A Tea Addict's Journal

Troubles with a bush

September 30, 2009 · 10 Comments

Recently there’s been some discussion of the nature of dancong online at various places, and one of the topics of discussion was the proper nomenclature of dancong itself.  I was not too convinced by what was being said, simply because some didn’t sound right, so I went and investigated.

The discussion centers around the word “cong” and which character should be used and what it should mean.  I first went to my trusted source, the Hanyu Da Cidian, which is a 12 volume monstrosity and is the Chinese equivalent of the OED.  I first looked up 叢.  Its basic meaning is “group”, and can also mean “a bunch of plants growing together”.  No surprise there.

Then I looked up 欉, which, to my surprise, is NOT in the Hanyu Da Cidian.

Now, of course, since 叢 simplifies into 丛, one would assume that 欉 simplifies into 枞, and it is extremely common to see 单枞 being used as the phrase for the tea we know as dancong.

However, there is a problem, because æžž is also (or perhaps, only) a simplification of the word 樅, which means fir.  When you search for æžž in the dictionary, you’re going to find the definition “fir”, but that’s because you’re actually looking up the word 樅, not 欉, which is what you should actually be looking for.  People write æžž for 欉 because they assume that’s what it is, and indeed it might, but they are two distinct characters and when you search for words using simplified characters, you always run the risk of it returning erronous results because there are multiple “source” words for one simplified character.

Since the Hanyu Da Cidian doesn’t have 欉, I thought I’d look up 單欉 or 單叢, but it seems like the editors of Hanyu Da Cidian are not tea drinkers, and they are not in the dictionary.

So I went to another useful resource for weird words — the Kangxi Zidian, which was edited in the 1710s.  Here, we do find a reference to 欉, and the definition given is quite simple — In Jiangdong (an area roughly corresponding to the region around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, etc), a group of plants growing together is called 欉.  The word, interestingly enough, is recorded as 4th tone in the Kangxi Zidian.  As for its definition for 叢, it is essentially the same as the Hanyu Da Cidian.  There’s no difference, basically.

I think what is clear is the following:

欉 has absolutely nothing to do with the fir tree.  We can strike that from the conversation.

欉 or 叢 have essentially the same meaning.  叢 has a wider range of meanings, but they are unrelated to plants.  For the definition that has anything to do with plants, they are synonyms.  In that sense, you can probably see 欉 as a variant of 叢.

There is absolutely nothing in the definition that implies anything growing from the same root or coming from the same plant.  The only definition given has to do with growth in groups and bunches.  One tree cannot be a 叢 because it is not part of a group, especially if it’s a taller tree that’s growing by itself.  It must be a number of plants, or a bush.

So to get back to our problem then — what exactly does dancong mean?  Aside from the very great possibility that it is simply some romantic, nice sounding name, as is so often the case in Chinese teas, we have the characters to work with.  “Dan” generally means lonesome, single, but can in some cases also mean thin.  Normally, we translate dancong to mean “single bush”.  Perhaps owing to the relatively rocky nature of the growing areas, dancong, as originally harvested, was indeed a collection of leaves from lonely bushes growing on their own.  That, to me, seems like a better explaination than some “single origin” theory, mostly because plants don’t work like that, nor do farmers who plant these crops.  So, instead of translating it as “single bush”, perhaps an alternative would be “lonely bush”, denoting the way the trees grow in the rocky setting.  Unlike tea farms in some other places, dancong trees don’t grow quite so closely and densely.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • coraxjk // September 30, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Reply

    wow. so — correct me if i’m wrong here — are you suggesting that ‘dan cong cha’ originally meant ‘sparse bush tea,’ i.e. roughly equivalent to ‘wildcrafted’ as opposed to ‘plantation-grown’?

    if so, this is the most radically new reading of the term yet proposed. i like it.

  • Maitre_Tea // September 30, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Reply

    This is a very interesting reading of language, and how it was evolved over time. But when you say that Dan Cong is a “collection of leaves from lonely bushes growing on their own,” are you implying that the tea growers would “blend” leaves from these different bushes together…or each batch is specific to a specific tree? Is “commercial-grade” Dan Cong grown in a more conventional plantation style these days, which might give credence to the single-origin theory.

  • MarshalN // September 30, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Reply

    @coraxjk – 

    I don’t know what it meant originally. I only have the words to go by here. I think a good way to think of it is a description of the plants – that they grow in bushes, but isolated from each other, rather than in large groups. Again, I think that’s as much a product of geography as anything else.

    @Maitre_Tea – 

    I think that we project too much of what we believe on to the tea farmers. Other than the case of the original Da Hong Pao, I don’t know of any other instances where such practices are routine of using teas only from one tree. That is a bit of a exceptional case. All teas we drink are blends of some form or another. If you visit a tea farmer in Taiwan or China or India, it’s going to be a blend of leaves that you take home with you. When they harvest, they pluck and they throw it in the basket. They don’t change the basket every time they start plucking a new tree. In all the old texts I’ve read, starting from Lu Yu down to the Qing period works on tea, nobody has ever said anything about only plucking leaves from one tree at a time and using those to make special batches. In fact, most tea trees cannot support a “batch” since they don’t make enough leaves.

  • Maitre_Tea // September 30, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Reply

    So are these modern instances of “single-bush” Dan Cong where the tea leaves are collected from a singular bush a more recent or modern phenomenon?

  • MarshalN // September 30, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Reply

    @Maitre_Tea – 

    If it exists at all, that is.

  • Anonymous // October 1, 2009 at 9:55 pm | Reply

    “If you visit a tea farmer in Taiwan or China or India, it’s going to be a blend of leaves that you take home with you. When they harvest, they pluck and they throw it in the basket.”

    Completely agree. It is quite romantic to imagine happy tea pickers gently plucking only the best leaves from a bush to make a batch of tea. Although such single-batch/grove/bush oolong tea may exist, I am certain that nearly every oolong I’ve ever had – good or bad – has been a blend, and I would posit that most oolongs sold are as well. Different seasons, different picking times, different cultivars of leaves, different bushes…not necessarily a bad thing as differences can complement the brew. Pick leaves from 3 different bushes within 50 feet of each other, oxidize them the same way and brew and I bet they will not taste the same.

    I like your interpretation of dancong as lonely bush, I think it makes sense when one considers the geography and the plant structure.

  • Anonymous // October 3, 2009 at 5:16 am | Reply

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  • jasonwitt // October 5, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Reply

    I’m glad I’m a Pu-erh guy because that’s an easier call. There are single mountain Pu-erhs and there are also wild tree varieties. Then it’s just a matter of finding out whether they’re genuine with that claim. But no one doubts they can be those things. –Teaternity

  • Anonymous // October 19, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Reply

    “In fact, most tea trees cannot support a “batch” since they don’t make enough leaves.”

    Echoing the sensible reply of someone else I trust who is being very honest on this issue.

  • imenstudio // December 17, 2009 at 5:07 am | Reply

    Any speculation can be turned over with a few pictures. Discussion aside, it’s not quite wise to make a comment when you have not laid your own eyes to witness the truth where they trees are.

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