Tag Archives: Qingming

Clear and Bright

Looking out my tearoom window, the sky is clear and bright. Peering down upon my wooden tea table, the light casts long shadows. All around me, the world faces sickness and death. All around me, Spring is in full bloom.

On April 4th this year is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié, a day when families in China traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors and the day when green tea picking begins in earnest. While the world has been forced to adjust to the impact of a broad-sweeping pandemic, the traditional, as well as natural cycles still continue.

I offer incense in respect to the dead. I pour cool fresh water into my kettle and set it to boil. I bring together a vintage white porcelain 潮州茶盤 Cháozhōu chápán, 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, and four 品茗杯 pǐn mìng bēi.

The white porcelain is intended to enable the tea drinker to enjoy the unaltered color of the tea liqueur. Alas, in East Asia, white is often seen as the color of death and mourning. The four cups, too, infer this as the number four (四 ) in the Chinese language is a homonym for the word “death” (死 ).

This set up is not typical for me. Rarely do I use four cups. Rarely do I invite the notion of death to my tea table. Yet, it seems fitting. The world is in the grip of death, now seemingly more than ever. However, today is clear and bright. Both forces happening at the same time, not in opposition.

For tea, I bring forth a small handful of 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn. Made up of uniformly curled small leaf buds, this tea was harvested in March of 2019, a week prior to that year’s Qīngmíng festival. Picked this early means that the weather in the mountains surrounding 太湖 Tài Hú in southern 江蘇 Jiāngsū will still be cold.

The young tea buds will still be covered in a coating of silvery hairs (白毫 bái háo). If picked and processed correctly, the resulting flavor of this 清明前 Qīngmíng qián (pre-Qīngmíng) tea will be sweet, complex, and brighter than teas picked later in the year.

Now over a year old, I expect this tea to be a shadow of itself. However, in light of the current state of the world, it will be a taste of life before all of this happened. What will it taste like?

With the water boiled, I rinse the wares, warming them in preparation for making tea. Leaving the lid of the kettle open to allow it to cool down in order to properly brew this delicate tea, I wait and let the heat dissipate. As I wait, I open the window to my tearoom. The sound of birds. Breeze pushing the steam from the mouth of the kettle.

As the water cools, I begin to place the tiny tea leaves into the center of the warmed gàiwǎn, using a thin twig from a willow tree to arrange them evenly along the bottom of the porcelain vessel.

Slowly I pour water along the inner edge of gàiwǎn so as not to directly touch the heap of tea, ensuring that it is able to cool slightly before coming in contact with the tea leaves. The tiny curls of Bì Luó Chūn lift upwards, buoyant for a moment as the water rises in the gàiwǎn.

As I finish pouring water from my kettle, the leaves slowly begin to cascade downwards, spinning and setting at the bottom of the porcelain vessel, occasionally rising and falling again. I leave the lid of the gàiwǎn off and watch this dance play out, admiring how the tiny buds writhe and open, releasing their pale green pigment into the warm water.

A few seconds later and I carefully place the lid atop the gàiwǎn and tilt the cup, pouring its contents from one cup to the next until all are full. I give the gàiwǎn a quick shake and return it back down upon the ceramic surface of the Cháozhōu chápán.

I lift the lid and let the leaves cool. As I place the lid down atop a jade archer’s thumb ring, I marvel in two tiny sprouts that have affixed themselves to the bottom of the lid. Two tiny artifacts from the previous year. Remnants of an early Spring. How much the world has changed since then. How much still remains the same.

I call for my partner to break from her weekend work and join me for cups of tea. The flavor is still vibrant, grassy, intoxicating. Having been stored away for a year, time has not had a dramatic effect on the tiny leaves.

The color of the tea liqueur is bright and clear. A pale green gold against the clean white porcelain. The aroma is sweet like the flowering fruit trees of Spring.

As we finish the first steeping, I continue to brew a second and third.

The leaves open further, unfurling and expanding, offering up a golden hue and lasting flavor.

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

All that is left by the last brew are spent leaves and a fond memory.

As late morning turns to midday, the sun climbs high in the sky, the shadows shorten, the sky becomes clear and bright.

Birdsong beams through canyons of brick and concrete. Breezes bush through blossoms and trees. The scent of tea mingles with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers. Another stick of incense is lit in memory of the dead.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Incense, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

A Field of Flowers

Occasionally, I find myself traveling westward to the (currently warmer) coast of Northern California to hole-up with my family. Away from my collection of teaware, I dip into my more limited selection of wares I’ve left at my parents’ home.

Alas, I don’t fret (too much) as what I’ve left there is quite serviceable. Indeed, one such piece I find myself coming back to is my only gaiwan left on the west coast… a rather fabulous vintage 1980s “famille jaune” porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, vibrantly emblazoned with transfer-printed, hand-tinted butterflies, peaches, and peonies, complete with a large 壽 shòu (“longevity”) character on the inside center.

While I can’t say I’ve owned this piece for a long time, finding it was a matter of sheer disbelief. To find a piece tucked amongst dusty plates and teapots in one of San Francisco Chinatown’s remaining ceramic shops was by luck.

However, when I found it was absolutely unreal. Wiping off the dust it must have accumulated over thirty-odd years revealed bright imperial yellow, electric pinks and vivid blues and greens.

I was instantly in love but when I lifted the lid to reveal the interior of the gaiwan’s cup I was speechless.

With all of my kitschy, vintage Chinese porcelain boxes checked (and then some), I gladly purchased the piece and instantly started making tea with it.

Eventually, I attempted to gift the exuberant gaiwan to a friend, who, either out of guilt or silent desire not to tell me that this piece was “too much” for him, returned it to me.

Regardless, it is now my favorite gaiwan to use, making my returns home a joy.

On this day, April 5th, 2019, I now ponder what will I brew next (and what may be waiting in store). Today is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié (“Clear Bright Festival”). It marks the full emergence of Spring and a period before the rains of Summer.

In China, this is a day to remember one’s ancestors and to surround oneself with their family. For tea drinkers, this is the day that marks the divide between the earliest green teas picked in China and teas picked from here on out. So, perhaps as this year in tea has just begun, so too will this bright gaiwan brew up cup after cup. Only time will tell. Until then, it shall always remain at the ready for my return to my ancestral home.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Tea, Travel