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Immortal's Palm Tea

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay is dedicated to Frank Hadley Murphy, author of The Spirit of Tea, for his kind introduction to the poet Li Bo for which I am most grateful. Murphy and his admiration for the poet informed and inspired my work on Preface and Poem, Li Bo’s inimitable verse on tea.

Li Bo 李白 (a.k.a. Li Bai, Li Taibo 李太白, 701-762 CE) was one of the greatest poets of the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), a golden age renowned for its literature and fine verse. Celebrated for his love of wine, he composed many rhymes about the moon and drinking. Such was his adoration of both, it was even said that he drowned reaching drunkenly for the orb’s shimmering reflection in the water. Though he wrote much about wine, only a single poem devoted to tea remains from his oeuvre. This is a story about how that tea poem came to be written and about the timbre of a poet who is still greatly admired to this day.

It was the rare occasion when Li Bo drank alone. As one of the most famous poets of his day, he was hardly ever by himself, especially when traveling. Yet on one deserted night, with none but the moon and his silhouette for company, he wrote in easy solitude of wine and reunion under a distant starry sky.

月下獨酌        Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

花間一壺酒      Amidst flowers with a pot of wine,
獨酌無相親      I drink alone, companionless.
舉杯邀明月      Raising a cup, I invite the bright moon
對影成三人      To add my shadow, and we become three.
月既不解飲      But the moon does not drink
影徒隨我身      And the shadow simply follows me.
暫伴月將影      Moon and shadow are but fleeting partners,
行樂須及春      Yet one must find joy in life.
我歌月徘徊      As I sing, the moon lingers;
我舞影零亂      I dance, and the shadow stumbles after.
醒時同交歡      While sober, we shared our happiness;
醉後各分散      Now drunk, we go our separate ways.
永結無情遊      Forever bound, roaming without a care,
相期邈雲漢      We will meet again beyond the Milky Way.

For the poet, the moon was an inconstant companion, waxing and waning, and disappearing altogether, like a departed friend, only to reappear, long lost and warmly embraced. Looking at the moon was an expression of longing, a yearning for home, and the lonely search for faded memories. Li Bo was a master of simplicity, and in the poem "Pondering in the Quiet Night," the moon was the mirror to his soul:

床前明月光      Before the bed, bright moonlight
疑是地上霜      Like frost on the ground.
舉頭望明月      Raising my head, I gaze at the clear moon.
低頭思故鄉      Lying back, I think of home.

Li Bo was usually surrounded by friends and admirers who welcomed him everywhere, feasting him with sumptuous foods and rounds of fine wine. He was always encouraged to drink, to loosen his poet’s tongue and top the last verse sung. To him, imbibing and inebriation were familiar pastimes and among his favorite themes, for he wrote many poems dedicated to drink and all its muzzy pleasures. An excerpt from his famous "Bring in the Wine" describes one night as he caroused with Daoist friends and praised their gustatory excess in fervent words that turned from breathless yearning to certain destiny:


… Boil the mutton, butcher the ox, all for joy!
Muster a draught of three hundred cups.
Master Cen and Master Danqiu,
Bring in the wine, the ceaseless cups.
Just one more song for you,
Please just listen closely.
Bells and drums, delicacies and jade? All nothing!
I just want one long binge, not sobriety!
Old sages and worthies? All forgotten!
Only great drunks leave behind their names …

Li Bo was an exemplar in a long line of artists for whom wine was their muse. He was inspired by its fragrant scent, its soothing taste, its dizzy release from convention. Enlightened by wine, he chanted his songs, revealing truths in flashes of insight and scintillating verse, while holding communion with the heavens. For Li Bo, the aesthetic power of drink was a seduction. Siren wine was the path to freedom, the very way to unfettered creation.

As he was too famous to be ignored, officialdom sought his company, knowing his literary light reflected well on them. The palace too sought his presence, doting on his every word. But he cared nothing for high office or its company. His friend Du Fu wrote "Eight Immortals of Drink," a poem that illustrated Li Bo’s challenging response to one imperial command:


Drunks often love to run and hide,
Like Li Bo, who writes a hundred poems on just one pint.
Dozing in a wine shop in Chang’an;
The emperor summons him, but he won’t board the palace barge,
Declaring, “I am the Immortal of Wine!…”

When he deigned to appear at court, his drunken antics earned Li Bo enemies. Careless and irreverent, his poetry offended the emperor’s favorite, and the wayward poet was dismissed from imperial service. Freedom suited him, and he traveled far and wide. For Li Bo, traveling was a way to engage nature, to explore its phenomena and discover from within and without its transcendental forms. Natural landscapes of overwhelming majesty spurred him to delve beyond the material world, inspiring him to write the simple but profoundly moving words of "Shangyang Terrace":

山高水長      Towering mountains, great rivers;
物象千萬      The forms of things are myriad.
非有老筆      Compelled to wield my old, worn brush,
清壯可窮      I ponder their pure spirit.

His wanderlust was described as a Daoist desire “to return east to Penglai,” the eternal isles, and a wish to “ride with winged immortals to Cinnabar Hill,” the alchemical source of everlasting life.

Even when roving, Li Bo avoided officials. Journeying south, he met with friends in towns and cities along the way. Each day was the same. Returning nightly from drunken celebrations, hung over and drawn, he revived midday and headed out again for another round of carousing, carefully skirting the nighttime haunts of officials, seeking instead the discrete corners of the pleasure districts or the incognito of rustic inns. Away from urban centers, the rural tracks neatly covered him from overbearing bureaucrats and unwanted invitations.

Sometimes, he lived in temples and monasteries. Taking sanctuary among abbots and monks, he stayed in their guest quarters, coming and going as he pleased, returning in time to monastic calm and tranquility. Small temples provided shelter and spiritual respite along the way. The great monasteries, with their fine libraries and scholarly monks, offered intellectual discourse and mental challenge. To Li Bo, temple life was a retreat, a time of rejuvenation for mind and body, especially when ravaged by wine and rich fare.

Temple tea offered the means by which Li Bo repaired himself. In herbal form, tea was medicinal and a particularly effective panacea for the ills of drinking. Monasteries produced fine tea and some were renowned for the unusual properties of their leaf. When expressly prepared in strong prescriptive draughts by the temple master, tea all but guaranteed recovery. Longer cures – an austere regimen of tea and a vegetarian diet – more than justified, if not fortifying against, the next epicurean splurge on delicacies and casks of fine wine.

Yet, if he owed his health and preservation at all to tea, Li Bo did not acknowledge the debt. Unlike his many verses to wine, he wrote but a single poem dedicated to tea, and then only because he was obliged to do so. He composed the work -- known simply as "Immortal’s Palm Tea" -- while he was in the old capital of Nanjing in 752 CE. He was comfortably lodged at the Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds, a large monastery with famous tea gardens just northeast of the city, when he received an unexpected visit from his nephew Li Ying.

Li Ying, whose Buddhist name was Zhongfu, had traveled all the way from Jingzhou, a town in Hubei where he was Zen master of Jade Spring Temple. His journey was not purely by chance: Jade Spring and Refuge of Radiant Clouds were sister institutions, two of the greatest Buddhist monasteries of the Tang. The reason for his visit was not clear, though just months before in the previous year, the Venerable Yüqüan Huizhen, the highly respected Buddhist teacher at Jade Spring Temple, died at the age of seventy eight. The passing of so eminent a monk may well have prompted Zhongfu’s presence in Nanjing. But the Zen master likely came to consult with the clerics responsible for the monastery’s tea. Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds was well known for its tea production and gardens; even the eighth-century master and sage of tea Lu Yü picked tea there. In any case, when Zhongfu learned that Li Bo was in residence at the monastery, he arranged a reunion, carefully preparing gifts for his uncle. When they met, he presented the poet with tea and a poem. The monk’s verse was subsequently lost in time, but Li Bo’s composition was commemorated thereafter as a major contribution to the poetry of tea.

The tea given to Li Bo was a specialty of Jade Spring Temple. The tradition of tea there was begun by the late Venerable Yüqüan Huizhen who use to pick leaves from bushes that grew wild along the stream banks of a nearby spring. The old monk dried the leaves in the sun, stored them away for his personal use, and brewed the tea with the temple’s fine spring water. He drank the tea every day for the remainder of his long life; his health and youthful vigor and ageless complexion were attributes of his habit. It was believed not only that Huizhen’s regimen allowed him to live to the esteemed age of seventy-eight but also that his tea owed its herbal properties to the pure waters of the stream, the benign sun that shone upon the temple, and the reverent care with which it was made. Following in the late master’s footsteps, Zhongfu now oversaw the annual spring harvest and the curing of leaves.

The large-scale production of tea by Jade Spring Temple was something of a new venture; one with risks as well as benefits. For a large monastery like Jade Spring, tea was a significant expense but also an integral part of monastic life. Ritual offerings of fine tea were made daily to the deities, and ordinary tea was drunk throughout each day by thousands of monks and scores of priests and lay penitents and volunteers. In temple routine, tea was substituted for the mid day meal and its herbal brew was an essential aid to meditation. Moreover, the preparation and service of fine tea was an important part of temple ceremony, highlighting the welcome of distinguished nobles, reverend clerics, and high officials into its halls. The temple’s yearly consumption of tea was considerable and a drain on its treasury. While it was true that the harvest and processing required the seasonal help of nearly the entire clerical and lay community, the investment of time and labor amply provided the temple with its own tea for ritual, ceremony, and hospitality. Temple savings – even profits – were to be had by the production of its own leaf.

In the enterprise of tea, Jade Spring Temple was endowed with several advantages. Together with Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds in Nanjing, Guoqing Temple in Tiantai, and Lingyan Temple in Changqing, Jade Spring Temple in Jingzhou was one of four great Buddhist monasteries of the Tang dynasty. Such grand institutions functioned as religious universities, administrative and political centers, and focal points of faith. Like many holy places, Jade Spring Temple was set in a splendid panorama and possessed an impressive physical scale that swept beyond the vast monastic compound and into the surrounding countryside. Jingzhou was famous for its scenic mountains, fine forests, stalactite caves, and bubbling springs: the waters sprung from caverns deep within the mountain, the source known as Jade Spring, after which the temple was named.

As a prominent place of worship, learning, and patronage, Jade Spring temple was an important destination for pilgrims and tourists. During Buddhist festivals and holidays, the paths up the mountain were packed with people making their way to the monastery. Along the way, pavilions and towering pagodas dotted the hillside, providing the milling crowds with scenic views and a moment’s rest from the climb. Reaching the temple gates, visitors were met by a flock of vendors loudly hawking souvenirs, charms, and street food or just a bowl of tea to quench one’s thirst. Inside the temple grounds, throngs of pilgrims jostled beneath the dappled shade of ancient cedars and soaring gingko trees before stepping into the cool darkness of immense worship halls. Once inside, they marveled at the golden images and colorful silk trappings, their ears filled with the sound of bells and drums and rhythmic chants of scripture, all amidst flickering candlelight and swirling clouds of fragrant incense. Special guests of the abbot and wealthy patrons of the monastery were ushered through inner corridors to quiet reception rooms, there to admire garden and scenic views while sipping tea prepared by the temple tea master. As they took their leave, each was given a small gift of the temple’s own tea.

Under Zhongfu’s direction, Jade Spring Temple needed to increase production to ensure a surplus beyond the requirements of the monastery. A surfeit allowed for the presentation of the temple’s tea as tribute to the emperor and members of the imperial family, particularly the regional rulers of principalities surrounding Jingzhou. A surplus also permitted the sale of tea at the great markets of Chang’an and Luoyang. Such a thing as its own tea turned into a source of pride and income for the monastery and its extended community as well as the region as a whole.

In Nanjing, the Zen master Zhongfu explained all this to Li Bo as they sat drinking the temple’s tea. And though he was not a poet, Zhongfu did excel at expository composition, and skillfully provided all pertinent details about his tea in the verse he gave to Li Bo. In keeping with the literati tradition of exchanging poetry, Li Bo complied with Zhongfu’s request for verse in reply, writing not only a poem but also an important encomium:



Preface and Response to the Gift of Jade Spring Immortal’s Palm Tea from my nephew, the monk Zhongfu

I have heard of Jade Spring Temple near the clear streams and serried hills of Jingzhou, where all the mountain grottoes possess stalactite caves, where the many tributaries of Jade Stream mingle, where the white bats are as big as crows. According to the Book of Immortals, bats were known as celestial mice. After a thousand years, their bodies turned white as snow. When perched, they hung upside down. Drinking the stalactite waters, they were long-lived. Everywhere along the stream, there is tea with stems and leaves like blue-green jade. Only Master Zhen of the Jade Spring Temple used to pick the tea to drink. He was over eighty with a complexion like peaches and plums. This tea is pure in fragrance and mellow in taste, different from other teas. Thus, it restores youth and reverses decay, enhancing longevity. While in Jinling, I saw my nephew Zhongfu who showed me several tens of tea leaves, all curled and layered, shaped like hands, and bearing the name Immortal’s Palm tea. It is newly produced from the hills of Jade Spring Temple: nothing like it has ever been seen before. Since Zhongfu presented me with this tea and a poem, he wishes me to respond. Therefore, I have written this introduction. Hereafter, the eminent monks and great recluses will all know that Immortal’s Palm Tea began with the Zen master Zhongfu and the Buddhist layman Green Lotus, Li Bo.
仙人掌茶      Immortal's Palm Tea

常聞玉泉山      Ever have I heard of Mount Jade Spring,
山洞多乳窟      Of its mountain grottos filled with stalactite caves
仙鼠如白鴉      And immortal bats as big as white crows,
倒懸清溪月      All hanging down above the clear, moonlit stream.
茗生此中石      Tea grows among the rocks
玉泉流不歇      And along Jade Spring’s ceaseless flow.
根柯灑芳津      Root and stem exude a rich fragrance;
採服潤肌骨      One whiff nurtures flesh and bone.
叢老卷綠葉      Lush and voluminous, the green leaves;
枝枝相接連      Branch upon branch, row upon row.
曝成仙人掌      The sun dries Immortal’s Palm,
似拍洪崖肩      Coddling it like Hong Ya’s shoulder.
舉世未見之      The world has never seen the like,
其名定誰傳      But who will spread its name?
宗英乃禪伯      Nephew Ying, the Zen master
投贈有佳篇      Presents this tea and a beautiful poem;
清鏡燭無鹽      Both are bright mirrors embellishing ugly Wuyen,
顧慚西子妍      But I am shamed by the beauty Xizi.
朝坐有餘興      Even so, this morning I joyfully
長吟播諸天      Sing this song to the Heavens.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

"Immortal’s Palm Tea" was noted as the first poem to incorporate the actual name of a tea in its verse. The poem was also one of the earliest accounts of dry, loose leaf tea, and Li Bo was the first poet to describe the sun dried finishing of the leaf and its peculiar shape and form. Tang tea masters like Lu Yü generally used a highly refined, solid dried paste of tea in the form of a small cake or wafer. Washed, steamed, pressed, pulped, and baked, caked tea was highly processed. Unlike cakes or wafers, the whole leaf of Immortal’s Palm tea was slowly dried by the sun and retained nearly all of its natural oils, nutrients, and potency.

Li Bo was magnanimous in his preface and poem, and Zhongfu must have been pleased by the poet’s high praise of the tea, especially its christening with so distinctive a name as Immortal’s Palm. As for Li Bo, he graciously fulfilled a family duty. It could not have been otherwise, and it would not do to turn duty into a dilemma. When asked by his nephew for the favor, he was bound by blood to honor the request, and Zhongfu's being a respected cleric from a major temple made it all the easier to grant the wish. No, it was the least he could do, a small but meaningful gesture to family and faith.

And besides, life was uncertain. He and his nephew might meet again. One could never really tell what the future held, especially when the poet was restless and always on the move. Li Bo just might find himself on Jade Spring Mountain sometime, wandering late and alone on a wine soaked night, waving a drunken farewell to the waning moon, stumbling towards the temple, and eager for a bittersweet sip of Immortal's Palm tea.


Immortal’s Palm : Although the name was invented by Li Bo centuries before, it is a curious fact that xianren zhang 仙人掌 later also came to mean "cactus" in Chinese. The flat leaves of the exotic prickly pear plant (Opuntia stricta) appeared like the hands or palms of an otherworldly being, thus giving the cactus its name "Immortal’s Palm" in China. Cacti were unknown in China being New World plants native to North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean. In 1540, European mariners returned to the Continent bearing a specimen of Melocactus (Melon cactus) from the West Indies. Cacti were introduced to Asia in the seventeenth century, entering Japan in 1669. The first medicinal use of cactus was noted by Zhao Xüemin 趙學敏 (1719-1805) in the Chinese pharmacology Bencao gangmu shiyi《本草綱目拾遺》, the 1765 revision of the Bencao gangmu《本草綱目》originally published in 1596 by Li Shizhen 李时珍 (1518-1593).

Xian 仙 means “an immortal” in Chinese. The character is composed of two pictographic elements: the radical ren 人 representing a man next to the element shan 山 for mountain. Lexicographic commentaries explain the character as representing a person ascending the highest places to live and to become immortal. The term xianren 仙人 means “an immortal being” but one who is not only endowed with eternal life but also spiritually powerful. Immortality was achieved by spiritual and physical practices as well as by alchemy. The alternate character for xian 仙 is xian 僊, which also means “immortal.” The character xian 僊 is composed of two elements: the radical ren 人 representing a man next to the element xian 䙴, a word meaning “to soar like a bird.” In early nativist and Daoist imagery, an immortal was a bird-like, feathered being that roamed and flitted about the Void. Immortals in religious Daoism were human beings and were divided into three kinds. Heavenly immortals were living persons who transcended earthly bonds in broad daylight. Earthly immortals lived in mountains and forests. Enlightened persons became immortal only after death.

Jade Spring Temple (Yüqüansi 玉泉寺) was located on Mount Jade Spring (Yüqüanshan 玉泉山), western Dangyang County, Hubei. The temple was one of the four great Buddhist monasteries in the empire, a sister institution to the Qixia si 棲霞寺 (Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds) in Nanjing were Li Bo resided.

Jingzhou 荊州 was a prefecture located in present Danyang County, Hubei, a place considered within the heartland of tea.

Zhongfu: It is interesting to note that Li Ying's Buddhist name "Zhongfu" 中孚 is also the name of the sixty-first hexagram in the Yijing 易經 (Book of Changes), wherein the term exemplifies the condition of being centered and calm and in accord with the inner and outer. Such an auspicious name for a Sinitic Buddhist monk resonated profoundly with his ancient Chinese culture, linking the Zen master Zhongfu metaphysically and philosophically with early nativist and Daoist traditions.

The Book of Immortals (Xianjing《仙經》) was a book of Daoist scripture (now lost) that most likely dated from the late Han through the Six Dynasties period.

Master Zhen (Zhengong 真公) was the Venerable Yüqüan Huizhen 玉泉惠真法師 (673-751 CE), a celebrated Buddhist monk and teacher at Jade Spring Temple who lived to be seventy-eight years old.

Jinling 金陵 was an old name for present Nanjing 南京.

Hong Ya 洪崖 was a servant in the palace apothecary of the fabled Yellow Emperor; alternatively, he was said to have been an immortal three thousand years old during the time of Emperor Yao and still living during the Han dynasty. To “pat” or “rub” Hong Ya’s shoulder was to bestow health, longevity, and immortality.

Wuyen 無鹽 was the nickname of Zhong Lichun 鐘離春 (a.k.a. Zhongli Chun 鐘離春), a famously ugly woman of the State of Qi during the Warring States period. Described as “ugly beyond compare,” she risked death to advise her prince. Moved by her loyalty, King Xüan of Qi 齊宣王 (reign 319-301 BCE) made her royal consort. Li Bo, who played the role of Wuyen in his poem, compared Zhongfu’s tea and poetry to “bright mirrors,” a generous and flattering image.

Xizi 西子 was the nickname of Xi Shi 西施 or Shi Yiguang 施夷光, one of four famous beauties in history. It was said that she was considered even more beautiful when she frowned. In a story of self-sacrifice and intrigue, Xi Shi and the beauty Zheng Dan 鄭旦 were sent in vengeance from the State of Yüe to beguile King Fuchai (Ji Fuchai 姬夫差, reign 495-473 BCE) of the State of Wu. Infatuated by their charms, King Fuchai neglected the duties of his throne, and the kingdom of Wu was defeated by Yüe forces in 473 BCE. Once again, Li Bo flattered Zhongfu, this time by comparing the monk to the famous beauty.

"Heavens" here refers to the zhutian 諸天 or the many realms of the Buddhist cosmology, i.e., the entire Universe. Despite his embarrassment, Li Bo graciously received Zhongfu’s gifts, promising to promote Immortal’s Palm by reciting his poem to his many friends as he traveled about the country.


(As always on CHA DAO, you can click on each image to view it in a larger size.)

1. Liang Kai 梁楷 (ca. 1140-1210)
Li Bo, 13th century
China: Southern Song dynasty
Hanging scroll: ink on paper
Tokyo National Museum

2. Ma Yüan 馬遠 (active ca. 1190–1225)
Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight, 13th century
China: Southern Song dynasty
Album leaf: ink and color on silk
Metropolitan Museum of Art

3. Li Bo 李白
Shanyangtai tie 上陽臺帖 (Shangyang Terrace), 8th century
China: Tang dynasty
Handscroll: ink on paper
Palace Museum, Beijing

4. Main Gate (Hall of Heavenly Kings)
Qixia si 棲霞寺 (Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds)
Nanjing, Jiangsu

5. Courtyard, Ponds, and Side Hall
Yüqüan si 玉泉寺 (Jade Spring Temple)
Dangyang, Hubei

6. Pavilion and Bridge
Yüqüan si 玉泉寺 (Jade Spring Temple)
Dangyang, Hubei

A New China Syndrome?

Last week we discussed some of the major threats -- both natural and cultural -- to the continued health of tea culture in east Asia. Contributors to the Comments section there have added some interesting and important data as well. In that essay, however, I barely touched on the horrific events in Japan, a truly cataclysmic collision of nature and culture involving an earthquake so powerful it 'appears to have moved the main island of Japan by 8 feet (2.4 meters) and shifted the Earth on its axis' (click here for details); a devastating tsunami that completely obliterated entire towns; and -- the incident that may turn out to have the most ominous and far-reaching implications, not only for Fukushima Prefecture, not only for Japan, but for the planet as a whole -- a series of nuclear meltdowns in several of the nuclear plants in Fukushima. As of this writing it is not known how far that damage will reach -- how many plants in all may be affected, how much nuclear fallout will spread into the environment, or what the longitudinal effects will be on earth, sea, sky, the food supply, or the gene pool.

The first thing to do here is to echo the profound and sadly appropriate words of Cinnabar in her recent post at gongfugirl.com:
It is not reasonable to post anything else about Japanese tea without first expressing the depth of sorrow over the devastation and aftermath that the country is experiencing right now. There is a little that can be said about the tragedy but to say that I hope that support can come from all of the places that can provide it, and that the work of recovering and rebuilding can begin, as the Japanese people – and the rest of the world in solidarity – mourn the tremendous suffering and loss.
This is very well said, and -- alas -- all too true. We are still in shock, and the people (mostly but not all Japanese) in the thick of this crisis are struggling around the clock to contain the damage and secure the affected areas.

I mentioned possible effects on the food supply. I find myself unable to stop wondering what the effects of this radioactive fallout might be on the tea crops of east Asia. Japan itself is first, of course. It appears (though I would welcome more expert information on all this) that the prevailing trade-winds at the moment are blowing eastward from the Japanese Archipelago over the Pacific Ocean; that is one of the broadest and deepest expanses of water on the planet, which from a dispersal standpoint might pass as good news. (The problem with that scenario, of course, is that the ocean is arguably the key element in the global ecosystem -- any serious threat to the ocean is eventually a threat to us all.) We are also told that substantial precipitation of rain or snow would bring the radioactive fallout more or less straight down to the ground in Fukushima -- where it would settle into the soil and water where it falls.

If, on the other hand, the winds should change before the fallout is dispersed or precipitated, the results could be quite different: it could blow down to Tokyo, less than 150 miles to the south; or it could blow west, over and perhaps onto some of the principal agricultural regions of Japan -- thereby contaminating the existing food supply as well as the soil in which future crops ought to be grown.

If the wind carrying such radioactive fallout should pass further into the west, it could conceivably reach the tea-growing regions of Korea, Taiwan, and the Chinese mainland. If this is what ensues, might the tea world find itself with a new sort of 'China Syndrome' on its hands -- tea crops that are irradiated and thus unsafe for drinking? Granted, the distance from Fukushima to (say) Wuyi Shan is between 1500 and 2000 miles; from Wuyi Shan to Kunming is another 1200 miles or so. Are any of those crops actually at risk?

Again, at the moment of this writing, information (and misinformation and even disinformation) is swirling all around us; the situation in Japan is still unfolding; and we do not know exactly what is happening, by any means. Some news commentators this evening reported that the radiation levels in Tokyo were about 20 times above normal, but then opined that that is no more than what one is exposed to during an airplane flight from New York to Los Angeles. Is this in fact true? If so, does it say more about the dangers of air travel than about the current safety conditions in Tokyo? And: will it in any case change drastically over the next few days?

It is worth underscoring that the threat to tea in all of this is much less than the imminent danger -- and the extensive damage already done, the loss of life, limb, and property already suffered in Japan. I almost said 'trivial by comparison'; but the threat is certainly not trivial to those tea farmers whose livelihoods depend on the ability to grow and sell their crops. By comparison to all of these threats, the possible resulting discomfiture to tea-drinkers is indeed trivial. So with the rest of the world, we watch, and wait, and hope.

Some correspondents on the west coast of the USA (and of course in Alaska and Hawaii) have expressed concern about the possible health implications, should nuclear fallout -- whether wind- or water-borne -- reach our shores. A number of websites like this one make recommendations for dietary supplements to be taken prophylactically. Such recommendations might not be a bad idea (though CHA DAO of course does not purport to offer medical advice of any sort; consult your physician before undertaking any alterations to your dietary regimen).

Others have asked what they can do to help. The simplest way, of course, is: send money. This handy link lists a number of ways to do just that, from anywhere on earth that you can get an internet connection (and if you are reading this essay, you probably already have one).

Meanwhile -- on the infrastructural level -- I do venture to offer a modest (but not therefore less urgent) set of recommendation for all 50 of our United States, particularly California, Washington, and any others who may have nuclear plants situated on or very near major geological fault-lines: Take heed, beware, and do not put us in harm's way. George Santayana, in Reason in Common Sense (1905), famously said: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' This is often misquoted as 'Those who will not learn from history ...' -- and maybe that non-verbatim version is the more apt here. Will we learn from these recent catastrophic events of history? How many warnings will we need before we realize that we have to be doubly and triply careful about something as dangerous as nuclear power? How many warnings, indeed, will we receive before it is too late for each of us?

Threats to Tea

Americans of the late 20th century, of the middle and upper classes at least, became pervasively accustomed to peace and plenty. They came to see this way of life almost as a birthright, perhaps, or at least as the reward for the hard work entailed in climbing out of the Great Depression, and also the massive investment in World War II. But panta rhei (or something like that) said Heraclitus: everything flows, nothing stays the same. The wheel of fortune turns; the vagaries of world culture shift and shift again.

Nature, too, is of course at least as complicit in this constant upheaval. There is no escaping such changes; the question is whether, or at least to what extent, Americans (or for that matter any other people) can hope to have continued easy access to the teas we love that come to us from far-off lands.

In the estimation of many people, some of the most extraordinary teas come from Yunnan province in southwest China. If you are a pu'er drinker or a lover of dian hong -- to name only two -- Yunnan is a special place for you. But Yunnan's teas in particular have been subjected to a number of stressors -- some natural, some cultural -- that could seriously threaten their production and availability. Three in particular are worth considering here:

* The 2009-2010 drought in Yunnan has been described as the 'worst in a century'; at least 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of tea plantations, and 3,300 hectares (over 8,000 acres) of tea trees, were destroyed by this drought. My fear is that at least some of those tea trees were old-growth trees used for pu'er; some of them were literally several hundred years old.

* As if the drought were not natural catastrophe enough, there was also a 5.8 earthquake in Yunnan's tea-growing region yesterday. It would be interesting to know what direct tectonic connection, if any, this disturbance had with the terrible 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, or with today's even more cataclysmic earthquake in Japan -- the worst in that country's recorded history, and accompanied by a massive tsunami (which, ironically, has caused widespread fires to devastate urban areas as well). But this Yunnan earthquake is at least the third major quake to afflict the province since 2007, when a 6.4 quake destroyed almost 100,000 homes in the tea-growing area of Yunnan.

* In addition to these natural disasters, there is a growing cultural trend that could well prove to have an even longer-lasting effect on the growing of tea in Yunnan: the increasing popularity of coffee in the province. An ominous citation from the article to which that link connects: '"Coffee now brings in more foreign currency for Yunnan than tea," says Li Gui Ping of the Baoshan Agriculture Center. "Last year it generated around US$47 million, compared to only US$18 million in 2004."' When profit differentials of this magnitude are involved -- and given the labor-intensive and often tedious aspects of tea production -- who could blame farmers who are tired of living from hand to mouth, and undertaking back-breaking labor every day (when the elements do not actually prevent their crops from growing)? Too, the younger generation sometimes sees tea-farming as embarrassingly old-fashioned and rusticated; and though their elders drank (and still drink) tea daily, they themselves are eager to become part of the global 'Starbucks' culture. I have had many young Chinese tell me, 'my parents and grandparents drink tea; I drink coffee.' To an extent, at least, the coffee/tea distinction is a zero-sum game: you cannot raise both coffee and tea bushes in the same square yard of soil. Will the lure of greater income woo tea farmers over to the cultivation of coffee instead?

These are just some of the threats to a constant and comfortable supply of tea in the West. We have not even considered natural pests or diseases that might threaten the health of the tea crops, or the political and economic tensions that could sour occidental relations with the mainland or with Taiwan. I do not mean to sound completely pessimistic; but I do think we should never take our favorite cup of tea for granted. Each sip is a blessing to be cherished.

Sustainable, Organic, Fair-Trade: A Conversation with Nigel Melican [iii]

EDITOR'S NOTE: At the 2010 World Tea Expo, Cinnabar of gongfugirl.com spoke at length with Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd on the topics of sustainable, organic, and fair-trade tea. What follows here is the third and final part of a three-part transcript of that conversation. Parts I and II can be read by clicking here and here respectively.

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C: When companies and managing organizations talk about sustainability, do they also talk about labor practices? Are labor rights and working conditions part of the discussion on sustainability?

NM: Part of sustainability is social responsibility, and it's a very embracing concept.

C: So it's more of a big-picture view of the tea industry ... not damaging anything in the long run.

NM: That is the way Unilever interpreted [sustainability], and they have sort of passed it on to the Rainforest Alliance. The Rainforest Alliance was a bit more on the corporate social-responsibility side, and less on the [side of] sustainable husbandry, so it's a very good match. And yes, it's right land use, it’s water use, it's energy use, erosion, bio-diversity - the whole picture ... and empowerment of the workers.

C: How that information transfers to the end consumer, that's important, but there's no recognizable label that consumers are seeing at this point that confers that much information, is there?

NM: [With regard to guarantees of sustainability and labeling] at this point, all they're getting is the Rainforest Alliance frog, which when people see that they're supposed to think about all of this.

C: But they don't.

NM: Mostly they don't even know the story. But the idea is to pass the story on, I think. If I were driving it, that's what my idea would be. Some people need a lot [of detail on where the tea comes from] and some people can't deal with a lot of information.

C: One of the statements that was made during the panel discussion - I don't remember which of the panelists said it, but it may have been the representative from the organic certification organization - was that "30% of Americans are ethical consumers."

NM: Well, that's good news. [laughs]

C: Hearing it, I thought that it really doesn't mean anything. I assume that part of what that really means on a practical level is that when they talk to people they're often likely to grab the package that has the organic or fair-trade label because they have a sense of it being better in some vaguely altruistic way. To me that does not translate into evidence that they have closely evaluated their ethics with regard to what they consume.

NM: Right, someone wrote down the script to ask, “If you had a choice and you have an ethical product and a non-ethical product which one would you buy?” 30% said, “I’d go for the one with the little frog ... because I like frogs.”

C: And 70% said ...

NM: “Frogs are slimy; no, I don’t want it.” But people make choices on that sort of a basis.

C: I don't get the impression that there are broadly-informed consumers even among tea drinkers. There's a lot of demand for organic tea or fair-trade tea, but that is sometimes at the expense of quality and at the expense of programs that will actually help people and the environment more in the long run. I don’t want to be entirely cynical, however. It's definitely good progress to be thinking in those terms instead of not caring where things come from at all.

NM: And we do have a [largely unsolvable] problem with food miles in tea. You can't get tea without it being shipped a minimum of 10,000 miles.

C: Related to those distances that tea has to travel, it's very interesting seeing tea cropping up in unexpected places like New Zealand, for example.

NM: At [the Expo] I was approached by people who want to grow tea in the West Indies and people who want to grow tea in the Philippines.

C: The Philippines seems like a place where there would already be tea growing. I can see how the culture of that region wouldn’t have produced a natural place for growing tea.

NM: Yes, [the Philippines has] an American and Spanish background. Neither of those groups are tea drinkers or growers.

C: Right. The Spanish wouldn't have brought tea-drinking or tea-growing to the Philippines, but it seems like the climate would be right for growing.

NM: I’ve often wondered why there isn't tea in the Philippines already.

C: Maybe nobody's thought of it yet?

NM: Now somebody has, and then in the West Indies too. Coffee grows in Jamaica, very good coffee, some of the best, so why not tea?

C: I would expect the tea industry in Hawaii to get bigger, in spite of problems like the one you were describing about sulfur. But that's not a huge amount of land, really is it? It’s never going to be a major player in the tea world because it's just not a big place.

NM: No, it isn’t. And with the cost of production in these countries it just has to be a high value, niche product. It would kill itself if it went large amounts. High labor costs and large amounts just don't work.

C: That would be the only way they'd be doing it in Hawaii, right? So it's not really expandable or scalable?

NM: No, it isn't.

C: It would always be small scale. I didn't talk a great deal to the people from New Zealand, but it seems like their approach and how they're growing tea in New Zealand is that way too. They're starting out at the top with very expensive tea and really high quality.

NM: The Taiwanese guy wanted to grow tea in New Zealand, and food regulations in New Zealand are so rigorous, because they are a food exporting country, that the only sort of tea that he could grow passed the regulations. That puts him in a high-cost situation, even though he brings in Taiwanese workers to pluck the tea. He flies them in, and that costs a lot of money!

C: The cost of getting the tea from one place to another is expensive, but importing your labor force ...

NM: Yes - it puts your carbon footprint up! So he is really forced into that area where he has to charge $500 a kilo, and he must match the quality that people expect for that price, and he has. He's done a superb job.

C: Yes, he has, and he may be able to take up some of the slack for drops in production in Taiwan. So much of Taiwanese tea is not sustainable due to the environmental devastation and dangerous conditions surrounding the tea growing regions.

NM: A lot of Taiwanese tea – [some of what gets sold as] Formosa Oolong - is grown in [mainland] China.

C: I’ve heard that.

NM: You have to ask the vendor, specifically, "where was this grown?" The Japanese are doing exactly the same: they offer a “Sencha,” it might mean, "grown in the style of the Japanese" by Chinese workers who have been trained by the Japanese, who are making it on Japanese-supplied equipment. But actually, it's Chinese-supplied Sencha.

C: There's even Sencha coming out of Brazil. It's not very good ... and really that's different, because it is clearly identified as being from Brazil, not misrepresented as Japanese tea.

NM: I had an inquiry at the show from [a tea grower from] an unspecified country for machinery to make Sencha tea. I resource machinery, so I'll happily source him [the equipment], if he can afford it. But the source will amaze people: "Well I didn't know they grew Sencha there!"

C: The attempts at growing one place’s regionally-specific tea in a different location seem strange to me, because if you're taking a type of tea varietal and growing it somewhere else, with a totally different climate and different soil conditions, it's not going to taste the same. It seems like the more reasonable approach, rather than trying to reproduce a traditional kind of tea in a new place, would be to figure out what works best under the new conditions, and represent the tea as a new type, but perhaps that's not as marketable.

NM: If you look at consumers, they often go for what they know. Someone who knows a Sencha will always, given an unknown tea or the old-fashioned one that they know and love, they'll choose the one they know and love. But you're right, that's what they ought to do, and it's what I push people in Africa to do, to take the plants that they were growing for CTC tea, and do wonderful things with it.

C: and the specialty teas coming out of Africa are wonderful, some of them. They're not like teas grown somewhere else. They have their own character, which is wonderful. But that industry is probably getting to the point where it's starting to mature, because it's been around long enough, as opposed to a country that's been growing tea for six months.

NM: I generally find that my clients who've only been doing something for six months are much more imaginative, much less traditional, much more prepared to try and leap ahead.

C: Because they have less to lose?

NM: Less to lose and more to gain. And they're going to invest anyway, and it's much better to invest to get ahead rather than invest just to be behind.

C: Is there a lot of tea growing in South America?

NM: 40% of US tea comes from South America. Overall there's not a lot, but you import a disproportionate amount of that tea mainly for three reasons: it's close by, it's cheap, and it has no taste whatsoever.

C: So it fits the American palate?

NM: Yes: without being insulting, it's ideal for iced tea. Because it doesn't go cloudy, has good color, and has a taste that is easy to flavor. It's never bitter, which Americans hate. So it's a good match.

C: I don't think it's widely known that there's tea coming from South America. But that's within the tea community, and the tea community is not generally talking about the source for iced tea anyway.

NM: How many people care where their iced tea came from?

C: Nobody does. But that's an interesting thing, because no-one is talking about organic farming for the tea production that goes into iced tea in the United States, but why not?

NM: Look at the consumer profile of the people who drink iced tea.

C: They don't care, and it wouldn't occur to them that that would be a concern.

NM: Again, not to be insulting, but the main thing for them is, "shall we get a Big Mac?”

C: Or sweet tea? McDonald's is selling Sweet Tea now. I think there's a big discrepancy in those two consumer bases in the United States and even that statement about "30% of all Americans are ethical consumers" - that's of the small number of people they talk to. I think that the mainstream American consumer is not in a position of wanting to evaluate the labels or think about organic farming.

NM: Not just America, anywhere in the world you can say that. There's a small percentage in most countries who are concerned, interested, and will pay a little bit extra, but for the majority, it doesn't impinge upon them at all. But one of the reasons why the tea trade was never very keen on organic tea was because it downgrades their main tea. If you say, "this tea is organic, it contains no pesticides," the immediate thought is, okay what about the regular tea? The traders, the big boys, were never particularly keen. I keep using Unilever as an example because I know Unilever and know their workings. I don't think you'll find a Unilever organic tea on the market anywhere in the world, because it would signal to consumers that their other tea is non-organic.

C: Which brings up another important issue, that organic and fair trade, and all of these things bring the cost of the end product up. Ultimately, if the standard practices become more sustainable will those labels go away and not be necessary. Is that a trend, do you think?

NM: I don't know about in all things, but in tea, organic tea has had a good run and it will move aside for sustainable [tea]. I think already they're seeing that the prices they can get are coming down. They're coming closer to the standard tea prices. [Organic tea producers] can't get that premium anymore.

C: But the impact overall in the industry is probably a good thing, to try to encourage better practices and to get consumers to start thinking about the wider implications of what goes into bringing that tea to the cup.

NM: I think generally it's a good thing. The only problem is where you have small farmers who are not in groups who cannot afford to get on board. But that's the downside. The upside may be that it will encourage them to form small groups. And [some of them will] never be able to do it. [Some of the very small specialty producers] don't have a great deal of opportunity, but [they have] a high-value product, and can afford to do the certification if [they] wish.

C: It seems that in the tea industry, among people who are drinking the more high-end expensive teas, they're not drinking anything that comes out of a grocery shelf box with an organic label on it in the first place, but they're hopefully paying more attention to actually how the tea is produced. I see a divide between the really top-end production of really expensive specialty teas versus the whole of the tea industry.

NM: Yes, there is [that difference].

C: The labeling and the focus on ethical practices has a smaller impact on this part of the tea industry than it does on this other part of the tea industry, partly just functionally because if this tea isn't being produced in a plantation that is using a labor force that is being exploited because the business model doesn't work that way in the first place ...

NM: Yes, it's about business model; it's about ethos; it's about transparency - and if you are selling real high-value tea then you're not going to put DDT on it just because you've got some aphids. You're going to say, "what would our customers expect us to do?" and use a biological control. And that's exactly what [those tea producers] will do. And once you're using biological controls, the strange thing is you can't use pesticides, because it kills away your controls.

C: I find it really fascinating that there is a certain very small part of the tea industry that is centered around wild-tea growth - in Yunnan Province, for example, where these plants are thousands of years old and they're still being harvested, but they're growing in natural forests. The tea trees grow within the natural ecosystem alongside the other native foliage and animals. The yield per acre is probably minuscule, but that's about as sustainable as tea production could possible be. It's not practical for worldwide tea production, of course, even if you could recreate a “natural” tea forest in another place, but it’s a very interesting model for preservation.

NM: Talking about Rishi, that's their bread and butter.

C: Because they've got people that they can sell it to, that are interested in that. It's good that there's enough interest to keep those tea plants and their environments safe where they are.

NM: ... for another thousand years ...

C: ... at least.

NM: I have my doubts about those thousand-year-old trees. The Chinese are very elastic on their large numbers. They have this thing that any big number is ten thousand. No-one's going to believe a ten thousand year old tea plant, but a thousand is a big number. They're pretty old, I agree.

C: And who knows how old the actual forest is. It doesn't matter anyway, but it's quite interesting that there are places where really sustainable tea means just leaving it growing as a tea plant as one element of the local ecosystem, and having it do whatever it does, and having it picked by the ethnic minority that lives in that area that has picked the tea for hundreds of years.

NM: Or by monkeys ...

Sustainable, Organic, Fair-Trade: A Conversation with Nigel Melican [ii]

EDITOR'S NOTE: At the 2010 World Tea Expo, Cinnabar of gongfugirl.com spoke at length with Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd on the topics of sustainable, organic, and fair-trade tea. What follows here is Part II of a three-part transcript of that conversation. Part I can be read by clicking here.

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Cinnabar: When a farm changes over from chemical fertilizer to organic fertilizer, does that decrease the yield enormously?

Nigel Melican: A lot depends on conditions. I warn people to expect at least a 30% drop in yield. If you've got access (and you shouldn't go into it if you haven't got access) to farm-animal manure, or suitable green sources of fertilizer like compost, then gradually you build it up again. It will never build back up to the level that you get with intensive chemical fertilizer, though. The world average for made tea is about 1000-1200 kilos a hectare. When I went into tea first 30 years ago, the people I was working with -- the good ones -- were getting 2.5 tons a hectare. Now they're getting 4.5-5 tons a hectare.

C: Mostly because of the improvements in fertilizer?

NM: No, improvements in management. The improvements in fertilizer came in around about the ‘80s or ‘90s, but all the way along, people were improving different things. First they brought in herbicides. What they'd been doing was weeding by hoeing, which destroys roots. As soon as you stop hoeing and put herbicides onto weeds, you get a huge jump in your yield. Now the herbicides are banned and you've got to use husbandry practices like planting more densely. All the time they're improving, research and development is improving practices, and the yield responds, productivity responds. With good clones, good practice, good fertilizer, intensive farming, you can get 11 tons a hectare ... it's been done. It’s not the world averages, though, and on an organic farm you'd never do that.

C: An organic farm would never reach that yield?

NM: Never say never, but it's unlikely. It would be theoretically possible. I would like the challenge ... but I don't think anyone's going to pay me to do it. There's an awful lot of bunk talked about organic. The purists say, “yes, it must be absolutely organic, and the phase of the moon has got to be right.” But to the plant, an organic nitrogen molecule or atom is totally similar to an inorganic one. The plant can't tell the difference.

C: I guess there are really two focuses of organic farming. I wasn't even thinking about how it affects the end product, because it seems like that's not the same conversation. The impact on the land is quantifiable and obvious, but the land doesn't know the difference between a molecule of nitrogen, whether it’s certified organic or not, right?

NM: No the land won't, but -- and this is why there's the argument -- people say that organic meat tastes better than inorganic meat, and often it does, because the guy who grows organic takes better care of his animals, is a better animal husband, and that shows up, and it's the same with plants.

C: And that's clearly the case with tea. If you're using practices that end up contaminating the end product with dangerous toxic chemicals, the end product is going to taste bad, so that's not going to fly.

NM: Ultimately you're right, but if you had -- God forbid -- tea contaminated with mercury you wouldn't taste it, and similarly, many of the ways that you fertilize don't have an effect on taste. Where you do have an effect with organic on tea is that you're putting on less nitrogen. Nitrogen leads to fast growth, and fast growth tends to be more about kilograms than it is about quality ... so slow growth, as in the spring flush. Everyone says, go for the spring flush. That's because it's growing slowly, and the quality is definitely better. So organic should come out with slower growth.

C: But in reality, the quality of a lot of product that's labeled as organic tea is terrible.

NM: Yes.

C: I've had some organic tea that was awful, nearly undrinkable. I don't know why that was, but I suspect that it's coming from sources that aren't terribly knowledgeable about tea production.

NM: People are struggling because they're not doing organic very well. There are some good ones, and there are a lot of people struggling. The example I gave of the company that cut out fertilizer to cut cost and got organic certification, they're not doing the best job in the world.

C: Is it that they don't know the best way to grow tea?

NM: I think they know the best way, but they're not doing it. I've had some of their tea and it was not so good. I've also had some of their tea and it's been excellent.

C: My understanding, gained through what I’ve been told in a number of places, is that some of the small estates and small individual tea farms in China, as one example, are growing their tea organically partly because they can't afford expensive chemical fertilizers, so they're using traditional agriculture, which is, by definition organic, but they won’t ever be able to say that their tea is organically produced even though it is.

NM: Yes, well they certainly won't be certified, so they can't be officially organic. And yet, for thousands and thousands of years they've been organic ... and balanced organic. They're sustainable and organic, because they recycle everything back to the land.

C: Traditionally, sustainable agriculture is what works. If you're a small farmer you need to create a system of growing that you can keep going and recycling.

NM: As a small farmer you need to, because you have no choice. Unilever has done it, but they don't have to do it.

C: What are Unilever plantations in India like today?

NM: Unilever doesn't own any farms in India anymore, not one single one.

C: All of their tea farms are in Africa now?

NM: Yes, the ones they have, and they've sold a lot of the ones in Africa too. They've gotten out of vertical production. The second biggest tea company in the world, Tata, has done exactly the same. They've gotten rid of their tea farms in India -- and they're an Indian company! What happened in India was that all tea plantations laid down by the British 150 years ago ... after independence the government saw them as being exploitative and they created all sorts of rules about how the workers on the estate had to be looked after. The plantation owners had to give them subsidized food, and decent housing, and community hospitals and schooling, and what they call the social cost of growing tea under those conditions got out of hand. The responsibility of maintaining an estate that might have a couple thousand workers, with a family structure of 30 thousand or so becomes really high. I worked with an ex-Assam planter in Papua New Guinea, and he had been like the mayor of a city. He had 30,000 people under his control!

C: That's workers, and worker's families?

NM: That's right, and he was the magistrate, he was the mayor, he was the employer. He had all these responsibilities. Companies like Unilever and Tata said it was okay when everyone was in the same boat, but then what happened was that people started growing tea without the factory and selling tea to factories that didn't have any estate of their own. They were called “bought-leaf factories,” and they had no social costs. People want to grow tea on their own, that's their choice ... no subsidy. So they were selling tea to the bought-leaf factory at about half the cost that Unilever could make tea cost, so Unilever said, “how about we offer the plantations to the workers, and we'll buy the tea, and we'll help with the transition to owning their own factory and plantation.” So, all these huge tea gardens are now owned by Indian smallholders.

C: They're still selling the tea to Unilever, but Unilever doesn't own the factories or the plantations.

NM: And the price of tea has come down effectively to the bought tea factory level.

C: Then in the meantime has Unilever started new plantations in Africa that they run?

NM: No they haven't started any new ones. I don't think they're ever going to start any new ones.

C: They're mostly just buying from plantations that are owned by other people?

NM: That's right, and where they have plantations they maintain them. There's not a great deal of interest in being a huge plantation owner anymore for all the social reasons I've just gone through. But where they've got them and can't sell them, like in Kenya, they keep them on. I wouldn't be too surprised to find them selling them eventually, because there is a lot of interest in buying plantations in Africa, there are Indian interests. An Indian company, McLeod Russel, which is now the biggest tea-plantation-owning company in the world, has just bought four plantations in Uganda from Finlays. Finlays traditionally was a plantation company, only now ... I think they have a few left in Darjeeling, but very few.

C: That's a big shift in the whole industry in terms of who owns the base level tea production. Was the majority of that shift in the past ten or twenty years?

NM: Within the last ten. The Indians have been coming over to Africa and buying up the tea estates in Uganda, Rwanda and anywhere else they can find. The Chinese are also coming in, but not buying tea estates. They're building a huge tea-extract factory in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and also, one of the deals that the Chinese bring to the table is that they build parliament buildings for all these little countries. Malawi's parliament building was built by the Chinese, or at least heavily funded by the Chinese, and they throw in universities.

C: Speaking of China and tea in Africa, I've read in a number of places that the greatest importer of Chinese tea is Africa because the traditional forms of tea drinking in Africa use Chinese green teas.

NM: But that's mostly north of the Sahara.

C: Yes, but it's interesting because the tea drinking in Africa and the tea growing in Africa have nothing to do with each other, even though they’re on the same continent.

NM: Well, most of the North Africans don't consider themselves African at all. They have a different heritage.

C: But even in Senegal and Gambia there's the Ataya tea drinking tradition which uses Chinese green tea, and those countries have little to no cultural or ethnic connection with North Africa.

NM: Yes, but that's not a tea-growing area either.

C: No, but I can imagine a gradual shift in production of the southern African tea production to start producing more green tea and to sell to this huge market that's closer at hand.

NM: Yes, and 20 years hence it may well happen. The Chinese are drinking more of their own tea, and the rise in the middle class means you get more of the local market. India has gone from drinking none of the tea grown there 100 years ago to 80% of its tea now.

C: I remember those figures from your talk during the Expo. Do you know what current Chinese consumption of its own tea is?

NM: I could look up figures for you, but it's probably about 60-70% [actually 83% in 2009]. That’s traditionally, not as retail packed tea, but the retail packers are coming in. Unilever is big in China, selling packed tea.

C: Are Unilever and the other big companies selling packaged tea that they're buying from Chinese production factories?

NM: Some of them. I did a project in the ‘80s in China looking for a factory for Unilever to acquire to do tea growing and packing in China for sale. They didn't go ahead with actually buying the factory, but they certainly went ahead with the packing factory in the ‘90s. They're even selling slimming tea now in China.

C: What would you say the difference is between sustainable farming versus organic and fair-trade? I mean, I understand what the difference is as expressed in the marketing language, but more specifically ...

NM: Well, sustainable really means that you're not using things up. Just as with organics, there are sustainability purists who say you should never use anything that can't be replaced. And there are the sustainable realists who say we should at least eke out the non-renewable resources where we can, and wherever we can we'll use renewable fuels, and if it's not renewable we'll go very carefully how we use it and how much of it we use. You have to draw that distinction. My camp is the realistic sustainability one.

C: You can't set up restrictions that are so harsh that it makes it impossible to produce anything.

NM: People do.

C: I know they do, but they shouldn't because ultimately it won't work.

NM: I'll give you an example of the dilemma that you might get into. I was working with a new tea grower in Hawaii -- not one of the small guys that we've seen at the Expo, but someone who wanted to do it on a hundred-acre scale, 200-acre scale. He wanted to be organic, said the production must be organic. He was a berry farmer on the mainland, and he always had an organic farm, and he wanted to have an organic tea farm. So we started off and sourced his tea and his raw materials from Africa and got it planted, and his soil was not acid enough, which is unusual for Hawaii, but this was an old sugar-cane plantation and they'd put down a lot of chalk, to benefit the sugar cane. This was 20 years ago, but it was still there. The normal way that you'd acidify soil for tea is to put sulfur on it. Sulfur is recognized by the organic people; they're happy with it. So he goes off to his supplier and when he sees the sulfur that he's offered, he says, "where does it come from?" and they say it's a by-product of the petrochemical industry, and he throws his hands up in horror! So we look and see what else we can get. It's possible to get sulfur which is rock sulfur, mined sulfur. The dilemma is, would you rape the countryside with big holes, ripping out rock sulfur, or would you use a by-product of the petrochemical industry that has to go somewhere, and is at least greening the petrochemical industry at least a little bit?

C: Why would the organic regulations say that you couldn't use petro-chemical by-products?

NM: the regulations don't say that you shouldn't, but they would prefer that you use the natural sulfur.

C: "Organic" meaning that you take it from the earth regardless of consequences? That makes no sense.

NM: No it doesn't make a lot of sense. That's why I say that sustainability and organic should be done with some degree of realism.

C: None of the national or international organizations that are promoting organic farming are really thinking in terms of sustainability, are they? I prefer not to make such a broad statement, but it seems like the focus is on something that's almost more conceptual than practical.

NM: Absolutely, yeah that is the focus, because it's all mediated in glass palaces in Europe or America and the people there don't get out in the field a lot, and don't see the issues directly and they have a set of ethics that they want to plant.

C: I could tell that, just listening to the people in the panel discussion talk about it. They haven't all stood in a tea field. The way some of them were talking about the agriculture, they didn't really understand how it worked. That distance from agriculture and the people directly involved in it also manifests into a somewhat condescending tone among some of the organizations promoting the organic, fair-trade and sustainability agendas. Even the representative from Utz was talking about teaching the farmers like they were five-year-olds and their organization was going to come in and teach them the right way to do things.

NM: Absolutely right. David Walker, President of Walker Tea, LLC, was telling someone a couple of days ago about how he represents a couple of coffee growers in Kenya and helps them get product to market. He was saying that some of these USAID people will come over and say to the Kenyans, “we're going to teach you how to grow coffee the way the Americans like it.” [laughs] He took one of these coffee industry advisors aside, put his hand on his shoulder and said "these people have been growing coffee for three or four hundred years. They know how to grow coffee. You tell them how you want it. They can do it, but don't go telling them that you're going to teach them, because you are not.” So there's a lot of that element of “experts who know best.”

C: Yes, it can be really preachy. The attitude about it is very removed from the reality of actual workers and actual plantation owners and actual growers, and for that matter, from the science of it, how things work. Although, I will say that the Rainforest Alliance was a little less like that because they seem like they're a little bit more direct about how they get things done.

NM: Of all the [certification] bodies, they're the one I have the most time for. The one that started up in the UK, the “Ethical Tea Partnership,” or ETP, has almost collapsed because the Rainforest Alliance has a much more sensible view of things. Unilever used to be in the Ethical Tea Partnership and I think they pulled away, because they were being targeted, which they didn’t really care for. They had done so much of their own sustainability work that they went in with the Rainforest Alliance and that has bolstered the Rainforest Alliance so much; it's given them so much of a head start.

C: Obviously, the Rainforest Alliance is concerned with forests, and the land around forests, and that pretty much covers the whole tea industry worldwide, doesn't it?

NM: Well, in that Unilever is one of the big people getting certification and they buy from all countries, virtually, yeah, they’re in all countries. And yes, there are people certifying in Indonesia, certifying in Tanzania, in Kenya, and Rwanda and India. I think it’s been a very good strategic alliance, for the Rainforest Alliance to go with Unilever.

[[to be continued]]

Sustainable, Organic, Fair-Trade: A Conversation with Nigel Melican [i]

EDITOR'S NOTE: Like a convergence of heavenly bodies, the exquisite Cinnabar -- founder, editor, and lead writer for the indispensible site gongfugirl.com -- and the eminent Nigel Melican, owner of Teacraft Ltd and one of the world's most eminent scientific experts on the topic of tea -- came together recently at the World Tea Expo. It was the great good fortune of CHA DAO that Cinnabar agreed to contribute a guest entry, in the form of an interview, and that Nigel agreed to be interviewed on this occasion. We are tremendously grateful to them both. ¶ What follows here is a transcript of that interview. Because it was a substantial conversation, we shall be publishing it in three instalments; this is Part I.

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A few months ago, at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd was gracious enough to grant me some of his valuable time to sit down and talk about sustainability, organic farming, fair-trade labor practices and related labeling and certifications within the tea industry. The following is a transcription of our conversation, slightly edited for improved clarity. The conversation took place in the sweltering atrium of a Las Vegas hotel, our voices competing fiercely with the blasting onslaught of smooth jazz being piped in over our heads.

Cinnabar (C): I have to admit that I'm somewhat skeptical of the programs and labeling for fair trade and organic farming.

Nigel Melican (NM): Yes, so am I. I met a Fulbright scholar in Tanzania who was looking at certification and the way that it impacts on small farmers across all the certifying possibilities in Tanzania that are open to them. Though she wouldn't say on record that she thought they were marketing hype to sell more tea, not to the advantage of the farmers necessarily, that's definitely her overlying view.

C: There's a lot of controversy about fair-trade practices in tea production in India. There's been a lot of backlash saying that workers aren't actually getting any benefit from it. Even though the plantations get certified, there's no follow-up after that to make sure that the benefits are actually going back into the community.

NM: Yes, it's looking bad. There are certain companies who, if someone in the company really believes in it then they'll follow it up and make sure that happens. But it can either slip between marketing and, I suppose, human resources, although very few tea companies have the sort of human resources department on the producers' side, and there must be some direct exploitation as well. Generally I think they go into it for the right reasons, but it doesn't always deliver in the way that it's supposed to.

C: In the panel discussion “Social Responsibility and Certifications: A Panel Discussion” (presented at the World Tea Expo in June of 2010), there was someone from one of the major the organic certification programs in the United States, and someone from Transfair, someone from Utz, and someone from the Rainforest Alliance. At a point someone in the audience was asking some pretty pointed questions about the ability of small farmers to be able to afford to get certified. And the representatives from the two big certification organizations said, essentially, "uh, it's to their advantage to get certified, because they make more money," but the people from the other two organizations were running programs that were a little more flexible. It was quite an interesting discussion. Then Joshua from Rishi Tea talked about how his company deals with some small farms that don't have the resources to get officially certified. They work with them directly and make sure that the tea producers are doing everything ethically and responsibly and Rishi presents that information directly to the consumer, which seems to me like it’s much more straightforward and useful than a certification label.

NM: But a company like Rishi, you can trust them. There are a lot of companies who are ... well, I wouldn't trust with my wallet ... Joshua's a nice guy.

C: Yes.

NM: There are shades of niceness. The tea industry used to be a wonderful profession, you know -- they used to treat their labor force pretty badly -- but amongst themselves, they were honorable men, and everything was done on a handshake. I've been in the tea business for thirty years, and I've seen it sort of go the way of the world.

C: Do you see situations where the organic practices are conflicting with the fair-trade practices?

NM: I can't actually think of anywhere they conflict, though people perhaps go into them for different reasons. Organics is much more about helping the land, and making it have an attractive product to market, than helping the actual worker and having an attractive product to market.

C: Yes, the focus is different.

NM: But I can't think of any examples of conflict between fair-trade and organic, and many people are practicing both.

C: Yes, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of companies that state that they're both on their labels. I'm skeptical of the labels because I'm not sure if there's really as much behind it as the label means ... a label's just a label.

NM: Well the label is a prompt, to prompt your perceptions of what's behind it.

C: It is good that people are thinking about where their tea comes from and what its impact is on the environment and the people who are producing it.

NM: A growing number of people are. I would rather have a product that had a sustainable label than an organic label, or would have a fair-trade label.

C: I don't really understand that much about agriculture, so in traditional tea farming, how damaging is the type of fertilizer, say, and the use of pesticides, in the first place?

NM: Well, all things are relative, and tea is a monoculture, and people tend not to like monocultures because of bio-diversity issues. But on the other hand, it's better to have tea as a monoculture than an annual crop with fallow periods, because then you get a lot of land washed away by rain. Tea is in there for 100, 150 years. It's got a fabulous rich structure and the best way to grow tea is to keep mulching it, so you keep building up the organic material in the soil. So, on balance, tea is a very sustainable crop.

C: I would think that just the fact that it doesn't have to be replanted every year is a huge increase in efficient use of resources as far as agriculture goes.

NM: That's right. A good example of sustainability in tea is Unilever: a monolithic company who are hard-nosed, and yet they started a sustainable tea growing exercise in Kenya nearly twenty years ago, and they've gotten to the stage now where by 2015 every leaf of their tea will have an internationally-recognized label for sustainability.

C: That's impressive.

NM: I hesitate to promote what Unilever does, as an ex-employee having worked for them for 27 years, but what they've done in tea really has been fantastic, and other people are following. The other companies really are having to follow because Unilever buys nearly 30% of the world's exported tea, and they've said "every leaf we buy has got to have a Rainforest Alliance certification." That means that a lot of producers have got to jump, and they've got to get Rainforest Alliance certification.

C: Because everyone has to compete with the big guy.

NM: Right, and because if you want to sell to the big guy you've got to have the certification.

C: One thing that I think is important in the whole discussion is the difference between big scale tea production versus tiny, single -- not even single estates -- but small farms, like small production in China. The issues of organic farming and fair trade farming aren't the same, but the whole tea industry is talked about as if it's one huge thing, but the processes are totally different.

NM: Yes, absolutely different. In some countries you can see the two side by side. In Kenya you can, because you've got the big guys -- Finley and Unilever -- with huge acreage, and you've got the little guys with an acre of tea -- the Kenya smallholders -- and registered in a body there are 450,000 small farmers in Kenya. That's a lot of farmers.

C: That's farmers of any kind?

NM: No, not all, just small ones. I think the average in Kenya for a small farmer is half a hectare, which is an acre and a bit. That's the average, so there are some with ten acres, some with just a pocket handkerchief, but they still have to sell their tea somewhere. They sell it to their factory that they own by having a share in it, so the community owns their own factory; that is their investment. They get paid by the factory, and they get paid for every kilo of green tea leaf that they give into the factory, and at the end of the year they get a bonus payment which is based on how much the factory made at auction. If they plucked fine, and the factory processed well, then they get a bigger bonus. So they have a vested interest.

C: So there's incentive to put out a good product.

NM: So that factory is one of 60 in Kenya, small farm factories, and all the small factories are managed under the umbrella organization "Kenya Tea Development Agency." All the farmers, by having a share in the factory, and the factories having a share in the Agency, they all have an overall ownership.

C: Then how is it managed, by representatives?

NM: Yes, each region will have a representative in the zone, and each zone -- there are eleven zones -- will have an elected person who's the director on the main board, so it's a typical pyramid. There's corruption in that, inevitably, but it's been running since 1965. It's the best example in the world of small farmers empowered to compete with the big guys. Other countries tried to follow that route, but none were so successful. Some were catastrophically unsuccessful, Uganda being one example. Of course, they had bad political problems, and now they're pulling themselves out of that, and the small farmers are once again doing well, but on a much smaller scale.

C: I was really encouraged by what you were saying during the African tea tasting at the Expo about Rwanda, and the way the government is looking at development in the country.

NM: It's a benevolent dictatorship, effectively. It's probably the best form of government you can get. You get things done, and quickly, and they do them right.

C: Well, that's certainly a lot better than fairly recent times in Rwanda. It seems like they went through such a catastrophic political upheaval, big enough to get to a point where they said we're never going to let that happen again.

NM: Yes, what Germany went through too.

C: In the Kenya tea farms, where is most of the labor coming from, because the tea plucking season is not the whole year, is it?

NM: Yes it is. In Kenya they're on the equator. They have two wet seasons and the amount of leaf goes up then, and in the dry seasons the quality goes up, but they pluck all year round.

C: Is the labor that they're using in tea production mostly families?

NM: In the villages, mostly family labor, and the larger producers employ people from their community.

C: Are the tea farms competing with other agriculture in the same area?

NM: Yes, they are. In Kenya it's less so because people have established a sort of routine regular income from the tea. In Tanzania, which is the next country down, very much so, there's a choice of crop. People make that choice and at the moment tea is losing out. The actual competing crop is different in different areas. In the northeast it's spices that compete with tea. Down in the south it's bananas and vegetables. There's a much more ready market for those, and tea gets left unplucked, or not plucked as well as it should, so that quality goes down, and of course then the return goes down and that's a progressive thing. I was working on a project in Tanzania earlier this year, actually, to look at what the commercial possibility was of putting in extension service, to try and get people to understand that if you look after your tea then you will get a better return. Each country has a slightly different history, so you often get to the same point by a different route. In Tanzania they had a socialist, Marxist episode, so they had a lot of state-aided tea planting. They had large plots and people went in and they worked it, but there was no ownership, no pride of ownership, and when they became more liberalized, people shunned the collective farming because they wanted to grow their own, so a lot of that tea was abandoned. People grew their own so they had total control over that, of course. They make a choice: should I get money quick, by growing potatoes or bananas? Bananas are so simple to grow; they grow themselves. You just pull bananas off the tree: cut and they fall off into your hands. As people who are trained in the old-fashioned way [of growing and processing tea] are getting older the younger ones are coming in. Their sons are coming in, and they look at [the tea industry] and they say, “you know, I don't want to work in tea, plucking tea, when I can make money [faster] growing vegetables.”

C: They're looking at it as more of a short-term benefit?

NM: Pretty much so, and so there is a lot of tea that's been abandoned, and there are a lot of gaps in the bushes. The whole thing spirals downwards under those conditions.

C: I remember you talking about how taking over the land in a situation where a tea field has been left unworked is really unmanageable because pulling out the tea and replacing it with a different crop is really labor intensive. Are those tea fields recoverable for tea?

NM: Part of the work I was doing in Tanzania was to look at that and to see what the opportunity was of doing it. They do, to their credit, have a scheme [for recovering the tea fields that have been abandoned]. They've had a scheme there for about ten years, but it's been totally ineffective. It's not been organized properly. It's been done on a village scale, and the extension advice is very sparse, so they don't really do it very well. But we're looking at a way of coming in with organized planting teams, to come in and actually do it, and the farmers would pay.

C: Who would be coming in, what organization?

NM: I was working for a philanthropic organization. Philanthropic organizations in Africa got the idea that putting money in was like putting money in a hole in the ground ...

C: But putting in direct education and action is more effective?

NM: Exactly, so you would possibly do it by outsourcing it to a commercial operation, and then training the farmers in economics, and in husbandry.

C: The way that Utz was talking about their programs [during the forum at the Expo] it seems like they're much more focused on going in and helping the tea farmers learn how to run their businesses more effectively, rather than the more hands-off methods of Transfair.

NM: Yes, and that's good. There's a US organization called TechnoServe, and they do much the same thing. They concentrate much more on business management. African farmers have precious little understanding of business management. They're very smart about growing things, smart about seeing where a profit might come from, but in terms of profit and loss, and breaking even on investment, it's not the sort of thing they do.

C: If they're looking at getting the big official certifications the outlay of money is just tremendous.

NM: It is, but very often they'll group together. in the KTDA [Kenya Tea Development Agency], for instance, everyone owns their own factory, has a little share of the factory, and it will be the factory that gets the certification.

C: So they are able to gain certifications collectively which they would be unable to get as small individual farmers.

NM: A small contribution is taken out of their bonus, and then the factory can afford the $5000 a year, or whatever it costs.

C: So it does become affordable to them at that point, even though it's three-year gap between when they enter the program and when they're officially certified?

NM: Well they certainly haven't got any organic certification in Kenya. They've got fair trade, but no organic. The only really organic factories in Africa are the two in Tanzania. One is a factory called Luponde. That was the first organic factory, first organic estate, in Africa. They got certified in the '90s, I think, because they identified it as a good opportunity for marketing.

C: They were ahead of the curve enough to know?

NM: They saw what had to be done and they did it. Now the other factory went in for a totally different reason: Luponde's down in the south. Herculu, the other factory, is up in the north. It's an Indian-run factory. Luponde's parent company is Norwegian and Danish ownership. They come from sort of good ethical stock. The factory in the north is owned by Bombay Burma, and they've got organic factories in India. They went into organic in Tanzania because the cost of production is so high ... or the difference between the cost of production and the selling price is so small. They went into it so they could eliminate putting on chemical fertilizer.

C: Because they didn't want to have to pay for chemical fertilizer? That's interesting.

NM: I don't know of anyone else who went into organic for that reason.

[[to be continued]]

Imperial Treasures——Relics of Famen Temple Underground Palace and the Flourishing Tang
This exhibition is held at the National Museum of History of Taiwan until January 9, 2011.

The artefacts on display come from the Famen Temple, near Xi'an in Shaanxi province. During the Tang dynasty, Xi'an was called Chang An and was the capital of China.

In 1987, during renovation works, an underground palace was discovered under the pagoda of the temple. The items that were unearthed had been hidden for over a 1000 years. They include many Buddhist relics, but also imperial teaware that was used during rituals. They were put in this underground palace just 30 years before the end of the Tang dynasty.

Last Sunday, Teaparker guided me and 15 of his students through the teaware portion of this exhibition.

Before the visit, we were encouraged to read about Tang dynasty tea. Lu Yu's Cha Jing is a good place to start.

We are reminded that Tang dynasty used to produce green tea that was first steamed, beaten and then pressed into various cake shapes. Often, these small cakes would have a hole so that several cakes could be attached together with a cord (like Chinese coins).

Tang dynasty tea preparation steps:

1. Reheat a green tea cake over a stable flame: the cakes were well stored, but this wasn't enough to preserve the freshness of the tea. The heat would reduce the moisture and bring out the vivid scent of tea.

2. Break and grind the cake into powder with a specific tea grinder.

3. Sift (filter) the powder. Only keep the smallest powder so as to make the tea as smooth as possible to drink.

4. Cook water and add salt

5. When the water has fish eyes, take a big spoon of water and add the tea powder to it and put it in the boiling water. Skim the bad dark foam that appears on top.

6. Transfer the tea in a big bowl and from there it can be served in smaller bowls.

The full silver tea set can be seen here. Better pictures and an interesting presentation can be seen here (scroll down).

The major item is probably the tea grinder. Compared to the previous link, we can see that it has been restored to its original shine (following the preparation for an exhibition in Japan):

The golden decoration features flowers and typical Chinese clouds. However, we also find 2 flying horses with wings! These creatures belong to the European mythologies. This is one evidence of the presence and influence of Europeans in China during the Tang dynasty. (We can see more such evidence with a flint glass bowl with support ; its shape and style is Chinese, but it comes from the West, as the glass industry was more developed outside China at that time.)

The symbolic meaning we can grasp from this influence is that the Chinese tea culture is inclusive and open to other cultures. We are not breaking any rule when we incorporate elements of our own culture in our Cha Xi. And it's also OK if we add foreign influences in our Cha Xi. But we should do so with a sense of harmony and beauty. Our aim is to increase the happiness of drinking tea.

I had seen pictures of this silver grinder in Teaparker's "Cha Xi - Mandala" book, but I was stunned by its small size and thin shape. It's so exquisitely done. They must really must have loved drinking tea at the Tang palace! No other tea sets have reached this level of magnificence since.


The Exhibition also displays a "secret color" bowl similar to this one. Before this archeological find, nobody knew for sure what is the color of the "secret color ceramic". The mystery was solved, because the discovered items were accompanied by an inventory list mentioning that the words "secret color".

It is celadon, and the current consensus is that the "secret color" ceramics came from the Yue kiln.

If you come to Taipei before January 9, 2011, this is an exhibition you can't miss!

Into the Dragon's Mouth: Shopping for Tea in Maliandao

EDITOR'S NOTE: Warren Peltier, known to our readers as Niisonge and in China as 夏雲峰 Xia Yun Feng, is one of the blogosphere's most prominent authorities on tea. His new book, The Ancient Art of Tea: Discover Happiness and Contentment in a Perfect Cup of Tea, is due out next March from Tuttle. Here he reports from Maliandao, the renowned town-sized tea market -- a place like no other -- with tips for the non-Chinese tea buyer visiting Beijing.

First of all, Maliandao is a huge tea market. Whatever you are looking for in terms of teas or tea equipment, you're sure to find it there. There's just so much choice. If money is no object, then ignore the following. But I usually like most of my money to stay in my pocket, so I know how to restrain myself -- if you're like me, then this should be especially useful:

1. As a foreigner, in China, you have a big, invisible dollar sign on your forehead. Expect to be charged a higher price just because you're a foreigner (or look like a foreigner). But don't be afraid to bargain, haggle and complain. Every Chinese knows how to do it. It could be as simple as "Is there any discount?" (有没有打折 ?, you mei you da zhe?). It's actually useful to have a Chinese friend inquire first about prices and then negotiate a better price for you.

2. People in China are now becoming more and more affluent -- especially in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. They have increased spending power and a bigger appetite for fancy teas. This means tea prices (like most other goods in China) have also increased quite dramatically. The so-called "best" teas currently sell for 10,000 yuan per pound or so (500 g) in Fuzhou (price may be much higher in Beijing). Just ask what the most expensive tea sells for, then you will know.

3. With the rise in affluence and interest in tea in China, certain teas have become more sought out recently than others. Right now in Fujian, hongcha, such as Tanyang Gongfu (Tanyang Congou), Jin Jun Mei, Yin Jun Mei, and others are quite fashionable.

4. Fashionable teas, as well as the famous teas (dahongpao, tieguanyin, longjing) because they have a higher demand, fetch a higher price -- often an astronomical price -- which is not reflected in the actual quality of the tea.

5. Relatively unknown tea varieties, or unpopular teas, though equally delicious, enjoy a lower markup, and thus are economical buys.

6. Each region of China has regional tea favorites. Thus in Guangzhou, there tends to be more puer tea shops than vendors selling other types of teas, in Fuzhou, hongcha and yancha tea shops predominate, for example.

7. Beijing is a regional center for tea supply to China's north. Expect that tea prices will be higher there, simply because it's far from the tea producing regions.

8. Avoid tea shops that are large and lavishly decorated. They look pretty -- but their cost of doing business is much higher. Decoration costs, for example, are reflected in the high prices of their teas. Don't expect to bargain in these shops either. Most of their clients have the cash and pay the asking price. They also brag about it later -- "This tea cost X yuan".

9. When purchasing tea, avoid fancy packaging and boxes. The vendor has to purchase these themselves, and the cost is quite high -- perhaps adding 100 to 200 yuan into the price of the tea. Chinese like to be pampered; and much of the tea purchased is intended as a gift, which is why they like fancy boxes, which seems to be overkill.

10. Do seek out small, plain-looking tea shops -- don't be put off by shipping boxes on the floor. These places are where you are likely to find excellent tea at a reasonable price.

11. Tea utensils, like zisha teapots or fancy glazed ceramics also command a very high price, simply because there are more people around with the money to pay the asking price.

12. If you have the chance, visit a Tenfu tea shop -- not for teas or utensils, but for their wide assortment of tea snacks, which are produced in Fujian. Their tea snacks are all reasonably priced (around 40 yuan) per box. Most are quite delicious, and made with/contain tea or tea leaves.

13. Use common sense and exercise your better judgment. Don't be taken in or swindled by a fancy sales pitch or the salesperson's charisma. Just about everyone says their tea is the best; or will insist that a certain tea can't be found at a better price; etc. Most of these people know how to say the right words to get you to spend more money in their shop. Of course, if you can't understand much Chinese, then they won't have much power of persuasion over you.

14. There is true dahongpao (DHP) to be found, but there are so many distinctions, it's hard to keep track. There is zheng yan cha -- grown in the original growing area -- the famous mountains; there is Wuyi DHP -- grown in many of the tea villages in the Wuyi area (which may be on high mountains or lowland farms); there is outer Wuyi DHP -- grown in mountains outside of the traditional Wuyi area. In Wuyi, there are so many small, family/farmer run factories, which account for differences in taste of the various DHPs -- the processor's skill, growing area, amount of roasting, roasting method all come into play. As end consumers, we're mostly unaware of the nuances: to us, it's all just DHP.

15. If you like Yancha, ask if they have other varieties on hand that you probably wouldn't normally ask for. You might be pleasantly surprised.

16. Tea vendors generally tend to introduce their in-demand teas, but of middle-grade, and expect customers to work their way up from there until they find a grade/style that's satisfying. But remember to ask about the other tea varieties they have on hand -- the less popular and therefore cheaper.

17. Look for teaware wholesale shops (茶具批发) where you can find relatively cheap, but nice tea ware and sets. I have found really nice tea sets in Fuzhou for around 200-250 yuan. Hand-painted, fancy Jingdezhen tea ware, or Ru glaze tea ware sets, though, are very expensive. The cheapest Ru set I saw was 600 yuan, and most were 1,500-2,000 yuan. Don't be afraid to check every piece of teaware out of the box. They expect it, so you don't come back wanting a refund. They will substitute a piece or set on the spot. The cheapest, reasonable zisha teapots sell in Fuzhou for 200 yuan; but there will be little selection. Most good zisha sell for 300 yuan and up. I saw lots of good pots in the 300-500 yuan range. The more highly refined and artistic teapots sell into the thousands of yuan. For zisha teapots, make sure they do a water test: pour with the pot first.

18. If you go to a teahouse, don't expect the tea you order to be really good. They normally buy lower-grade teas, cheap teas, because they have to tack on their markup (2-4 times wholesale price, depending on overhead), and still make the price acceptable for customers. They usually buy teas that are 50-100 yuan a pound. You could bring and substitute your own good tea, but would still have to pay the price for their cheaper tea.

19. If you're buying a lot of merchandise, ask shops about shipping it. Most are able to do it, and have the packaging and know-how to do it without breaking anything.

20. Don't forget: always ask if there's any discount -- 有没有打折 ?

Hastening Death: A Biased Account of Tea as Medicine in Europe, 1607-1657
by Steven D. Owyoung

in honor of Corax and in celebration of the fifth anniversary of CHA DAO

By the time it was imported to the West, tea had already been used in China as a medicinal herb for over three thousand years. Reports of tea reached Europe through the ancient overland trade in spices and drugs, but only a fraction of the knowledge about its role in Asian medicine ever reached the West. As the curative power of the plant and leaf acquired testimony from European diplomats and missionaries traveling in the East during the late sixteenth century, tea attracted the interest of herb merchants, physicians, and apothecaries.

Soon, small quantities of the costly dried leaf and powder were available at European pharmacies serving the aristocracy and wealthy. Founded on novelty and curiosity, the Western reception of tea warmed among enthusiasts who became habituated to the herb’s stimulating effects, both as a beverage and the object of extravagant ostentation.

Tea arrived in Europe during the early decades of the seventeenth century. In 1607, the Dutch East India Company acquired tea from Chinese merchants at Macao for transport to Batam in western Java, the first known shipment of the leaf by a European carrier. A transfer of tea from Hirado in western Japan to Bantam was made by the Dutch before sailing to Holland for its debut in Amsterdam in 1610. The Dutch initially carried only small shipments of tea from the Indies. The herb was not even mentioned in official Company correspondence until 1637 when the directors, sensing a small but growing taste for the leaf, expressed to their governor-general at Batavia that “As tea begins to come into use by some of the people, we expect some jars of Chinese as well as Japanese tea with each ship.”

Company records from late 1650 reveal a shipment of less than 30 pounds of “Japanese Thia, in five boxes.” In 1651 and 1652, similar parcels of tea were sold at auction in Amsterdam.

The reason behind such minimal amounts of tea was market and price. Even in Japan, good tea was costly, and only the wealthy few bought the herb. Like Chinese rhubarb, tea was treated in Europe as a precious and exotic drug, bought in minute amounts at great expense from apothecaries. Circa 1643, the French Jesuit Alexander Rhodes commented on the exorbitant price of ordinary tea: “the Dutch, who bring it from China…sell it at Paris at 30 francs the pound, which they have bought in that country for 8 or 10 sols [sous].”

Fifty years later, the finest tea was even more expensive. Pierre Pomet, apothecary to the French throne, kept a pharmacy and spice shop on Rue des Lombards where he sold “true Japanese tea for no less than one hundred fifty to two hundred francs per pound.” Despite its cost, the drinking of tea as a physic and beverage was prevalent enough among wealthy French, Dutch, Germans, and Danes to provoke their doctors.

The aristocratic courts of Denmark contended with sharply conflicting views of tea throughout much of the seventeenth century. In Schleswig, the ducal court of Holstein-Gottorp read the first-hand observations of the noted scholar Adam Olearius and the enthusiastic accounts from Persia of the adventurer Johann Albrecht von Mandelslo who praised tea as a healthful beverage and an effective medicine. In Copenhagen, the royal court endured the gratuitous and derogatory remarks of the king’s physician who devoted his medical and scientific career to undermining tea as drink and drug. Among the skeptics, the uncertain botanical identity of tea drew suspicion early on, fomenting speculation and debate. Moreover, the exorbitant price of the herb and the remarkable, nigh insupportable claims of its medicinal efficacy struck a nerve in the European medical community. Negative reaction was direct and vociferous. The first among the opposing physicians was the young German doctor Simon Pauli.

In 1635, Pauli wrote Commentarius de Abusu Tabaci et Herbae Thee, a work that three centuries later was called “a medical tract full of terrifying alarms” about tea. Throughout his long career as a doctor of medicine, university professor, botanist, and physician to the Danish throne, Pauli was the most vocal and adamant opponent of caffeine, executing an ongoing harangue against tea that lasted over forty years until his death in 1680. In addition to Commentarius, he wrote A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate thirty years later in 1665. Exhibiting symptoms of xenophobia, he condemned the use of all four substances as foreign and collectively characterized their users as “idle, prodigal, barren, impotent, or effeminate,” emphasizing the latter. His criticism of tea, influential and enduring, was also quite defamatory, and he accused the Chinese of “fulsome Exaggeration” in attributing health and longevity to the herb. Moreover, he viewed himself as a defender of the West against an insidious “oriental” incursion: “As Hippocrates spared no Pains to remove and root out the Athenian Plague, so I have use the utmost of my Endeavors to destroy the raging epidemical Madness of importing Tea into Europe from China.” Regarding the merits of tea, Pauli was obdurate and unforgiving, and his escalating rhetoric, damning:
As to the virtues they attribute to it, it may be admitted that it does possess them in the Orient, but it loses them in our climate, where it becomes, on the contrary, very dangerous to use. It hastens the death of those who drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years.
Skeptical of the medicinal value of tea and convinced of its mortal toxicity, he then attacked the quality of the leaf, claiming that tea deteriorated to an ineffective state after prolonged periods of shipping, storage, and exposure to the European climate. As for the botanical identification of the plant, he wrote:
But if any one should ask my Sentiments of Tea, which some Years ago began to be imported from Asia, and the Eastern Countries ... I answer, that no satisfactory Reply can be made, till we know the Genus and Species of Tea, and to what Species of European Herbs it may be referred or compared ... but we give no Name of any of our Plants to Tea: Nay, it is not known, whether Tea is what the Greeks call ... an Herb, or ... a Shrub ....
He then shrilly demanded to know “Of what Kind and Species the Herb Tea is? ... Whether Tea is only the Produce of Asia, and whether it is ever found in Europe, or not? And ... Which of the European Herbs may be most properly used in its Stead?” He was at the ready with answers. To seal his argument and the ultimate fate of tea, Pauli asserted that the plant and leaves were nothing more than common myrtle.

Actually, the identification of tea with myrtle was nothing new. Before Pauli, several Catholic writers had already noted the superficial resemblance of tea leaves to those of Myrtus communis. However, he took their casual but unscientific observations to heart and concluded his investigation “by opening some Tea leaves.” Based on his findings, Pauli insisted that tea was specifically Myrica gale, the ordinary bog myrtle, known as sweet gale and Dutch myrtle, a commodity that was plentiful and cheap and indigenous to Northern Europe. He then posed the question why one should bother importing tea at great expense and distance and at such a diminution in quality, when myrtle was already and copiously available at home. Paradoxically, the lethality of tea was no longer at issue.

In his writings, Pauli credited his contemporary Alexander Rhodes for indicating the beneficial effects of tea, paraphrasing the priest and calling the Frenchman by his Latin name: “The first of which, according to Rhodius, is, that it alleviates Pains of the Head, and represses Vapors: The second, that it corroborates the Stomach: And, the third, that it expels the Stone and Gravel from the Kidneys.” The positive tea writings by Rhodes and other tea drinking Jesuits ironically provided the primary sources for Pauli’s negative campaign against the herb. Pauli’s attacks constituted a perverse, inverted twist on the Jesuits’ optimistic view of tea and the habitual use of and dependence by the priests on the herb. Based on his reputation as a medical doctor and botanist, Pauli was appointed physician to King Frederic III of Denmark, who was quite fond of tea. Perhaps it was the chilling effect of the doctor’s inexorable lectures on the evils of tea to the gullible aristocrats of his court that disturbed the Danish king, or perhaps Pauli said one direct word too many to his royal patron, but one day Frederic could no longer suffer the doctor’s criticism of his favorite drink and responded in Latin: “Credo te non esse sanum,” i.e. “I do believe you to be insane!”

Among the scientific community, Pauli’s hard position on caffeine often obscured and distracted scientific research, hindering sound and sober judgment on the identity, properties, and efficacy and defects of tea. It took over a decade for European botanists to overthrow Pauli’s claim that tea was bog myrtle. Andreas Cleyer, a German doctor in the service of the Dutch East India Company at Deshima, sent a specimen of the tea plant to the court of the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm I in Berlin where the German botanist and sinologist Christian Mentzel refuted Pauli in 1682 with the publication of the Universal Index of Plant Names. In the annals of European tea, Pauli was thereafter slighted as a “medical terrorist” for his stubborn assertion that deadly tea was gentle myrtle in disguise. Contempt for his botanical view of tea was such that innocent Myrica gale came to bear the sarcastic pseudonym “Thé du Simon Pauli.” In contrast to the Danes, the Dutch possessed no qualms about tea. Holland not only brought the leaf to the West, but also actively promoted its use as both philter and physic. In 1627, the physician Jacob de Bondt, who was stationed in Batavia as surgeon and apothecary to the Dutch East India Company, recommended tea as a remedy for respiratory and digestive ailments. Nikolas Dirx, better known as Nicolaes Tulp, the mayor of Amsterdam, was an eminent burgher and successful physician. Trained at Leyden University, Dirx was an anatomist and botanist who was effusive in his praise of tea:
Nothing is comparable to this plant. Those who use it are for that reason, alone, exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age. Not only does it procure great vigor in their bodies, but it preserves them from gravel and gallstones, headaches, colds, ophthalmia, catarrh, asthma, sluggishness of the stomach and intestinal troubles. It has great additional merit of preventing sleep and facilitating vigils, which makes it a great help to persons desiring to spend their nights writing or meditating.
In nearby Antwerp, Jan Baptist van Helmont, the Belgian chemist, taught that “tea had the same effect on the system as bloodletting or laxatives, and should be used instead.” His Dutch students and followers like Stephen Blankaart became noted physicians, many of whom “recommended enormous quantities of the newly imported novelties, coffee and tea, as panaceas for acidity and blood-purifiers.” The idea that tea was an effective replacement for standard if not antiquated therapies gave grave pause to the conservative medical establishment in France. In 1648, the French physician Gui Patin, known for his stylish and witty letters, dismissed tea as an “impertinent novelty of the century” in a mocking review of the burning of a thesis on tea by members of the faculty of medicine in Paris. Patin, who later became dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Professor of the College of France, was hostile to the use of drugs and herbs, continuing to ridicule tea as late as 1657 when he scoffed that Cardinal Mazarin, the French chief minister, “takes thé as a preventative of gout.” He quickly changed tunes after an encounter with the influential chancellor of France, Pierre Séguier. The chancellor was a learned and sophisticated man who created a library second only to the royal collection and who was the official patron of the prestigious French Academy. Séguier was also an advocate and habitual drinker of tea, and he often entertained the heights of society with elegant tea parties at his literary salons.

In 1657, he formally accepted a College dissertation on tea written in his honor by a doctor, the son of the noted surgeon Pierre Cressy. Gui Patin, in one of his famously sarcastic letters, wrote: “Thursday next, we have a thesis on the subject of tea, dedicated to M. le Chancellor, who has promised to be present. The portrait of the above-mentioned gentleman will be there.” To everyone’s surprise, Séguier displaced his likeness by actually attending the morning-long lecture, bringing in tow an entourage of members of the royal privy council and adding the intimidating presence of officialdom to the gathering. By lunchtime, the dissertation was successfully defended, and tea was accepted as a remedy for gout and sundry ailments. Succumbing to logic, reason, and the palpable pressure of Séguier, the medical Faculty stood in ovation, allowing Patin to nimbly exchange his sly jibes for easy praise of tea.

It is unknown whether or not the eminent botanist and physician Denis Joncquet was with Séguier and present on the day of the 1657 meeting. But sometime during that same year, Joncquet displayed a gift for literary expression when -- like a Chinese sage -- he compared tea to “ambrosia” and praised the shrub as the “divine plant.” From the mid-1600s on, tea continued to find critics within and without the medical profession in Europe. And although the cast of characters and the science have changed over the centuries, the debate on the therapeutic efficacy of tea endures to this day.

Another Landmark for CHA DAO

September is our anniversary month at CHA DAO, and this one is a special anniversary: September 2010 marks five years for the journal.

CHA DAO was one of the very first tea sites in the blogosphere. Since its birth we have expanded our horizons and added to our contributors. Each of them has done their part to conduce to the quality of the whole. Please join me in saluting and thanking all of them -- as we, in turn, thank you, our readers -- for whom we do the whole thing in the first place.

Shifting Tides in the Tea Economy

What goes into determining the tea in your cup? Supply and demand, surely; but what determines each of those?

Let's consider demand first. If you are the end-consumer (and bear in mind that retail vendors and other suppliers may also be consumers, indeed some of the most passionately interested consumers), what you decide to purchase will be influenced by your knowledge and experience. Experience is itself a potent form of knowledge, and those consumers who are repeat buyers of a given tea will naturally tend to rely on what their experience has shown them. If you favor one particular vendor's dian hong, you are liable to go back to that vendor for more of the same tea; and the confidence that those transactions engenders may inspire you to try other teas from the same vendor -- or similar teas from other vendors.

Moreover, as with most consumables and other amenities, increasing knowledge of tea and tea culture is likely to induce the consumer to become more involved with tea and tea-drinking. This can happen in any number of ways; it may entail searching out new vendors; joining online fora or reading tea blogs such as CHA DAO; purchasing teaware that one had, not so long before, not even heard of; and, in what we may call (ahem) extreme cases, traveling to tea-producing lands in order to observe tea culture at its very fons et origo.

Supply, on the other hand, is directly tied to both nature and culture. Nature, certainly, in that all 'tea' in the strictest sense is made from the leaves of camellia sinensis, a plant not likely to thrive north of growing zone 7; and culture, in that tea involves some degree of processing -- if nothing more than plucking the leaves, drying them out, and then decocting or infusing them to make a beverage. Tea, one might say, doesn't just grow on trees; but to the extent that it does, it also requires people to prepare it -- harvest it, process it, package it, sell it, ship it, sell it again, perhaps ship it again, and then brew it. If there are inauspicious growing conditions (nature) or insufficient or inefficient farmers, tea-masters, or vendors (culture), supply will falter. The converse is also true: when nature and culture align in such a way as to favor the growth and production of tea, the supply can (and perhaps will) increase.

Laowai, and indeed all those who live outside the tea-producing regions of East Asia, are at some remove from the variables in the economic equation surrounding the supply-aspect of East-Asian tea, whether in reference to supply or to demand. Even the avid and dedicated tea-drinker in Charleston or Dubuque may not be aware, for example, that Yunnan province has been suffering from severe and extensive imbalances of rainfall -- in terms both of droughts and of floods leading to landslide. And there may be more thoughtful, educated people than we think who are still unaware of the dramatic rise and fall in demand for pu'er tea in the past few years.

But westerners generally, and Americans in particular, would really have to wilfully shield themselves from the daily news in order to remain unaware of the gravity of the national (and indeed global) economy. We are currently living through what some call the worst recession since the Great Depression; and in such times, all but perhaps the very wealthiest tend to trim their spending in some way. Such a practice calls into question whether one can make the case for including high-end (or 'premium,' or 'rare') teas as part of one's monthly budget.

There has been a great deal of talk recently about the notion of 'affordable luxury,' and along with that, about tea as an affordable luxury. That tendentious phrase may not be as clear as it initially seems; even for the middle classes, what is 'affordable' for one household may be quite extravagant for another. But one thing is certain: as supply and demand are synergic, affecting one another in active and reactive fashion, everyone in the chain of commerce -- not just the end-consumer -- is going to be affected. That hard-working and trusted tea vendor that you rely on may be working within a very narrow margin of profit; if the growers cannot get a viable price for their crops, they may not still be growing tea a generation from now.

All of us, Asians and Occidentals alike, wish we had a simple clear answer to the conundrum of the global economic problem in general, and of the tea economy in particular. Manifestly no one does. Perhaps we should honor this massive ignorance as the epitome of the human condition. As Laozi writes (Dao De Jing 1):


[xuan zhi you xuan, zhong miao zhi men ('Darkness within darkness. | The gateway to all understanding'; transl. Stephen Mitchell)] -- we may have reached the limit of our understanding at the moment, the brink of this cosmic darkness (玄 xuan), where the only way out is through. If so, we could do worse than to cling to that Japanese proverb so beloved of tea-drinkers, 一期一会 (ichi-go, ichi-e) -- 'one moment, one meeting' -- and to celebrate the richness of the present by drinking tea with friends.

On the other hand -- if I may direct my gentle reader's attention from the east Asian to the Greek tradition for a moment -- we may want to take some inspiration from the ant as well as from the grasshopper, finding a way to plan for the future as well as living in the moment. In practical terms that may mean developing one's own personal 'tea stimulus package' -- laying in as much good tea as one's purse can bear; and, in the process, spending in such ways as best to support those vendors that one appreciates and respects the most.

Reader's Corner: DougH on The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss
Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. THE STORY OF TEA: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press 2007. xiv + 418 pages. ISBN 978-1580087452.

The book reviewed here is another of the “recent inundation of English-language books on tea” that I mentioned in my previous review. Judging by the number (and percentage) of positive reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, the number of online tea vendors who carry this book (even though the authors are actually competitors, having their own online tea store, and its high placing in various food book award competitions), this book has made something of a splash in the tea-book world.

Unlike the Mair/Hoh book, this book is in the mold of James Norwood Pratt’s The New Tea Lover’s Treasury (1999): it includes some account of the history of tea, something about the “culture” of tea, and something about tea itself – the types, the tastes, the steeping. But this book has twice as many pages as Pratt’s, is physically larger, and feels about twice the weight. A lot of work, time and research obviously went into this book.

There is a brief Preface and an equally brief Introduction; both of these are for the most part so general as to provide very little of use. There is no overview of the book’s chapters or structure (as, for example, the Mair/Hoh book’s prologue did nicely). However, this Preface does give us the authors’ statement of the book’s purpose (p. x):
This book is our attempt to transmit the information and knowledge that we have garnered trekking along the tea trail to our interested readers. We hope to cut through the sometimes confusing prattle about tea by providing in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about but few have actually witnessed .... [W]e have attempted to provide in this book material that appeals to beginning tea enthusiasts as well as to seasoned tea professionals. Our goal is to give readers the behind-the-scenes information about the life rhythms and works cycles in a tea village or factory.
Chapter 1, “A Brief History of Tea,” is indeed brief, covering the entire world history of tea in around twenty-seven pages. For illustration, there are around sixteen pages or so for China, at most two pages for Japan (almost half of it devoted to the development of the tea ceremony), perhaps two and a half pages on tea in Europe, two pages on the Boston Tea Party and events leading up to it, two or three pages on the British in India, one paragraph on the British and Sri Lanka, a paragraph or so on the Dutch in Indonesia, one paragraph on Africa. As was unfortunately true in the Mair/Hoh book as well, there is no coverage of Korean tea history, which is as long or nearly as long as Japanese tea history, though there is the obligatory material here on the tea clippers, as a nearly page-long sidebar (p. 27). There is essentially nothing – maybe a couple of sentences – on any developments since World War II.

Chapter 2, “The Life of a Tea Bush,” discusses aspects of the tea plant itself. The authors give some history of the plant. They then introduce three varieties of tea bush – sinensis, assamica, cambodi (which they call “Java bush”) – and their respective characteristics. The authors discuss the concept of the tea-bush “table” – the managed plucking height of the tea bush. There are also sections on “The Terroir of Tea” and “The Yearly Cycle of a Tea Bush.”

Chapter 3, “Manufacture: From Fresh Leaves to Distinctive Tea,” is about the processing of different types of tea. The authors introduce “The Six Classes of Leaf Manufacture” and “The Eight Elements of Tea Production,” then go on to cover, each in its own section, the processing for each of the categories they name. These processing descriptions are quite interesting, and go into often great detail, apparently much of it directly observed by the authors. For example, they have sections not just on green tea but on “Sun-dried Green Tea,” “Basket-Fired Green Tea,” “Pan-Fired Green Tea,” “Tumble-Dried Green Tea,” “Oven-Dried Green Tea,” and “Steamed Green Tea.”

In the section on “Black Tea” (p. 84), the authors are thankfully quite clear on the distinction between and correct use of the terms “oxidized” and “fermented.” Interestingly, the authors also express doubt (p. 83) that much will come of “South Asian” efforts to produce oolongs.

One questionable section is the somewhat confusing “outline” of pu’er types and characteristics on page 96. For example, maocha is purported to be associated only with sheng pu’er. Also, “wet storage, quickly aged” processing is supposedly associated only with shu pu’er manufacture. Both implications are incorrect. Maocha is the initial raw material for both kinds of pu’er, and “wet storage” is mostly or entirely a means for speeding up the aging of sheng pu’er, not shu (for which it would typically be considered irrelevant).

Chapter 4, “Journeying Along the Tea Trail,” is the longest chapter in the book (around 142 pages). It examines the teas of various countries, often by province or state. Some teas are covered at substantial length, others simply mentioned by name, or in a single sentence. The chapter covers China (with individual sections on various provinces and tea types), Japan, Korea, India – with sections on Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri, Russia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal, Africa - concentrating on Kenya and Tanzania, Vietnam and Thailand, plus mentions for quite a few newer small producing areas. Kenya, astoundingly, in 2004 was the third-largest producer of black tea in the world, and the largest exporter of tea in the world, figures reached in only 50 years or less of tea production. Kenya also is one of the few, if not the only, tea-producing area outside of East Asia where the majority of production is on family (or “smallholder” as the book calls them) farms – over 60% of the country’s tea is produced on 400,000 such farms (p. 240), with the rest produced on large (presumably plantation-style) estates (p. 241).

In this chapter, the authors mention many teas by name, singling out various ones here and there for further discussion. Curiously, they spend four pages (131-135) on a tea known in the West as “Lapsang Souchong” and in China as Zhengshan xiaozhong, considerably more print than they spend on any other Chinese tea, though this tea is not as popular – at least in the USA – as some others. The authors spend considerable effort trying to establish that there are actually two teas here: a lower-grade one known (including in China) as “Lapsang Souchong,” and a much higher-grade one known in China as Zhengshan xiaozhong. However, my understanding from tea-knowledgeable native Chinese friends is that in China and Taiwan, the usual view is instead that these are different grades (varying considerably in rarity and price) of a single tea, both of which are known by the name Zhengshan xiaozhong. And, despite their efforts, the authors did not get to see how these teas are made.

Chapter 5, “An Encyclopedia of Tea,” presents a series of half-page entries on thirty-one specific teas, including a couple of white teas, some Chinese and Japanese greens, a few oolongs and black teas (i.e. hongcha), a shu and a sheng pu’er, some scented teas, and a few others. The information provided for each tea includes origin, brewing recommendations, short descriptions, an even shorter indication of the flavor, etc., along with a picture of both the steeped liquor and dry leaf. This chapter, despite being pretty short and sketchy for something termed an “encyclopedia,” will probably be useful to people unfamiliar with the teas presented.

Chapter 6, “Brewing the Perfect Cup,” provides pretty detailed instructions and suggestions for buying and storing tea, for choosing water and for steeping. The chapter ends with a couple of pages describing professional tea tasting. While one might have quibbles with certain details, and the steeping descriptions are only for Western-style brewing (e.g., nothing here on gongfu steeping), there is a lot of useful information here. (For the authors’ description of gongfu steeping, see Chapter 7, p. 308.)

Chapter 7, “Tea Customs and Culture,” is the third longest chapter (around 56 pages). The chapter presents aspects of the tea culture of China, Japan, Europe (without Russia), the USA, the Russian Federation, Tibet and Morocco. Much of this chapter is actually bits and pieces of history. The longest sections by far are, not surprisingly, those on China and Japan. The chapter covers not only practices (styles of tea making, tea ceremonies, etc.), but also items like teapots, cups and other tea ware, samovars, and even sweets such as Japanese wagashi.

Chapter 8, “The Health Benefits of Tea,” is the mandatory contribution to the “tea and health” literature. Fortunately, and somewhat unexpectedly, given that the authors are also tea vendors, this chapter is for the most part a cautious – and cautionary – handling of the subject, emphasizing how tentative the current state of knowledge is about this subject. They conclude one section in this chapter with:
So, when it comes to tea, think tonic not curative, healthful collaborator not redeemer .... Drink tea to relax and connect with the spiritual nature of life’s simple pleasures. Enjoy the flavors and the subtle and not so subtle differences waiting to be discovered in the world of tea offerings, and should the rich doses of flavanoids [sic] in each cup of tea be determined to cure what ails you, you will be ahead of the curve. [p. 357]
One blot on an otherwise respectable chapter, in the section “Caffeine in Tea,” is the sidebar on p. 360, where the authors repeat (as always, with no citation) the usual Western tea industry myth regarding do-it-yourself caffeine reduction: “After thirty seconds of extraction, it is reasonable to expect a reduction in the caffeine content of black leaf tea by 50 to 70 percent.” Though the “50 to 70 percent” hedge may, charitably, be somewhat less wrong than the usual 80% claim, it is still wrong. See Nigel Melican's now-famous essay in CHA DAO on this subject for state-of-the-art information on this subject.

In Chapter 9, “Ethics in the Tea Trade,” the authors “explore several of the social and political aspects of tea production and marketing.” Not only is this rarely discussed in English-language tea books, in my experience: this book's is also by far the most extensive and detailed treatment of the subject I’ve seen. The chapter is divided into sections “Organically Grown Tea,” “Fair Trade,” and the “Ethical Tea Partnership.” Each section includes descriptions of the concepts, background, relevant regulations, agencies, and so on. If this chapter has a flaw, it is a perhaps too-rosy view of the actual situation of many tea estate workers; there is perhaps also a lack of discrimination between the situation of workers in former Euro/British “possessions” – who work on plantations, except in Kenya – and that of workers in most of East Asia, where tea is grown largely on family or “tribal” farms. Otherwise, this chapter is definitely a contribution to popular English-language tea literature.

Chapter 10: “Cooking with Tea,” is the authors’ – also now apparently obligatory – contribution to tea cuisine, providing ten or so recipes. If this kind of thing is of particular interest to you, you may find something useful here. In my opinion, it is the least significant chapter of the book; but it occupies only fifteen pages or so out of over 400.

The book ends with three appendix-like sections, plus an approximately eleven-page Index (which I didn’t use much, but had inconsistent results with when I did). “Buyer's Resources” lists a handful of online tea dealers (all USA dealers except Ten Ren), including the authors’ own two shops (Cooks Shop Here and Tea Trekker), but also excluding a number of well-known vendors. The “Glossary” is seven pages of “descriptive and explanatory terms associated with tea” (p. 396); this is somewhat idiosyncratically organized, but may be useful to some. The “Bibliography” lists two and a half pages of English-language print resources. There are no endnotes or footnotes.

The book is very nicely designed and laid out, with lots of sidebars, very nice typography, and a nice color picture on the dust jacket. This book is an exception to my observation that, in English-language tea books at least, there seems to be an inverse relation between many nice pictures and good information. There are lots of high-quality pictures – all or virtually all in color – throughout the book, many of them taken by the authors. In short, it’s a beautiful book.

The authors try hard to provide both wide and reasonably deep coverage of their subject. They’ve made extensive visits to tea areas in Asia, apparently multiple times (p. ix). The book has probably the most detailed information on the production process for various teas that I’ve seen (with the exception of Mike Petro’s pu’er site). There are various charts and tables and other figures scattered throughout, though there is no page-listing or index of these.

If the above is all you require from a tea book, stop here. Go out and buy it now, and you will probably be very happy.

However, if you want more from a tea book, especially one with the aspirations this one so evidently has, you may want to read on.


(To keep this part of the review from becoming too tedious, I’ve furnished -- on a separate page, provided by Our Gracious Host -- a list of 'Addenda et Corrigenda,' with additional information for those who share my concerns over this sort of thing.)

My criticisms of the book mostly fall into the following categories:
• To use the authors’ own word: sensibilities
• Poor organization and editing of the material
• Grossly inadequate historical coverage
• Romanization, translation and other terminological issues
• Miscellaneous

The text virtually never cites any source, however informally, so it’s usually impossible to know where questionable information has come from.


The authors say in the Preface, “We also offer our sensibilities regarding the complexity and intrigue of an ancient beverage in today’s fast-paced, modern world” (p. x). Unfortunately, my own sensibilities are daggers-drawn at odds with theirs.

One example epitomizes the problem (as well as some editing issues): “Had the Song stayed in power, or had the coarse Mongols not been their predecessors [sic], China mostly likely would have seen their evolving tea culture culminate into a glorious, formal, stylized tea ceremony” (p. 15). First, the Mongol Yuan dynasty was the successor to the Song. Second, there is no way to begin to know what would have happened if the Mongols hadn’t successfully invaded, and the Song dynasty had continued. Further, the Song did have formal tea ceremonies or rituals, as the authors themselves say on the same page: “... the elaborate tea rituals of the Song dynasty came to a swift and unfortunate halt....” Fourth, to call the Mongols “coarse” seems both extreme and ignorant. Worst of all, the core of this statement – that a “formal, stylized tea ceremony” is “glorious” – epitomizes a pretty extreme sort of orientalist, Asian-romanticizing viewpoint.

An even better example – which also illustrates the authors’ ignorance of Chinese characters (hanzi) – is the sidebar on the opening page of Chapter 8 (p. 351). This sidebar purports to deconstruct the Chinese character for tea, cha (茶), into three individually meaningful parts. For brevity, I will quote only the concluding sentence: “The sum of this character's elements creates the Chinese pictorial for tea as, 'The revered plant that sustains man in his situation on earth.’” This is both wrong and a kind of trap, a trap the authors dove headfirst into precisely because of their orientalist sensibility: they want this to be true. This kind of thing drives Chinese language experts (and many knowledgeable native speakers) up the wall. Relatively few modern Chinese characters are constructed in anything like the way this sidebar describes, and cha is definitely not one of them. The authors evince no knowledge of the usage-history of the character tu (荼) as distinct from that of the character cha (茶). The latter didn’t even exist until the Tang (perhaps mid-eighth century), and was clearly created by a slight modification to the tu character, possibly even by Lu Yu himself. See, in my review of Mair/Hoh, the paragraphs on “Chapter 2”, and especially see Appendix “C” in Mair/Hoh, particularly the section entitled “Writing” (p. 264).

This orientalist sensibility pops up throughout the book. And it was completely unnecessary: the authors’ information on tea is generally good and plentiful, and the book is beautiful. Trying to make tea and Asian tea culture and tea history into something romantic and exotic is a serious – and typically Western – misrepresentation of both. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Sensibilities.")


While the appearance and layout of the book are beautiful, the actual editing leaves something to be desired. While there are errors of the type one would hope a copy-editor would catch, a few of these will usually sneak through even in the most carefully and rigorously edited book, at least in its first printing. But, while some of these are fairly blatant, there is a worse problem. The book’s organization is rather ... disorganized.

Though there is a chapter on history, there is historical material scattered over multiple other chapters, especially in Chapters 4 and 7.There is no history of Korea in Chapter 1, but some 3.5 pages of Korean history in Chapter 4 (p. 187). There are almost half as many pages of Chinese history in Chapter 7 as there are in the 'history' chapter (Chapter 1), and more pages of Japanese history in Chapter 7 than in Chapter 1.

One could adduce many more examples (see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Organization and Editing"), but that’s enough for the moment. The overall impression one draws from this lack of sensible organization is that the book is rambling and repetitive. Yet if there had been a decent editing phase, it would have been reasonably easy to consolidate the wide-flung material into a much tighter, more cohesive whole.


The authors’ historical coverage in this book is unacceptably cursory, given the book’s size, and given that it has the word “history” in its subtitle. Chapter 1 barely qualifies as even an overview of the history of tea. Even if you add in the perhaps roughly-equal number of pages of history scattered throughout the other chapters of the book, the result is an inadequate body of material, much of it driven by the same orientalist, romantic view discussed earlier.

While the authors shouldn’t be criticized for not doing something they didn’t intend to do, we can evaluate how useful what they did do is. The history coverage in this book is not worthy of it, and does not compare with the breadth and depth of coverage the authors give to other areas of tea. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "History.")

Language and terminology

There is no evidence in the book -- or on the authors' website -- that either of them speaks any version of Chinese, or any other East Asian (or South Asian) language. They list no Asian language sources in the bibliography. As with many English-only tea writers (and tea vendors), the author’s Chinese romanization is often faulty and/or inconsistent. The translations they provide, usually of names, are often “iffy” if not flat-out wrong.

One of the most blatant translation mistakes is in the title of the “Black Tea” section (p. 84), where the Chinese term “qi hong” is used as the translation for “Red Tea”; the correct pinyin for “red tea” is hongcha, whereas qihong refers specifically to the Keemun/Qimen variety of hongcha. The authors repeat this error in another section title on page 127 (where they use the spelling “Qihong” [no space]), yet they themselves provide the correct pinyin for “red tea” in the same section at the bottom of p. 127.

Another example of faulty translation: they repeatedly translate the name of the Wuyi oolong dahongpao (which they spell as Da Hong Pao) as “Royal Red Robe” (see e.g. pp. 144, 146, 263). This, again, is simply wrong. In this context, da (大) means (and in this context is almost always translated as) “big,” or possibly “great” -- thus: “Big Red Robe.” There is no way to get anything like “royal” from it. Just because a few other tea vendors also make such a mistake doesn’t mean it should be repeated in a reference work like this. And many tea vendors do correctly translate this tea name. (For more, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Romanization, Translation, Terminology.")

Book Dedication

The book is dedicated to William H. Ukers: “You blazed the trail and in your footsteps we all follow.” Ukers’ 1935 All About Tea was apparently long considered by some (at least in the USA) to be a sort of standard reference or “bible” for tea, and especially for the American tea industry; though why an “industry” whose business for many decades was to serve up the lowest-quality tea fannings and dust, in the cheapest possible tea bags, to a small minority of the American population, needed a standard reference is a mystery to me. The obvious questions, on seeing this dedication, are: a) what “trail,” and b) who is “we all”? This dedication is typically overreaching, unless by “trail” the authors simply mean “writing tea books,” and by “we” they mean only “American laowai.” I doubt if even Europeans would want to be included in that “we all,” and I imagine the East Asian tea industry would laugh at the whole idea. One could also be forgiven for thinking this dedication might indicate greater ambitions than the authors openly indicate.

Tea Categories

One last issue that struck me as problematic is the initial section of Chapter 3, on the “six classes” of tea. The authors first describe supposedly existing classification schemes, then propose one of their own, which I believe is somewhat faulty (though better than the straw-man system they claim is “still popular today”). For fuller discussion, see "Addenda et Corrigenda" under "Tea Categories."


To sum up, let’s first consider the book on the authors' own terms, as presented in the citation at the beginning of this review. Do the authors achieve the goals they set out for themselves? I would answer with a rather qualified “yes.” The book contains a mass of information, which the authors gathered in part through research and in part through multiple visits to tea farms, plantations and factories in East and South Asia, talking extensively with relevant personnel to learn tea growing and production processes. Thus, they do present “information and knowledge that we have garnered trekking along the tea trail to our interested readers,” and they do provide "in-depth information and understanding about processes that many people have written about.” Whether they successfully “give readers the behind-the-scenes information about the life rhythms and works cycles in a tea village or factory” is less clear, but they do try. And they do all this in a beautiful, easy-to-read package.

Then why the “qualified yes”? Because we ought also to consider how effectively and efficiently the authors go about their business. Here the authors do not score nearly as well. The book is poorly organized and would have benefitted a lot from much more thorough editing. As mentioned earlier, this makes the book seem rambling and repetitive, which among other things makes it harder than it should be to find things you want, or that you remember reading somewhere, thus harming its usability, thus reducing its usefulness.

Further, I couldn’t avoid the occasional impression that the authors were showing off a little, with their constant presentation of foreign language names – mostly Chinese – as well as the kind of foreign-language terms that few people except certified tea heads are going to care about or remember. However, I am one of those certified tea heads, I do care, and I think that if you are going to show off your knowledge, you’d best get it right. And here the authors also fall down on the job. Their romanization of Chinese is often wrong or inconsistent, and their translations of names and terms are often either wrong or at best dubious. The authors would have been better leaving this kind of thing out if they couldn’t do it better than they did.

Finally, their inadequate, sanitized history of tea does a disservice, both to the book as a reference, and to their readers; and their pervasive – and so typically Western – tendency to view Asian tea and tea culture in an exotic light distorts and undermines their presentation.

So, do I recommend the book? If you have the money and inclination to buy more than one tea book, I would say “yes.” There is plenty of good stuff here. But when you buy this book, also get as many of those I’ve mentioned (or others) as you can. If you really only want one book, I would have a hard time giving The Story of Tea more than a very half-hearted recommendation.

~~~~~ · ~~~~~

Acknowledgements: I would again like to thank – with the usual admonition that all errors, misinterpretations, etc. are most definitely mine alone – the following for their help while I was writing this review: corax and MarshalN. As before, either of these worthies would be far more qualified to review this book than I am, but again, they left it to me. I would also like to thank K. Dodgson, V. H. Mair, and Lew Perin for their time and help – also with the usual “the bad stuff is all mine” admonition. Finally, special extra thanks to Lew Perin for the ever-valuable labor of love that is BABELCARP – what would we monoglot laowai do without it?

Cup2Cup: Compressed Da Hong Pao

Tonight I will enjoy two of my favorite Wuyi teas. They are both Da Hong Pao cakes: Deluxe Compressed DHP Cake from My Fine Collects, and Supreme Aged CHP Cake from Dragon Tea House. The former, I learned from vendor Chris Lau, is comprised of 2005 leaves compressed in 2006 by the Yi Min Yuan Tea Factory, and I received it from Hong Kong in late November of 2008. The latter is comprised of 2005 leaves, and I do not know what tea company produced it. It came as a gift two months ago from a tea-loving friend, and I am delighted to have it. Both of these teas have provided many hours of almost sublime enjoyment, and while I fear that comparison might produce a loser and a winner, I cannot restrain my curiosity. I am going to compare them cup2cup. Perhaps it’s nicer to say that I’ll enjoy them both in the same session.

To that end, I’m using two 100-ml gaiwans. Generally I employ 70-ml zisha teapots, but I wonder whether different flavors from different clay teapots might be significant enough to affect the outcome. I’ll leave that experiment for a later date. Into each gaiwan I’ve placed 6.3 grammes of tea—following the recommendation of Chris Lau received in correspondence. I am making an issue of the weight in this case because generally I do not weigh DHP. To brew loose, non-compressed DHP (the norm), I fill the brewing vessel about two-thirds to three-quarters full and press it down gently. But because this is a night for compressed Yancha, I cannot judge proportions by sight, and my old JS-300 V scale—accurate to a tenth of a gramme—comes to the rescue.

I wash DHP once. I brew it with very hot water. The first infusion after the rinse is fifteen seconds, and the following infusions are flash infusions until the flavor wanes. Then I step up the infusions by fifteen-second intervals. I do not know if this is the best way to brew DHP, but it’s the way I know. Because I am accustomed to these parameters, I’ll use them this evening.

The two cakes are quite different. The Deluxe cake began its life at 400 grammes, the Supreme at 125 grammes. The Supreme is very tight (almost shiny) and very black. The Deluxe is somewhat less tight and perhaps tinged with a tiny bit of red. The Deluxe teacake is, in fact, rather like a shu pu’er beeng cha. Dry, the Deluxe has a hint of earth in the aroma, and the Supreme has a pleasant molasses aroma. Gram-for-gram, the Supreme is roughly twice as expensive as the Deluxe, and that is quite expensive. I try to ration myself with these two teacakes, and to drink them both tonight is quite exciting. Is that not ridiculous? I have tried many compressed Wuyi teacakes, and some were excellent. These two are simply my favorites.

In the first infusion after the wash, the Deluxe is, surprisingly, darker than the Supreme. The Deluxe presents spice aroma from the gaiwan’s lid, and the Supreme presents, interestingly, black pepper. Wow.

In the mouth they’re wonderful tonight. The initial flavors in the nose make me think of chocolate syrup! In the fourth infusion, the liquors from the two teas turn out the same: orange-red. They both taste of cherry cider—the Deluxe with a savory character and the Supreme with a sharper, sweeter quality. But primarily I notice that they are extremely similar. The Supreme is perhaps a little livelier.

In the sixth infusion I note from them both a mineral taste, one I equate with good DHP. The Deluxe continues a little woodier, almost oaken, but that is not a significant note. Given the different weights, years, and companies, the similarity in their flavor profiles is rather amazing. The Supreme is juicier, sweeter, tarter—but not by much.

I am this evening writing more of Ru4 Kou3, the initial burst of flavors in my mouth and nose, than of Hui2 Gan1, the sweetness of aftertaste, because in this case one tea affects the other too much to draw out any different Huigan notes. In fact, these two Wuyi teas are difficult to parse even in the first hot sips. It occurs to me now that I love them both because they share a single, particular flavor range I like. This revelation would not have come to me had I not undertaken a cup2cup session.

I like to store Da Hong Pao to see if it will change for the better over time, but that storage can be fraught with danger because the long, dry oolong leaves are so very friable. What goes into the storage box in perfect strips of tea leaf can emerge later—despite the most protective packaging—as bits and pieces. Compressed cakes prevent this sad shattering. Likely oolong from Wuyi was first compressed for ease in transportation and to protect it from breaking into powder. I have seen compressed Shui Xian and Da Hong Pao shaped as zhuan cha, fang cha, bing cha, pucks, and even little fingers like Tootsie Rolls stuck together in a sheet. I suppose there are other shapes I’ve not encountered.

The best compressed DHP is not as good, I suppose, as the best loose DHP. The cakes’ flavors and bouquet are a little more subdued and subtle. Somehow they recall sensations from further back in the memory. To explore them requires a little more mental spelunking. Loose DHP is about instant floral bursts and sweet fruit aftertastes, and the compressed oolong is more about considerations and suggestions. The quality of loose DHP is unrelated to fancy name or price charged. Buying mail order from vendors foreign or domestic, one rolls the dice, and often, one loses. The same holds true for compressed DHP. But I am pleased to report that these two, the little Supreme and the larger Deluxe, both serve as excellent exemplars of their ilk. I enjoy them because they are comfort-teas appealing to both the scholarly and the informal in us, and because I have a little of each socked away for down the road, the way, the cha dao.

Review: "Vanilla Mint Tea Therapy" concentrate

Like many of the more erudite publications, this forum tends to focus on the rarefied reaches of the tea-mountain (and profounder depths of the clay-pit), seeking ever the exquisite and superb fringe from the true red robe. But if it be that global tea consumption exceeds that of coffee, chocolate and cola combined, with beer, wine and spirits thrown in for good measure (if not a very palatable blend), then it is a safe bet that most sippers and swillers will never even hear of the whole class of leaf in which we here luxuriate, much less touch and taste any such delicacies.

Seeking ever the democratic balance, therefore, this intrepid reporter ventured forth into the lower depths, the lower shelves, the lower-priced aisles of the souk in search of the commonplace and congenial.

Let me say from the start that I have no objection in principle to "workingman's tea" (as my late Leodensian uncle instructed me to bring him back from trips across the pond), to admixtures with lesser flora, or even to elixirs dehydrated from previously decocted extractions. Indeed, I begin most mornings with a sizable dose of Taylor's of Harrogate—premium among CTC blends in the New World, but just 99 new pence (at discount) for 250 grams wherever loose tea is still to be found in the supermarkets of the Old. And to this I add a splash of non-fat milk, by way of sequestering tannins from the raw hide of my stomach. I even used to enjoy chai, before lactose intolerance corrupted the pleasure. (One fond memory: an hour-long phone call to a remote beloved, with a handful of loose Sikh masala on the bright-lit kitchen counter, parsing grain by spicy grain with a jeweler's loupe and Dumont & Fils #2 watchmaker's tweezer to reverse-engineer the ingredients and proportions of my favorite but pricey Yogi Tea blend.) And as Gandhi said of Western civilization, I think concentrates would be a very good idea, were very good ones to be had. I often dream of special-ordering just the finest specks sieved from a tonne or so of Yorkshire Gold, dark dust of pure tea-juice, flaked away from crass leaf and potent with all the best savors. The issue is not principle, but execution, which too often descends to the mediocre or downright nasty.

Thus it was that while browsing a local emporium for an unrelated product, I ran across this one, on sale at a price—$1.59 for 15 fluid ounces—low enough that possibly having to throw it all away would not strain the budget. The brand was familiar, though not one of my usuals. And while I do not admire plastic packaging in general, the front label was reasonably attractive

if somewhat less than informative, with ambiguously exotic typeface and a Mumbai-modern image of brew, mint leaf, orchid bean, and what one assumes to be a camellia flower. While vanilla and mint seem a reasonable complement to each other, and each is itself a familiar of tea, my prior experience did not include both at once. (Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!) It was apparent from sniffing the unopened container that vanilla would dominate, not surprising given the low bulk price of more-or-less pure vanillin from waste sulfite pulp liquors or petrochemical guaiacol. (Yummy.) The implausibly aquamarine tone of the foamy, viscous contents was also intriguing, not suggestive of any tea I have ever seen. (–Unless one would stretch the rubric to include that delightfully synaesthetic tapioca confection.)

As a room-temperature concentrate, the fluid had an unpleasant "chemical" smell. Now, I once dabbled in industrial organic chemistry, and am not alienated by unpretentious technical aromas. (In fact, before foul oxygenate blends became the norm, I quite liked the reek of gasoline, and still enjoy splashing fuel into my diesel tractor.) It is the presumptuous ersatz scents that offend: counterfeit perfumes, phony fruit flavors, the cloying pine and lemon in cleaning products. This stuff smelled like a cheap jelly-bean that had baked too long under a Mojave sun.

Diluted considerably with warm water, the whole aroma profile normalized somewhat, to the point of being only slightly annoying. The very small amount that I actually allowed into my mouth tasted soapy-sweet, redolent of the vanilla and mint, but with no detectable tea notes at all under the miasma.

The actual ingredients list was printed in three-point type (what we used to call "minikin" in the hot-metal world), in white ink on the back of the white bottle, shown here with a fresh sprig of mountain mint and a slightly stale vanilla bean:

The NSA could hardly have done a better job of encrypting key data while still complying with FDA disclosure regulations. The first component, predictably, was water. Vanilla plantifolia fruit extract was about two-thirds of the way down, under a slew of polysyllabic better-living-throughs like hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, a close cousin to the fast-food shake thickener whose taste, once identified, makes all such concoctions unpalatable to those of any sensibility. After three more such came Mentha piperita leaf extract, Camellia sinensis leaf extract, then a few vitamins. A small dose indeed of the titular infusion, with any therapeutic effects homeopathic at best.

Notwithstanding the above, I can give this product a just-passing grade for its intended purpose. I am unable to confirm the makers' claim that it "keeps color treated hair looking great" as I maintain what remains of mine in its native state. But it seems to lather and clean well enough, without leaving a residual aroma of either those natural extracts or the refunctionalized tropical-oil base. Not exactly a triumph for Alberto VO5, but adequate to the purpose. And well within the economic and sensory ambit of many readers of this and other tea-forums.

Next April 1st, we'll take another leaf from S.J. Perelman and delve into tea-enhanced fingernail polish, house paint and floor wax.

The 'Starbucks of Tea': A Surprising Turn

Photo: Corax

When Argo Tea opened its first locations in Chicago, its founders were quoted as wanting Argo to become the 'Starbucks of Tea.' Quite apart from the questionable decision to refer to their tea houses as 'tea cafes,' to couch one's aspiration in terms of Starbucks puts the discourse once again in terms of coffee. The logic behind such an urge is completely obvious, but it is not the less undesirable for all that.

Be that as it may, since its inception in 2003 Argo Tea has had quite a bit of commercial success, with already ten locations in Chicago and three more in New York. The casual onlooker might easily infer that these Argonauts are well on their way toward garnering that Golden Fleece of tea commerce: their stated goal of becoming the 'Starbucks of Tea.'

But you really never do know what's next. At this particular moment, the coveted 'Starbucks of Tea' label seems likeliest to be awarded to another, rather surprising contender: Starbucks.

Photo: CFP

Just a week ago, Starbucks launched its new line of tea products -- in China. If this strikes you as a bad case of coals to Newcastle, you are hardly alone. Here we have Yanks importing Yankee capitalism to Communist China -- using Chinese-grown goods as merchandise. Apart from the baroque intricacies of those economic implications, -- will Chinese consumers trust laowai to be able to purvey, without getting it seriously wrong, a commodity so foundational to the daily life of China?

This is by no means Starbucks's first beach-head in the People's Republic. There are several hundred Starbucks shops there already (over 350 by the beginning of 2009). Indeed, until 2007 there was a Starbucks just outside the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing; when controversy arose over this placement, the store was closed.

Photo: Ng Han Guan [AP]

But new locations will be all the more carefully chosen. And the teas on offer in Chinese Starbucks will not be the Tazo tea bags so familiar in the US: on the contrary, the first tea selections in China are three carefully-chosen Chinese teas -- a white, a green, and an oolong: bai mu dan, bi luo chun, and dongfang mei ren.

If anyone can successfully engineer such an audacious undertaking, it is likely to be Starbucks. But -- even with top administrators who are themselves Chinese -- can even Starbucks overcome presuppositions about Westerners and tea culture? An arguably more problematic issue: what long-term impacts might such a juggernaut have on tea culture and the tea industry in China?

Fiat lux

Ceaseless flows the river, water ever changing; bubbles in still pool gather and subside, impermanent: so in this world are we and all we devise.

–Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki

A couple of sunspot cycles ago, a soi-disant Zen teacher warned an old novice against high expectations when offering ego repatterning to help people withdraw from tobacco. His thesis: smoking encompasses a broad range of linked cognitive processes, internal states and overt behaviors, each providing some kind of satisfaction, relief or distraction, and all working to maintain the status quo. Unraveling the skein of social interaction, personal ritual and biochemical dependency therefore requires a superbly concerted effort. This assertion was delivered, somewhat ironically, within the pale of “Mad Russian” Yefim Shubentsov, who for decades has claimed to cure 80% of incoming smokers with one deft wave of a bioenergetic placebo.

While none tasteful enough to be reading this tastiest of blogs could ever be tagged an addict of any sort, it is true that for most of us, it is no single aspect of the tea experience, but a veritable congeries, that drives our ongoing engagement. Consider, for example, a few elements:
  • Learn: read, watch videos, attend workshops, sit with veterans
  • Buy: in shops, on-line, via telephone and post
  • Covet: un/pack, inspect, admire; look, sniff, handle
  • Exchange: share, trade, re-sell, swap samples
  • Criticize: write and speak, assess and review
–and infusing all of these, we hope: Drink! Alone in placid contemplation, convivially as a common focus, tangentially as a quenching and revivifying beverage, integratively as a complement to food, tactically as a stimulant, ritually as a foundation for or embodiment of some broader binding practice.

To hold a delicate creature too closely is to risk choking it, and to reify one transient experience is to constrain the space in which the next will appear. A great part of any mindful exercise of sensuality must therefore be what the Japanese recently call mono no aware, the bittersweet (like a good gyokuro) poignancy of the transient suchness of things. It is a benign expression of wabi-sabi, the gentle communion with transiency itself: the anicca of Gautama; panta rhei attributed to Heraclitus; tides of Tao that do nothing, but through which all things are done. Love each sip and let it go. This is one reason that so many of us, when the illusion of time permits, enjoy gongfu brewing: ten, twenty, even thirty thimbled aliquots of liquor taken in evolving, modulated yet never “controlled” succession from one broad pinch of admired leaf. Taste memory, unpacking the various synæsthesias and comparing this tongue-lave with the last, and the one before that, and many more previous—that is part of the maven’s pleasure. But even without the neurological renormalization that evicts unvarying stimuli into limbo, the limits of our attention make clutching at any one moment’s sensation futile. Better to accept Ovid’s dictum: omnia mutantur, nihil interit: everything changes; nothing is lost. Experiences we cannot remember, even in dream, retain the power forever to alter, amplify and enrich the experiences that follow. So let it be with this morning’s cuppa.

With taste and aroma evanescent, circumstance and company variably fugacious, and the mystic leaf itself a living thing whose maturation and senescence may encompass from weeks to a few score years at dry-stored best, where do we find our concrete exemplars, our durable symbols, the persistent artifacts of our chosen pleasure? Fortunately, perhaps, there requires but a minimal equipage for the heating of water, moistening of leaf and delivery of effusions. So little is enough, to warm a Dalesman’s pre-dawn fingers, lubricate a conclave of Odessan elders or Nyhavn knitters, take each of us—in mind, at least—to reclusion or refuge in our own ten-foot square hut. (Though Thoreau, in his splendid renunciation, apparently found no room for our leaf in his life: “...I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them...”) It is only the conspicuously wealthy, the bored and sated, those requiring expressions of formality to construe meaning in lives set too remote from Nature, who require more. But we are not a species that limits choice according to requirement, so...

With desiderata well in hand, we may wish more carefully or elegantly to store our leafy or lumpy taels, temper water, measure and manipulate the various substances at their various stages. Most often we provide drinking cups, rather than sucking from a common spout (or aiming streams throatward as camel-riders might pass a skin of koumiss), which in turn invites the fair-pot. And then a splashable tray or “tea ocean” on which to perform all these operations, and whisks, picks, funnels, spoons, scoops and other small tools, and perhaps dishes on which to display fresh and spent leaves. Und so weiter, right up to digital thermometers and scales and timers. As though the wings of savory camellia could be pinned to objective time! People of a collecting temperament will have favorite objects, favorite classes of objects, favorite materials, styles, countries of origin; and otherwise establish personal taxonomies of acquisitiveness. And in contrast to the plainsong European aesthetic, aficionados of the Asian schools are free to harmonize gear according to any modality, or none at all. At a certain state of tea-drunkenness, every object looks good; and even before that, the manifest exercise of discrimination and pleasure affords any soul’s accretion of gear its own special numen. My own favorite pieces, modest though they be, span five cultures, four countries and three centuries, and have little in common past a high silica content.

Yet while proclivities vary, as do budgets, access to suppliers, storage and display space, tolerance of cohabitors, threats from light-fingered adults and rambunctious pets or children, most “tea freaks” tend to focus their collecting on the core unit operation—brewing—and therefore acquire a multiplicity of pots and cups even when they have few or none of the many other optional items. In some cases, collecting is itself the main passion, to which the making and serving of potions is mere justification or occasional distraction. For techies, the search for that perfect pot (perhaps one for each type of tea, time of day, class of company, style of service, etc.) is both drive and excuse. For crafts appreciators, the elegance of shape and construction, melding of material to form and function, may incite a desire for great diversity, or conversely to subtler variations around a chosen sameness. (Someone in my past collected Art Deco photographic light meters. Go figure.) Utility, sensuality, investment... For whatever reason, ownership of teapots may quickly become a self-reinforcing cycle.

Though raised on free-leaf tea, with recent decades' reading and travel somewhat expanding scope of knowledge and appreciation, I have safely evaded that unseemly obsession. A recent inventory of my shelves showed just 46 teapots, of which a good quarter are mainly retained for the memories they decant, unusual form, specialist applicability or to complement other displayed items. To be sure, this does not count a smaller number of in-use gaiwans, plus a score or two of both kept on hand as gifts for neophytes who have yet to develop their own preferences. (I would no sooner give a pot or gaiwan unasked to a serious tea-drinker than I would an unsolicited reed to a saxophonist. On one hand, I would not presume to be able to guess another’s tastes, and would not want to put either of us in an awkward position; on the other, I cannot afford teaware of a quality that would constitute a meaningful addition to most of my friends’ collections. But that first Yixing pot or glazed gaiwan is almost always welcome.) Yet even with so sparse a collection, one may eventually find a piece to be surplus to my needs (and even wants). In this case, I usually give the spare to a friend. Like a piano or a sense of humor, a cared-for teapot improves with use. So there is collective benefit in acquiring many pots and keeping few.

Occasionally, though, a pot is not fit to be either used or donated. One such came my way during an expedition to San Francisco’s Chinatown incident to a nearby photonics conference. Not much attractive teaware to be found there at all, and tea of notable quality pretty sparse as well. So it is with our degraded Disneys; real people and the real tea they drink tend not to feature on the tourist maps. But my Geiger counter did perk up in a basement-level knicknack shop, where sat a bad implementation of a bad rendering of one of the most delicious pots I have ever had the pleasure to see, handle and use, at The Tea Gallery in NYC. (Alas, the proprietors of the latter establishment would not sell at any price.) The imitation: rudely trimmed after clumsy slip-casting, with an ill-fit lid and spout too narrow for our lightning steeps, I still found the form compelling. Not $32 worth, but the tag was marked down by half, and it was sitting on a half-price table. Before I could ask for both discounts to be applied, the clerk had performed another binary fission. For $4, it was beyond a bargain, even if not quite pretty enough to display or pourable enough to use.

So sat it alone on the counter for a few years, thirsting for a useful role.

Then one day I noticed a general resemblance to ancient Mediterranean oil lamps. Though for external vision I prefer electric lighting when the sun is in flight, a butane camping torch when the power is out, or a candle lantern if vapors be exhausted, there is something inwardly delightful about an old-style lamp. Especially if one happens to keep a lot of extra-virgin cold-press olive juice around; that makes for a rather pleasanter aroma than, say, kerosene, tallow, or rendered whale blubber. With needle-nose pliers, I carefully snapped out the internal clay screen. When a cotton string proved to transport fuel too slowly, and commercial fiberglass wicks were all too big, I teased a bundle of just the right size from a spare bit of wood-stove door gasketing (available anywhere that cold and cordwood meet, probably at no charge for the snippet required) and threaded it down the spout. Here is the result:

Is it perfect? Not hardly, at least in this relative world. Classical lamps often have a shallow cup surrounding the wick, so that oil—which, as we all know, tends to be pulled away from the flame by a thermal variant of the same Marangoni Effect that engenders wine tears—does not drip down the spout. You can see a hint of this in the photo; though it has not progressed beyond a slight slick, I still keep the lamp in a small saucer. (Japanese porcelain with a blue fugu design, per the crossing of styles mentioned above.) Is it useful? Useful‽ How did that get in there? It is pleasing to eye and nose. Alas, it would not suit for warming o-cha no mizu, or even brightening a brew-table: the aroma, though delicious, would overpower most infusions. Perhaps I’ll make another with an orange-yellow flickering LED in the spout and a fake-flame cellophane tassel above. Or perhaps not. Does tea-seed oil smell nicely when it burns?

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha reminds us that

... this is how to contemplate our existence
in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.

Sometimes it takes a dream to reveal dream, an illusion to reveal that all is illusion, a flickering lamp to reveal a more persistent and immanent radiance. It is said that of the four million words put into Buddha’s mouth since the Council of Arhats, the only surviving ones that actually came out of it were his last, beginning with

Atta dipa viharatha: You are the light itself; here abide.

Until we each and all arrive at that non-place of no-attainment, we need all the illumination we can find. In that spirit, this Yankee-thrift tip for turning an object of limited utility into another of equally limited but different utility—like Gaiman’s werewolf who treasured “a small bone that he had carved into the shape of a small bone”—is offered in humble hope that it may bring pleasure and, in these parlous times, help to generate honorable employment for out-of-work teapots everywhere.

Yi Mok and the Ch’abu 茶賦

When Yi Mok wrote the Ch’abu 茶賦 (Korean Ode to Tea) in the late fourteen hundreds, the Ode joined the long and illustrious history of tea. For centuries, Korean court annalists wrote of tea in the kingdom’s earliest records, and scholars and poets filled their literary compilations with belles lettres devoted to the herb. But until the Ode, there was no formal Korean treatment of tea. Yi Mok was the first to write in detail about tea on behalf of the literati, and for his contribution to the distinctive peninsular culture of tea, he is known as the Father of Tea Koreana.

Yi Mok lived during a time when the Korean throne and state were governed by a staunchly neo-Confucian ruler and bureaucracy. With the destruction of the Koryō dynasty (918-1392 A.D.), the Chosŏn (1392-1910 A.D.) government discredited and disbanded the Buddhist establishment, its priests defrocked or driven into seclusion. Few monasteries were sanctioned under the Chosŏn, and the diminished Buddhist hierarchy was strictly controlled by the Confucianist government. Tea survived in the remaining temples where abbots and priests used tea in ritual and ceremony and employed the herb as a meditational aid. As an aesthetic practice, tea was preserved within Buddhism by individual priests and small groups of monks living in remote mountain hermitages scattered throughout the country, especially in the distant south where terrain, climate, and warm ocean currents were favorable to wild and cultivated tea.

By comparison, tea flourished greatly in the royal palace and at court. Like the Koryō before them, the Chosŏn adopted tea, and early in the dynasty routines of tea were administered daily by a special office staffed by bureaucrats with specific grades and official titles. In 1474, the rites of state included tea in the conduct of major ceremonies. As tea was maintained as a ritual necessity at the government level, society and common etiquette prescribed tea for ceremonies at the coming of age, weddings, funerals, and memorials. Although observed as an essential part of official and daily life, tea as a form of beauty or pleasure or spiritual attainment gradually faded, except among the literati such as Yi Mok.

Hanjae Yi Mok 寒齋 李穆 (1471-1498 A.D.) was a member of the governing class of Confucian scholar-officials (yangban 兩班). His father, Yi Yun-Saeng 李閏生 (active ca. 15th century A.D.), served the royal court of King Sŏngjong 成宗 (née Yi Hyeŏl 李娎; reign 1469-1495) with the title of Third Minister. Yi Mok was a brilliant student. At the age of eighteen, he passed the State Examinations and was awarded the chinsa 進士 degree. Even as a young man, he was known for his strong moral convictions and courage, suffering exile late in 1489 for his stands against the throne; the following year, he was allowed to return to Seoul. But in 1498, Yi Mok was caught up in the Muo sahwa 戊午士禍, the first of several violent “literati purges” ordered by Prince Yŏnsan (Yŏnsan-gun 燕山君; Yi Yong 李隆; reign 1494-1506 A.D.). Yi Mok was executed at the age of twenty-seven.

In his short life, Yi Mok experienced the art of tea from an early age as clan ritual as well as family ceremony and etiquette. The habit of tea was reinforced as a scheduled refreshment in the regimen of the Confucian academies he attended as a student and scholar. As an official, he took tea as a regular feature of government, an institutional nicety punctuating meetings throughout the bureaucratic day. He was likely taught to appreciate tea in the literati manner by his teachers and friends. But aside from the routine exposure to tea common to all Korean scholars of the time, Yi Mok admitted he did “not understand tea.” In the early Chosŏn, all major works on tea were from China. It was only after reading the Chajing 茶經 (Book of Tea, 780 A.D.) by the Chinese tea master Lu Yü that Yi Mok “gained a little” of tea’s “true nature” and came to “treasure it.” Through the Chajing and later Chinese writings, he gained a purely continental perspective on tea. In 1496, he was sent to China and spent some months in the Ming capital at Beijing where he learned more about tea from his academic sponsors, Chinese teachers and counterparts, and friends before returning to Korea. At some time between 1496 and1498, Yi Mok was moved to write the Ch’abu, a learned rhapsody of tea in a high literary prose that circulated among his family and friends in the scholarly and official communities in Korea as well as in China, where he undoubtedly maintained contacts.

As for the reasons why he wrote the Ch’abu, Yi Mok responded to critics who equated tea with burdensome taxes and the ills of the people, saying, “How can this be the intention of Heaven? No doubt, it is the fault of man, not tea.” He observed that the ancients made the things that pleased them better known. If viewing the moon or drinking wine were the source of pleasure, poets wrote rhapsodies and poetry about them; songs were sung and music composed about the delights of the zither or the beauty of chrysanthemums. Declaring that tea was the highest of all pleasures, he lamented that none thus far had extolled its virtues and likened the situation to the abuse of a worthy man. Luxuriating in the poetic moment, he waxed lyrical; warming with enthusiasm to his subject, Yi Mok exaggerated.

In truth, many Korean writers and poets had over the centuries contributed greatly to the art and philosophy of tea. The scholar Yi Kyu-bo 李奎報 (1168-1241) proclaimed that tea and the Way were the same, and Yi Saek 李檣 (1328-1396) promoted tea as as a spiritual discipline and a means to Enlightenment. Yi Kyu-bo and Yi Saek were intimately familiar with Chinese teas, referring to the many continental varieties in their poetry and writings. The poet Sŏ Kŏ-jŏng 徐居正 (1420-1488) wrote fondly of “birds’ tongue” tea and spent his time picking tender “buds of golden dew.” Brewing his tea in an ancient tripod, Sŏ Kŏ-jŏng compared his poems to the Song of Tea and himself to the Chinese Daoist Lu Tong 陸仝 (775-835). Tea had been cultivated in Korea since the ninth century and was sent periodically to the courts of China as tribute through the dynasties. In return, imperial Chinese emissaries presented to Korean kings gifts of tea and costly tea equipage and wares. Indeed, Yi Mok’s trip to Beijing was an example of the enduring relations between China and Korea, representing just a single instance amidst the countless cultural connections held in common by the empire and kingdom.

Returning home, Yi Mok resolved to write the Ode in order to “investigate the names of tea, examine their places of production, and judge their superior and inferior qualities.” He composed the Ch’abu in classical Chinese using an extremely elegant but highly literary style. Accepting completely the purely Daoist origins and uses of tea, Yi Mok referred exclusively to the apocrypha and ignored the proprietary claims of Buddhism on its practice. Such use of arcane Daoist figures and esoteric lore tested the knowledge of common academics: only the cognoscenti could fully comprehend the Ch’abu and appreciate Yi Mok’s scholarship and sensitivity to the art of tea. The literati were composed of members of the Confucian elite and, despite the intolerance of their religion in the early Chosŏn, included like minded Buddhist clerics and laity. The Ode was not only a work of literary merit, but also a rare fifteenth-century record of tea; moreover, it was on a par with the Chapu 茶譜 (Treatise on Tea, 1440) by the Chinese Ming imperial prince Zhu Qüan 朱權 (1378-1448).

Though thoroughly laced with Chinese allusions and imagery, the Ch’abu may be justifiably viewed as an essentially Korean expression of tea, a significant and distinguished work replete with the tastes, sentiments, and remarkable insights of the young but gifted master, Yi Mok.

Figure 1: Portrait of Cho Chae-ho 趙載法, Duke of Pungwon, 18th century
Korea: Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910)
album painting: ink and color on silk
35.5cm x 27.3cm, Mounted: 44.4cm x 33.2cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art

Korean Tea Texts, Classical and Modern [iii]: An Outline and Select Highlights of the Dongdasong《東茶頌》

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of entries by Warren Peltier on Korean tea texts. For the first and second entries, click here and here. This third entry is an examination of the Dongdasong of Seon monk Cho Ui 艸衣禪師.]]

Previously, we looked at a broad overview of Korean tea books both classical and modern. When we examine the contents of Cho Ui’s book Dongdasong (Praise for Eastern Tea) 《東茶頌》, we can learn many things about Cho Ui himself. It’s apparent that he was very well versed in Chinese tea classics. He must have spent a tremendous amount of time gathering tea references, studying them, and then being inspired to write poetic verses about them. He is one of Korea’s greatest tea scholars. We should admire him for his works and contribution to tea culture and tea history. Here I provide a closer look at the general contents of the Dongdasong, a 2,300-word essay divided into 31 parts.

Part 1 is a description of the tea plant and its characteristics. Cho Ui quotes the Classic of Tea 《茶經》where Lu Yu describes the tea tree for us: “The tea tree is like the Gualu, leaves like gardenia, flower like white rose.” Gualu 瓜蘆 is also called Gaolu 臯蘆, which we know today as Kuding cha or Ilex kudingcha; the leaves of which were also prepared and drunk as tea even in ancient times. (Gualu and Gaolu are ancient words for this plant.)

Part 3 quotes Shen Nong's Classic of Food 《神農食經》: “When tea is consumed for a long time, it causes one to gain strength.” Cho Ui records the quote as coming from Yandi's Classic of Food《炎帝食經》; the two figures are sometimes regarded as being the same person. This quote comes from Chapter 7 of Lu Yu's Classic of Tea. Shen Nong's Classic of Tea, if it ever existed, is a long-lost book; only fragmentary evidence of it remains in quotes such as these.

Part 4 cites Luo Da Jing’s 羅大經 Song-dynasty poem Tea Sounds 《茶聲》:

Pine winds and juniper rains first arrive; Quickly I lift brass bottle to leave bamboo stove.

Waiting until after voices heard all fall silent; One bowl of Spring Snow surpasses fine wine.

Note: 'Pine winds and juniper rains' is a poetic way to describe the sound of boiling water. It’s like wind soughing in the pines and light rain falling on juniper branches. This is exactly the moment to remove the brass bottle (kettle) from the tea stove, in order to prevent the water temperature from rising too high for green tea. When all sounds fall silent (as from the kettle), a bowl of powdered green tea picked in early spring is sipped in quiet contemplation -- a beverage to which not even the best wine can compare.

Part 5 quotes the Er Ya's 《爾雅》definition of Jia 檟, one of the ancient characters for tea: “Jia is bitter tu”. The Guang Ya 《廣雅》 dictionary is also quoted: “In the areas of Jing and Ba the leaves are picked as a drink; aids in sobering from alcohol. It makes one sleep less. Both of these entries are found in Chapter 7 of the Classic of Tea.

Part 6 cites an anecdote about tea in the Yanzi Chunqiu 《晏子春秋》which is also recorded in Chapter 7 of the Classic of Tea. The Yanzi Chunqiu is a record of taking tea with meals, and is important because it illustrates the use of tea as a food (rather than a beverage) early on in the history of China. Yanzi Chunqiu was written in the Spring and Autumn period, around 550 BCE.

Part 7 cites the Shen Yi Ji 《神異記》, which gives a tale of picking tea. This too is recorded in the Classic of Tea, Chapter 7 《茶經七之事》 .

Part 8 quotes a story from the Yi Yuan 《異苑》 which gives a tale of offering tea to spirits. Also recorded in the Classic of Tea, Chapter 7 《茶經七之事》 .

Part 9 cites Zhang Meng Yang’s 張孟陽 poem, 'Deng Cheng Du Lou Shi' 《登成都樓詩》. Yet again, this is recorded in the Classic of Tea, Chapter 7 《茶經七之事》.

Part 10 gives an account of Sui Dynasty emperor Sui Wen Di 隨文帝 drinking tea; found in Sui Shu 《隨書》; and finding it efficacious as a medicine. Sui Shu is a history of the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE), written in the Tang.

Part 11 cites another Tang Dynasty historical record, the Yun Xian Za Ji《雲仙雜記》 by Feng Zhi 馮贄. This contains an anecdote from yet another historical record, the Man Ou Zhi 《蠻甌志》, of the custom at the Jue Lin Temple 覺林寺of producing 3 grades of tea; the highest grade, “Purple Horn Velvet Fragrance,” was reserved and used as an offering to Buddha, while the lowest-grade tea was consumed by the monks.

Part 12 gives reference to Du Yang Za Bian 《杜陽雜編》 by Su E 蘇鶚; written in the Tang Dynasty. The tea served to Princess Tong Chang 同昌公主 had nicknames like “green flower” and “purple bloom.”

Part 14 mentions Cai Xiang of the Song dynasty. And mention is made of the green cake teas called Dragon Phoenix Ball (Long Feng Tuan) 龍鳳團 of what is now the Wuyi and Jianou area of Fujian. Dragon Phoenix Ball was an Imperial Tribute Tea.

The ideas in part 15 are cited from Cai Xiang's 蔡襄 Record of Tea 《茶錄》, written in the Song; the remarks repeated are found under the heading “Fragrance.” Tea has natural fragrance and taste. Anything added to the tea (to try to improve flavor or scent) effectively spoils it.

Part 18 cites Northern Song-dynasty references from the Chuan Ming Record《荈茗錄》, written by Tao Gu 陶谷. In this book, the Wuyi area is poetically described as “countryside of vermilion mountains and green waters.” The book, part of a larger work, is divided into 18 sections which describe some interesting anecdotes during this era in tea history.

Part 21 cites Su Yi's 蘇廙 16 Grades of Hot Water 《十六湯品》, written in the Tang Dynasty. This book describes the states or condition of boiling water for tea and classifies them into 16 grades. The book expands upon the states of boiled water as described in Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea.

Part 22 quotes the Classic of Tea: “Tea has Nine Difficulties; one is manufacture, two is distinguishing quality, three is utensils, four is fire, five is water, six is roasting, seven is powder, eight is boiling, nine is drinking....” These are what Lu Yu considers as the main points to grasp in producing a satisfactory, salubrious bowl of tea.

Part 26 cites Lu Yu's Classic of Tea 《茶經》and other sources giving reference to the best growing conditions (soils, mountains) necessary to produce the finest tea; while stating which types of tea buds make the finest tea.

Part 27 gives reference to Zhang Yuan's Record of Tea. He cites the section on picking tea. In Record of Tea, picking tea the first 5 days before Gu Yu (Before the Rains) is the finest tea; second in quality is the 5 days after Gu Yu (After the Rains); inferior is the next 5 days after this period. Then, Cho Ui states for picking Eastern Tea, before or after Gu Yu is too early. But after Li Xia (Start of Summer) passes, this is the proper time to pick it. So tea-picking times vary depending on growing area.

Part 28 also cites Zhang Yuan's Record of Tea, this time citing the section on tea manufacture.

Part 29 also cites the section on Brew Method from Zhang Yuan's Record of Tea. There is also some interesting commentary added to it.

Part 30 quotes Lu Tong’s 盧仝 'Tea Song'《七碗茶歌》.

Part 31 also quotes Zhang Yuan's Record of Tea, the section titled 'Tea Drinking Method'; but perhaps a better title would be 'Tea Enjoyment Method.' This section in Zhang Yuan’s book doesn’t specifically state how tea should be drunk, but rather, with how many guests to drink tea.

Korean Tea Texts, Classical and Modern [ii]: The Cha Bu of Hanjae Yi Mok

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of entries by Warren Peltier on Korean tea texts. For the first and third entries, click here and here.]]

In this entry I offer a summation of the basic ideas expressed by Hanjae in Cha Bu, accompanied by my own notes and commentary.

First, Hanjae observes that the common people drink to be happy. The common people engage themselves in material things, or idle entertainment or delectable tastes. They are happy to the end of days and never tiresome of it. What kind of character is this? Like Li Bai 李白 embracing the moon (while drunk and then drowning); or like Liu Bo Lun 劉伯倫 (also known as Liu Ling 劉伶), drinking crazily all the time. It is enjoyment without restraint: occupied with collecting material things, wasting energy on fun, overindulging in food and drink. Such as was the case with Tang poet Li Bai (Li Po). Li Bai loved wine, and he wrote many poems about drinking wine. Finally, he was said to have drowned while drunk, trying to grasp the moon. Liu Ling (flourished during the Western Jin dynasty) was an even more hopeless drunkard. There are many anecdotes of his drinking bouts. For example, he would walk about the house naked; when people saw him and made some comment about his state of undress, he would remark: “Heaven and Earth is my abode; this house my clothing. What are you doing under my clothes?”

Hanjae sates himself by reading Master Lu's (Lu Yu) Classic of Tea and absorbing the essence of the book, his heart cherished this marvelous work. Moreover, enjoyment of tea is not like enjoyment of wine or song. Tea is highly efficacious; and good for the body.

Next follows a discussion of some of the Chinese characters used for tea and the names of individual teas. These include 'ming' 茗, 'chuan' 荈, and 'she' 蔎. Then there are tea names such as Immortal Palm, Sound of Thunder, Bird Beak, Sparrow's Tongue, Waxed Face, Dragon Phoenix, Tender Flower Bud, Pure Mouth, Before the Rains, After the Rains, Pre-Spring, Early Spring, Double Brook, etc.

Hanjae then names geographic areas where the soils are suitable for tea growing. He also lists many different Chinese characters containing the 'mountain' radical ('shan,' 山), and says that these are places for growing tea. Moreover, tea comes in myriad types. There are the purple, green, light-green, and yellow leaf types; early sprouting, late sprouting; short leaf, and long leaf types.

He then goes on to describe the process of brewing and drinking tea, and the scenery in which he brews tea. He has a jade-green bowl, and himself boils mountain spring water. Many ancient poets write of preferring to boil their own water personally, since they could thus be assured of the quality of the tea. And there is also much satisfaction to be taken from brewing the perfect bowl of tea. While boiling the water, he has a view of white steam rising out of kettle. This becomes an occasion for a flight of poetic fancy: he can see summer clouds and the mountain brook amid mountain gorges. The water starts to boil producing great waves like those of a river in spring. The sound of the water boiling is a swish swish sound like a frosty wind whistling in bamboo and cypress groves.

In a more literary and descriptive form, he borrows from the theme of Seven Bowls of Tea from Lu Tong's poem; and describes the environment and feeling of drinking seven bowls of tea to become light in body; able to rise to the heavens and become an immortal.

Five Functions of Tea

Hanjae also ascribes Five Functions to tea: to quench thirst; to provide abundant conversation; to aid host and guest in cherishing their mutual connection; to fight parasitic illness; and to prevent hangovers. These are all very practical reasons why one should drink tea, and drink it often.

Six Virtues of Tea

Then Hanjae says there are Six Virtues of tea. Condensed to one word apiece, they are: Longevity, Recovery, Calm, Leisure, Immortality, and Etiquette.

Hanjae makes several assertions about the drinking of tea, in the process referring to a number of well-known legendary or historical individuals (on all of whom, see below). He claims that tea
• Causes longevity; imparting to the drinker the virtue of Emperors Yao and Shun.
• Causes one to recover from illness, to have the virtue of speedy recovery just as if from treatment by the miraculous physician Bian Que.
• Causes one to have a calm mind; to have the virtue of Bai Yi and Yang Zhen.
• Causes one to be put in a leisurely mood; to have the virtue of the Two Ancients and the Four White Beards.
• Causes on to become an Immortal, like Laozi and the Yellow Emperor
• Affords one the opportunity to learn etiquette, to have the virtue of the Duke of Zhou and Confucius.

Hanjae says that Jade River (or Yu Chuan -- the refined name for Lu Tong) tasted tea with praise in his 'Seven Bowls of Tea' song. Master Lu (Lu Yu) happily tasted tea traveling about the country, surveying tea-growing areas and the quality of the teas in those places. He dedicated his life to tea without need for an official post or for material things.

Hanjae summarizes by expressing the idea, since in my heart there is tea, then what need for those impermanent, material things? Tea is sufficient contentment in and of itself to last a lifetime.

Historical Figures Mentioned in the Six Virtues of Tea

Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 were legendary emperors of China. They were benevolent rulers and their kingdoms prospered. They are often held up as examples of fairness, good rule and governance. They lived a long time. On the other hand, rulers who were cruel and vicious to their subjects had a very short rule and a short life, since the common people would rebel against them.

The story of Bian Que 扁鵲 is related in the Han Fei Zi《韓非子》. One day Bian Que went to visit Duke Cai Heng 蔡桓公. Just at glancing at him, Bian Que said: “I see that you're ill. You have an infection on your skin. If not treated, it will spread internally.” The Duke, however, was unbelieving and simply replied: “I'm not sick.” After Bian Que left, Duke Heng remarked: “Doctors always want to claim people are sick and prescribe medicines in the hope of receiving rich rewards; and thus prove to everyone they attained a high level of medical skill.”

After ten days, Bian Que again visited Duke Heng and said: “Your illness has already spread between skin and muscle. If not treated, your condition will become more serious.” Duke Heng said nothing; and Bian Que left.

After another ten days, Bian Que came to visit again. He said to Duke Heng: “Your illness has already spread into the stomach and intestines. If not treated, your condition will become more serious.” Duke Heng said nothing again; and Bian Que left.

After another ten days, Bian Que caught a glimpse of Duke Heng from afar; but this time he lowered his head and ran off without bothering to greet the Duke. Duke Heng thought this was strange, so he sent someone over to ask Bian Que what was wrong. Bian Que said: “Skin disease can be cured with hot water by scalding. Illness between skin and muscle can be treated by acupuncture. When illness spreads to stomach and intestines, it can be treated by a dose of an herbal decoction. But once illness has entered the bone marrow, doctors have no course of treatment to follow. Now your lord's illness has entered his marrow. I can't give him any treatment that will work effectively.”

Five days later, Duke Heng was suffering severe pain and sent for physician Bian Que. But Bian Que was nowhere to be found. He had escaped to the Kingdom of Qin, so as not to be blamed for the Duke's worsening condition, lack of treatment, and likely death. Duke Heng then died. The moral of this story is to always immediately seek medical attention before one's condition worsens beyond help.

Bian Que lived (407-310 BCE) during the Spring and Autumn or Warring States period. He was from what is now Jinan 濟南, in Shandong province.

Bai Yi 伯夷 (lived around 1140 BCE)
Bai Yi lived during the time of King Zhou of the Shang 商紂王. King Zhou was a ruthless king, so Bai Yi lived in seclusion in the mountains far away from his madness. He got news that King Wen had made his country stable and development was very fast; so he decided to leave the mountain and see for himself. While Bai Yi was on the road, he met the soldiers of King Wen’s son and heir, King Wu. Realizing that King Wen had died, and seeing that King Wu was using all the carts and horses to make a raid on King Zhou of the Shang, he remarked: “The father is dead and not even buried yet and already they are going to war. Is this the way to show filial piety?” Later, King Wu killed off everyone of the royal family in the Shang dynasty court, and founded a new dynasty, the Zhou dynasty. This occurred in the year 1046 BCE. Bai Yi severely detested the actions of King Wu, feeling them very shameful. He then vowed never to eat any food from the Zhou Kingdom. However, at that time, the rule of Zhou was very wide. He then went to Shou Yang Mountain 首陽山 to pick and live on wild fiddleheads. Bai Yi, however, realized he would soon die of starvation with only mountain plants to live on. And so he did, holding steadfast to his virtue. Because of his integrity and moral values, he was highly praised by Confucianists thereafter, and considered a good moral example to follow.

Yang Zhen 楊震 (59-124 CE) from a very young age loved to study. When he was older and educated, he became a dedicated teacher, accepting many students while not discriminating between rich or poor. He taught over 2,000 students, becoming very famous. Later he had even more students, and his disciples numbered over 3,000 -- a number comparable to the number of disciples that Confucius had. Because of his ideals and calm temperament, he did a great deed for society; and he serves as an example for inspiration.

The term 'Two Ancients' refers to Laozi 老子 (literally meaning “Old Master”; author of the foundational Daoist text Dao De Jing 《道德經》; venerated by Daoists as a god and immortal) and Lao Lai Zi (“Old Master Lai 老萊子), both of whom were reputed to have lived a very long time. Lao Lai Zi (599-479 BCE) lived during the same time as Confucius. He was a famous thinker and one of the original creators of Daoist philosophy, as of course was Laozi.

The term 'Four White Beards' refers to the Four White Beards of Shang Shan 商山四皓. These were four men who during the Qin period lived as recluses on Shang Mountain. Because they were all men in their eighties, with white hair, eyebrows, and beards, they are known as the “Four White Beards” ('Si Hao,' 四皓). Specifically, they were:
Dong Yuan Gong 東園公
Xia Huang Gong 夏黃公
Qi Li Ji 綺裡季
Lu Li Xian Sheng 甪裡先生
They were all highly respected and virtuous people. They were once Imperial Court Officials but left their positions to live in the mountains because of the volatile nature of the Qin imperial court.

The Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) 黃帝 (2697-2599 BCE) was one of the Five Legendary Emperors of China. In the Daoist religion, he too is venerated as an immortal. There are many anecdotes attributed to him talking about the Way.

The Duke of Zhou (also known as Zhong Gong Dan 周公旦) was thought to have been the primary creator of the Book of Changes (Yi Jing or 'I Ching' 《易經》) in its present form. A highly respected figure in the eyes of Confucius himself, he was later venerated by Confucianists, and had a profound influence on Confucian philosophy. The Duke of Zhou is also credited with writing or compiling the Er Ya dictionary, so he also has a direct connection to the history and literature tea; See Chapter 7 of Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea.

Confucius (Kong Zi 孔子), or Master Kong (551-479 BCE), was a famous philosopher and educator during the Spring and Autumn period in China. His proper name was Kong Qiu 孔丘; and his refined name was Zhong Ni 仲尼. He was from the state of Lu 魯國. He was perhaps the most influential philosopher of China, and also the founder of Confucian school of philosophy 儒家. He wrote the Analects (Lun Yu) 《 論語 》; added appendices to the Book of Changes (Zhou Yi) 《周易》; and wrote or revised many other classical texts. Confucius wrote much about propriety and etiquette,and is an important figure in the Book of Rites (Li Ji) 《禮記》, where many of his teachings are found.

Korean Tea Texts, Classical and Modern [i]: An Overview

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a recent review of THE TRUE HISTORY OF TEA, DougH laments that book's almost total omission of information on Korean tea culture. This is surely an important lacuna in any truly comprehensive account of tea history and culture; and indeed it is about to be remedied, in part, by the publication (by Seoul Selection) of THREE KOREAN TEA CLASSICS, a translation project headed by Brother Anthony of Taize, whose elegant THE KOREAN WAY OF TEA is a treasure; a principal contributor to this forthcoming work is Steven D. Owyoung, an eminent regular contributor to CHA DAO. But in the meantime, our readers may want to know a bit about the premodern tradition of tea in Korean culture, the classical texts that this spawned, and where to go to read some modern material (in Korean or English) on tea. Even the aficionado fairly well-versed in the teas of Pacific Asia may not have tasted the delicate and delicious teas of Korea; and even those who have had this pleasure, would probably find it difficult to name one classical Korean treatise on tea, or their writers. In fact, this almost has the nature of a trick question, as Hangul (한글 'Great Script') , the native Korean writing system, was not developed until 1443 or 1444 CE. Before that time, in any case, literary texts in Korea were written in literary Chinese (wenyanwen 文言文 = 문언문); and even after the fifteenth century, this literary form of Chinese was long in use as the language of Korean literary texts. ¶ ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Warren Peltier (well known to readers of CHA DAO as Niisonge, but also in China as Xia Yun-Feng [夏雲峰]), is currently conducting research on Chinese tea classics, and is preparing a series of tea books about his findings. His first book, tentatively titled The Ancient Art of Chinese Tea, is under contract with Tuttle Publishing; we dare to hope that it will see the light of day very soon. Watch these pages for more news about Warren's forthcoming tea books. In the meantime, we offer here the first of several entries by Warren on Korean tea texts. For the second and third entries, click here and here.]]

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Just as Latin was the literary language of Europe and used by so many, so literary Chinese remained a very important scholarly lingua franca -- not only for the Chinese themselves, but also for Koreans, Japanese, and many other ethnic peoples in China and Asia, including Vietnamese and Mongolians. What follows here is, first, a summary of the main authors and basic corpus of classical Korean tea books -- composed in literary Chinese -- and then a few resources, in modern Korean and English, on tea and tea culture.



Three principal Korean authors of classical works on tea are YI MOK, JEONG YAK-YONG, and CHO UI.

• Yi Mok 이목 (李穆) (1471-1498), also known as Hanjae Yi Mok 한재 이목 (寒齋李穆) -- Hanjae being his 字 ('zi' or refined name).

• Jeong Yak-Yong 정약용 (丁若鏞) (1732-1836) was also named Dasan 茶山 or Tea Mountain; he also had other nicknames, including Three Eyebrows 三眉, Thatched Waiting Hut 俟庵, Purple Sunset Clouds Daoist 紫霞道人, Moss Old Man 苔叟, Bamboo Sheath Elder 籜翁, and Iron Horse Mountain Man 鐵馬山人. He was a noted philosopher. He is reputed to have written Dongdagi or Eastern Tea Record (東茶記 , 1785), though some hold that it was actually written by Yi Dok-Ri 李德履 (1728-?).

• Seon (Zen) Monk Cho Ui 초의 (艸衣; also written 草衣 , literally meaning “grass clothes”) (1786-1886); he was a disciple of Dasan, and studied tea for 40 years, which slowly culminated for him in a realization of tea and Buddhism. He wrote two tea books: Dasinjeon (Introduction to Tea) 茶神傳 (1830), and Dongdasong (Praise for Eastern Tea) 東茶頌 (1837).


I. Cha Bu (Tea Poetic Prose) 차부 《茶賦》

The Cha Bu is a 1,200-word text written by Hanjae Yi Mok. It is written in the literary Chinese style of short prose known as fu 賦 (Korean bu 부). This work was composed during the Joseon Dynasty (contemporaneous with the Ming Dynasty in China). During this period, Confucianism in philosophy and religion was an important facet of daily life. This is also the case in the text of the Cha Bu; Hanjae takes a very philosophical view of tea. Much of the text includes commentary on the author's own viewpoint of tea. At the same time he extols the virtues of tea. The entire text is written in a very descriptive literary style. The original Korean text gives clear evidence that Hanjae thought deeply, not only about the ideas he wanted to convey, but also about how to craft his sentences in a very creative and highly refined way.

First, he says that in the pursuit of happiness, people overindulge themselves to their own detriment. Then he implies, on the contrary, that excessive love of tea need not be detrimental to one’s health. Tea has many benefits. He then lists Five Functions of Tea, such as quenching the thirst, and so forth. Here he echoes the sentiments of previous tea-book writers of ancient China. He continues his discourse on tea philosophy by stating there are six tea virtues: Longevity, Recovery, Calm, Leisure, Immortality, and Etiquette. In this seems to be inspired by the Ten Virtues of Drinking Tea (Yin Cha Shi De) 《飲茶十德》 written by Buddhist monk Liu Zhen Liang 劉貞亮 (also known as Liu Zhen De 劉貞德) in the Tang Dynasty. Hanjae's virtues of drinking tea however, are much different from those of Liu Zhen Liang.

Hanjae concludes his text by implying that since great tea masters such as Lu Yu himself dedicated their lives to tea without seeking material gain or benefit, the quest for tea is a noble path. Therefore, there is no need for pleasures in material things which are merely impermanent. The pleasures of tea are enough to last a lifetime.

II. Dongdagi (Eastern Tea Record) 동다기 《東茶記》

The book, attributed to Jeong Yak-Yong, is around 1,700 characters in length. It is the earliest tea book in Korea. The book describes tea-plant growth according to season, saying it flowers in autumn and that buds form in winter. The tender buds are called Sparrow’s Tongue and Bird Beak. Old leaves are said to be known by various Chinese characters; such as “ming,” “jia,” “she,” and “chuan.” It states that the names for tea depend on whether the leaves were picked Before the Rains or After the Rains. Tender buds of Sparrow’s Tongue, for example, are picked Before the Rains. Leaves are also distinguished based on the number of leaves in a pluck (such as one leaf and one bud, two leaves and a bud), the length of the leaf stem, etc. It explains the bitterness and sweetness in tea; the difference between dark and light leaves; the scent and taste of tea. The book compares the taste, aroma and color of Eastern Tea 東茶 with that of some of the famous teas of China, such as Liuan tea 六安茶 and Mengshan tea 蒙山茶. The text also mentions how tea can keep one awake and be a beneficial aid in study (scholars) and meditation (monks). It also describes the growing conditions for tea: stony soils, and growing among bamboos, which can filter the light. It also describes how tea should be picked, and states that the finest tea is Tribute Tea (tea reserved only for the royal family); inferior is Official Tea (tea given to government officials).

III. Dasinjeon (Introduction to Tea) 다신전 《茶神傳》

Written by Cho Ui; this book, like the other Korean tea classics, was written in literary Chinese. This short volume (1,500 characters) is divided into 22 sections including: Picking Tea, Making Tea, Tea Differentiation, Tea Storage, Fire, Boil, Use of Old or Tender Boiled Water, Brew Method, Placing Tea, Drinking Tea, Fragrance, Color, Taste, Adding Extraneous Materials to Tea Loses Purity, Tea Can’t Be Used When its Nature is Changed, Tasting and Evaluating Springs, Well Water Unsuited to Tea, Storing Water, Tea Utensils, Tea Bowls, Bowl Wiping Cloth, Dado (or Chadao -- Way of Tea).

The entirety of this book's 22 sections are a direct, word-for-word copy of Zhang Yuan’s Record of Tea, written in the Ming dynasty. Only a small, 98-character section is appended at the end, stating that it is a copy of earlier work on the Way of Tea, and giving reference to Buddhism. It was customary in ancient times to copy books/scrolls onto paper so as to preserve copies.

IV. Dongdasong (Praise for Eastern Tea) 동다송 《東茶頌》

Written by Cho Ui, this 2,300-word book is divided into 31 verses. Each chapter has a short “verse” or main point, perhaps to offer topics for the reader's contemplation. Annotations follow each verse, to elaborate on the material.

The book contains direct or paraphrased quotes from many Chinese texts including the Er Ya dictionary, Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea, Zhang Yuan's Record of Tea, and other tea texts and historical documents of the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties. Jeong Yak-Yong’s Eastern Tea Record is also quoted.


The Philosophy of the Way of Tea 다도철학 《茶道의哲學》. By Jung-Young Sun 정영선 .

The Korean Way of Tea 한국의 다도 《韓國之茶道》1973. By Choi Beom Sul 최범술 (崔凡述 1904-1979); contains chapters 1-6 of the Classic of Tea, translated into modern Korean.

Korean Tea Culture 韓國의茶文化《韓國之茶文化》1981. By 김운학 Kim Un Hak (金雲學).

Bonus Link: More Bibliography of Modern Korean Tea Books: 茶文獻
Note: this list also contains some Chinese and Japanese tea books, but the majority are Korean.


The Korean Way of Tea. By Brother Anthony of Taize and Hong Kyeong-hee. Seoul: Seoul Selection 2007.

The Book of Korean Tea. By Yang-Seok (Fred) Yoo. Seoul: Myung Won Cultural Foundation 2007. (Includes English translations of Dasinjeon and Dongdasong.)

Green Life with Tea. By Kim Eui-Jung. [In English and Korean.] Seoul: Design House, 2007.

Bonus Link: The AmorePacific Museum of Art's permanent display on Korean tea culture.

Bonus Link: Arthur Park of MORNING EARTH POTTERY is organizing a very special TEA TOUR OF KOREA for later this year. Sign up now to reserve your place.

READER'S CORNER: DougH on The True History of Tea by Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh
Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh. THE TRUE HISTORY OF TEA. London: Thames & Hudson 2009. 280 pages. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.

There are those who believe we in the USA are seeing -- or are about to see -- or will someday see -- a significant increase in the popularity of tea. I have some doubts about this. But one argument in favor of such optimism could be based on the recent inundation of English-language books on tea. Ten or twelve years ago, there were almost no such books; there were (and still are) the classics -- James Norwood Pratt’s The New Tea Lover’s Treasury (1999) and the Chow/Kramer All the Tea in China (1990) -- and precious little else.

Now, however, there are dozens of books on all aspects of tea, and with every conceivable aim. CHA DAO has over the last couple of years been publishing occasional reviews of a few of the more noteworthy of these (click here, here, and here for some examples).

Many of the newer books follow to some extent -- often very closely -- the model established in Pratt’s book, and to a lesser extent in the Chow/Kramer book: some account of the history of tea, something about the “culture” of tea, and something about tea itself -- the types, the tastes, the steeping, and so on.

Pratt’s book set a pretty high bar for this kind of work, certainly by the standards of such work in English, and many of the newer books I’ve seen over the past few years do not measure up to that standard, much less exceed it. One of the biggest deficiencies of these is that while almost all their authors are native speakers of English, few if any are fluent in the language family that is by far the most important in the history (and arguably the culture) of tea: the Chinese family of languages. There is a more-than-1200-year history of writing about tea in China, going back at least to Lu Yu’s 780 CE Chajing; virtually nothing other than that has been translated into English (nor, probably, into any other Western language). The history of writings on tea in non-Chinese languages -- especially Western languages -- is pretty thin compared to this; there is some history of tea writing in Japanese and Korean, but these again are languages that few if any tea writers in English know.

Of course, the span of writing history is no guarantee of worthiness or current relevance (for a brief critique of the belief that Lu Yu is of any worth other than historical for tea drinkers today, see e.g. MarshalN's comments at the end of this blog entry). However, to not only not be acquainted with by far the longest-lived body of tea writing in the world, but to not even be able to be acquainted with it (because an author doesn’t speak or read Chinese) is clearly a serious deficiency.

The work considered here, The True History of Tea, by Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, does not have that problem. Mair is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and well known as a scholar in those fields. He has written, to quote the dust jacket, “many other works dealing with the culture and history of Central Eurasia, East Asia and South Asia.” He is clearly fluent in classical and modern Chinese. Almost all of the translations in the book are his, including two extensive translations of ancient Chinese manuscripts (included in Appendices A and B). For those interested in language as well as tea, Appendix C offers by far the most extensive treatment I have seen of the “genealogy” of words for tea in languages outside of China.

In other words, the authors can read both modern and pre-modern Chinese tea writings in their original language. And it shows. While this book is not the “be all and end all” of tea books -- and such is probably impossible and even nonsensical, since different readers will want different things from a book on tea -- it is one of the best books in English on tea I’ve seen, and probably overall the best book in English on the world history of tea. It places a more accurately proportional weight on the geographical areas covered: five chapters on China (plus portions of other chapters); two chapters on Japan; one on Russian-Chinese tea history; three chapters on the history of tea in Europe, Britain and the USA; and one on India and Sri Lanka (which inevitably includes various British figures). While this is still far from historically proportionate (perhaps 3000 years or more of Chinese tea history and roughly 1200 years of Japanese tea history compared with barely 400 years of Western tea history), it is much better than most other tea books in English accomplish.

Along the way, the authors visit China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Russia, the “Islamic world,” India and Sri Lanka, Europe and Britain, and even the USA. About the only significant tea culture the authors miss, for unknown (and unmentioned) reasons, is Korea, despite a tea history apparently at least as long as Japan’s (see, e.g., the articles here). The last chapter very briefly and thinly updates the narrative to the present.

You should know what this book is not. It is not a book along the Pratt line: other than a tiny little bit in the last chapter, there is nothing about the current tea scene anywhere in the world, the types of tea, the steeping or taste of tea, and so on. The closest to the latter occurs in the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, where we find the authors’ own tea preferences (p. 268). Paradoxically, perhaps, the Sinologist Mair’s love is Indian tea, and the Scandinavian Hoh’s love is Chinese tea. This work, as its title says, is primarily a history book, with a secondary emphasis on the tea culture of the various periods. If you want to learn to make tea, or learn about types of tea, or tastes of tea, you must go elsewhere.

The Prologue gives an excellent overview of the book and subject. Chapter 1 is a bit of an oddity. It seems more of an extension of the Prologue than a part of the book proper, and it’s a bit unclear to me why the authors spent valuable pages on a quick rundown of other stimulant alternatives to tea throughout the world. Given inevitable space limitations, this material seems a waste of space: surely these pages could have been devoted to something more relevant to the book’s topic, such as Korean tea history, or more extensive Chinese tea history (late-Qing and post-Qing, including Taiwan), or better coverage of the transition from powdered to loose-leaf tea.

Chapter 2 thus is really the beginning of the book’s subject. It quickly surveys the botany of tea (and other Camellia family members); the authors claim “botanists now place the center of its natural distribution in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra river in the Indian province of Assam, the northern parts of Burma and Thailand, Indochina and southwest China” -- followed by an even more whirlwind overview of the non-steeping tea preparation practices of various Asian peoples.

The chapter ends with a few pages covering both facts and informed speculation about the oldest-known uses of tea in China. It is apparently (and not surprisingly) quite difficult to determine much concrete information for the first millennia or so of tea in China -- basically all dates BCE. For example, the Ba people, who lived in what is now Sichuan province, are the earliest-known recorded users of tea (apparently around the first century BCE; see p. 29). The authors also note here a question that “has vexed generations of Chinese etymologists and bedevils the study of Chinese tea history all the way up to the Tang dynasty” (p. 29): the distinction, if any, between the historical use of the Chinese characters tu (荼) and cha (茶). In other words, when ancient texts used the character tu, did they really mean the tea plant, the same plant now referred to as cha? Apparently, nobody knows for sure, making it nearly impossible to truly uncover the earliest history of tea.

Chapters 3-6 and Chapter 9 cover the history of Chinese tea from essentially the first century CE through the fall of the Ming dynasty with the invasion of the Manchu in 1644, then to some extent into the resulting Qing (Manchu) dynasty.
The authors cover tea and tea history in the following broad subject areas in these chapters: Chapter 3: pre-Tang; Chapter 4: Tang Dynasty (618-907, including the famous Lù Yŭ); Chapter 5: Song Dynasty (960-1279); Chapter 6: the tea and horse trade, primarily with Tibet; Chapter 9: Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. The authors cover in interesting detail much relevant history in these periods, though Chapter 9 is specifically about tea and tea culture during those dynasties, with much less of the historical context prevalent in Chapters 3-6.

There is one subject that is in my opinion poorly covered but is the most momentous development in the history of Chinese tea (and indeed in the history of all tea throughout the world). During the Tang and much of the Song, tea was powdered. In the Tang, the tea was boiled in an iron pot with salt, then ladled into bowls for drinking (p. 62). During the Song, this practice changed so that the powdered tea was placed directly into the bowls, boiling water poured in and the mixture whisked into a froth; this was the style brought to Japan by Zen monks, which eventually became the tea used in chanoyu. However, by the late Song (Southern Song), loose-leaf green tea, brewed by steeping, had been developed and apparently spread rapidly (p. 70), so that by the beginning of the Ming, ground tea was history and leaf tea was the standard (p. 110). The further development of tea production and steeping from then on consisted of elaborations on the new themes of a) whole loose-leaf tea, and b) steeping that tea in some kind of vessel. So the style of tea production and preparation that had prevailed for more than half a millennium was apparently overturned within the span of a century. Yet the authors basically present this major transformation as a fait accompli (pp. 62, 110), with no description and none of the detail they bring to the rest of the book. For writers who can read the original sources to miss the opportunity to bring this information to English-speaking audiences is a major oversight, in fact the biggest shortcoming by far of this book. (It was suggested to me during the writing of this review that there may not be any ancient sources that mention this transformation, and that its details are lost to history. That’s possible. It would have been nice, then, if the authors had at least noted this in some way. But surely there must be more information than they give.)

Chapters 7 and 8 cover tea in historical Japan, from its reintroduction by the Buddhist monk Myōan Eisai in 1191 to the ritual seppuku (suicide) of Sen Rikyū in 1591. Though tea had earlier been introduced to Japan (in the period around 805-810 CE) by the Japanese Buddhist monks Saichō and Kūkai, it had not yet caught on. But the culture was much more receptive to tea the second time around. These chapters cover tea in this period in extensive detail. They end with a sidebar (p. 108) on the development of sencha tea (originally imported from China in the late sixteenth century), and gyokuro tea (developed in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century).

If there is criticism to be made of the Japanese chapters, it is that they end their history too soon, and that they spend the greater part of twenty pages building up to and describing an aspect of Japanese tea drinking -- the tea ceremony -- that represents a tiny minority of Japanese tea drinkers for the last several centuries; they devote less than two paragraphs (in the sidebar and part of another paragraph in the last chapter) on the way the vast majority of Japanese drink tea (and have drunk it, for multiple centuries) the vast majority of the time. Uncharacteristically, the authors seem fixated on the hyper-ceremonial aspects of Japanese tea, and virtually ignore everything else, especially since the death of Rikyū.

Chapter 10 covers tea in Tibet and Mongolia, and the relationships among the Tibetans, the Mongolians and the Chinese. Tea was known in Tibet at least as early as 781. In contrast, there are few or no historical references to tea in Mongolia until the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty (1271 [or 1279]-1368). The chapter describes many political reversals, deals, and alliances in the relationship of the Mongols and Tibetans; one meeting, for example, resulted in the creation of the title “Dalai Lama” by the Mongolian Altan Khan. Unlike most of the other chapters, this one follows its subject right up to the present, where we learn that “[o]n average, a Tibetan consumes 33 lb. of tea per year, a Mongolian 18 lb.” (p. 136).

Chapter 11 describes the tea relationship and trade between the Chinese and the Russians. It runs from the first recorded Russians to taste tea (a pair of Cossack envoys in 1616, p. 138), to the history of the samovar, to the establishment of the empire’s first tea garden in Georgia in 1893 (p. 150).

Chapter 12 covers tea in the “Islamic world.” Arabs and Chinese had met each other by at least 751 CE (p. 151). Arab traders were in Canton by the ninth century CE (p. 151). The authors briefly outline quite a bit of subsequent history and geography, including Persia/Iran, Morocco, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bukhara, and other areas of central Asia. They even more briefly bring that history up to the recent past, where by “the 1960s, every country in North Africa and the Middle East, except Algeria and Israel, drank more tea than coffee, and the region now absorbs almost one quarter of the world’s tea imports” (p. 163). Among current Muslim tea-drinking countries, the Qataris drink the most tea -- 6.9 pounds per year per person (p. 163). This chapter covers 1300 years of history of a large geographical area with many peoples, and thus is more superficial than many of the other chapters.

Chapters 13-17 document the history of tea in Europe, Britain, India and Sri Lanka, and the USA. The first European reference to tea appears in a collection of Italian geographical accounts published in 1545 (p. 165). The earliest actual shipment of tea may have arrived in Europe aboard Dutch ships in 1610, though “this date remains conjectural” (p. 166). In England, tea was being served at least in Thomas Garway’s coffee house by 1657 (p. 169).

These chapters follow the ups, downs, twists, and turns of tea importing, tea drinking, national adoption, national abandonment, smuggling (supposedly during the 1770s more than 7 million pounds of tea were smuggled into England per year, and only 5 million imported legally!), debates over health benefits or harms, two Opium Wars, and the obligatory story of the clipper ships. They finish by bringing the story of British tea up into the early twentieth century.

I assume the chapter on India and “Ceylon” is included in this progression because tea cultivation in those countries was started by British adventurers and capitalists. The chapter covers this history in some detail. The passages on the huge increase in tea gardens and speculation (pp. 214-215) sound much like the recent real-estate boom and bust in Florida! However, while the chapter does devote a few paragraphs to the horrible abuses inflicted on huge numbers of Indian workers by agents of the various tea companies and plantations, in my opinion it seriously underplays how bad that situation really was (see, e.g., Chapter 4 in Roy Moxham's Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire and, to a lesser extent, Chapters 8 and 11 in Iris and Alex MacFarlane's The Empire of Tea).

Finally, Chapter 18, “Vignettes from the Global Village,” attempts to bring the world history of tea (briefly) both up to the present, and to a close. It’s here that the only significant mention of Korea is made, and almost all of the two relevant paragraphs deal with twentieth-century developments.

As mentioned earlier, Appendices A and B are translations by the authors of two Chinese manuscripts, the first a brief autobiography of Lu Yu, the second “A Debate Between Tea and Beer.” Lastly, Appendix C is, as also previously stated, the most extensive and informative discussion I have seen of the genealogy of words for tea in non-Chinese languages across the world.

The book itself is nicely produced and constructed, with an attractive cover (especially the back) and a nicely readable typeface. It is 280 pages long, including a six-page index in very small type. The chapters are well organized, and for the most part proceed in roughly chronological order, though of necessity there is some backtracking to give background for each geographical area. The specifics of tea history at a given time and place are positioned with just enough political/cultural and other historical information to provide useful context for the discussion. The writing is clear and succinct, and not at all pedantic; however, not least because of the detail, the book does have a bit of an academic flavor, and is in fact currently being used in at least one college course on Chinese culture and tea. The book includes some interesting sidebars on subjects often only tenuously related to the surrounding text; see, e.g., pp. 46, 66, 134, 108, 188.

There are some figures and pictures, but none in color. In the tea books I’ve seen, there seems almost an inverse proportion between pictures and information: the more and nicer the pictures, the worse the information, and vice versa. The current book is on the sparer end of that continuum; a few more pictures and figures than the most sparsely-illustrated books (like Moxham's Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire and Hohenegger's Liquid Jade), but far fewer than in some of the fluffier (but nicer-looking) volumes. However, I would much rather have lots of good, accurate information than lots of nice pictures accompanied by small amounts of mediocre text. (Of course, at US $27, one might reasonably expect both lots of nice pictures and lots of good, accurate information.)

If you are interested in the history of tea -- especially a full world history of tea, and not just one that starts when tea came to Europe -- this book is for you. It is reasonably complete (with the exceptions noted here), but not so extensive that it is a chore to finish. The fact that at least one of the authors can read and translate original Chinese documents really lifts this book above most others of its kind.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank – with the usual admonition that all errors, misinterpretations, etc. are mine alone – the following for their help while I was writing this review: corax, MarshalN, and niisonge. Any of these worthies would be far more qualified to review this book than I am, but for some strange reason, they left it to me.

Tea and the Internet Revisited: A New Iteration

As previously noted on CHA DAO, 'The internet seems to be infinitely elastic; it has the protean capacity to remake itself, apparently endlessly, and to recapitulate and even subsume everything that it had been previously.' Metaphors like 'virus' may tend to make us forget, however, that this is not a natural, organic, or spontaneous occurrence: changes on the internet happen because humans write new programs, or update existing ones.

Anyone who has updated the operating system on their own computer is at least occasionally aware of this. But in the case of internet-based functions, the coder(s) may be so invisible that we lose sight of the fact that -- hitherto at least -- computers do not produce their own major applications. These have to be conceived of and executed by humans.

Without a doubt one of the most important tea-related computer applications, to be found online or off, is Babelcarp -- the 'Chinese Tea Term Translator.' As awareness of the importance of China and Chinese culture grows in the west, online Chinese/English dictionaries continue to proliferate -- Xuezhongwen and nciku being two particularly useful ones. Cyber-translators such as Google Translate and Yahoo's Babelfish have come a long way since the latter was first introduced by altavista. But none of these does for the user what Babelcarp does, which is to focus specifically on tea-related terms -- using both English and Chinese (the latter in both traditional and simplified hanzi as well as in English transliteration, both hanyu pinyin and Wade-Giles). The transliterated forms even include the tone numbers for Mandarin pronunciation -- a vitally important aspect of the spoken language. And, of course, the English definitions are carefully wrought, often including cultural and geographic details relevant to an understanding of the term.

My friend and colleague, Lew Perin, is the designer and owner of Babelcarp. He combines a broad education with meticulous expertise in information technology, long and careful study of Putonghua, profound knowledge of tea and tea culture, and -- that rarest and most valuable of traits -- a good heart. He has kept Babelcarp in a state of more or less constant improvement since its inception in 2002. Like all the best programmer/developers, he is always looking for user feedback on how to make Babelcarp better.

Recently Lew unveiled an important update to the very mechanism of the Babelcarp database. When I asked him to provide us with a summary of what this entails, he offered the following explanation:
What's new is this: Babelcarp has always worked with items consisting of a phrase (in Pinyin and/or Hanzi) and its definition. The way Babelcarp has always worked, when you get the definition it's cross-referenced via links to other items mentioned in the definition. Now, for the first time, you also get links that go in the opposite direction. That is to say, if you call up item A and there are other items in the database, say, B and C, whose definitions point to item A, you get links to B and C as well. This makes it much easier to navigate the map of Chinese tea knowledge in the Babelcarp database. I'm sorry, but I don't know the maximum number of degrees of separation between Babelcarp entries.
I encourage you to play with Babelcarp: see how it works and what it can tell you. Chances are that you, like many other users, will find yourself losing track of time as you hop from one item to another. Before you know it, you will have given yourself a mini-tutorial in Chinese tea culture. In its rhizomatic allure, Babelcarp is a microcosm of the entire World Wide Web: its usefulness is enormous, and growing all the time. And, again, it instructs us in how even (especially?) the most seamless and efficient computer applications have a human face behind them.

Coffee, Tea, Chapel Hill
In which a piece of correspondence between two friends who have had a mild tiff may inform the reader about drinking tea in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

15 December 2009

My Dear A -------,

Sorry again about Friday. Yes, okay, hypersensitive, but if you wouldn't argue for argument's sake without noticing you've annoyed people, maybe they wouldn't get so huffy. And of course I'll call it even if you will. Here is what you asked for, meanwhile, namely "What is it with this tea thing?" And, "If not here, where?" It turns out that the places I'd send you for tea are all in Chapel Hill.

You forget we were coffee drinkers together twenty years ago. I was in the kitchen that morning you shuffled in, grumpy, wanting coffee you knew we’d run out of, and you saw Bill slumping at the table over a cup of something hot. You opened your eyes and asked greedily, hoping against hope, what it was. He glared up at both of us, and in a flat, depressed voice laced with disgust, said ... “Tea.”

For thirty years I heard that voice, whenever a lady passed me a fragile, cup-and-saucer-balancing-a-teaspoon contraption that I accepted gracelessly, a penguin in Keds, every time that weak and acid wash was improved by neither milk nor sugar, every time Southern iced tea fell short, wailing, of its bittersweet potential. When my wise, laid-back friends built campfires in the woods and boiled peppermint, I balanced tactfully on a log, thinking of hot showers and coffee. And three years ago when I found I couldn’t handle coffee anymore and had to substitute tea, it felt like the light of life was dimming ... no more scotch, no cigarettes, no late-night dancing. No gleaming edges, no infinity. Damn.

So, yes, I'm drinking tea. Part of my incoherence Friday was because I didn’t come by tea honestly. It came to me while I was grousing about losing coffee. I was consoling myself with black teas that were potable enough, but still, grouse, grumble. My meeting tea was like a dream of Caliban come true: mutter, curse, grumble ... Somewhere amid the profanity and in public I uttered the word “oolong” in full ignorance, and it happened to be heard by a friend. A good, true, old friend, one who is also a knowledgeable denizen of the Tea World and an ardent, charismatic teacher -- and generous beyond belief. “Oh, oolong?” he exclaimed, “Tell me what kind of teas you’re drinking; what do you like? You must reserve judgment on oolongs. Let me send you some tea.”
Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about my ears, and sometimes voices ...
He sent tea in boxes: oolongs and tiny porcelain cups. Elegant wooden tea tongs and clay pots that rang like chimes and came to warm life in my hand. A flowerlike, clear glass pitcher, and a fruitlike, barky oolong whose ghost of smoke was delicate like old rice paper and as elegantly caramel.
... And then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, and when I waked,
I cried to dream again ...
There came pages of written instructions, precise yet not intimidating, accompanied by painted blue figures afloat on a shell-like, porcelain gaiwan. Companionship, expertise, discovery, and oh, "Here, you’ll also need a small kitchen scale, and this isn’t just decorative, no, it holds the dry tea leaf." I had only to gasp my thanks and learn to boil water. It was not fair. There came a bi luo chun whose intense, newness-of-life taste floated a molecule at a time in seas of pale pearl green. Another box arrived, and for days darjeelings flowered and leathery keemuns breathed horses and sandalwood, cocoa and tobacco ...

The tastes were intense, tastes to vie with those that lead to the worship of coffee mugs. They were nuanced. They moved. They embodied the hills they grew on, the towns where they were fired. "Oh," I thought; "'Delicate' is not a euphemism for 'watery'? 'Subtle' is not code for 'Ignore this if you are drawn to power and clarity'?"

All this was a little hard to describe right there in the mall Friday. That stuff they were giving us had little to do with taste or tradition. It was not the best example of tea. That was a warm, interesting variation on its neighbor; there is a place and time for macadamia nut and coconut in a cup of something warm, but that isn't what makes coffee exiles light up and quit whining. The color-coordinated teaware sets a peaceful and exotic mood; the shelves of labels are delightful to behold. Yes, of course you're right -- they are selling a trend. And if that particular outfit doesn't sell better tea (gyokuro not dusty black, oolong not boring, Ceylon that differs from Assam), then -- well, whatever. You're right, but while you were scoffing at a fad, and me, I was not just being defensive. I was upset with the place because the hype is so far out in front of what they are selling, not because the tea is indifferent. Selling mood over substance can be misleading, not just hype; sell average or poor X in a nice, pricey cup from a specialty X shop, and buyers think that’s the last word in X. Witness your witty but cruel taunts in the car all the way home.

For a basic introduction (no, I am not mailing you boxes of anything, not after Friday), try 3 Cups, the specialty wine/coffee/tea shop here in Chapel Hill; they define themselves by careful selection, hand crafting, sustainable growth, family tradition. You can buy a cup of coffee. If you try tea there instead of buying some to take home, beware the coffee-saturated air; do not laugh at me about this until you re-live that argument you pitched last month about bacon indoors v. bacon outdoors. Do collect every little circular they have with the word “tea” on it. They are still working on their tea selection, but the written information they put out for their customers is as good a “This is Tea” as I could wish to find. It is written in coffee and wine language. To the North Carolina customer interested in authenticity and quality, they say:

“Water -- Because of its milder and more subtle flavors the quality of the water you choose for tea is far more important than it is for coffee. Traditionally spring water ...”

“All teas start out green. And in the Chinese and Japanese traditions ... To make green teas, you steam the leaf right after plucking ... While their flavor range is vast, they are always subtle and delicate.”

“A good teapot is a beautiful thing. It allows the tea leaves to fully expand but also makes it easy to remove them, all the while keeping your tea nice and hot. The best all-around is ...”

“Use 2 to 2.5 grams of tea for each 6 ounces of pot capacity ... A minute less yields a milder tea with, possibly, more delicate aromatics; a minute longer yields a gutsier cup with more bite and persistence, especially useful for black tea with milk. Experiment!”

“Oolongs ... vary from nearly green to reddish brown, with a hundred recognized microtones in between ... Flavors range from floral and citrusy to peach-like and woodsy. These are the rosés of tea ...”

So, they are not afraid to start you at the beginning, right here at home. They stock decent tea in a representative range and list tisanes and scented teas separately from the others. They do not, like everyone else in town, hand you a large French press with a coffee cup and leave you to the distracted mercies of a barista. You can sample anything you’re curious about at 3 Cups in the company of someone who has tasted the tea. They serve in the Chatsford pot described in their literature, and with a small timer for those who care to use it. And, given their commitment to excellence, their tea is due to improve. The first eight offerings on their printed list are: “Pai Mu Tan Imperial, Himalaya Green, Dragonwell First Grade, Gyokuro Asahi, Choice Formosa Oolong, Green Dragon Oolong, Jade Pouchong, Royal Golden Yunnan.” If you buy some tea to take home, if you’re still curious after that, let me know.

I wish I could direct you to a Chinese tea house. You would go happily. It would make its own introduction for you. You have always mocked pretension but grown quiet when entering true places. Lacking one of those, consider Caffe Driade, one of your favorite coffee places, the small, the hip, but Italianate pastoral. Lovely on quiet days, the wooded terraces around it are also the only places I know in the Triangle area where one can drink tea without the smell of coffee or car exhaust. Meet me here. We will sit outside on one of the stone terraces under gold and grey, sunlit trees. You can drink coffee, or tell me whether you bought anything at 3 Cups. I will listen and try their Young Hyson again in the clear, winter air. The tea will come in a press, and you can roll your eyes while I scowl and try to play with the brewing time. The barista's recommendation of four minutes is not good. Pouring it off after a minute or two minutes does not work with this amount of leaf. I'm working my way up. A third time I may get the hang of it. But the teacup will be a lovely, handmade yunomi in shades of dark blue that enhance the green color of the tea. The first eight items on their tea menu are usual suspects, including scented teas, but another eight are "China Green, Gunpowder Green, Organic Genmaicha, Organic Jasmine, Dragonwell, Young Hyson, Sencha Hana, and Cameroonian." If only there were a Chatsworth teapot here.

The third place to go for tea is the only one where I see you inhaling for the joy of it, the gourmet food place, A Southern Season. People don't always know it started out life as a coffee roastery before it grew. It's impressive, the way it fills that department-store-sized space with warmth and sparkle. You always make it a point to use the coffee-scented street entrance, I notice, and not the mall entrance with its mere wall of chocolate. Vietri, bakery, deli, wine, cookware, flowers, beer, bar, specialty salts, a riot, really, and even in the store’s small phase I never paid attention to its tea selection until the day when small yixing teapots -- the first I had ever seen -- appeared on the tea shelves. The pots were small and decorative. They are replaced now in the larger store by larger yixing, mostly still decorative, which sit among Chinese storage urns, matcha whisks, English pots and steeping cups, islands and walls of boxed and tinned teas, coffee mugs, kettles, and tea strainers, from boutique trendy to a small gong fu set with its bamboo tray, and a white porcelain taster’s set. At table height at the tea counter sits a range of tea that runs from white, yellow, green, oolong, and gold, to decaffeinated, tisane, and flavored. These are displayed in clear cellophane bags for temptation’s sake and are everyday good, at everyday prices.

On the wall behind the tea counter are large silver cannisters containing a range that runs from white, yellow, green, oolong, and gold, to aged oolong and pu’er. At the counter itself I always find someone who knows the teas and enjoys giving advice or information: “Try a Kenya Mountain Estate for the Firdowsi lover who drinks his tea Iranian style.” “Back the heat down, way down, further down; I think you will enjoy this gyokuro.” For me, one day, wondering about the nature of an aged oolong, the manager of the department advised me about the smoke-to-depth proportions and, when I wavered, pulled out a refrigerated sample of it and brewed some on the spot. She shared some observations on its vanilla and currant and the peculiar flavor of its overlying smoke.

These are teas that could tempt a coffee drinker. They vye with coffee in a bustling market of a place, chosen, it seems, to open up strongly in a 6-8 ounce cup, Western style, but they don’t fall short, and they don’t misrepresent. They pique, they invite. Eight among those I have tried: “Monkey Picked Tie Guan Yin, Premium Yunnan Gold, Ujo Gyokuro, Buddha’s Hand Oolong, Four Seasons Oolong, Mokalbari Estate Assam, Wild Forest Oolong, Royal Courtesan Dong Ding.” You can pick up an ounce or two of tea next time you're in buying beans.

What's missing in Chapel Hill, though it has Chinese teas for sale, is Chinese tradition. I can't help wishing for a tea house, where simple light would bring a glow to the elegance of eggshell teacups. The dry leaf would rustle amid the ring and chime of porcelain and fine clay and then the music of bubbling water. Treated as they were raised to be treated, seventy-two finely shaped tea leaves in water would swirl in quick exuberance, dance apart, and then gently settle down in their cup. In a space where they are met halfway, they will taste spring-fresh or as crafty and poignant as an entire autumn mountainside, with toasted nut, peach scent before the peach is ripe, or pear; bark smoke, wood smoke, or summer rain hitting stone and iron on a balcony. There is artichoke-stem or crabmeat rich, sometimes a hint of butter. The different flavors move, settle and blossom in different places in the mouth. In sweet, salt, bitter, and sour they will tease, promise, and echo. There is often an after-perfume that I grope to name while compulsively holding empty cups to my nose, unable to let go, a nearsighted child with a sea shell: was this the bottom of the bowl after sweet cereal was gone? the mild half of cooked orange? that air that wafted through the house while cinnamon bread was baking?

-- But that could be another letter, and I have gone on too long. Here's what we have, since you ask, and I promise to forgive you for laughing. Call me when you're back, and we'll have coffee soon -- or tea.


~~~~~~~~~~ · ~~~~~~~~~~

EDITOR'S NOTE: With this post we welcome REBEKAH, an esteemed colleague and friend whose creative work is as learned and nuanced as her scholarship. She makes her home in Chapel Hill, which has been celebrated by BON APPETIT as 'America's Foodiest Small Town'; it should perhaps not surprise us that tea culture has begun to take root there as well. Our warmest thanks to Rebekah for this glimpse of it.

Flavors of Menghai Pu'er: The Nature of Recipes #7542 and #7532

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our own Geraldo is, despite his modest disclaimers, one of the nation's foremost authorities on pu'er tea. And he is as generous as he is learned: when I wrote asking him to expatiate a bit on the difference between the flavors of these two famous Menghai pu'er recipes, he offered a good bit more -- which, with his express permission, I now share, gentle reader, with you.]]

The Menghai Factory in Yunnan province is, of course, one of the best known and most highly esteemed of all commercial pu'er makers. Their tea cakes, like those of a number of other pu'er tea manufacturers, are routinely designated by numerical codes; while these may seem obscure to the casual onlooker, they actually tell a specific tale about the history and profile of each tea. Each part of the code signifies something specific.

As (comparative) cases in point, let us consider Menghai's famous recipes #7542 and #7532. The first two digits of each number tells us that both of these recipes were first developed in 1975. The final "2" in each signifies Menghai Factory itself. The penultimate digits -- 4 & 3 -- denote leaf grade, which can be a confusing term to the uninitiated; "leaf size" is, I think, more accurate here than "leaf grade." That is to say, in theory there could be a wonderful Grade 8 and an awful Grade 2. But the average size of the leaf in 7542 is a little larger than the size of the leaf in 7532.

Both of these cakes are mass-produced, blended bing chas. Both are inexpensive in their first year of existence, and then quickly increase in value. Because these bing chas are common and inexpensive in their earliest years, non-Asians often disregard the cakes as collectible pu'ers. But they both have proven track records over the years. #7532 is a little more expensive than #7542.

These days, much is made of the virtues of single-mountain pu'er cakes. But I most love the complexity in aged pu'er, and I believe blended leaf contributes to that complexity. I would have to check the actuality of this, but I think most of the famous aged Menghai bings from the seventies and eighties are #7542. These rare, often nicknamed cakes may differ because of the particular environment in which each was stored, and they have different names given by collectors.

Because pu'er cakes are agricultural products, the productions will vary from year to year, based upon all sorts of variables in nature. Moreover, some pu'er enthusiasts believe there has been a slow migration away from the original 1975 flavor -- reflecting a supposed industry change from a 'drink-later' to a 'drink-now' marketing approach, even for sheng pu'er. As a huge understatement, one can suggest that not many people writing in English tasted a #7542 or #7532 bing cha back in 1975. In fact, I do not think many people writing in any language tasted those cakes in 1975. Thus, it would be difficult to ascertain whether there is veracity in the flavor-migration opinion. I do worry, however, that the quality of the water used in pu'er production has changed much for the worse; but this would be true for almost all pu'er, not just for these two Menghai recipes.

Taste is a matter of taste, and here is my idiosyncratic opinion. Properly aged, Menghai #7542 evolves into a woody, spicy pu'er with strength in the lower notes. #7532 might be a tad more pronounced than #7542 in the upper notes. I love them both, but I might love #7532 just a little bit more.

Tea: From the Kitchen Cupboard to the Medicine Cabinet
Should tea be a required item in our first aid kit? Tea does have many known health benefits. Lately with the craze over H1N1 influenza, I asked myself, could tea help prevent flu or colds; or at least help ease the symptoms? Worried about getting H1N1 myself, I desperately scrambled for serious answers to the question.

Upon further research I found there is a whole body of study; called Tea Therapy in China. I consulted books on the subject, searching for flu treatment and found:
Tea as a result of its many components can be used to treat colds and flu. Caffeine and theanine in tea have a mild diuretic effect and help detoxify the body. Tea polyphenols have bacteriostatic and disinfectant properties. Catechins aid in curing migraines and headaches. Vitamin C boosts immunity and is an anti-infective agent. So there are many good reasons to keep drinking tea, especially during this cold and flu season.

In China, I should point out medical practice and hospitals unlike in North America, place particular emphasis on herbal remedies (including tea) alongside western pharmacological medicines. In Fuzhou’s Provincial Hospital 省里医院 for example, there is a western pharmacy and a separate Chinese medicine pharmacy located on the main floor of the hospital. And whenever I get sick in China, doctors sometimes prescribe Chinese herbal medicine over western medicine, which seems to be quite effective.

Can tea really aid in curing colds and flu or any ailment? Believe what you want. I have to admit, I drink tea regularly, but I still get colds and flu (mostly from close contact with infected people: darn those co-workers!)

The Government of Canada, being quite thoughtful folk, printed a colorful booklet titled Your H1N1 Preparedness Guide. The Government tells me to keep tea on hand should I get sick. Good advice.

They also say I should stay home until all symptoms are gone. Ok I confess, I used to go to work with a cold in stealth mode. In China, I used to take 白加黑 cold medicine. Cleared up all symptoms of the cold, and I felt totally normal (but still was infective to everyone else).

Of course, infections are serious. So serious, companies are stepping up efforts to prevent infection in a variety of settings; such as healthcare-associated infection. Everyone needs to do their part in reducing transmission and infection to others.

Times have changed. Now, we can’t seem to live without hand sanitizer. Even my local town police, being so friendly, during roadside spot checks give away a free bottle of spray hand sanitizer to each driver.

Yes, I got my H1N1 shot at the local vaccination clinic; which was more like a community festival than a clinic. Everyone showed up as soon as it was open; chatting it up with the nurses joking and laughing with each other; and just taking up so much time. People actually have things to do (like me); not try to stall and deliberately go to work late – those slackers! I probably knew about half the people at the vaccination clinic. My nurse was actually my cousin’s wife. She swabbed my arm with alcohol; and then, I never felt a thing! I had to ask her: “Did you inject me?” She said: “Yeah”. Lucky me. The guy at a neighboring station screamed out: “Ouch!”

Ok, so I got the H1N1 vaccination – finally! I thought I would have to wait until the end of December or maybe never to get it; exactly why the H1N1 Guide was printed: in case we never get vaccinated on time! But that doesn’t protect me or anyone from seasonal flu or colds.

What to do when you get a cough from a cold? Maybe we should look in our medicine cabinet for that box of tea we store in there.

Chinese Cough and Cold Remedy
Here’s a recipe using tea as a simple home cough remedy; which I find does ease my cough somewhat:

2 tea bags (black tea – any brand)
1 pear (preferably Chinese pear, or Fuyu pear, but any pear will do)
1 liter of water (or less)
Sugar (white or brown) to taste

In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil.
Peel and core the pear. Slice in half, lengthwise.
Add pear and tea bags to boiling water. Boil for 5 minutes or so.
Add sugar to sweeten.
Ladle the tea into a cup and drink to ease your cough. You may eat the pear when finished drinking tea.

Tea does have many health benefits. But it is not a panacea. Tea should perhaps best be consumed for its relaxing effect on the mind and body – and that’s it. If, in drinking tea, there are some anti-aging, anti-stress, cancer-preventative, heart disease preventative properties, consider that a bonus. Just enjoy tea for what it is, a relaxing, stimulating, and warming cup for the soul. Leave medicine and serious health matters to medical professionals. But don’t forget to stock your cupboard with tea.

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