Tag Archives: Porcelain

Autumn and the Year Begins to Decay

IMG_2061Autumn marks the steady decline of the year into the chill of Winter. Like a gourd fully ripening on the vine, Autumn always has the most tenuous existence. At once brilliant with its vibrant bursts of color, then falling, collapsing upon itself, broken and rotting.

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The evanescence of Fall is beautiful but bittersweet. In tea, this is celebrated with the joyful use of broken (and often repaired) tea items. In October, one finds the yabure-buro (敗風炉) iron tea kettle brought into the tearoom, distinguished by its broken and tattered iron flange. Often, too, are pieces of lacquer repaired teaware employed, their incomplete and fused-together profiles seem to fit perfectly amidst the contemplation of Autumn leaves and the growing chill of the season.

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On this early October morning, I opt to bring out a small antique porcelain hōhin (宝瓶, handleless teapot). While it gleams a pure white glow in the soft morning light, the broken and repaired edge of its circumference seems right at home in the season, adding character to the otherwise plain piece and giving a glimpse into the story of this little vessel.

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To accompany the small hōhin is a collection of Chinese monochrome porcelain teacups, the size and shape of each being slightly different from the other. Their irregularity seems fitting alongside the other imperfections Autumn brings.

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Repaired with gold lacquer (金継ぎ; kintsugi), the coldness of the white porcelain hōhin is softened by the warmth of the mottled gold mend. How evidence of an injury can humble an individual, so too does the presence of this repair evoke a sense of humility. How Autumn, too, can remind us of how weak we are against the biting cold of Winter, and how all eventually decays with time.

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Yet in Autumn we are also reminded of how the year progressed.

Pulled from a tightly-sealed tea canister where they had remained packed away since Spring are the uneven twists and coils of a roasted 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea).  Revealed for a second time since when the weather was warmer and the world was shining in green and glimmering leaves, the tea seems to infer this season; a “second Spring” amidst the chill of an October day.

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As the kettle comes to a full boil, the tiny world of the tearoom seems to warm and glow.

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The tiny hōhin , initially rinsed and warmed with boiled water, is now filled with the leaves of the oolong tea. Almost instantly, the residual heat of the water within the vessel wakes the tea and its intense floral aroma begins to drift upwards into the air.

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Mere seconds pass and the tea is decanted. With finger tips and thumb holding the tiny vessel, I mindfully and methodically move from one cup to the next and back again.

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As the tea continues to steep, and cup after cup is enjoyed, its color deepens, changes, and fades. As Spring turned to Summer and now to Fall, the world around us, too, transforms. Perhaps we’ve become wiser, maybe a bit jaded. The chill in the air, maybe, feels a bit colder for this reason too. But, in some small way, tea brings us back to center.

What a subtle gesture it is, to enjoy a broken and mended tea vessel during this time of year. To be reminded of our faults and our mistakes, and to still be able to smile. Its not folly but wisdom to break something and repair it again. To patch up the fissures with lacquer and gold. Repaired in such a way, a tea object becomes stronger. Repaired in such a way, we choose not to forget but to celebrate our imperfections.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Humbled by History

IMG_2138In many ways, the path of tea has a humbling effect. Throughout its long history, one can see this repeated many times and in many ways. Sometimes this can be quite literal, as with the small door of a chashitsu 茶室, the nijiriguchi 躙口, in which one must crawl through to enter before accepting a bowl of matcha. To even accept tea is to humble oneself to something created, offered and shared.

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Sometimes the humility of tea can be something quite different, if not more elusive. At times, tea can open one’s mind to new ways of thinking, to new ways of viewing one’s place in this world and in the time they live in. Sometimes this realization can humble oneself to the expansiveness of history and to the minute nature of our own existence.

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Recently, I submitted a small glazed tea jar to be appraised by a group of ceramic experts.  For years, I have used this tea container to store tea, having been gifted the piece by a collector while traveling in Korea. What I had originally believed to be a Northern Song period (960-1127) Dìngyáo 定窯 (Dìng kiln ware) tea jar was put to the scrutiny of the group. Many different appraisals were put forth, some even questioned the object’s veracity (which often is the case given how “accurate” modern fakes can be).

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This morning I received word from one expert, saying that this piece was most likely from the Northern Song period, but was not Dìng. Instead, he posited that it was in fact Yǐngqīng 影青 (literally “Shadow Green”) ware, most likely from a more remote kiln in the Anhui region (located in eastern China, inland and approximately 400 kilometers west of the modern-day metropolis of Shanghai).

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Sitting down for tea this morning and giving a closer inspection of this small cháyè hú 茶葉壺 (literally “tea leaf vessel”), I guess the tell-tale signs were always there. The soft, greenish-yellow hue, the pressed images of a coiled dragon and small língzhī 靈芝 (Ganoderma lucidum) shaped cloud, and the subtle crackle of the glaze; all are characteristic of these early “porcelain-like” ceramics of the Song period Qīngbái 青白 kilns (of which Yǐngqīng is a style of this early porcelain, though the name Yǐngqīng seems to only appear starting in the 18th century).

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This surprising turn of events has since offered a new insight into and appreciation for the piece, of which I had not expected. Real or fake, from one kiln or another, putting an object up against the expertise of respected collectors was a humbling act.

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Rather than feign knowledge, I asked for guidance. Rather than defend a stance, I opened myself up to inquiry and examination. In the end, history revealed itself, as it will continue to reveal itself each time I further inspect this object.

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Whether it is real or fake, new or old, I will continue to treasure (and use) this small tea leaf container. It will remain as a constant reminder to walk this world with humility, and as a subtle encouragement to continue to meditate on this point.

I cannot help but to play upon the words of the thirteenth century Zen master and founder of the Sōtō school (曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū) Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 1200–1253). To investigate history is to investigate the self, and to investigate the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by a myriad of things.

 

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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

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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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EXCLUSIVE: All About Green, Yellow & White Tea

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Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

I am excited to share with you the tasting notes and LIVE video feed from my most recent tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”. Held in the intimate confines of Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this tea gathering offered participants a “three hour tour” (literally three hours) of green, yellow and white teas from all over China, Korea and Japan. Beyond being a highly-caffeinated evening, the tea talk and workshop was also highly-immersive, as I offered up my tips and quips on tea history, production, and brewing styles.

Needless to say, I am forever grateful to both Floating Mountain Tea House and to the folks who attended and made this memorable evening happen. For all those who could not attend, I offer to you now, in all its glory, the full video and tea tasting lineup from “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”!

“All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” (Link to video)

Teas Tasted:

1st Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂甘露 Méngdǐng Gānlù, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
2nd Tea: Spring 2918 西湖龍井茶 Xīhú Lóngjǐng Chá, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
3rd Tea: Spring 2018 六安瓜片 Lù’ān Guāpiàn, Liu An, Anhui
4th Tea: Spring 2018 太平猴魁 Tài Píng Hóu Kuí, Hou Gang Village, Anhui
5th Tea: Spring 2018 야세작 Wild Sejak, Hwagae, South Korea
6th Tea: Spring 2018 かぶせ煎茶 Kabuse Sencha, Nara, Japan
7th Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂黃芽 Méng dǐng huáng yá, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
8th Tea: 2000s 老單芽黃茶 Lǎo Dān Yá Huáng Chá, Yunnan or Sichuan
9th Tea: 2017-2018 芽寶 Yá bǎo, Nannuoshan, Yunnan
10th Tea: 2014 白牡丹茶餅 Bái mǔdān chá bǐng, Fuding, Fujian

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A Gift From Time

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Getting ready for tonight’s tea talk and workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” at Floating Mountain​ Tea House in Manhattan resulted in me finding a sealed canister of an early 2000s 單芽黃茶 (Dān Yá Huáng Chá, literally “Single Bud Yellow Tea”), most likely produced from the tea farms around Pu’er in Yunnan or Meng Ding Shan in Sichuan.

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The tea leaves, which hadn’t see the light of day for over a decade, still had a green and golden hue. They offered a light fragrance of fresh almonds and fall leaves. Upon the first infusion within a white porcelain gaiwan, the tea woke up from its long and gentle slumber, expressing subtle flavors of sweet sugar cane, rose water, and dried apricots.

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Yellow tea (黃茶 huáng chá), unlike green tea, is a bit unusual as it will receive a moderate level of oxidation during what is usually a very labor intensive process. As is the case with many teas, each type of yellow tea has its own very specific processing method. Some yellow teas, like 君山銀針 (Jūn Shān Yín Zhēn, literally “Jun Mountain Silver Needle”) will go through an initial drying (often in shade), a low-heat pan frying (lower than green tea so as not to fully halt enzymatic oxidation), and controlled oxidation, which often involves wrapping the tea leaves in paper to promote oxidation (蒙頂黃芽, Méng Dǐng Huáng Yá , “Meng Ding Yellow Bud” also uses this paper-wrapping method). The tea is then “finished” by a low-heat roasting. Other yellow teas, like 莫干黄芽 (Mò gàn huáng yá, “Mo Gan Yellow Bud”) are processed using full-sun drying and quick, high-heat pan frying, before being hand-kneaded and finished with indirect charcoal roasting.

The general result of these particular processing methods is a tea that is not as bright and grassy as a green tea (think flavors found in teas like 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn, 黄山毛峰 Huáng Shān Máo Fēng, or 龍井茶 Lóng Jǐng Chá), but is more floral and sometimes even raisin-like, akin to some oolong teas. However, given the diversity of leaf types used, the innate flavor given by the differences in climate and soil composition (“terroir”), and processing, each yellow tea ends up having its own distinctive flavor. While categorically smaller and less-known as other tea types, this makes yellow tea an interesting and exciting tea to explore.

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Although far more quiet than its fresh counterparts, this “re-discovered” aged yellow tea spoke volumes. Part history, part romance, drinking this tea both taught me about past production methods and reminded me of how tea was (and still is) a labor of love. How such attention to detail by an unknown “tea master” (the person who makes the tea), resulted in a tea that still has the ability to enchant a tea drinker after almost twenty years since it had been crafted is simply astonishing.

As I’ve said before, tea is a gift. As such, aged tea, such as this one, is a gift from time.

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Stay tuned tea blog readers, as I will be posting notes and video content from tonight’s tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” on the next blog post!

Stay thirsty, stay curious!

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Comparing the Flavor of Tea Can Lead to Greater Understanding

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This morning I was asked what book I might recommend to deepen one’s knowledge of tea. The answer I offered was to just drink tea. While not openly trying to emulate the Chan master Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn 趙州從諗 (778-897), who advised his students to “have a bowl of tea”, I was trying to point the person towards a form of understanding that comes only from direct experience.

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When one simply sits to drink tea, one can learn about the various factors that constitute a tea’s flavor. Weather, soil content, level and evenness of oxidation, even (and especially) the way the leaves were picked and processed will ultimately determine how a tea will taste. In the same way that the events of our own lives will affect our demeanor, our psychological bearing, or even our physical state, the life of a tea leaf can tell a story, even a history.

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Sitting down to brew a series of Wǔyíshān hóngchá (“red tea” from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian), their “stories” were quite apparent. Between two varieties of 赤甘紅茶 (chì gān hóngchá, literally “red sweetness red tea”), the smaller leaves of the 小赤甘 (xiǎo chì gān, literally “small red sweetness”) were considerably sweeter and cleaner in flavor than those of its larger variation, the 大赤甘 (dà chì gān, or “large red sweetness”). Comparing these two teas to a traditionally-smoked 正山小種 (zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong), the tale these teas told were all together quite different.

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Processing played a major part in each of the teas’ distinctive flavor profiles. For the two chì gān hóngchá, the tea leaves were simply picked, withered, rolled, pan-fired, and rolled again before they were dried and made ready to enjoy. This rather orthodox processing helps these teas to retain their natural sweetness that develops through oxidation, revealing flavors akin to that of a baked apple and dried red dates. The smaller, tender leaves of the xiǎo chì gān, with their more delicate sugars, offered flavors that were sweeter and more complex than the larger leaves of the dà chì gān, which were considerably more tannic and floral, resulting in a subsequently drier mouthfeel.

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While the leaf type of the zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng may have appeared to be superficially quite similar to the two chì gān hóngchá, the “finishing” of this tea transformed it into something that is remarkably different. Achieved through a process of slowly smoking the dried tea leaves over a smoldering pinewood ash pit over the course of several days, the tea leaves are imparted with the characteristic flavors dried longan and smokey pine resin. When done well, this processing adds a complex layering of smokiness, balancing the sweeter fruit notes that naturally occur in the tea leaves with an almost peat-like quality found in a fine Islay Scotch whisky. In the case of this particular tea, the interplay of these robust and subtle flavors remained from the first steeping all the way through the last, becoming lighter, sweeter, and more delicate with each subsequent brewing.

 

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In an approach like gong fu cha, one is able to examine the leaves of a tea, take in its aroma, sip and savor its liqueur. Through this process, rudimentary know-how is slowly gained and one’s abilities to better understand a tea are eventually developed. While this may take years, the “knowledge” gained through direct experience becomes something beyond words on a page or anecdotes shared between a teacher to a student. It becomes a flavor that lingers in your psyche, a memory embedded in your action. You can always open a book, but to be able to listen to what tea can tell you takes discipline, patience, and a curious mind.

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In response to being asked about what books, podcasts, and videos I  have enjoyed for learning about and expanding my knowledge on tea, I offer this short list to you, my beloved readers. While certainly not comprehensive, for those just beginning their journey in tea, it is a wonderful “first step”.

Enjoy!

Books

Baisa-ō , and Norman Waddell. The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto. Counterpoint, 2008. (Link)

Hirota, Dennis. Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path. Asian Humanities Press, 1995. (Link)

Mair, Victor H., and Erling Hoh. The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson, 2009. (Link)

Sadler, A. L. Cha-No-Yu: the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle, 2001. (Link)

Sanmi, Sasaki. Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)

Sen Sōshitsu. The Japanese Way of Tea: from Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū. Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2000. (Link)

Shigenori, Chikamastsu. Stories from a Tearoom Window: Lore and Legnds of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)

Yoo, Yang-Seok. The Book of Korean Tea: a Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony. The Myung Won Cultural Foundation, 2007. (Link)

Zhang, Jinghong. Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. University of Washington Press, 2014. (Link)

Podcasts

Chinese History Podcast – “History of Tea” by Laszlo Montgomery (Link to Part 1 of 10)

Talking Tea: Conversations About Tea and Tea Culture by Ken Cohen (Link to homepage)

Videos

<<茶,一片树叶的故事>> (“Tea, The Story of a Leaf”). CCTV, 2013. (Link to Episode 1 of 6, in Chinese)

Gong Fu Tea|chA by So Han Fan, YouTube channel Tea House Ghost (Link to Episode 1 of a continuing series)

 

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Happy Interdependence Day

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When I was beginning my “training” in zen practice (sesshin, 接心, or also 摂心/攝心 literally “touching the heart-mind”) on a warm 4th of July years ago, a Buddhist friend of mine wished me a happy “Interdependence Day”. Slightly perplexed, he responded by noting that rather than celebrate our independence, our isolation from the world, it would make more sense to remind ourselves that we are never alone, nor completely dependent. Everything is connected and does, in part, rely upon one another to exist.

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Whether it’s a thought that arises or a great nation; something came before that allowed it to exist, and when it passes, it will transform into something else. In this vein, we are constantly shaped by our environment, not for better or for worse, but just naturally, without judgement (the judgement is extra).

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As I sit and ponder on this concept, I bring my thoughts towards tea. Paying homage to the concept of interdependence, I have chosen to make tea, a fine matcha, using a late 15th century Vietnamese teabowl decorated in the fashion made popular by the Ming court in China. The chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) and chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) are both Japanese in origin, and the tea caddy, a cloisonné incense container, is 20th century Chinese.

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Motifs of flowers and butterflies are abundant, a fine reminder of cultures’ ability to constantly cross-pollinate, making the garden of the world more beautiful and giving it life.

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The teabowl, pulled from the famed 15th century Hội An wreck in the 1990s, revealed to the world a diversity of design and eclecticism of a past culture that rivals any contemporary civilization. The design, a with loose arabesque scroll and foliate motif culminates in a beautiful peony flow, blossoming in the center of the bowl.

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Painted in a cursory style, the flower is reminiscent of those favored in Ming China, the then-superpower of East Asia during the 15th century. However, the local touch shines through, shown in the distinctive grey-blue cobalt commonly used in Vietnam during this time. Pools of ferrous-colored purple bleed through, giving the image of the flower a depth and texture that is quintessentially of this period. The light circle around the image not only frames it but imparts a halo-like glow.

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The history of this teabowl does not end with its connection between Vietnam and Ming China of the 15th century. As tea, namely through the practice of tea ceremony (茶の湯, chanoyu), grew in popularity in Japan during the 16th century, this style of teaware became immensely popular with tea people.

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Favored for its elegant simplicity, Anam-yaki (安南焼, literally “Southern Peace ceramics” or “Vietnamese-ceramics”) was highly-collected by tea people of the late Muromachi and Edo periods, and highly-reproduced by Japanese artisans during the popularization of the tea ceremony. Unlike Chinese, Korean, or the native-produced chawan of Japan, Anam-yaki teabowls were a perfect balance of lightness, refinement, and rusticity that the masters of wabi-cha favored.

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The bright, electric-green foam of the fresh matcha contrasts against the clean, white interior of the Vietnamese teabowl, in a luminescent glow that seems to radiate outward. The deep concave of the bowl, too, adds to this, creating a striking shadow against the soft, dappled foam that rests within the chawan.

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After all the matcha has been enjoyed, the bowl empty and cleaned, one can turn it over to appreciate the dark “chocolate”-colored foot of the chawan. Yet another distinctive feature of Vietnamese teabowls, it showcases the nature of interdependence, that one culture can be influenced by another yet still celebrate that which makes their own culture unique.

In the mélange of an international history, the mixture of cultures creates a beautiful gumbo that produces inspiration, that produces art. In tea, there are no politics, just moments to appreciate one’s inter-connectedness. On this day, a happy Interdependence Day, let’s all celebrate in that.

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To all my readers of Scotttea, a blog begun by a son of immigrants, for a world of a thousand cultures, I offer this post in celebration of our interdependence. May we continue to remain strong in our diversity and love of inclusion, whether it be the simple inclusion of the occasional “matcha post” on an otherwise gong fu cha blog, or the inclusion of others into this global family. Let us not be defined by the borders on a map but by the boundlessness of our hearts.

My deepest thanks and continued gratitude to share with you.

 

 

 

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