Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tea History Through Tang Poetry

I've been going to some really fascinating talks at the University of Washington. Week after week the Chinese Studies department has been hosting brilliant scholars who are doing research regarding some aspect of tea. Recently there was a lecture on the history of "talking about tea" which Dr. James Benn has traced through its origins in the writings of Tang poets. For a thorough treatment of the subject see his book "Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History"

Dr. Benn made a point to emphasize the rapid onset and dissemination of tea drinking in China. We know that tea wasn't as ancient a beverage as Chinese civilization itself, it was probably first consumed for its medicinal properties around early Tang times. But from the time when celebrity poets of the Tang were introducing the brewed/steeped/whipped beverage to the literate elite to the implementation of a market tax for tea sold and consumed by common people was incredibly short. Lu Yu's classic of tea was making its rounds in the mid 8th century, and the tax was implemented by the central government in 780 or thereabouts.

To understand the literary mention of tea in Tang Dynasty China, one has to first understand the basic function of literature at the time. I'll try to be brief: All educated people were well read in the 'classics', a group of texts and their commentaries which were written mostly during the benevolent and properly Confucian Zhou Dynastic period. Being educated meant being familiar with the classics to the point of having them memorized backwards, forwards, up, down and sideways. The poets of the time were not praised for their unique and experimental use of language, but for their brilliant transmission of what had already been stated in the classics. There was a canonical way of talking about most anything a Chinese poet might want to talk about. But the classics hadn't any mention of tea. So poets who were moved to include tea in their work had to find novel ways to incorporate this new beverage into their vocabulary. Li Bo and Li Hua both talked about it as a Daoist elixir of immortality, alluding to mica (used in alchemical immortality elixir) and the saliva production site beneath the tongue (which is key to Daoist meditation practices which lengthen ones life).

Jiao Ran, a poet friend of our man Lu Yu, waxed spiritual about teas ability to raise one to the gods and compared tea to alcohol. In his comparison, he sneers at earlier Daoist poet Tao Qian's use of wine. Jiao Ran made an interesting choice here to compare these two beverages. It was a natural choice because of the ritual context and frequency of wine in the 'Classic of Odes' which he was drawing from. There was already a way to talk about wine, another psychoactive beverage, in the annals of the classics. It also marked, though, a switch of China's 'drug of choice'. I like to think of this switch as parallel to the European switch from beer to coffee which coincided with the Renaissance.

There was quite a lot of compelling content in Dr. Benn's lecture, but I'll leave it to you to go out and buy his book. I get rambly at the intersection of strong Tie Guanyin and fascinating Chinese Tea research. And I'm on my fourth pot of the day.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It Ain't Easy Roasting Dong Ding

Howdy all,

After the tea festival in Seattle, a week or so ago now, I was sitting in the shop recuperating over an aged Dong Ding with a tea friend. He has spent time learning with a Dong Ding farmer/roaster in Taiwan. He knows Dong Ding tea very well. Something that he said struck me this time (although Shiuwen has told me before): that Floating Leaves' DD roaster has a peculiar style. She starts with a high temperature initial roasting that locks in the tea and then decreases the temperature. This is very ballsy!! Most roasters do the opposite, and for good reason. High temperature locks the impurities of the tea into the final product, while starting low and moving towards high gives the roaster a chance to push the raw tea's impurities out. This hot-initial style technique thus requires a high quality base tea with relatively few impurities. Roasting is such a difficult skill, and when the power of this woman's technique really hit home the other day -- the effects of this technique linked up with my own experience tasting her tea -- my brain nearly imploded with respect. Her skill is phenomenal, and her confidence must be just rock-solid.

Shiuwen is working on a documentary right now about one of this woman's pupils who has taken this skill to the next level. 

I've learned sooooo sooo much working for FLT, and every time I learn something really interesting it just makes me realize how much more vast the world of tea is. Thanks for the wonderful chat, buddy! You know who you are.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Belitung Shipwreck with Professor Mair

This last Friday I attended Professor Victor Mair’s lecture at the University of Washington, hosted by our wonderful Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM). Mair is a linguist and tea historian. During his time living in Nepal he became acquainted with Darjeeling and other Indian style teas, and noticed the integral role of our favorite plant in Nepali daily life. He went on to say this inspired him, along with the prevalence myth and legend surrounding tea in China, to research what he calls the “True History of Tea”.

Image result for belitung shipwreck

The lecture Mair presented was centered around the Belitung shipwreck, an archeological site which has been dated to around the mid 9th century, or China’s Tang Dynasty period. According to Mair, the ship has been identified as an Arabian dhow, assumably bound for Persia and the Arabic world with a load of porcelain ware when it sank to the bottom of the sea.

The interesting bit for tea geeks lights up when you are told that the Arabic world had yet to drink tea, and that tea historians believe a very small minority was imbibing our favorite plant at the time the ship is believed to have sunk. So the bowls which look like tea bowls were actually intended, to the best of our knowledge, to be regular, non-tea bowls.
However, Mair made an interesting discovery when he visited the warehouse where the German archeologists are keeping their historically significant spoils. A few bowls had what at first glance appears to be writing. Three or so (pictured during lecture) had symbols that appeared Arabic, and one Chinese. The Arabic ones, pictures of which I don’t have, can be explained by their modern counterparts as follows:

They were essentially a part of the Far East’s long history of mimicking the world’s non-sinic languages and orthographies with little or no intent to derive any meaning. They were pictures that resembled Arabic because, I assume, the artisans knew the destination of the wares they were creating and wanted to ‘throw those Arabs an orthographic bone’.
The significant discovery, though, was the bowl with Chinese characters. Without getting too detailed, on the bowl was written in Buddhist vernacular (not the standard Classical language of the time) which means ‘tea bowl’. [Tidbit: the word they used for tea was actually the predecessor to the modern ‘cha’ (茶 tea), a character meaning 'bitter herb', containing an extra stroke,  and pronounced ‘tu’  in modern Mandarin.] According to Mair, this is good evidence that Buddhist monks were drinking tea at the time, and it was perhaps a plant only consumed by monks.

Special Thanks to:
Victor Mair