Tag Archives: Porcelain

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

A Voyage Upon a Tea Boat

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, February is marked by the long continuation of Winter’s grip. Here from the vantage point of my tea room window, overlooking the flurry of a snowstorm overtaking New York City, I cannot help but want to be indoors, nestled against near the warmth of a central heater, and tucked beside a boiling kettle and teapot. I, for one, find days like this quite inspiring for making tea. As a sort of “forced” predicament, snow days tend to make me venture inwards, both inside and into my mind. As always, tea follows.

On this particular day, kept indoors due to inclement weather, I set my kettle to boil and pull out a trusty 茶船 chá chuán, literally “tea boat”. But, what is a “tea boat”, pray tell? I thought I was remaining inside… Who would want to set upon an ocean voyage in such a cold and stormy day? Fear not… a “tea boat” is not quite what it seems.

Rather than a nautical vessel, a “tea boat” is a “warming” vessel! Constituting of an open shallow bowl, this enables the tea brewer to pour water into the teapot and then over the teapot, allowing one to warm the teapot from both the inside and outside! As one continues to do this, steeping after steeping, the water in the tea boat begins to climb up the surface of the teapot. If skillfully done, this water will retain its heat and help to “push” additional flavors out of each subsequent brews. Especially on cold days, this is essential, as teapots can cool down considerably by the latent cold air.

Over the many years I’ve been practicing gong fu cha, I’ve acquired several chá chuán, each with their own particular qualities. My very first was, like many of us beginning in tea, a simple porcelain rice bowl. Not pictured, I eventually gave this away to a tea friend. In its stead, I replaced it with a Yixing tea boat, found in the early 2000s at San Francisco’s Imperial Tea Court. Compared with its porcelain predecessor, the Yixing tea boat is ideal for using for brewing tea. The heat retention qualities of Yixing clay means that the water within the its walls remains hot over many “pour-overs”. Similarly, like the Yixing teapots it heats, over the years, with regular use, the clay has seasoned and attained a “jewel-like” patina.

Other tea boats I’ve collected throughout the years offer a variety of different brewing experiences. A Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white porcelain piece gifted to me by a dear friend and antiques collector is what I use in cooler days as it is more shallow and the water it keeps cools at a faster rate. Conversely, when I opt not to pour water over the teapot, I often use this dish to practice 干泡法 gàn pào fǎ (lit. “dry brewing method”). In this way, this piece is quite versatile.

In the Autumn months I use an ancient Chinese celadon bowl, the circumference of which has been broken. While still functional as a chá chuán, the imperfection of this piece is a poignant reminder of the effects of time and the ephemeral qualities of everything in this world.

Similarly, on nights set to a full moon, I often prefer to use another piece of ancient Chinese ceramics. In this instance, a large white teabowl from the Song period (960-1279) becomes a perfect complement to the big bright moon that lights the night sky.

When I step out into the world, I find other objects to use as tea boats. When I conduct tea meditations at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I use a piece of Japanese 懐石 kaiseki ware, skillfully repurposed by the tea house’s owner to become a beautiful tea object. While it functions perfectly as a tea boat, the fact that it is essentially a “found object” does not escape me. This, too, adds to the meditation, a worldly object used mindfully, a roof tile polished until it becomes a jewel!

An appreciation of chá chuán would not be complete until I mention the rather elusive and somewhat “endangered” 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán, the Chaozhou tea boat. Sometimes referred to as a 茶盤 chá pán, “tea tray”, the Chaozhou tea boat is made up of two pieces, a perforated “tray” that sits atop a deep basin. Originally made of ceramic or metal, these pieces are generally only large enough to fit a small Yixing teapot and, maybe, just three small tasting cups.

Once a common object in the everyday tea set of the inhabitants of the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province, over the years, the Chaozhou tea boat/tray became harder to find, often replaced by “fancier” and “splashier” bamboo, stone, and plastic “tea trays” (茶盤 chá pán). However, as people become increasingly interested in tea’s history, this older form, too, has seen a return in popularity, with modern replicas and contemporary re-imaginings appearing on the market.

So, as you cozy-up close to your tea set today to brew a hearty pot of tea, perhaps you’ll invite a tea boat along. As you sail these seven seas of a myriad of teas, this vessel may prove its worth to you. If you haven’t yet used one, perhaps you can “adopt” and “adapt” an object. Otherwise, use this “appreciation” as your guide.

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

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

When Drinking Tea, Remember the Source

A week ago I found myself slowly crawling out of a moment of stagnation. Facing writers block and feeling uninspired, I sat in my meditation room, the bright midday sun coming through a West-facing window. Caught in this moment, I decided to reconnect with my oldest “tea brother”, who I met years ago in college and who is now running his own tea business and tea house in Austin, Texas.

Rather than chat over the phone as we often do, he was busy unloading a new shipment of 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr (“raw” puer). Using this moment to virtually “drink tea” with my comrade, I decided to pull out a sheng puer of my own, a wild sheng puer picked in 1993, one I had been aging since my early days as a tea person and one I had acquired when I was working with Red Blossom Tea Company in San Francisco.

With tea and teaware set out in the warm light of the day, I began the process of making tea.

Paying homage to my days with Alice and Peter Luong, I chose to use a fine aged 硃泥 zhūní (“cinnabar clay”) Yixing teapot, undoubtedly procured by their father in the mid-1990s.

The tea leaves, placed in a 白銅 báitóng (“white copper”) and jade-accented leaf-shaped tea leaf-viewing vessel, the dark, curled leaves hinted at their wild nature, uneven, irregular and unpretentious.

I pause before I settle the leaves into the teapot just to breathe.

Once inside the red walls of the Yixing ceramic, a sense of anticipation comes over me.

My iron kettle comes to a boil and I pour water over the leaves.

Closing the teapot, what will emerge from this crucible is a mystery. I allow for a few minutes to pass to allow the tea to fully “wake”.

Pouring the tea out reveals a wonderful aroma. In the small space of my meditation room, abundant flavors of earth, of a dark forest floor, sweet incense, and wet stone rise into the air. Almost instantly I am taken back to the first moment I sat for tea, when everything was still new, when with every step I was still learning. It was humbling.

Just then, an old saying crossed my mind, one that a mentor of mine once taught me: 飲水思源 Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán, “When drinking water, remember the source.”

As I sat for tea, my mental blocks finally cleared, I contemplated this, perhaps to ask 飲茶思源 Yǐn chá sī yuán, “When drinking tea, remember the source.”

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Before the First Light of the New Year

Weeks of preparation has led to this moment. December has ended and a whole year has passed by. In the darkness of the early morning, during the hour of the tiger (4am), water is drawn and brought into the tearoom. Huddled by the soft glow of charcoal nestled in a low mound of ash, a kettle is brought to a boil; the first of the new year.

Despite the humble surroundings, a celebratory air is about as I sit with my partner before a small assemblage of objects for making tea. A 黒楽 kuro-Raku (black Raku) teabowl is brought out of storage. A 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop) made from a cut piece of bamboo is placed upon it.

Tea is mindfully measured-out and placed into a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume (“kōaka” tea caddy), forming a small hill of powdered 抹茶 matcha within its glossy interior.

Set together before my partner and I, it is a simple affair. A night of revelry and meditation for the new year has us both excited and relaxed, ready to enjoy tea. Set to the light of a covered candle, everything in the tearoom seems muted.

The red lacquer appears like deep crimson. The black of the Raku teabowl feels like a dark, bottomless void.

The bright, electric green matcha appears hidden within the cavernous hollow of the ceramic tea vessel, only coming to life when it is briskly whisked into a foam froth.

Passed to my partner, she accepts the first bowl of tea for the year. Set upon a brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (silk cloth for holding precious teaware), the warmth of the tea can still be felt, radiating through the thick fabric, the pattern upon which is 紹紦利休こぼれ梅文様 shōha Rikyū kobore ume mon’yō (“spilling ume/plum blossoms”, the favored symbol (文様) of Rikyū).

Savoring the bowl of tea brings a moment to pause before the new year ahead, remembering the year that has passed. The final dregs of tea are sipped, leaving a soft residue in the teabowl to admire.

In the first light of the first new year’s day, light finally crawls into the tearoom. Together we enjoy the quiet and the inspection of a small red and blue 染め付け sometsuke (Japanese blue-and-white porcelain) 香合 kōgo (incense container).

Within it, a painted vista. A boat on a horizon. Friends coming home.

To all the world, I offer up a bowl of tea. For peace. For compassion. For the deepening of all our practice. For a happy new year.

Thank you for reading. May you be inspired to share a moment of tea with those you love.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

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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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