Tag Archives: Ming Dynasty

A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk

It’s mid-January and it already feels like the year is wearing me down. Nations are tipping towards war. My partner’s family are being forced to evacuate their ancestral home in the Philippines due to a volcanic eruption. Climate change continues to cause worldwide calamity. In these dire circumstances, I cannot help but to sit and make tea.

I am reminded of the esoteric 真言律宗 Shingon-Risshū (Shingon-Vinaya sect) ritual held every January 15th at 西大寺 Saidaiji in the ancient capital city of Nara. Called 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki (lit. “big tea made in a grand style”), it involves the serving of a large bowl of tea to the local congregation of temple goers.

Originating during the 鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai (Kamakura period, 1185–1333) when a Buddhist monk by the name of 叡尊 Eison (1201-1290) offered a bowl of 抹茶 matcha to the deity Hachiman. In this, he also offered tea to the local people. Rather than serve the assembled crowd with a multitude of small bowls, he opted to serve the tea in one large bowl. Today, the practice is said to bring the tea-reciecing guests good fortune and health for the New Year.

Similarly, given that all of the objects for this ritual are equally large (the 茶碗 chawan, the 茶筅 chasen, the 水指 mizusashi, the 棗 natsume, and 茶釜 chagama), it requires great strength and collective assistance to make and drink a bowl of tea. Having seen pictures of this early on in my tea practice, I was amazed at the scale of this, notably the size of the tea whisk, which measured almost a meter in length.

Sitting in my tearoom today, making a single bowl of tea to usher a year of good fortune, I cannot help but to ponder the develop of this piece of tea technology we know as the tea whisk.

Prior to the “official” popularization of whole leaf steeped tea (brought about by the 1391 imperial edict by Ming Emperor 洪武 Hóngwǔ (1328-1398), which declared that 貢茶 gòng chá, tribute tea, would no longer be offered in cake form), tea had largely been enjoyed as a mixture of hot water and powdered tea leaves throughout much of China, Korea, and Japan.

During the Tang period (618-907), compressed tea leaves were crushed and simmered, often brewed along with additional additives such as salt, dried herbs, flowers, and roots. As such, this beverage was more akin to the many medicinal soups that were part of the broader variety of Chinese medicines of the time. It wasn’t until the mid-Tang period that we see recorded the consumption of “tea for tea’s sake”, in such treaties on tea as 陸羽 Lù Yǔ’s (733-804) 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762). However, tea wouldn’t be whisked until the later 宋 Song period (960-1279).

During this time, tea leaves were picked and processed and then ground down into powder. This powder tea would then be compressed into cake forms (團茶 tuánchá). Prior to brewing, the tea cakes would be broken, pulverized, sifted and powdered, finally being scooped into a tea bowl, where water was added and the tea was stirred from a thick slurry to a drinkable beverage.

Historical writings note that by the mid-Song period, tea was being whisked with a specialized tea scoop (茶匙 cháchí). In his 茶錄 Chá (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053), 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng wrote that this scoop should be heavy so it can be whisked with force and that it was optimally made with gold, though commonly with silver or iron. Bamboo was deemed to light to achieve the desired results.

By the 1100s, this process had further refined, and so too did the equipage. Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng described in his 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) the process and utensils for making a delicate bowl of 抹茶 mǒchá. In this, the stirring stick is replaced by a finely-crafted 茶筅 cháxiǎn (chasen in Japanese).

In the hands of a skilled tea practitioner, a bright, creamy foam would arise, “lustrous like mounding snow”. This refined process was poetically called 點茶 diǎn chá, to “mark the tea”, as more skilled practitioners were famed to have been able to create images in the foam they produced. To aid in this process and achieve the desired suspension of the tea powder, whisks fashioned out of finely splayed bamboo were crafted.

As one part of a wide array of necessary tea equipage, the whisk occasionally appeared in art depicting tea preparation.

A clearer image appears in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān lǎo rén (Old man Shenan). Here, the whisk is given the poetic name 竺副師 zhú shī (literally translated to “Vice Commander Bamboo”, reflecting twelve “officer” ranks in the Southern Song period, there being twelve objects in the “Pictorial of Tea”). This image seems to depict what Huīzōng noted in his treatise; that the whisk should be made of older bamboo, the tines carved down to fine points like a sword’s blade, to be flexible and strong yet able to remain quiet and manageable when whisking tea.

Concurrently, by the late Southern Song period, we see whisks beginning to take on a form that bears a close resemblance to modern matcha whisks. Evidence of this is found in the ink on silk handscroll painting by Southern Song literati painter 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng (active 1190–1230). In his《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”), Lǐ goes to great length to show the contents of a tradesperson’s cart.

In this, we see a variety of tea ephemera, from ewers and bowls, a small stove and cup holders.

Upon closer inspection, one can see what appears to be a tea whisk.

Though records such as 朱權 Zhū Quán’s 1440 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”) mention that tea continued to be whisked up through the early-to-mid Ming period (1368-1644), the Song-style whisks (and the preparation of whisking powdered tea) eventually disappeared from China as the less complicated approach to brewing whole leaf tea took hold. However, whisked tea and the tea whisk did not disappear completely. Instead, it had made its way to Korean and Japan.

Beginning in the Tang period, Buddhist monks from Korean and Japan travelled to China, returning with learnings, as well as tea seeds and tea wares. From the Song period onward, the whisk began to make its way into both Korea and Japan, eventually influencing their own tea cultures (which were already deeply influenced by earlier Chinese forms). While records and physical artifactual evidence of whisks from these geographic areas or cultures from this period are limited at best, the whisk that was most likely used at this time was most likely similar to that of Song China.

Today, we can find its “distant relative” in the unique tea whisks used in throughout the Japanese archipelago. In Toyama and Niigata prefectures they employ a special “double-whisk” for the whisking of バタバタ茶 batabatacha (a form of powdered post-fermented tea, often serves with salt).

In Okinawa (once the Ryūkū kingdom/琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku), a larger and more robust bamboo whisk used used for whisking ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha (often made of a mixture of toasted rice and tea, though other versions exist).

Superficially, both the batabatacha and bukubuku whisks bear a close resemblance to the tea whisks described in the Song period.

Both are long and flexible, and both forego the final splaying of the bamboo tines (as seen in the whisk depicted in Lǐ Sōng’s “Huòláng ”. In regards to the batabatacha whisk, this allows for the unique double-whisk form to flex and whip-up a fine foam.

As tea culture continued to evolve, tea and teaware forms evolved too. Japan continued to transform the shape and construction of the chasen until it took on a form that is recognizable today, with a set number of tines (usually ranging from 80 to 100 to 120), often finely carved to thin and flexible tips, splayed apart into two sections (an inner core and outer ring) through weaving thread between the individual tines. However, variations still exist.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) and 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”) call for different types of chasen.

Koicha, because it required the host to “knead” the tea into a thick slurry, calls for a more robust chasen. As a result, the tines of the chasen are fewer (typically often 80 tips, sometimes 60).

Usucha, since it usually requires a faster motion, requires the tines to be more flexible. As a result, the artisan will cut more of them (100-120 tines) and carve them thinner.

However, wider variations occur between different schools and levels of formality they observe, resulting in a wide variety of shapes, styles, lengths, tine count, types of bamboo employed, and ways they are carved and woven.

Smaller, more portable tea whisks are even made to be packed away for traveling tea sets, like this miniature chasen used for 野点 nodate.

So, what does this all mean as I sit to make my own bowl of tea? What does it mean to look upon a tea whisk? It is such a simple and mundane object to a tea practitioner. And yet, it, like everything in this world, has its story, it’s past. There was a person who must have been the first to imagine this. It surely did not invent itself. And yet it changed over time.

Someone must have believed they could refine the shape, the feel of the object in the hand, the way it might sit upwards atop its handle (as we now practice in chanoyu).

Someone must have decided that the whisk would work better if the tines were thinner, more flexible, more resilient to breaking. Someone must have understood that pre-warming the whisk in hot water would make it perform its task with greater ease and grace.

We cannot take this process for granted. Countless creative minds over thousands of years have left their mark on this most mundane of object to produce the transcendent experience we know as tea.

To be able to whisk a bowl of tea is in some way a culmination of this and a continuation of this evolution.

What new discoveries will we make?

What new hidden wonders will arise from our inspired minds. What great fortune will be bestowed upon the next generations from the thoughtfulness of those who currently live upon this tiny planet?

One bowl of tea after another. One more moment to recreate the world.

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Links to resources and images (which are not my own):

Image of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://www.lmaga.jp/news/2018/01/33827/

Link to video of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=50DDa4RFpCg

Translation of 大觀茶論 Dà guān chá lùn (“Treatise on Tea”): https://www.globalteahut.org/resources/april16elec.pdf

Wikipedia article about 茶具圖贊 Chájù tú zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorial_of_Tea_Ware

Link to complete and detailed images from 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng’s 《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”): http://www.8mhh.com/2015/0107/20397.shtml#g20397=12

Translation of 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”): http://archive.globalteahut.org/docs/pdf_articles/2017-04/2017-04-a016.pdf

Images and great article about バタバタ茶 batabatacha tea whisk: https://www.google.com/amp/s/japaneseteasommelier.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/batabata-cha-from-toyama/amp/

Image of ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha tea whisk: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ブクブク茶

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

A Rancid Old Crock Peddling Roadside Tea: Tea and the Memory of Baisaō.

On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the era 宝暦 Hōreki (October 1751-June 1764), an old, hollow-cheeked man passed quietly into death. What he left to the world were primarily words scrawled on pieces of paper and memories collected by his closest friends. His only worldly belongings of any value, of which he had carried for years on his own back, had already been set ablaze by his own hand years before. Dying with the name 高遊外 Ko Yūgai, the man who died this day centuries ago was none other than the famed master of 煎茶 sencha, 売茶翁 Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, 1675–1763).

A former monk of the 黄檗 Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, Baisaō would become famous for traveling around the hills of Kyōto selling tea, and imparting mindful (if not often gruff and self-effacing) reflections upon those whom he would share tea with. Breaking from the time-honored tradition of whisked powdered tea (抹茶 matcha) that had become a mainstay of Japan’s elite during the Edo period (1603-1868), Baisaō brewed sencha, a new style of whole leaf green tea that came to Japan through the influence of Ming China (1368-1644).

Baisaō lived much of his life in abject poverty, never asking for money in exchange for the many cups of tea he poured or the calligraphy he wrote. Considered an eccentric for his unorthodox way of asceticism, he attracted the attention of Kyōto artists, writers, poets and aesthetes, all of whom were drawn to his simple lifestyle spent in appreciation of tea. Despite his popularity, Baisaō refused to establish a formal school of tea in his own lifetime, preferring to leave no trace.

Upon his retirement from selling tea, he famously burned his belongings. In the poem he offered to the remembrance of his bamboo basket named 僊窠 Senka (“Den of the Sages”), he mused “After the world-ending kalpa fires consume all things, Won’t the emerald hills still soar into the white clouds? With these words I commit you to the flames.”

Following his death, Baisaō’s tea practice would become the foundation upon which later practitioners of 煎茶道 senchadō (“Way of sencha) would emulate. Over time, his influence led to the popularization of sencha, both as a more accessible form of tea and as an alternative to the formalism of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony).

Baisaō wrote of himself “Years ago old Tu-chan predicted I’d be a great Dharma vessel, sixty-nine years come and gone, time it takes to crook a finger, wouldn’t he laugh to see me now, a rancid old crock peddling roadside tea.”

As I spend the morning in meditation on this, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I decide to commemorate the life of Baisaō in a way he may (or may not) have deemed fit. With a small clay kettle coming to a simmering boil atop a small brazier, I ready my teaware. An old sencha set I found years ago when I, much like Baisaō, had been living a life of chosen poverty in San Francisco. The tiny 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) and 湯冷まし yuzamashi (water cooling vessel) sitting before me.

Five small cups, turned upside-down, waiting to be cleansed.

A small celadon sweets caddy in the shape of a gourd as a tea container. A cut piece of bamboo inscribed with a poem to measure tea leaves. Hammered plates of copper to rest tea cups upon.

Pouring a small amount of boiled water into the yuzamashi, I let the water cool and warm the uneven shape of the ceramic tea object before I empty it out into the hōhin and then into the cups.

A small amount of tea is measured out from the celadon jar into the open void of the bamboo scoop. The leaves of this particular 冠茶 kabusecha (a partially shade-grown style of green tea) are a deep emerald.

Tilting the scoop downward, I let the leaves slide into the warmth of the open and empty hōhin.

The heat from the ceramic begins to activate the aroma of tea, which now, alongside the gentle scent of incense, begins to waft throughout the room.

Slowly I pour cooled water over the leaves and set the lid atop the tea vessel to steep the tea. Within a few seconds I begin decanting, pouring the tea into each cup.

Once emptied, I place the hōhin back down, lifting the lid off to allow the tea to breathe.

With a single mind, enjoying the moment at hand, I set each cup atop their copper rest. As I sit and sip the refreshing tea from the tiny earthenware cup, enjoying its lush flavors and long finish, I give pause and meditate on the life of this old master, on his will to leave no trace, and of the ripples he set into motion which are still felt today. As Baisaō said himself, “I offer a taste of my one cup tea, a Dharma transmission worked out on my own.”

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If you would like to learn more about Baisaō, I highly recommend Norman Waddell’s 2008 book “The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto”. Throughout this article I’ve sourced information and translations from this wonderful text.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Poetry, Sencha, Tea

Facets of the same spirit. Interdependence.

In the tradition of my California-based Japanese Sōtō Zen lineage, July 4th is celebrated as “Interdependence Day”. As a coy musing on the American national holiday, Interdependence Day takes into account the inter-connectedness of all beings, of time and space. It honors the interplay of individuals, the connections we forge and have yet to forge. It recognizes that no one person is an island, and that we are all part of a larger whole. As 洞山良价 Dòngshān Liángjiè (807–869), a famous Zen master, said,

“The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

There is a source and a product of the source. Each depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.

As a practitioner of tea, I see this natural tendency everywhere. Tea, the plant (Camellia sinensis), has its origins somewhere along the edges of modern-day Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal. Chinese tea culture has its origins in these otherwise “foreign” cultures. Similarly, Korean and Japanese tea culture borrows heavily from Chinese tea culture(s) from various points in time. What you see (and taste) today is the result of centuries of cultural interplay. Each depend on one another without being wholly dependent on one another.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), the act of making tea calls upon a multi-faceted history. Chinese methods of preparing tea from the 唐 Táng, 宋 Sòng, 元 Yuán, and 明 Míng periods (618-1644) all have had their influence on the development of Japanese tea ceremony from the 15th to 17th century. From the teaware to the manner of use and even the psychology of the tea ceremony have been marked by a “foreign” culture (as well as many other “foreign” cultures).

Similarly, too, chanoyu has been influenced by other arts. 香道 kōdō (xiāngdào in Mandarin; lit. “Way of incense”), an art that originally has its roots in ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist incense ceremonies of India, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan, has had an immense influence on tea. From the way incense and incense utensils are used, held, cleansed, and shared, each were eventually echoed in the tea ceremony. Even the mentality of kōdō, which attunes the host and guests’ mind to the singularity of a moment, is present in tea. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the two arts, one will find how influential early incense practitioners such as 志野宗信 Shino Sōshin (1444–1523) were to the bourgeoning art and practiced chanoyu.

On this Interdependence Day, I can’t help but to bring together these arts. Normally I burn incense prior to sitting for tea. This is commonly done before the guests come for tea as the aroma of incense should typically not compete with the flavor of tea. However, today I opt to enjoy both together. Setting a piece of glowing charcoal into a small 楽 Raku family 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), I place a thin leaf of mica and fine sliver of 沈香 jinkō (aloeswood) atop the shaped mound of warm ash. Placed within an antique wooden タバコ盆 tabako-bon (“tobacco tray”), I take a moment to pause and appreciate the quiet aroma of the rare incense wood.

Next, I set out my tea equipage: a modern 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made by Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango. These I set within a Song period 青白 qīngbái “green-white” porcelain 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki 香合 kōgō made by my dear tea friend Nessim. Purifying each, I am reminded of how similar the action is to cleansing the incense wares. A 袱紗 fukusa (silk cloth for purifying objects) is used for both incense and tea. The chashaku is cleansed as if it were a silver incense implement.

The bowl is warmed and set before me as if it were a cleansed incense cup.

Three scoops of tea are placed into the center of the teabowl, as if I were issuing-out a small heap of 抹香 makkō (“powdered incense”) into an incense burner.

The tea is whisked and the aroma is instantly evident, growing stronger as it lifts upward from the small, shallow Summer bowl.

Set side-by-side, I appreciate the delicate scent of aloeswood with the bright fragrance of tea. Lifting the bowl to my lips, both tea and incense are enjoyed. The silky foam of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) and the warm resin of rare wood.

With the tea finished, I take a moment to view the final dregs clinging to the jade-like ancient porcelain.

Cleansing the implements one last time, I savor the lingering flavors and intermingling of spirits. Of cultures. Of flavors. Of host and guests.

When we share in a bowl of tea, we also celebrate this. With this bowl of tea I give to you, I humble myself. By accepting the bowl of tea, you reflect and respect the effort and attention that I put into preparing the bowl of tea. The feeling is different yet mutual, and ultimately in unison. When I look across the table, I see a buddha.

Happy Interdependence Day.

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

Overflowing with History and Meaning: Appreciating Two Ruò Shēn Tasting Cups

Still coming down from the “high” (perhaps “tea drunkness”) of my time spent in Paris with my tea teacher, I’ve been slowly bringing-our the teawares he gifted me during the week-long studies I had with him. Having known my teacher for over 15 years now, he’s seen me through quite a large arc in my journey, both as a person and as a tea person!

He and I met between a bowl of matcha (he is a master if the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of 茶の湯 chanoyu/tea ceremony), but for much of our time together, he has witnessed the flowering of my practice in gong fu cha. Never wanting to discredit this, he has always encouraged my exploration of the dual arts of gong fu cha and chanoyu. Truth be told, he was first bitten by the “tea bug” back in the 1970s when he traveled to East Asia, first encountering gong fu cha during business meetings, where tea was served before deals were hatched. He knows the power of tea to transform the person and to create lasting relationships.

The teacups in question, given to me as a gift both “between two friends” and to commemorate my relationship between me and my partner (who lovingly accompanied me to Paris), symbolize his “encouragement” to continue to practice gong fu cha. However, the cups, beside occasionally containing tea, contain a story that is very much tied to the history of tea and, specifically, to gong fu cha.

These cups are not your everyday teacups. Instead, they are 若深珍藏 Ruò Shēn zhēncáng 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi. Made famous during the 康熙 Kāngxī period (1661-1722) of the Qing Dynasty, Ruò Shēn zhēncáng wares were synonymous with some of the highest quality teaware available to the well-heeled masses of China at that time.

Perhaps named for the original potter who crafted these wares, or perhaps the individual who commissioned them, Ruò Shēn wares were made in or around the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, at studio kilns (pictured above), though not designated for the court (i.e. not given the imperial mark). Instead, these wares were sold to those who could afford them.

Often emblazoned with crisp blue cobalt designs of flowers, birds, dragons or landscapes against an ivory-white porcelain, Ruò Shēn wares were highly prized by porcelain aficionados and, significantly, tea people, especially those practicing the then-developing art of gong fu cha.

Ruò Shēn tasting cups are mentioned throughout the Qing and early Republican period as being part of the “Four Treasures of Chaozhou Gong Fu Cha”. These “treasures” were 紫砂 zǐshā (“purple sand”) teapots from Yixing, Ruò Shēn tasting cups from Jingdezhen, a 楓溪砂桃 Fēng xī shā táo “Maple Creek” clay kettle, and 潮阳红泥炉 Cháoyáng hóng ní lú Chaoyang “red clay” stove. (All four “treasures” are pictured above, though I cannot claim ownership of this image)

Looking at these two cups, it is safe to say that they are probably not Kangxi (I offer that assessment up to the experts), but I will say they carry with them the joy of use that past tea connoisseurs would have admired. Their clean porcelain white with pale-bluish cast is beautiful to look upon, even when empty. Once filled, the color of the tea seems deeper, more “true”. They are light in the hand and easy to hold, adopting a shape that had been refined through the successive Song, Yuan, and Ming periods (960-1636). The designs, of rock and peony (and perhaps magnolia bud) are sweet, seasonal, and a nod to a scholar’s garden. The porcelain is so fine that these images are viewable in certain light through the inside of the cups given the ceramic’s slightly transparent nature.

To use pieces such as these, even if they might be a reproduction (old or new), is a joy. To have them at my tea table, and used in their intended purpose, completes a circle, of teaware as a skillfully-made form being able to perform their function. A tea practice such as gong fu cha is this, to see such objects as tools for honing one’s actions, thoughtfulness, and, perhaps, connoisseurship in the appreciation of tea and the meditation it creates. This was, maybe, was the intent of my tea teacher when he gifted these two cups to me. To enjoy them for the time I exist on this earth. To share them with those I love. To learn from them what they have to teach. And then to pass them on as we must all have to. This, the spirit of tea, found in two small Ruò Shēn tasting cups.

If you would like to learn more about Ruò Shēn porcelain, I recommend this blog post from Ruyi Studio, which offers greater detail.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Oolong, 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

Tea for a Broken World

With October at its halfway point, Autumn’s grip on the world seems at once soft but typified by a growing chill. Cold winds whip through the trees, pulling leaves from limbs and giving the world a distinctive weathered and worn appearance.

Sitting down for tea this afternoon, the sound of the wind outside my window, I cannot help but to be inspired.

Desiring something darker and stronger, as if to offer some sort of resistance to the weather outside, I select a 老欉水仙 lǎo cóng shuǐxiān (“Old Bush Water Immortal”) Wuyi oolong. To brew it, I choose an antique 思亭壶 Sī Tíng hú Yixing teapot, set within a broken Ming-period shallow celadon bowl.

With a kettle set to boil, I methodically warm each vessel; the teapot, the Korean sookwoo, the three small buncheong-jagi cups.

The light of the day shifts from bright to muted dark as clouds pass over the sun. The large, twisted leaves of the dark oolong tea offer up their aroma upon first wetting.

The frantic actions of the bending trees outside offer a stark contrast to the thoughtful, measured movements within the tearoom.

Small vignettes of water rising from the teapot’s spout, steam swirling from the kettle’s mouth, and the Yixing clay darkening as the tea fully steeps.

As the world outside my window tears itself apart in preparation for Winter’s still and ice-bound cadence, within the world of tea, life continues to change and evolve.

The tea is brewed and it’s liqueur seems to glow like copper in the tiny grey cups.

A moment is left to linger as the leaves drift upon a softening breeze.

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

EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming & Qing Period

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Beloved readers of Scotttea,

I’m excited to share the full video of Wednesday, July, 18th’s tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming and Qing Period” (1368-1912). Held at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this event is part three of an ongoing series covering the history of tea, from its development as a folk medicine over 6000 years ago into the beverage we love today.

In this event, we discussed how the loose leaf teas have their origins in the monumental shifts that marked the period of the Ming in Qing, from experimentation in oxidation and pan-frying to inventive brewing techniques and international trade. We explored the impact scholars, poets, emperors, and artisans had on tea art and the development of gong fu cha (literally the “skill and challenge of brewing tea”). And we examined antique teawares from the Ming and Qing period and learn about the evolution of tea brewing, from teabowl to gaiwan to Yixing teapot.

This event included tea tastings of China’s famous teas accompanied by step-by-step demonstrations of Ming and Qing period tea preparation. Below, as a supplement to the almost three-hour long video, I’ve provided a listing of the contents of the presentation (featured in the first half of the lecture), as well as a list of the teas brewed (and how they were prepared).

“History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming & Qing Period”

Link to video

Ming and Qing Presentation Thumbnail.png

Above is just a fraction of what is included in the 30+ slide presentation. Topics discussed were as follows:

  • China Before the Ming Period Tea in the Song & Yuan Period
  • China in the Ming Period
    • Tea in the Ming
    • Famous Kilns
    • Tea Technology: Gaiwan, Kettles, Braziers, Teapots
    • Tea and Globalization in the Ming
  • China in the Qing Period
    • Tea in the Qing
    • Tea Production Art & Craft of the Qing
    • Gong Fu Cha Tea Culture in the Qing and in the World

Teas tasted:

1st Tea: 2014 南糯山生普洱 Nán nuò shān shēng pǔ’ěr, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China (brewed in contemporary reproduction of Ming period Yixing gaiwan)

2nd Tea: 水仙 Shuǐxiān “Water Immortal” Wuyi Mountain yancha oolong, Wuyishan, Fujian, China (brewed in a early 2000s fang-gu-shape Yixing teapot)

3rd Tea: 八仙 Bāxiān “Eight Immortals” Phoenix Mountain dan cong oolong, Chaozhou, Guangdong, China (brewed in a 1990s shui ping hu-shape Yixing teapot)

4th Tea: 正山小種 Zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong, Wuyishan, Fujian, China (brewed in a contemporary Jun-yao-glazed teapot)

5th Tea: Charcoal-roasted 鐵觀音 Tiě guānyīn “Iron Goddess of Mercy” Anxi-style oolong, Nantou, Taiwan (brewed in 19th century-early 20th century Si Ting Hu-shape Yixing teapot)

6th Tea: 野生大葉白茶 Yěshēng dàyè báichá Wild “Big Leaf” White Tea, Fuding, Fujian, China (brewed in contemporary Qing-shape Jingdezhen white porcelain gaiwan)

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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, Green Tea, History, Hongcha, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Oolong, Pu-erh, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting, Vietnam, White Tea, Yellow Tea

Brewing to the best of my abilities: Arranging Da Hong Pao tea leaves and the results

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(IMAGE: Each leaf of Da Hong Pao arranged by size to maximize their potential when fastidiously placed into the teapot)

Dear beloved blog readers,

We tea drinkers learn about tea from various sources. Now-a-days, one doesn’t need to spend much time to find an over abundance of information on tea. From tea blogs to tea shop websites to Youtube videos and all sorts of click-bait health claims that seem to engulf tea knowledge; for the tea drinker, the challenge today seems to be “what information” is valuable as they comb through the deluge of truths, half-truths, and skillfully-crafted marketing material.

As a tea drinker who began his journey before the Internet Age, I have tended to trust the guidance of a teacher and am a natural skeptic of that which I find online (I thank those who read this blog, but, seriously, find an actual person to talk about tea with… You’ll find it infinitely more engaging). As a result, my approach to tea has been shaped by my teachers; people who have dedicated their lives to the study and unwavering exploration of tea.

In around 2009 I began to learn about tea (specifically Chaozhou gong fu cha) from the San Francisco-based tea scholar (and excellent guqin master) David Wong at his then nascent Tranquil Resonance Studio. Working with a tea shop just down the hill in Chinatown and trying to survive the rigors of an attempted Masters/PhD in East Asian History at UC Berkeley, I entered David’s tutelage already “well-steeped” in tea. However, David’s approach to tea (and the path he would take me down) forced me to re-evaluate everything that I knew about the subject, redirecting me towards the historical source of gong fu cha and relying on knowledge of practices that had been handed-down from teacher-to-teacher, often absent from or only hinted at through the canonical texts in tea scholarship.

Along with making me recognize the irrelevance of time an temperature to tea (a topic I will most certainly write about), David exposed me to the importance the arrangement of tea leaves played on producing the perfect brew. Literally going though pounds of tea at his studio in order to get the right flavor, he showed me how the simple act of putting tea leaves into a teapot can have a lasting effect on the end result. From how the leaves are arranged to how the water hits the leaves to how the leaves expand and tumble in the teapot will all determine the flavors of the final brew. Part art and part science, to recognize this was and is the core to understanding the concept of “gong fu cha”.

So why arrange tea leaves? Who has time for that?

In what is probably the earliest mention of tea in a written text, the “Tong Yue (童约)”, written by Wang Bao in 59 BCE during the Western Han dynasty, the author mentions a contract with a servant in which said servant (who was specifically to come from the Bashu area, Sichuan province today, then one of the most prominent centers for tea) was to both procure and brew tea. Probably before this time, but certainly from this time onward, in China, for the well-heeled classes, brewing of tea was almost always done by a servant.

Tea Grinding, by Liu Songnian

(IMAGE: Grinding Tea Leaves by Southern Song dynasty artist Liu Songnain (1155-1218), National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Evidence of the role of the servant (whether a slave, an apprentice, or acolyte) can be seen in many painted depictions of tea gatherings. Tea, although consumed by figures central to these paintings, is brewed often off to the side. In this preparation space, one usually sees a kettle brewing (the look and function of which changes throughout the centuries) and brewing implements, from ewers to tea bowls, grinding stones to eventually teapots. It was in this side register, in a space often out-of-view from those drinking the tea, that the art of gong fu cha was diligently practiced.

Tasting Tea by Wen Zhengming

(IMAGE: Tasting Tea by Ming dynasty artist Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Given the amount of time and attention paid to the preparation, the leaves would have definitely been dealt with a great deal of care (as evidenced through the volumes of texts dedicated to them and their brewing). As tea brewing practices shifted from grinding tea bricks and whipping the powder into a foamy brew (still done in Japanese tea ceremony with matcha or enjoyed in Korea via malcha) to brewing the actual full leaves from the Ming dynasty onward, how one arranged one’s tea leaves in the brewing vessel became more important. Concurrent to this was the explosion of different varieties of tea that were becoming popular, ranging from the various twisted Wuyi yancha (that had become popular by the Song dynasty) to the rolled Tiekuanyin oolong, flattened Longjing green tea, and diverse forms of pu-erh teas (many of which would only become widely popular towards the late Ming and Qing dynasties). With each tea form came a new challenge as each tea leaf would unravel and expand in its own way. Thus came a need to address how one would arrange the leaves to produce the very best brew.

Brewing the “BEST” Da Hong Pao

As a tea drinker, I began to enjoy really fine Wuyi yancha when I was in college. By this point I was already a drinker of many teas, including pu-erh, hongcha (“red tea”, the Chinese name for what is known as black tea in the West), and all sorts of green teas. I even had a dedicated yixing teapot for my favorite tea at that time: Lishan high mountain oolong. Happening upon the Wuyi rock teas (“yancha”) introduced me to new flavors and a new challenge.

With a yancha, the leaves are twisted (an older style of crafting a tea leaf). Because of this, the vessel required to brew them should be flatter since leaves like this will want to expand outward (think of a spring uncurling horizontally). For this reason, yancha can be brewed best in squatter-shaped teapots and gaiwan. When it came time for me to decide upon a teapot for Wuyi yancha, I first chose a low-draft, pear-shaped pot. When I eventually began to specialize in more particular teas in this category, I chose a fang-gu (“仿古”, “ancient shaped”) teapot for the famed Da Hong Pao (“大红袍”, “Big Red Robe”).

As noted, the shape of this teapot is well-suited for this tea: its squat, wide, and the mouth of the teapot (the opening where both the tea leaves and water enter) is wide enough to accommodate the often large tea leaves of the famous tea. Likewise, in the case of this teapot, the clay is thick enough to keep the temperature relatively high (as Da Hong Pao tends to want a higher heat sustained for a longer time).

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(IMAGE: Delicately arranging each leaf of Da Hong Pao with a pair of chopsticks)

When arranging these leaves it is important to keep them horizontal, so as to take advantage of the shape of the pot. In the case of today’s brewing, I tediously sorted every leaf used, arranging them on a cloth from largest to smallest (choosing not to use some of the very smallest of leaves… sorry small leaves… I promise I’ll use you later). After this, I used a pair of pointed chopsticks to arrange the leaves in the teapot (I had pre-warmed the teapot for those who are curious to know).

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(IMAGE: The “pattern” produced by each leaf carefully arranged one on top on another)

The arranging of the tea leaves was an incredibly mindful act. Each leaf was stacked in a way to ensure they opened to create a weave-like network, allowing each their own space and making sure not to create points where leaves above would limit the expansion of those below. The resulting “pattern” was similar to something like a game of Jenga, with layers of leaves above placed perpendicular to those below (with slight variation at times given the natural irregularity of the leaves).

To be specific, the tea was a purported Qi Dan Da Hong Pao (奇丹大紅袍), a Da Hong Pao that is certified to have come from the original location of cultivation within the Wuyi natural preserve in Fujian Provence. The water used was a filtered and boiled New York City-available tap (being very honest here). The result was exquisite.

The flavor was what I wanted in a Da Hong Pao. Only slightly roasty, no hint of charcoal like most modern interpretations of this tea. Spicy but also floral, with notes of sandalwood, carob, and something akin to rose water. What stood out most of all was how thick the mouth feel on this tea was. The finish lasted for hours!

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(IMAGE: The final result: a beautiful brew of Da Hong Pao enjoyed in a Meiji-period blue-and-white teacup)

Having had this tea under less-fastidious means, I could easily note the marked difference that the leaf arranging had on the brewing. Looking into the teapot revealed the truth behind this: the leaves were evenly unfurled, curling and untwisting at the same rate. In taste, this meant no sour or bitter notes, just a clean and direct flavor that was both complex and distinct. Prepared this way, with no corners cut, resulted in what I can easily say was a tea brewed to the best of my abilities.

 

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Oolong, Tea Tasting