frankly, modest) tearoom today, I find myself feeling far from the historical essence of chanoyu. In my New York City apartment, I sit in the artificial warmth of 20th century steam heat. The sound of the radiator seems a constant feature of my Winter-locked life here in the city. In stark contrast, I look out of my window to a world blanketed in a fresh coat of snow. Ice hangs on the eaves and dark grey clouds filter sunlight into a dull glow.

As I bring the water in my antique bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama to a boil, I arrange my teaware. A vintage 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

A small wooden 平棗 hiranatsume lacquered with persimmon juice.

An antique 茶杓 chashaku.

A 茶筅 chasen made of speckled bamboo. Peering out of the darkness of the deep chawan is the white linen 茶巾 chakin, folded in a manner favored in the 裏千家 Urasenke school (a subtle and mindful nod of appreciation to their form as I am a student of 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an).

As I cleanse each item, touching them with the smooth silk cloth of my 袱紗 fukusa or bathing them in the heat of the boiling water, I ready them for their action of making tea. The chashaku is rested atop the natsume. The chakin is removed from the teabowl. The whisk is wetted and warmed. The teabowl is empty and is radiating heat from the water it once held. These actions all have their intention and are supported by the purpose-built wares.

As I scoop tea from the small wooden natsume and place it gently into the center of the teabowl, I feel the heat still held in the clay. Its presence subtly activating the aroma of the fresh 抹茶 matcha powder. The shape of the bowl sends this flavor upwards to me as I pour half a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the chawan. As I whisk the tea, I am mindful to adjust my action to the unique shape of the tsutsuchawan. My movements are tighter, slightly faster, whipping the tea into a light foam.

Pulling the chasen from the teabowl with an upward motion, I see the results of my action: a soft, gentle foam, lustrous like mounding snow. It glows like a wondrous light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

As I sit in the makeshift tearoom of my urban apartment, listening to the wild wind whipping at my window, the sight of trees bending and heaving to the force of nature, I cannot help but to recognize the luxury and, indeed, the privilege I live in. Tea is a luxury. Heat is a luxury. The walls around me and the food in my belly are all a luxury, brought to me, in large part, by a privilege that I alone did not make for myself.

As I set the bowl before me and lift it in thanks for this moment it and my practice has brought me, I let my thoughts on this situation linger. I pause before I lift the bowl to my lips, its heat radiating, the fresh, fragrant liquid within it unavoidable and pleasant. How can I share this solitary bowl of tea with the world around me? How do I share this warmth that I have now during the coldest time of year?

As I sip and empty the tall vessel, watching the final dregs pool and collect within its flat base, no immediate answer comes to me.

As I turn the bowl over to appreciate the rough textures of its 高台 kōdai and to see the carved mark of the potter’s name, I find no reply from the great and boundless universe. To “just make tea” seems to be enough and yet so little. Today, the peace I often find myself having at the end of making a bowl of tea does not seem to arise. Instead, the problems of the world, the problems of privilege, still seem to remain.

As with other forms of meditation, the act of making a bowl of tea is said to be a kind of enlightenment. Alas, it is a misconception that enlightenment brings an air of settled peace or a sense of harmony. In truth, the enlightenment that arises is, instead, no different from the pain and suffering or the joy and exuberance of everyday.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of life, sometimes all we see is the darkness. Sometimes when we look down the long, dark tunnel of a tsutsuchawan, all we see are the final dregs and residue of the tea we’ve finished. It is our practice to see this. It is also our practice to do all we can to make the guest warm, especially when we are living through the coldest days of Winter.

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

Love and Parinirvana

February is a transformative month. It begins with the lunar new year, followed by the loosening of Winter’s grip and shift into the earliest moments of Spring.

On the 14th, lovers everywhere celebrate their amorous bonds with Valentines Day. While on the 15th, Buddhists worldwide observe Parinirvana Day, marking the death of the historical Buddha and the dissolving of his karmic bonds as he achieved nirvana.

The two days’ juxtaposition offers an intriguing meditation, one that perhaps calls into question the nature of love and the process of self realization. Tea, in a sense, offers this same consideration.

On the morning that sits between both days, I opt to brew an elegant 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) gifted to me by a friend using a traditional Chinese wedding tea set.

Made of eggshell-thin porcelain, and hand-painted in vibrant colors, the distinctively-shaped teapot and its paired two cups are covered in an array of auspicious symbols meant to ensure prosperity and the happiness of lovers.

Red bats surrounding a stylized character for longevity (壽 shòu) carry with them a hidden rebus, as the word for “bat” in Chinese (蝠 ) is a homonym for “luck” (福 ). With the four bats arranged around the stylized symbol 壽 shòu, the character becomes a fifth bat. This, in turn, contains yet another rebus, 五福 wǔfú, “Five Blessings”.

Used in conjunction with a traditional marriage ceremony, the tea objects and the symbols they contain, are meant as a silent, visual invocation to deepen the connection between two lovers.

Used in the context of today’s reflection on the meaning of parinirvana, it is a wish for all beings to become free from suffering.

With one motion, tea can bring us together, and, through another, it can dismantle the ego. As a subtle art and mindful practice, the action of making tea can become a means to relocate the self in action. Through the observance and appreciation of its taste, we can enjoy its refinement and humble nature. To take a moment for tea is to take a moment for one’s self. To offer tea to a friend or lover is to open one’s heart.

In a way, the offering of tea is a form of death. The moment comes and goes. What was initially there in the beginning has now changed. What was once a living plant has been dried, then rehydrated and brewed. Once fully steeped, a tea leaf is as empty of a body as we will ultimately become with our own inevitable death. What remains is just a memory, of the flavor of tea and of life, and hopefully of love.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

Friends for the New Year

Every year, as the new moon marks 立春 lìchūn (“beginning of Spring”), billions worldwide travel back to their homelands and to their families to celebrate what is known in China as 春節 chūn jié (“Spring Festival”). In what is regularly recognized as the world’s largest momentary mass migration, Spring Festival (and the events surrounding regional variations of Chinese New Year) becomes a moment when those who travel seek the respite of home and the warmth of close friends and family. In a period that is often known for great feasts and revelry, tea sits center stage, appearing at banquet tables, family gatherings, and adding an air of refinement amidst the clamorous celebrations.

Back in my hometown, I join my dear fellow tea friend Chris Kornblatt for tea at his sun-bathed tea space in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Entering his tearoom, which is a converted upstairs drawing room in an old Victorian home, the simple splendor of a space designed for tea is instantly evident. Set below a typical San Franciscan three-paned bay window, the wooden tea table beams a warm glow.

Placed atop its honey-toned surface, Chris expertly arranged a curated collection of teawares. Splashy Qing period small plates are set in a balanced juxtaposition against more sober contemporary Taiwanese wares.

A flawless Yixing teapot.

A teascoop hewn from flamboyant-grained wood found in an Eastern European forest.

Layers of fabric and woven reeds.

Sweet snacks made of dried persimmon and liquor-cured plums.

Teas emerge, one-by-one, from Chris’ tea chests. An array of Taiwanese oolong teas. A vibrant 高山茶 gāo shān chá (high mountain tea) from 杉林溪 Sān Lín Xī brewed in a handmade 蓋碗 gaiwan.

A beautifully oxidized and roasted 凍頂 Dòng Dǐng (“Frozen Summit”) oolong tea.

A fragrant 杏仁香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Almond fragrance” Phoenix single bush oolong tea).

Every object has its purpose to make the moment happen. Teapots for brewing tea. Cups to enjoy it with.

A unique string of beads to count each steeping brewed.

A setting such as this reveals the traces of one’s 功夫 gōng . Everything within it are expressive of a life guided by tea, a mind that thoughtfully approaches the practice. With such attention to detail paid, one can’t help but to feel at home and to celebrate the beginning of Spring with dear friends.

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

A New Year, A New Beginning

恭喜發財!

Today marks the beginning of the year of the Water Dragon in the traditional Chinese lunar calendar.  It also marks the beginning of this blog, “Scottea: Bay Area Tea Culture and Beyond.” Continue reading

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