A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from November 2011

On Tea and Friendship (I)

November 30, 2011 · 6 Comments

I’ve been reading books on tea again in a new project that I’m working on that will, one day, end up as a book on the history of tea practices in East Asia.  One of the things that I’ve come across recently is Lin Yutang‘s writing on tea in his book The Importance of Living. He’s one of my favourite writers, known for his witty prose and incisive comments. I thought it’s worth transcribing them here, since this book is not easily found in libraries these days, I think, and seems to be still under copyright (although there’s a free copy floating around on some website). Do keep in mind that this was originally written in English. Since it’s a bit long, I’ll split them into three posts. I’ve preserved all his romanization of Chinese names and other idiosyncrasies.

Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470-1524), Shimingtu 事茗圖, ink on paper (The Palace Museum, Beijing, China).

IV. On Tea and Friendship

I do not think that, considered from the point of view of human culture and happiness, there have been more significant inventions in the history of mankind, more vitally important and more directly contributing to our enjoyment of leisure, friendship, sociability and conversation, than the inventions of smoking, drinking and tea. All three have several characteristics in common: first of all, that they contribute toward our sociability; secondly, that they do not fill our stomach as food does, and therefore can be enjoyed between meals; and thirdly, that they are all to be enjoyed through the nostrils by acting on our sense of smell. So great are their influences upon culture that we have smoking cars besides dining cars, and we have wine restaurants or taverns and tea houses. In China and England at least, drinking tea has become a social institution.

The proper enjoyment of tobacco, drink and tea can only be developed in an atmosphere of leisure, friendship and sociability. For it is only with men gifted with the sense of comradeship, extremely select in the matter of forming friends and endowed with a natural love of the leisurely life, that the full enjoyment of tobacco and drink and tea becomes possible. Take away the element of sociability, and these things have no meaning. The enjoyment of these things, like the enjoyment of the moon, the snow and the flowers, must take place in proper company, for this I regard as the thing that the Chinese artists of life most frequently insist upon: that certain kinds of flowers must be enjoyed with certain types of persons, certain kinds of scenery must be associated with certain kinds of ladies, that the sound of raindrops must be enjoyed, if it is to be enjoyed fully, when lying on a bamboo bed in a temple deep in the mountains on a summer day; that, in short, the mood is the thing, that there is a proper mood for everything, and that wrong company may spoil the mood entirely. Hence the beginning of any artist of life is that he or anyone who wishes to learn to enjoy life must, as the absolutely necessary condition, find friends of the same type of temperament, and take as much trouble to gain and keep their friendship as wives take to keep their husbands, or as a good chess player takes a journey of a thousand miles to meet a fellow chess player.

The atmosphere, therefore, is the thing. One must begin with the proper conception of the scholar’s studio and the general environment in which life is going to be enjoyed. First of all, there are the friends with whom we are going to share this enjoyment. Different types of friends must be selected for different types of enjoyment. It would be as great a mistake to go horseback riding with a studious and pensive friend, as it would be to go to a concert with a person who doesn’t understand music. Hence as a Chinese writer expresses it:

For enjoying flowers, one must secure big-hearted friends. For going to sing-song houses to have a look at sing-song girls, one must secure temperate friends. For going up a high mountain, one must secure romantic friends. For boating, one must secure friends with an expansive nature. For facing the moon, one must secure friends with a cool philosophy. For anticipating snow, one must secure beautiful friends. For a wine party, one must secure friends with flavor and charm.

Having selected and formed friends for the proper enjoyment of different occasions, one then looks for the proper surroundings. It is not so important that one’s house be richly decorated as that it should be situated in beautiful country, with the possibility of walking about on the rice fields, or lying down under shady trees on a river bank. The requirements for the house itself are simple enough. One can “have a house with several rooms, grain fields of several mow, a pool made from a basin and windows made from broken jars, with the walls coming up to the shoulders and a room the size of a rice bushel, and in the leisure time after enjoying the warmth of cotton beddings and a meal of vegetable soup, one can become so great that his spirit expands and fills the entire universe. For such a quiet studio, one should have wut’ung trees in front and some green bamboos behind. One the south of the house, the eaves will stretch boldly forward, while on the north side, there will be small windows, which can be closed in spring and winter to shelter one from rain and wind, and opened in summer and autumn for ventilation. The beauty of the wut’ung tree is that all its leaves fall off in spring and winter, thus admitting us to the full enjoyment of the sun’s warmth, while in summer and autumn its shade protects us from the scorching heat.” Or as another writer expressed it, one should “build a house of several beams, grow a hedge of chin trees and cover a pavilion with hay-thatch. Three mow of land will be devoted to planting bamboos and flowers and fruit trees, while two mow will be devoted to planting vegetables. The four walls of a room are bare and the room is empty, with the exception of two or three rough beds placed in the pavilion. A peasant boy will be kept to water the vegetables and clear the weeds. So then one may arm one’s self with books and a sword against solitude, and provide a ch’in (a stringed instrument) and chess to anticipate the coming of good friends.”*

An atmosphere of familiarity will then invest the place. “In my studio, all formalities will be abolished, and only the most intimate friends will be admitted. They will be treated with rich or poor fare such as I eat, and we will chat and laugh and forget our own existence. We will not discuss the right and wrong of other people and will be totally indifferent to worldly glory and wealth. In our leisure we will discuss the ancients and the moderns, and in our quiet, we will play with the mountains and rivers. then we will have thin, clear tea and good wine to fit into the atmosphere of delightful seclusion. That is my conception of the pleasure of friendship.”

*By chess he likely means weiqi.

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937, New York: The John Day Company, pp. 221-31. (to be continued)

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Small pots

November 24, 2011 · 12 Comments

One of the most common things I’ve seen asked on forums is where to find small pots. By small, I mean pots that are under perhaps 60ml or so in volume. I think there’s certainly something to be said about using pots that are not overly large. For example, one person could hardly drink enough tea to justify using a pot that’s over 200ml. That’s huge, and will require lots of leaves and probably longer and fewer infusions. If you fill a 300ml pot with 1/3 full of dry leaves, that’s probably 20g or more, which might not kill you, but will certainly cause caffeine highs and other undesirable outcomes. So, there’s something to be said about small pots.

Small pots also have another benefit which older tea texts claim exist, which is that they retain the flavour of the tea better than large pots. Whereas large pots are seen to allow a tea’s qi to float out of the pot, smaller pots will retain it within its body and, presumably, deliver it to your cup. On a more practical note, small pots use less leaves, are relatively easier to control when brewing, and are easier to handle, so there’s something to be said about small pots.

I think, however, that below a certain size small pots become very difficult to use. Mind you, I have a lot of them – some as small as 30 or 40ml in volume, but I almost never use them, and have them around mostly as curiosity pieces. The reasons are really twofold. The first is that small pots, once they are below a certain size, actually start getting harder to use again. The amount of water you can pour in there is small, and therefore the room for error is also smaller. For leaves that expand a lot, you really can’t use very many leaves at all, and the pots often will have lids bulging out simply because the leaves have soaked up water. I also find them to be slightly unsatisfying – perhaps that’s the caffeine addict in me talking, but I find a pot between 80-120ml to deliver the right amount of tea for me, whereas pots that are smaller have trouble doing that.

Moreover, they are not very suitable for certain teas, unless you’re interested in crushing the leaves. Wuyi yancha, for example, or dancong, are likely to have leaves that are too large for a small pot to handle whole. Even some puerh will be too large, and require serious breakage for a small pot of, say, 50ml in capacity.

Also, and this is quite important, I think tea really isn’t meant to be a one-person consumption affair. It’s meant to be shared, probably in a few cups with different people. Drinking alone is common in the West, but less so in Asia. Which is why I think pots that are overly small are harder to find – they limit the number of people who can share in the cup. Some are only as big as one small cup of tea – such as my pot with stitched lid, but that means I can’t use that pot as soon as I have a guest, or even if I just want to share it with MadameN. That, I think, is deeply unsatisfying.

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What others drink

November 9, 2011 · 4 Comments

The office I’m in right now has an interesting policy – spent tea leaves, along with other things solid but wet, are discarded in a little sieve that sits in the communal sink. So, whenever I clean out my cup full of leaves, I throw the leaves in there and rinse the cup out. Among the side benefits of this system is that I get to see what other people drink.

Not too surprisingly, the only thing that comes out of people’s cups, at least when it’s tea related, tend to be greens or very light oolongs. There are a few supposed tea junkies in the office (your truly excepted, of course), but I generally don’t see any real tea activity here. Maybe they drink it at home, but if they do, they probably stay up late, given that office hours in Hong Kong tend to end at 6pm. When people throw away tea leaves, they are usually green tea of some kind or another, and usually not the high priced stuff that are easily identifiable – longjing or biluochun. More likely, they’re some unidentifiable maofeng or some such. I also seem a fair amount of green oolongs of various types. Not surprisingly, no puerh at all. While someone has an “old tree” puerh cake sitting on her desk, no doubt a cooked tea from the yellow coloured label, it has, as far as I can tell, never been moved since I arrived a few months ago, never mind drunk. This confirms what I always know – puerh, even in Hong Kong, is strictly for the aficionados or those going to yumcha.

Categories: Teas

When repairs make things better

November 3, 2011 · 10 Comments


Sometimes repairs can make the original better, for example here, with this little lid that was broken


This is a very old technique that is no longer practiced, except for perhaps a few old people in China and Japan. They are, essentially, nails that sink their teeth into the clay and keeps two parts together. Of course, you need a clean line and not a messy break with lots of little pieces, but if you have that clean line, it is actually possible to piece the thing back together without too much agony. The result almost improves on the original and gives the pot an aesthetic that it would not have on its own.


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