Issue #11      June 2009


by Daniel Reid danreid.org

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Welcome to Tea Tidings Edition 11


Lotus flower and tea frog at our tea table      Greetings, High Mountain Tea people! Pardon the long pause in the flow of Tea Tidings. Snow and I just returned to Dali from a two-month sojourn at home in Australia, where we spent every day working on our house there. As you can see from the first photo, our Tea Frog Friend was very happy to see us back at the helm at our tea table, and our lotus pond welcomed us home by blooming forth one last blossom for us. The second photo below shows you the glorious sunrise we usually witness first thing in the morning as we sip our first pot of High Mountain Tea out on our tea terrace:

Now let's see what tidings the great sea of tea has in store for us this month...

Gung Sian Cha: “Imperial Tribute Tea

      Since the 4th century AD, when the cultivation and production of tea became firmly established in southern China, tea has been an important item in the imperial tribute system, which required all the far-flung provinces of China, as well as neighboring vassal states, to send annual shipments of their most famous products to the capital as imperial tribute for the enjoyment of the emperor, his family, his entourage of courtiers, and visiting dignitaries from foreign lands. Known as “Imperial Tribute Tea,” this yearly offering of the “crème-de-la-crème” of all the teas in China to the imperial court became a highly anticipated event in the capital, where tea soon replaced liquor as the beverage of choice at imperial banquets.

      The entire court paid close attention to the emperor’s taste in tea, and the varieties that pleased him most immediately became the most prized—and expensive—teas in the empire, resulting in a huge boost in profit and popularity for the plantations which produced the emperor’s favorites. In order to compete for imperial attention, tea growers and tea masters constantly found ways to improve the quality of the teas they offered as imperial tribute, resulting in rapid innovations that immediately filtered down to the popular market.

      For example, all Chinese tea was originally pressed into hard bricks, as the famous Pu Er tea of Yunnan is still produced, and this was the form it always took as tribute tea prior to the Sung Dynasty. Starting in the Sung, powdered tea designed to be whisked to a froth in hot water began to appear at court, and this was the form which visiting Japanese monks took back to Japan where it still remains the foundation of the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony.

      During the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, brick tea came back into favor and fashion, because this is the form that the nomadic tribes of the northern and central Asian steppes had grown accustomed to as an aid to digestion. The Mongols, who brought Yunnan into the Chinese empire, ate a lot of fatty meat and dairy products in their traditional diet, so the tea growers of Yunnan started sending bricks and discs of their best grades of fully fermented, aged Pu Er to the new northern capital of Beijing. This is the type of tea that was also shipped onward across Siberia along the northern Tea Road to Russia.

      When the founder of the Ming Dynasty chased the Mongols back to the steppes and re-established Chinese rule, China’s taste in tea changed again. The founding emperor came from a rustic village where loose leaf tea steeped in hot water was prefered to the more traditional brick and powdered forms, so when he ascended the throne, tea growers throughout China scrambled to produce ever finer varieties of loose leaf teas, and soon the imperial tea bureau decreed that henceforth all tribute tea should come in this new form, a preference that persists today.

      Much of the tribute tea sent to the emperor’s court was given away as gifts to favored courtiers and to visiting foreign diplomats, who took them back to their own lands, where Chinese tea soon became the most popular beverage, creating a constant demand for imports from the only place on earth that produced tea—China. Imperial Tribute Tea thus became a vehicle for spreading one of China’s most exquisite cultural icons to countries all around the world, thereby creating an enormous worldwide market for Chinese tea that enriched the Chinese economy for millenia.

      The practice of offering the best tea as tribute to the “emperor” continues today in Taiwan and China, except today the emperor wears a suit and tie and his courtiers use computers and mobile phones rather than calligraphy brushes and silk fans. While thousands of discs of the best Pu Er — sealed with the official Gung Sian Cha label — are sent each year from Yunnan to Beijing, Taiwan’s growers send bags of their best Gao Shan Cha (“High Mountain Tea”) to Taipei for use by government leaders and their families, official banquets, and gifts to foreign dignitaries. Thanks to the current “tea détente” between mainland China and Taiwan, a portion of Taiwan’s best High Mountain “Tribute Tea” is sent each year to the leadership in Beijing, where it is rapidly becoming the tea of choice for many of the capital’s most discerning tea drinkers.

      We also hear tell that the lava-clay tea pots developed in Taiwan over the past two decades — & featured on our tea shop menu — have become the favorite tea pots of China’s top leaders, who notice that this clay “softens” the fluid texture of tea, provides fuller flavor and finer fragrance, and negates many of the negative side effects of the strong, fully fermented Pu Er teas which many Chinese leaders still prefer. That’s why lava-clay teaware is getting more and more expensive and ever more difficult to find in Taiwan, even though it’s produced there, because the ancient system of Tribute Tea has brought this item to the attention of the “emperor” and his court.

      So if you don’t have one already, we suggest you invest in a lava-clay tea pot and cup while they are still available, because soon the supply will be gone and they will become highly prized collector’s items that sell at prices many times higher than today. The lava-clay deposits in Taiwan have all been used up, and now that the superior benefits of tea steeped in lava-clay pots and drunk from lava-clay cups have been realized by China’s movers and shakers thanks to the Tribute Tea system, remaining stocks of lava-clay teaware are rapidly dwindling.

“One Taste:” Seeking the Spirit of the I-Ching

Master Wu Zhongxian      Master Wu Zhong-xian, whose elegant calligraphy for that shining pearl of tea wisdom—“Tea and Zen are one taste”—graced a previous issue of Tea Tidings (link), and whose mesmerizing music plucked on the strings of the Ancient Lute (gu chin) is featured on our “Tea Tunes” menu (see here) has written and published a book that clearly manifests the One Taste of Tea and Zen in the palate of the reader’s mind.
In "Seeking the Spirit of the
Book of Change"
for which I had the honor of writing the Foreword, Master Wu explains the eternal principles which govern all change throughout the universe, and decodes the symbolic terms and concepts that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient book.

      In addition to his credentials as a calligrapher, lutist, martial artist, shaman, and I-Ching diviner, Master Wu is also a creative innovator and dedicated connnoisseur in the Chinese Art of Tea, which he has adapted as a framework for his discourse on the I-Ching, known in English as The Book of Change. Reading this book, we learn as much about tea as we do about trigrams, and the author speaks with as much authority on the art of tea as he does on the Hexagram 63 from The I-Ching (Book of Change)science of change. A perfect image of my favorite hexagram, #63 (“Completion”), spontaneously took form in my mind as I read a passage on Fire and Water. Composed of the trigram for Fire placed below the trigram for Water, this hexagram is often cited as a lesson in Taoist sexual yoga (male Fire slowly but surely bringing female Water to the boil of orgasm, i.e. “completion”), and as a symbolic depiction of the internal alchemy of Taoist meditation (the Fire of energy refining and clarifying the Water of awareness). But the image I got and shall forever retain from Master Wu’s discourse is a kettle of Water heating over the Fire of a stove, in preparation for steeping the perfect cup of insight.

      Indeed, Wu’s incisive rendition of the spirit of the I-Ching not only provides Western readers today with precise insights into how The Book of Change works, it also proves beyond doubt that “Tea and Zen are one taste.”

For those further interested in the book:

Master Wu Zhongxian: Seeking the Spirit of the Book of ChangeSeeking the Spirit of the
Book of Change
- 8 Days to Mastering a Shamanic I Ching Predicition System

Master Zhongxian Wu
Hardcover: 200 pages
Publisher: Singing Dragon
1st edition (May 15, 2009)
ISBN: 1848190204

> link to book at amazon.com

 

Sian: “Mountain People

Chinese Calligraphy - Ideogram for "Sian" (Mountain People)      This ancient ideogram, composed of the symbol for “person” on the left side with the symbol for “mountain” on the right, has for thousands of years been used to denote a Chinese term that combines the meanings of the English words “sage, hermit, yogin, adept, and immortal.” The image projected directly into the reader’s mind by this character is that of a bearded old man in robes sitting serenely in the mountains. Perhaps he’s deep in meditation, or gazing at an image he sees in the knots of a knarled old juniper, or listening to a songbird serenading its mate. Look closer and you’ll probably see a small teapot and cup set on a mossy rock or tree stump within easy reach.

      In China, serious spiritual cultivation has always been associated with high mountains, which also happen to be where the best tea always grows. Tea and hermits thrive in high mountains for the same basic reasons: pure water, clean air rich in the energizing force of chi (negative ions), proximity to the beneficial rays of the sun, soil loaded with vital minerals, and isolation from the ruinous environment of human habitats.

      No wonder then that tea has always been the favorite beverage of Taoist hermits and Buddhist monks, for whom tea became an indispensable support for meditation, yoga, and other spiritual pursuits, including music and poetry. Famous recluse monks such as the hermit master Stonehouse (see below for more on Stonehouse) were renowned as much for their sublime poetry and musical mastery on the lute and flute as they were for their spiritual accomplishments.

      During the eighteen years I lived in Taiwan, where I first learned about Chinese tea as well as Chinese medicine, meditation, poetry, and other traditional Chinese arts, all of which I still cultivate, the tea of choice was always High Mountain Oolong, and I don’t recall a single gathering of kindred spirits in these arts that wasn’t fueled by the ubiquitous pot of High Mountain Tea steeping on the table. In Taiwan, they all agree that among the great teas of China, High Mountain Oolong stands out like the proverbial “crane among chickens,” and here in mainland China they are also coming to the same conclusion, as the finest grades of Taiwan’s best High Mountain Oolongs find their way onto the tea tables of monks, musicians, poets, and martial artists.

Chinese Calligraphy for "High Mountain Tea Person"      Give it a few more decades, and this ancient Chinese symbol — literally “mountain person” — denoting someone who cultivates spiritual awareness and composes poetry in seclusion in the mountains and has attained a degree of mastery in both, might also come to seen as “high mountain tea person” and mean, figuratively speaking, a “High Mountain Tea Sage.”

Tea Food: Cha Shir

      People often ask us what sort of snack food goes best with High Mountain Tea, so it’s time for Tea Tidings to deal with this question. A few quick cups of tea never need any company from food, but if you’re sitting down for a long leisurely session at the tea table, alone or with friends, you’ll sooner or later feel an urge for food, and it’s very important to make the right choice. Nothing ruins the taste of good tea as quickly as the residue of the wrong food in the mouth. Cha shir, or “Tea Food,” is an integral part of the Chinese Art of Tea, and selecting the right food for the tea table is as important as knowing which dishes to choose from the menu at a banquet. Everyone at your tea table depends on your choice to satisfy the appetite for food and meet the need to feed more energy to the nervous system, without interfering with the taste of the fine teas you pour. In fact, properly prepared tea food should always enhance the overall enjoyment of the tea itself.

Yum Cha "Drinking Tea" - Chinese Tea Food      The food-loving Cantonese even created an entire form of cuisine around tea food. Known both as Yum Cha (“Drinking Tea”) and Dim Sum (“Snack Food”) in Cantonese, or Yin Cha and Dian Syin in Mandarin, this type of tea drinking and tea food is particularly popular for big family meals on Sundays and holidays. After stipulating the type of tea you want served at the table, you start selecting your tea foods from trolleys wheeled continuously around the dining room, laden with a wide variety of freshly prepared delicacies served in small portions on little plates. Bills are reckoned according to how many times you order new tea leaf (refilling the pot with hot water is free) and the number of little plates piled up on your table.

      Tea food serves several functions. First and foremost, it swiftly restores blood-sugar balance after a long round of tea drinking, and provides the nervous system with a source of quick energy to fuel more tea talk at the table or, if you’re drinking alone, more tea reveries in your mind. Periodically rebalancing the bloodstream and replenishing the nervous system with tea food is also the best way to prevent or alleviate the tea inebriation known as cha dzui (literally, “tea drunk”) at marathon tea drinking sessions.

      Tea food also provides a change of taste in the mouth between different teas, whetting the appetite and preparing the palate for more and more and then still some more tea. As the “sea of tea” in the belly fills, it’s a good idea to “line the stomach” from time to time with some solid bulk to balance the fluid.

      As in all the traditional Chinese arts, balance and harmony are the governing principles in selecting and preparing tea food, and that applies to the flavors as well as the effects of the food. Flavors should be fresh and light, not heavy and stale, and they should always harmonize well with the tastes of tea. Generally speaking, sweet and salty are the flavors that combine best with High Mountain Tea, for taste as well as for effect.

      First let’s look at the sort of foods which should not appear on your tea table. Always avoid fatty meat and greasy deep-fried food, and totally eliminate from consideration any and all factory processed foods. Steer clear of strong pungent spices such as garlic, chili, and curry because they’ll render your tongue and palate incapable of detecting the subtle flavors and tones of good quality tea. All dairy products clog the taste buds and should therefore not be included in your choice of foods for the tea table. And contrary to what you might think, fresh fruit is not a good choice for tea food, because the fruit acids in the juice of fresh fruits do not combine well in the stomach with the biochemical constituents of High Mountain Tea and can cause the stomach to turn sour and bloat with gas. The only exception to this rule is banana, whose composition and texture go very well with tea.

Tea Food - Bananas and Muscatels      On the other hand, good quality dried fruits are one of the best of all forms of tea food. They taste good, providing a pleasant counterpoint to the dry alkaline flavors in the tea, and the natural sugars they contain quickly enter the bloodstream to quell the rising tide of tea inebriation and boost the nervous system with quick energy to fuel more tea talk at the table. Our favorites are Medjul dates, Muscatel raisins, and Greek figs.

Tea Food - Medjul Dates      Nuts and seeds are another excellent form of tea food, and they go very well with dried fruits. If using roasted nuts or seeds, be sure to sprinkle them with some natural sea salt—or better yet Himalayan glacial salt—and heat them up in the oven before serving. It’s important to use only high-grade sea or glacial salt because the full spectrum of 81 minerals and trace elements in whole salt plays a melodious medley of taste in the mouth with the complex flavor profile of High Mountain Tea, bringing out all of its subtle tastes and tones. In China and Taiwan, the most popular types of tea food include watermelon, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds roasted in their shells and seasoned with salt.

      Our prefered way of eating nuts and seeds is to pre-soak them in pure water for at least 20 hours, then rinse and drain them, serving the seeds (we only use shelled seeds) with sea or glacial salt and the nuts with high quality dried fruits. The nuts and seeds must be raw and not rancid, and the reason for soaking them in water prior to eating is to remove the natural preservative that all nuts and seeds contain to prevent them from sprouting before they are planted in the ground and watered. This natural preservative prevents the digestion of raw nuts and seeds in the stomach, unless you first soak them in water, which signals them to release this biochemical. Thereafter, the nut or seed becomes a whole living food, similar in nature to a sprouted bean, digesting very well in the stomach and providing a big bounty of vital nutrients.

Tea Food - Walnuts and Macadamia Nuts      Soaked raw nuts and seeds served with a variety of high-grade dried fruits is the mainstay of our tea food menu, and our top choices are macadamia nuts, walnuts, and almonds (almonds should be peeled after soaking to remove the brown skin), sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and, in addition to our favorite Muscatels, Medjuls, and figs, we also like dried cherries, apricots, and toasted coconut chips.

      “Sugar and spice, and everything nice” is a quip that certainly applies to tea food. For spice, aromatics such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and anise are very nice in sweet treats for the tea table, especially baked into biscuits and tea cakes, or infused in roasted seeds and dried fruits. And in traditional Chinese homes, all sorts of other delicious tea foods, both sweet and savory, are freshly prepared in the kitchen, including steamed dumplings, sweet soups, and delicately flavored pastries. Just follow the basic guidelines we’ve discussed here, then apply your own imagination and culinary experience to select and preparie tea foods for your own tea table and tea friends.

News from “The Hermitage

      “The Hermitage,” Dali’s own High Mountain Tea plantation and workshop, owned and operated by Mr. & Mrs. Chiou, who brought thousands of tea shoots from Taiwan and planted them in Dali ten years ago, continues to cultivate and produce a variety of High Mountain Oolongs at their plantation at Wu Liang Shan (“Boundless Mountain”), located at nearly 3,000 meters altitude about three hours drive from Dali Old Town. Mr. Chiou just returned from a two-week sojourn there, where he supervised the first flush pluck of this year’s Spring tea. He’s now back in his workshop down near Er Hai Lake, carefully oxidizing the freshly picked leaves and rolling the sprigs into pellets, then slowly firing the pellets to perfection in his ovens, before vacuum sealing them in packets for sale. Most of his tea gets shipped back and immediately sells in Taiwan, which proves that the quality of his product is up to par with the source. We always take visiting friends down to The Hermitage to test a selection of their best teas, and most of them buy a few bags to take back home and share with their tea friends.

      The first photo (above) shows the workers sorting the freshly picked harvest of tea leaves and laying them flat to oxidize in bamboo baskets layered in racks to maximize exposure to air. In the second photo (below) I'm inspecting a fine sample of the classic Oolong pluck: three mature leaves and one leaf still in bud, all sprouting intact on the same sprig, without a single crack, chip, or dent in the leaves or twig to allow the tea’s aromatic and therapeutic essence to escape. It still amazes me whenever I fish a spent sprig of High Mountain Tea from a teapot, carefully unfold it, and flatten it out on the tea tray. Lo and behold! There’s the sprig of three leaves and a bud, still attached to the same twig, exactly the way it looked when it was plucked from the plant. No other tea on earth can match this magic…

Tail Piece

      Having discussed the connection in Chinese tradition between mountains and hermit monks, mountains and tea, tea and poetry, it seems fitting to conclude this issue of Tea Tidings with a few lines of poetry from the reclusive Buddhist monk known to posterity simply as “Stonehouse.” Stonehouse was an ordained Buddhist monk renowned in China for the purity and power of his practice, and for a while he served as abbot at several important monasteries. But his heart always remained in the mountains, and finally he followed his heart to a little stone house deep in the mountains, far from the mundane distractions of the world, and there he lived the quintessential life of the hermit sage in China, chopping wood and fetching water, boiling rice and making tea, contemplating the cosmos and, luckily for us, composing poetry. This collection forms a charming record of his life as a reclusive monk in the mountains of old China

The Zen Works of Stonehouse - complied and translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)      The lines below come from poem #118 in The Complete Works of Stonehouse compiled and translated by my good friend and Tao brother Red Pine (Bill Porter), who has translated numerous important sacred texts on Buddhism and Taoism from classical Chinese into contemporary English, as well as several anthologies of Chinese poetry. I’ve combined my own translation with his in this English rendition, but you’ll find his own original version and hundreds more in his book. (Link to book at amazon.com)

      In these few lines, Stonehouse succintly summarizes the style of his daily life in the mountains, a style to which I’ve always aspired, a style which I find myself cultivating right here in Dali, in the mountains of China:

All year long not a care stirs my heart.
Every day my hut overflows with joy.
After meals and a pot of strongly steeped tea,
I sit on a rock by the pond counting fish.

                Truly it is said, “Tea and Zen are One Taste.”

         




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