A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries tagged as ‘history’

Rough thoughts on Oriental Beauty

October 26, 2012 · 23 Comments

I’m working on a paper on Oriental Beauty (dongfangmeiren 東方美人), the highly oxidized oolong from Taiwan. It’s still in nebulous form, but I thought it might be interesting to jot down a few things that I have found so far that are worthy of mention.

The first, and most important, is that the name Oriental Beauty didn’t seem to appear until at least the 1970s. Before that, the tea was called “pengfeng cha”, which some of you know as “bragger’s/liar’s tea”. The reason it was called that was because, supposedly, the tea fetched such a high price that the folks back home in the village (probably Beipu) didn’t believe him, so they called the tea pengfeng cha, and the name stuck.

Now, the question is – when did this happen? I’m sure some of you have read stories about how Queen Victoria drank this tea and thus called it Oriental Beauty. That, I’m afraid, is almost certainly bogus. The earliest use of Pengfeng cha that I have found so far comes from the Japanese period, during the 1930s. The first reliable looking thing that mentioned the tea by name is from a record of a supposed sale that took place during a tea expo in 1932. I don’t think the tea dates to much earlier than that, if at all.

Now, my hunch is that the Japanese were instrumental in helping set up the conditions that were necessary to create this tea. Up to that point, Taiwanese oolongs were traditionally processed, with a Wuyi style “two frying and two rolling” procedure. The oxidation, judging from the amount of time the tea spent in withering, wasn’t very high. It was only a few hours of withering, which I think is pretty low. So, there was definitely withering going on, but it wasn’t a lot of it.

In contrast, Oriental Beauty requires a lot of time of withering – in fact, there’s an extra step, after the initial frying, where the tea is left to sit on its own for a short amount of time with a wet towel on top. The leaves are still hot, so it’s a heated process where the tea is probably oxidizing rapidly, and then only after the tea has cooled somewhat does the rolling begin, maybe half an hour later. This is the crucial step that distinguishes Oriental Beauty from other types of Taiwanese oolongs, and is what gives it its distinctive flavour profile.

I wonder if this process has something to do with the Japanese introduction of black tea to Taiwan during the same period, where Assamica varietal teas were transplanted to Taiwan as the Japanese colonial administrators were trying to compete with Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia for the world tea market. Taiwanese oolong was already a strong exporter at the time, with the US being a big market (imagine that). Taiwanese farmers were sent to learn how to make black tea from others – I wonder if, for example, that some cross-fertilization was happening at that time with regards to this. It is quite clear though that the system of rewards and competition for teas in Taiwan that was originally established by the Japanese turned out to have promoted this tea. That I think there’s no doubt.

It also seems like Oriental Beauty was always an expensive tea, mostly because of the lower volume, and also because it was harder to make. Now this is the only tea that still retained traditional processing methods – most Taiwanese oolongs have changed in the intervening years. Anyone who’s had aged oolong from 30 years ago can tell that things have changed, a lot, for most Taiwanese oolong, but an Oriental Beauty from 30 years ago and now are still processed more or less the same way. That, I think, is an interesting fact in and of itself to us tea nerds.

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A Quintessential Invention

May 11, 2012 · 29 Comments

MadameN and I have co-written a paper and presented it at a local conference on the recent history of tea and tea practices in East Asia, using mostly the Taiwanese/Chinese re-invention of chayi/chadao as an example to illustrate a case where one regional, localized tradition was adopted and re-invented as a national tradition. The full paper, a pretty short affair, is available here, in the tea issue of this quarter’s China Heritage Quarterly. Other things in there might be worth a look too, so please go ahead and take a read.

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The faith in old trees

February 3, 2012 · 11 Comments

Before I go on – it just occurred to me that my blog is now six years old. It isn’t a very long time, but longer than I probably thought when I first started this venture. Thank you all for your continued support.

I’m reading this book called “The Plan for Reviving the Chinese Tea Industry” 中國茶業復興計劃, written by Wu Juenong and Hu Haochuan  in 1935. Wu was a patriot and an agronomist, while Hu was a tea expert who specialized in Qimen hongcha. Back then, the Chinese tea industry was in a real slump, losing out to India, Ceylon, and Japan on the world market, and with the economy in poor shape, the domestic market was also shrinking. War, of course, would soon tear this plan (and any other) to pieces, and the Chinese tea industry would go on a decades long decline until more recently. In this plan, they set out to list the problems of the Chinese tea industry, tried to explain the decline, and proposed things that they thought could help revive the ailing state of affairs. It all makes for a pretty interesting read.

One section that struck me while I was reading though is in the first chapter titled “Irregularities in production, sales, and operations”. In the section on problems in cultivation, the authors listed one issue as “the aging of tea trees.” In our view these days, aging of tea trees is a blessing, not a curse, but of course, their perspective is a little different. I present you the section, roughly translated, below:

4) The aging of tea trees

The cultivation of tea has a long history. Many of the tea trees in existence are either decades old, or so old that we no longer know their age. Although currently we do not yet have the ability to determine at what point does a tea tree’s quality begin to decline and turn bad, but the fact that old tea trees produce poorer quality tea is indisputable. An especially known fact is that the production volume declines and is no longer fit for enterprise. This is a topic worthy of serious research. After all, although we cannot say that a perpetual plant such as tea has any type of “anti-local” effect, but it is clearly observable that there are signs of retardation among plants that have grown from seed to plant for generations on the same plot of land. Sichuan is the origin of the tea plant, but ever since the Tang dynasty whenever one names famous teas, Sichuan is not listed among them. During the Tang and the Song dynasties, among the famous producing regions such as Yonghu (modern day Hunan province), Qinmen (modern day Hubei province), Shuzhou (modern day Anhui province), Guzhu (modern day Zhejiang province), Yangxian (modern day Jiangsu province)… they have all faded from the glories of yore. As for Huoshan in Anhui, or Wuyi in Fujian that have long enjoyed their fame, these are rare and unique among tea producing regions. As for modern day Longjing in Zhejiang, or Huizhou in Anhui, are all latecomers. Qimen, which is part of Anhui, only really became famous for tea in the past few decades.

This passage makes me wonder – clearly, productivity is a concern for older trees, and I think the same thing happens for grape vines, which is why vinters replant their vines every few years. In Taiwan, at least, I know farmers often replant their oolong trees for the same reason, to preserve productivity because younger trees yield more. Yet, if we believe what we are currently told, then old trees = better teas, in which case men like Wu and Hu were, in fact, destroying good teas by chasing after yields.

I think the situation here might be a bit analogous to organic food – oftentimes, organic food can indeed taste better, not necessarily because it is organic, but also because it is farmed with more care and attention from the farmer, whereas the industrially produced stuff gets relatively less care and comes out not tasting as good. Yet, if all the farms in the world go organic, then a lot of people will starve, because the yield from such farms tend to be lower, with more losses and less production because of the very nature of the farming method. Likewise, winemakers often advertise when they use old vines for a wine, labeling it vieilles vignes for example, to let us know that it is made from old vines, with the implication that this makes better wine. Tea makers are also doing that, most notably with puerh but also increasingly with other types of tea, telling us that this or that is made with old tree teas. But old tree teas don’t produce as much, which, of course, is part of the reason why they are more expensive.

I suspect that this day and age, especially after the ravages of collectivization, there are very few old tree teas left in many of the major tea producing areas in China. What’s left are likely to be destroyed, unless held in private hands, so comparison between the two tend to be difficult, if not impossible. With puerh, I think it is safe to say that there’s a difference between old tree and non-old tree teas. Whether that difference is good or not, however, is really up for debate, as different people have different theories. Old trees, however, command much higher prices, even as raw leaves. It does, then, feed back into the self-fulling loop because if you were a tea processor, and you have a kilo each, one of which costs a lot more to procure, you’re likely to put more care into processing the bag that cost more. This, in turn, may result in better tea simply because you were paying more attention, thus fueling the speculation that old tree teas taste better, thus further driving up the prices. Of course, this is all speculation, but it is nevertheless worth thinking about. After all, Wu and Hu noted that there were quality issues that are distinct from yield issues; it’s too bad that they didn’t say what kind of quality problems there were with such teas.

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On Tea and Friendship (III)

December 7, 2011 · 6 Comments

*MarshalN: Last installment, see prior posts for what came before. This is the part where he talks about making tea. At the end he includes a few paragraphs from Ch’asu, but I will post those at some other opportune time. A reminder of the source of this:

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, 1937, New York: The John Day Company, pp. 221-31.


Usually a stove is set before a window, with good hard charcoal burning. A certain sense of importance invests the host, who fans the stove and watches the vapor coming out from the kettle. Methodically he arranges a small pot and four tiny cups, usually smaller than small coffee cups, in a tray. He sees that they are in order, moves the pewter-foil pot of tea leaves near the tray and keeps it in readiness, chatting along with his guests, but not so much that he forgets his duties. He turns round to look at the stove, and from the time the kettle begins to sing, he never leaves it, but continues to fan the fire harder than before. Perhaps he stops to take the lid off and look at the tiny bubbles, technically called “fish eyes” or “crab froth,” appearing on the bottom of the kettle, and puts the lid on again. This is the “first boil.” He listens carefully as the gentle singing increases in volume to that of a gurgle,” with small bubbles coming up the sides of the kettle, technically called the “second boil.” It is then that he watches most carefully the vapor emitted from the kettle spout, and just shortly before the “third boil” is reached, when the water is brought up to a full boil, “like billowing waves,” he takes the kettle from the fire and scalds the pot inside and out with the boiling water, immediately adds the proper quantity of leaves and makes the infusion. Tea of this kind, like the famous “Iron Goddess of Mercy,” drunk in Fukien, is made very thick. The small pot is barely enough to hold four demi-tasses and is filled one-third with leaves. As the quantity of leaves is large, the tea is immediately poured into the cups and immediately drunk. This finishes the pot, and the kettle, filled with fresh water, is put on the fire again, getting ready for the second pot. Strictly speaking, the second pot is regarded as the best; the first pot being compared to a girl of thirteen, the second compared to a girl of sweet sixteen, and the third regarded as a woman. Theoretically, the third infusion from the same leaves is disallowed by connoisseurs, but actually one does try to live on with the “woman.”

The above is a strict description of preparing a special kind of tea as I have seen it in my native province, an art generally unknown in North China. In China generally, tea pots used are much larger, and the ideal color of tea is a clear, pale, golden yellow, never dark red like English tea.

Of course, we are speaking of tea as drunk by connoisseurs and not as generally served among shopkeepers. No such nicety can be expected of general mankind or when tea is consumed by the gallon by all comers. That is why the author of Ch’asu, Hsü Ts’eshu, says, “When there is a big party, with visitors coming and coming, one can only exchange with them cups of wine, and among strangers who have just met or among common friends, one should serve only tea of the ordinary quality. Only when our intimate friends of the same temperament have arrived, and we are all happy, all brilliant in conversation and all able to lay aside the formalities, then may we ask the boy servant to build a fire and draw water, and decide the number of stoves and cups to be used in accordance with the company present.” It is of this state of things that the author of Ch’achich says, “We are sitting at night in a mountain lodge, and are boiling tea with water from a mountain spring. When the fire attacks the water, we begin to hear a sound similar to the singing of the wind among pine trees. We pour the tea into a cup, and the gentle glow of its light plays around the place. The pleasure of such a moment cannot be shared with vulgar people.”

In a true tea lover, the pleasure of handling all the paraphernalia is such that it is enjoyed for its own sake, as in the case of Ts’ai Hsiang, who in his old age was not able to drink, but kept on enjoying the preparation of tea as a daily habit. There was also another scholar, by the name of Chou Wenfu, who prepared and drank tea six times daily at definite hours from dawn to evening, and who loved his pot so much that he had it buried with him when he died.

The art and technique of tea enjoyment, then, consists of the following: first, tea, being most susceptible to contamination of flavors, must be handled throughout with the utmost cleanliness and kept apart from wine, incense, and other smelly substances and people handling such substances. Second, it must be kept in a cool, dry place, and during moist seasons, a reasonable quantity for use must be kept in special small pots, best made of pewter-foil, while the reserve in the big pots is not opened except when necessary, and if a collection gets moldy, it should be submitted to a gentle roasting over a slow fire, uncovered and constantly fanning, so as to prevent the leaves from turning yellow or becoming discolored. Third, half of the art of making tea lies in getting good water with a keen edge; mountain spring water comes first, river water second, and well water third; water from the tap, if coming from dams, being essentially mountain and satisfactory. Fourth, for the appreciation of rare cups, one must have quiet friends and not too many of them at one time. Fifth, the proper color of tea in general is a pale golden yellow, and all dark red tea must be taken with milk or lemon or peppermint, or anything to cover up its awful sharp taste. Sixth, the best tea has a “return flavor” (hueiwei), which is felt about half a minute after drinking and after its chemical elements have had time to act on the salivary glands. Seven, tea must be freshly made and drunk immediately, and if good tea is expected, it should not be allowed to stand in the pot for too long, when the infusion has gone too far. Eight, it must be made with water just brought up to a boil. Nine, all adulterants are taboo, although individual differences may be allowed for people who prefer a slight mixture of some foreign flavor (e.g., jasmine, or cassia). Eleven, the flavor expected of the best tea is the delicate flavor of “baby’s flesh.”

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On Tea and Friendship (II)

December 5, 2011 · 2 Comments


Continued from the last post

In such a congenial atmosphere, we are then ready to gratify our senses, the senses of color and smell and sound. It is then that one should smoke and one should drink. We then transform our bodies into a sensory apparatus for perceiving the wonderful symphony of colors and sounds and smells and tastes provided by Nature and by culture. We feel like good violins about to be played on by master violinists. And thus “we burn incense on a moonlight night and play three stanzas of music from an ancient instrument, and immediately the myriad worries of our breast are banished and all our foolish ambitions or desires are forgotten. We will then inquire, what is the fragrance of this incense, what is the color of the smoke, what is that shadow that comes through the white papered windows, what is this sound that arises from below my fingertips, what is this enjoyment which makes us so quietly happy and so forgetful of everything else, and what is the condition of the infinite universe?”

Thus chastened in spirit, quiet in mind and surrounded by proper company, one if fit to enjoy tea. For tea is invented for quiet company as wine is invented for a noisy party. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. It would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or a cloudy day. Picked at early dawn on a clear day, when the morning air on mountain top was clear and thin, and the fragrance of dews was still upon the leaves, tea is still associated with the fragrance and refinement of the magic dew in its enjoyment. With the Taoist insistence upon return to nature, and with its conception that the universe is kept alive by the interplay of the male and female forces, the dew actually stands for the “juice of heaven and earth” when the two principles are united at night, and the idea is current that the dew is a magic food, fine and clear and ethereal, and any man or beast who drinks enough of it stands a good chance of being immortal. De Quincey says quite correctly that tea “will always be the favorite beverage of the intellectual,” but the Chinese seem to go further and associated it with the highminded recluse.

Tea is then symbolic of earthly purity, requiring the most fastidious cleanliness in its preparation, from picking, frying and preserving to its final infusion and drinking, easily upset or spoiled by the slightest contamination of oily hands or oily cups. Consequently, its enjoyment is appropriate in an atmosphere where all ostentation or suggestion of luxury is banished from one’s eyes and one’s thoughts. After all, one enjoys sing-song girls with wine and not with tea, and when sing-song girls are fit to drink tea with, they are already in the class that Chinese poets and scholars favor. Su Tungp’o once compared tea to a sweet maiden, but a later critic, T’ien Yiheng, author of Chuch’üan Hsiaop’in (Essay On Boiling Spring Water) immediately qualified it by adding that tea could be compared, if it must be compared to women at all, only to the Fairy Maku, and that, “as for beauties with peach-colored faces and willow waists, they should be shut up in curtained beds, and not be allowed to contaminate the rocks and springs.” For the same author says, “One drinks tea to forget the world’s noise; it is not for those who eat rich food and dress in silk pyjamas.”

It must be remembered that, according to Ch’alu, “the essence of the enjoyment of tea lies in appreciation of its color, fragrance and flavor, and the principles of preparation are refinement, dryness and cleanliness.” An element of quiet is therefore necessary for the appreciation of these qualities, an appreciation that comes from a man who can “look at a hot world with a cool head.” Since the Sung Dynasty, connoisseurs have generally regarded a cup of pale tea as the best, and the delicate flavor of pale tea can easily pass unperceived by one occupied with busy thoughts, or when the neighborhood is noisy, or servants are quarreling, or when served by ugly maids. The company, too, must be small. For, “it is important in drinking tea that the guests be few. Many guests would make it noisy, and noisiness takes away from its cultured charm. To drink alone is called secluded; to drink between two is called comfortable; to drink with three or four is called charming; to drink with five or six is called common; and to drink with seven or eight is called [contemptuously] philanthropic.” As the author of Ch’asu said, “to pour tea around again and again from a big pot, and drink it up at a gulp, or to warm it up again after a while, or to ask for extremely strong taste would be like farmers or artisans who drink tea to fill their belly after hard work; it would then be impossible to speak of the distinction and appreciation of flavors.”

For this reason, and out of consideration for the utmost rightness and cleanliness in preparation, Chinese writers on tea have always insisted on personal attention in boiling tea, or since that is necessarily inconvenient, that two servants be specially trained to do the job. Tea is usually boiled on a separate small stove in the room or directly outside, away from the kitchen. The servant boys must be trained to make tea in the presence of their master and to observe a routine of cleanliness, washing the cups every morning (never wiping them with a towel), washing their hands often and keeping their fingernails clean. “When there are three guests, one stove will be enough, but when there are fix or six persons, two separate stoves and kettles will be required, one boy attending to each stove, for if one is required to attend to both, there may be delays or mix-ups.” True connoisseurs, however, regard the personal preparation of tea as a special pleasure. Without developing into a rigid system as in Japan, the preparation and drinking of tea is always a performance of loving pleasure, importance and distinction. In fact, the preparation is half the fun of the drinking, as cracking melon-seeks between one’s teeth is half the pleasure of eating them.

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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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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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The book of tea

November 17, 2009 · 1 Comment

Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, published in 1906 in New York, is still a book that many read when they are looking for something on tea consumption, especially with regards to Japanese tea.  It still floats around in the coffee/tea section of bookstores, and I’ve read it before, very quickly, without thinking much about it.  I just assigned my students that book and we discussed it today.  Having re-read it again, it struck me as not really being about tea at all.  Nor is it really about “zennism” or “daoism”.  It’s about Japan, East Asia, and how Japan is the rightful leader of that part of the world.

His ideas about tea, while not all wrong, are not all quite right either.  It’s too bad that this book probably still wields more influence in terms of common perception of the Japanese tea tradition than almost anything else written on the subject.  It’s amazing what starting earlier gets you.

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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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Lotus flower tea

September 25, 2009 · 3 Comments

I think a lot of us “serious” teaheads tend to dismiss flower infused tea as inferior and bad, and for good reason.  For the most part, these flower infused tea (along with orange peel tea, etc) are made with relatively inferior tealeaves and generally are not very good.  These days they are also often infused with artificial or “natural” flavourings and that sort of thing, further compromising their value.

However, even in the Ming dynasty, people were already doing such things, except their procedures were much more elaborate and difficult, and certainly not meant for large scale commercial production.  Consider the following for a “Lotus flower tea”:

When the sun is not yet risen, open the lotus flowers that are only halfway to full bloom, and put a small amount of fine tea into the center of the flower, and tie the flower loosely with a little raw hemp, and leave it overnight.  Next morning, pluck the flower, pour out the leaves, and use paper to wrap it and roast it dry.  Using this process again, pour the leaves back into another flower, repeat this a few times, and then finally dry it and store it for use.  The fragrance is incomparable.

Try that at home.

Categories: Old Xanga posts