A Tea Addict's Journal

Reading old texts II

February 7, 2008 · 15 Comments

I was flipping through the collection of old tea texts again, and something caught my eye. This is stuff that I saw a few times today with some Ming dynasty (1368-1644) texts. It has to do with water.

Remember those lessons you’ve learned, on or offline, that you should use water that is at “shrimp eye” or “crab eye” meaning that the water hasn’t reached a full rolling boil yet because once you do, the water is “old” and isn’t good for tea anymore?

Well, it seems like people who wrote about tea in the Ming dynasty didn’t agree. In fact, they say that the only water that should be used for tea is stuff that reached a full boil. You shouldn’t brew tea using water that is anything less than a full boil, they say, because in those cases the water would still retain a “water qi” that interferes with the tea. If you boil it out with a rolling boil, then the water becomes fully cooked, and is suitable for making tea.

So who’s right? After all, Lu Yu, of all people, said water should not reach a full boil!

Well, one of the authors explained that there’s a reason for this discrepency. It has to do with, you guessed it, the way tea was brewed. Whereas in the Tang and the Song, tea was ground down and powdered, etc, and sometimes with added incense or other things to enhance the flavour of the tea, water that has reached a full boil will mess with the powdered tea’s texture and taste. That’s why it’s no good. Whereas with the switch to full-leaf tea in the early Ming dynasty, the whole bit about water not reaching a full boil no longer applies. If you leave it underboiled, what you end up is a mixture of water and tea that isn’t quite harmonious. Full boil, with a fire that is “open” (in this case meaning a live fire with charcoal, not a bunch of flameless charcoal that is just very hot) is the way to go. Anything less is not good.

Interesting food for thought. It is important to keep in mind that most of these later tea texts are generally ignored by current day “tea masters” who tend to go back to the few famous ones, such as Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the Daguan Chalun that I talked about last time, and a few others that tend to be more often quoted. However, the fact that there was this change in these rather short and relatively unknown treatises on tea means that there are other theories out there, and given that three or four different texts I read today all say the same thing about water needing a full boil means that this idea probably had wide currency among Ming tea drinkers — even if they were copying each other, the only reason they’ll commit it to paper is if they thought it was right.

Another thing to keep in mind — the teas they were drinking were green teas, maybe slightly roasted, but largely speaking, what we now call green teas. Full boil water anyway. Yup.

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15 responses so far ↓

  • vlad_l // February 7, 2008 at 8:01 am | Reply

    Interesting! Thank you for sharing this information πŸ™‚


  • iwii // February 7, 2008 at 11:44 am | Reply

    Very interesting indeed. I am also systematically boiling my water first, the water tends to be more “neutral” after that, but I never experienced anything like “the qi of the water” to be honest.
    Yet I believe Lu Yu was boiling his water with added salt, which should also increase the boiling point anyway. This adds to the numerous parameters playing here…

  • MarshalN // February 7, 2008 at 11:55 am | Reply

    I think he added salt after boiling the water

  • iwii // February 7, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Reply

    Oh maybe you are right! In fact it is said that the salt should be added “at the beginning” but the discussion about salt is just after the one on water boiling, so it was unclear to me whether it was just before the water boiled or the first thing to do after the water boiled. Maybe my translation isn’t great either, which doesn’t help.

  • osososososos // February 7, 2008 at 1:15 pm | Reply

    list your source? i doubt it’s avail. in English, but it’d still be interesting to know.

    i’m starting to crave fresh green tea. good thing it’s just around the corner…

  • MarshalN // February 7, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Reply

    茶箋 (chajian), by 屠隆 (tu long), and 茶錄 (chalu), by 張源 (zhang yuan), among others. I know for a fact they are not going to be in English, if for no reason other than they are about 3 pages long, each. Until somebody comes out with an anthology of these things translated, you just have to read them in classical Chinese.

    I should add that this doesn’t mean you should boil the water to death. Water still shouldn’t be overcooked, so to speak, as some have cautioned. Yet it is not as lightly heated as Lu Yu would suggest either.

  • lewperin // February 7, 2008 at 6:07 pm | Reply

    Excellent stuff! Thanks very much for digging this up. In a better world, these texts would be available heavily annotated so the reader could be sure of exactly what and how these guys brewed.

    Are you sure, though, that they wrote about green tea? According to what I’ve read, oolong was developed during the Ming.

  • MarshalN // February 7, 2008 at 9:41 pm | Reply

    Lew: They are, actually, heavily annotated in Chinese, but it still doesn’t really explain this.  The fact of the matter is, I don’t think anybody knows for sure, including the editors of this anthology who compiled all these things and dug them up in the first place from really, truly obscure places.

    I think they are writing about green tea.  The leaves are jade-green, as they described it, BUT they are roasted, and they will re-roast teas as time goes on if the teas are getting a little old.  So, maybe this is something that we might recognize as hojicha.  I don’t know for sure.

  • osososososos // February 8, 2008 at 7:47 pm | Reply

    @MarshalN – why not translate them for us? it’s only 3 pages each… πŸ™‚

  • mulcahyfeldman // February 9, 2008 at 1:29 am | Reply

    Although they couldn’t have spelled it out then, could water temperature have something to do with bacterial contamination? I’m assuming the water then came from wells which were susceptible to contamination during rainy seasons or other causes. Maybe they connected boiled water with never becoming ill. Or am I completely off track? Eileen

  • MANDARINstea // February 9, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Reply

    I guess contamination will not be the concern, since well or hard water is the non-fit water to brew tea? Maybe adding salt can inhence the favor of roasted green…. Just my thoughts

  • mulcahyfeldman // February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am | Reply

    @MANDARINstea – 

    @MANDARINstea – 

    What kind of water was used in the dynasties? Rain? If not well water, then what? Branch or creek? And what kind of water do you recommend now Marshaln? I’ve been thinking about water now alot but don’t have a clue. eileen

  • MarshalN // February 10, 2008 at 1:09 am | Reply

    The best water is supposed to be spring water close to the source.  Spring water that’s been through a lot of territory tend to be heavier — more minerals, I suppose.

    That’s what they preferred too in the old days.  Well water is the worst. 

  • MANDARINstea // February 10, 2008 at 1:25 am | Reply

    @mulcahyfeldman – </p

    What I know is high mountain ice melt from spring is one of the choicest. Other source is West Lake area collecting dew every morning from willow leaves in spring time and aging them…. Of course the famous dragon spring water sources around the country.

  • Wesli // July 31, 2008 at 7:10 pm | Reply

    Nice, thanks for the post.

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