The original Oriental Beauty

As some of you know, I’m a historian in my day job, and my new project is working on the history of how ideas (drinking practice, health concerns, etc) and technologies (plantation methods, processing techniques, etc) pertaining to tea moved across borders. Taiwan turns out to be the most interesting place to look at, because of its close connection with China, but at the same time because of its distinctive history and geopolitical location, thanks to it being under Japanese jurisdiction for the first half of the twentieth century. It ends up being a nice, big melting pot of stuff, perfect for my purposes.

As a result, a side story I’ve been pursuing on and off is the history of the tea Oriental Beauty (dongfangmeiren), more commonly known locally as Pengfeng tea (bragger’s tea). There are two kinds of legends surrounding the origins of this tea. One has something to do with nomenclature – the name Oriental Beauty. You have probably read this online somewhere, most likely from some vendor trying to sell you tea, but the story usually involves some queen of the United Kingdom (some say Victoria, others Elizabeth II) drinking it, finding it absolutely marvelous, and therefore giving it this nice name. This story is almost certainly false, and is made up to sell tea.

The most common name for the tea in the local community, Pengfeng tea, means bragger or bluffing tea. The idea is that the farmer who originally made the tea was able to sell it for such a high price, he bragged to his friends and neighbours, none of whom believed him. So, the name of the tea was born.

This story has always sounded sort of true, but like many such stories, there are lots of slightly different versions, making you wonder whether it’s true or not. What we do know is that the tea was from Beipu. The farmer was probably surnamed Jiang 姜 and there were large sums of money involved. Exactly how large, nobody knows. Everything I saw was a “it is said that” sort of version.

Everything, until today.

On my last trip to Taiwan I was able to get a copy of many issues of a journal called Taiwan no chagyo, or Taiwan’s Tea Industry. It was a trade journal from the colonial period. I have been going through the issues to look for information on all sorts of things, and today, reading one issue from 1933, I came across this

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Bingo. The headline is “A high class tea worth a thousand yen”. Not a thousand yen for one jin, mind you, but a hundred jin, which doesn’t sound like a lot of money, until you figure out that the average jin of tea back then sold for a yen or less – so one jin of tea that sells for 10 yen was, indeed, an astronomical sum. The tea was one of the participants in a local tea competition, and it broke the 300 point mark in whatever scale they were using to grade the teas. The buyers included the governor’s office. It was obviously a cheap and easy way to promote better tea production – encouraging farmers to make better tea and they would be rewarded too with great prices if their tea were good. As the Taiwanese government was trying hard at that time to increase the production quantity and quality of tea for export, it made sense to pull a PR stunt like this.

The tea probably already existed by this time, but this was what made it famous. It probably is also where the name Pengfeng originally came from – maybe not so much a bragger in the liar sense of the word, but the farmer getting rather pleased with himself and annoying all the neighbours. Either way, it’s very gratifying to have found the smoking gun, so to speak, for the story, and it’s good to know that sometimes some of these legends do have some basis in fact.

Tea is poison

I’m currently in Heathrow waiting for my plane to Munich, where I’m going to be giving a (pretty terrible and rough) paper that I’ve been working on regarding early ideas about tea in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I was trying to look at how people thought about tea’s connection with health. It was quite interesting, really, because for anyone trying it for the first time, tea is obviously doing something to your body. It’s not just water – it’s more than that. If you drink a strong cup of tea, it will do certain things to you – and these are effects that are universally noticed.

However, that doesn’t mean people all have the same conclusion when it comes to tea and what it does to your body. Whereas in the very early eighteenth century when tea was still a rare and unusual commodity, people writing about it were still most introducing it, by the mid century it was obvious that tea consumption had become very popular (with mentions of ladies drinking tea in the afternoon, people using tea in copious amounts, etc) worries about tea also increased. You start seeing people writing about it and saying it causes health problems – everything from physical problems to causing neurological diseases. In one instance, an author even claimed he tested and found that tea caused scurvy, which is of course the opposite of the truth (tea in fact cures scurvy with its vitamin C).

Then by the late eighteenth century, people seemed to have started to calm down a bit, and worried more about the economic effects of tea. This is when George Macartney was sent to China to try to persuade the Qianlong emperor to open up trade, only to be rebuffed. You see this anxiety reflected in writings at the time – a lot of pages devoted to the economic health of Britain and how tea was draining it. Tea is not physical poison, but it’s economic poison. People also drank a lot with their tea – adding alcohol in it. So it got mixed up with the whole temperance movement. Not quite tea as a poison itself, but tea as the conveyor of poison, in this case.

It’s only by the nineteenth century that we seem to see that subside as well – of course, things had changed a lot by then. But it’s pretty clear that for almost a hundred years, there were doubts, worries, anxieties, and uncertainties about this drink. Contrast that with today’s unequivocal belief that tea is healthy, in any circumstances, things have definitely changed. Is that really true though? I think, as with anything, tea is best only in moderation. Claims of the cure to cancer are, unfortunately, probably exaggerated.

Kitano Tenmangu and Shōkōken

We are spending a quick few days in Kyoto, and one of the nice things about Kyoto is that there’s tea pretty much literally everywhere you go. Today we spent a little time at Kitano Tenmangu, an important Shinto shrine for the god Tenjin, the deification of the person Shigawara no Michizane, but more importantly, the shrine was also the site of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s famous Grand Tea Ceremony, held in 1587 and was supposed to run for 10 days, even though it ended up only being about two days. It was, for the most part, a grand show of power and patronage by Hideyoshi, but there was some tea involved as well.

Among the collections of Kitano Tenmangu are a number of artifacts related to the tea ceremony, as well as some good looking raku ware chawans. More interestingly, there’s a painting of the scene of the Grand Tea Ceremony, which also lists the famous teaware of the time that was used during this ceremony and who was present at which particular seating. Alas, no pictures allowed in the museum.

There’s also a nice teahouse that wasn’t very obvious given the hubbub surrounding the shrine, as it was the flea market/fair day. The teahouse is called Shōkōken.

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The sign suggests that this is the original building used by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a daimyo and a student of Sen no Rikyu, during the Great Tea Ceremony. But looking around, at least on the web, it seems as though the original building was moved to Kotoin in Daitoku-ji, and the one here might then be a re-creation. Either way though, the well is the original one they used.

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The house is quite big for a teahouse – and has a nice garden.

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As with a lot of other interesting sites, however, this teahouse is not open for viewing, so all you can do is to climb over the wall – at least climb high enough to see inside. It’s bitterly cold right now, so I don’t imagine it being a very pleasant experience to drink tea in such an environment, but in warmer days, I’m sure a tea session here would be exceedingly enjoyable.

Ways to cheat in tea

It’s been a busy few weeks, what with grading, trying to finish a few papers, so on so forth. One of the papers I was trying to write and still in pretty shambolic state is one on the Taiwanese industry. Among the more interesting documents I’ve come across are a set of articles of association for the Taipei Tea Merchants Association. They were always concerned with inferior, fake, or just bad tea, among other things. Taiwan teas, even back in the early 20th century, had a premium over mainland Chinese tea, and they were very keen to keep it that way. So, in an effort to prevent problems, they listed what was not allowed in terms of teas that they sell. These are:

1) Powdered tea – this is not matcha wannabes, but rather teas with significant amounts of powdered tea leaves mixed in to make the tea heavier, so you can sell for more. When the buyer gets it, he’ll notice that it’s mostly powder – and therefore overpaid. This is like you getting that last bag/bit of tea from the bottom of the barrel, and feeling cheated, but on a massive scale.

2) Tea stalks – this one is pretty self explanatory, I think. Can’t sell tea stalks as tea leaves.

3) Sun-exposed tea – probably also obvious – tea that has been exposed to the sun for long periods of time, at least that’s what the name implies

4) Fake tea – it’s not clear how this fakeness is achieved – is it not tea leaves at all? Something else?

5) Soaked tea – this is the best – dried used tea leaves being sold again. It actually does sort of work. Try drying out the leaves you’ve drunk, for some leaves it can look remarkable like new tea leaves and presumably someone can try to sell it in dried form. You will still even get some taste out of it, it’ll just be really watery.

6) Fire-burnt tea – tea that is too roasted/charred

7) Tea that has been adulterated with other materials, including spoiled, rotten teas, dirt, dust, etc

There’s also another category of tea – Tangshan cha, which is the term they used for mainland Chinese teas. In this case, it’s mainland tea being sold as Taiwan teas.

So it’s good to know that the tricks that vendors can be up to haven’t really changed all that much over the last hundred years. Buyers of puerh are quite familiar with this stuff, and buyers of other teas have also run into this sort of problem before. The way they solved it? Made it mandatory to sell/buy through a central exchange, to have regular inspectors (full time) who go and check the farmers/vendors, to make everyone a member of the tea production association, so they are more accountable, and to also educate the farmers. It worked.

Rough thoughts on Oriental Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quintessential Invention

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

The faith in old trees

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

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

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

4) The aging of tea trees

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

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

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

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

On Tea and Friendship (III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Tea and Friendship (II)

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Continued from the last post

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

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

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

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

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

On Tea and Friendship (I)

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

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

IV. On Tea and Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

*By chess he likely means weiqi.

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