Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.
I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.
As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.
Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.
These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.
Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.
Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.
Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).
Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.
With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.
I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.
The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.
Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.
Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.
Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.
Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.
Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.
The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.
As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.
I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.
Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.
Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.
The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.
The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.
I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.
It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.
As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.
The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.
Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 bì, ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.
In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.
Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.