10 August 2018

Required Reading: Tea in China, A Religious and Cultural History by James Benn

As drinkers of Chinese tea in the English-language sphere, our greatest lack is information. Tea in China, A Religious and Cultural History, brings a wealth of new information and analysis to the English-speaking tea-loving world.

First, though, I want to discuss the most common current sources of information about Chinese tea: vendors and their websites, tea forums, cultural news articles, and the very few English-language books that deal specifically with tea from China.

The first source, vendors and vendor websites, is a tricky one. While it's in a vendor's best interest to teach tea well, often that information is what they think their audience wants to know or hear. That usually amounts to a blend of fact, myth and opinion. True things like the birthplace of tea being Southwest China mix with opinions like "shu pu'er has no qi" and with myths like tea being discovered by Shennong ("divine farmer" a mythical Chinese sage king). These are further adulterated with factually incorrect statements like one I heard recently: a vendor from China giving a talk in Seattle stated that Hunan fu cha* is so special because golden flowers** only grow on fu cha. I nearly forgot to mention my biggest pet peeve: unsubstantiated vendor claims about tea and health, like those that made Rishi the subject of scrutiny by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

The second source, tea forums, are more a vector for opinion and community wisdom rather than fact. Any search of a tea forum will yield different "facts" about tea, but mostly these are opinions and beliefs masquerading as fact, often coming secondhand from vendors. Tea forums are excellent places to share information, like recommendations for vendors' teas and teaware, how to store tea and make tea, tea travel, etc. But, as with vendors, remain skeptical: fact and belief are often treated the same. Moreover, forum users become argumentative and hateful, and the longer a thread is, the more the chance of an argument happening converges on 1. I greatly benefited from forum users' opinions and information earlier in my tea journey, and I did meet good tea friends through forums. Either the arguments are more frequent or my tolerance is lower, and I avoid them now.

Cultural news articles are usually fluff pieces. Almost all of them have the same format: Jane or John Doe vendor walks us through the (five, only five!) different kind of teas made from Camellia sinensis, what they're "good for" (i.e., nonsense health claims), how to brew them, what food they pair with (couching tea in western gastronomy is a common theme in these articles), some cursory information about tea's "history" and maybe some few words about teaware. Occasionally there are in-depth vendor profiles, and these have more utility. Quite less frequently appears a piece on tea tourism; newspapers and magazines in the US and Europe aren't clamoring to spend money to send their reporters to Asia to report on tea farms. So, some useful information, some not, and a fair amount of nonsense.

There are a handful of literary works on Chinese tea in English. These are of two varieties: translated works from Chinese/Taiwanese authors and those written by westerners. The most famous of the former is, of course, Lu Yu's Classic of Tea (Cha jing), written in the Tang dynasty, which deals with tea of the time, which most of us wouldn't recognize because no one makes tea that way now. Other works, such as those from the Wuxing publishing house in Taiwan, were written by nonacademic authors and don't often contain the hallmarks of what westerners would consider good scholarship: citing sources, source analysis, looking for agreement or disagreement among sources, etc. They are still quite useful, but they contain a fair amount of wisdom and opinion presented (unsubstantiated) as fact. As far as books by westerners, we have books like The True History of Tea by Erling Hoh and Victor Mair, a laudable historical overview of tea and tea trade, in terms of scholarship. The Story of Tea, A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, gives a useful bibliography, even if its coverage of tea's origins is too loosely treated. It's more of a reference manual for the types of tea, where they're grown, how to brew them, etc. In fact, that's what a lot of tea books in English look like: tea 101, the very basics. Of these that I've read, though, the Heiss's work does the most thoughtful and thorough job, nearly 400 pages of information.

The Review

If you want to go deeper than tea 101--and you don't read Chinese--I recommend James A. Benn's Tea in China. Benn begins by defining his terms and the scope of his work as a primarily religious and cultural analysis of tea. He then analyzes, rather than merely repeats, claims about the origins of tea found in popular belief and, specifically, in Lu Yu's Cha jing. He gives detail about the characters used and what scholars believe they affirmatively know about those terms. The work allows for ambiguity to stand where there is no clarity in available sources. It makes few assumptions. And it exhaustively cites its sources, comments on them when appropriate, and refers the reader to additional information on sometimes even highly niche topics.

Much of the book discusses tea in the Tang and Song dynasties, with a chapter on the Ming. In these he explores the invention of tea as a religious, cultural and medical phenomenon, exploring its connection to Buddhist and Taoist literature and practice, and more extensively, its appearance in poetry and painting.

Perhaps this was the most exciting part about this book for me, the translation into English of Chinese texts. It's difficult to find translations of tea works aside from the Cha jing, which isn't surprising. What's more surprising is how difficult it can be to find translations from some of China's most famous poets and historical personalities; that many thousands of years of literature means a huge backlog of works that we may never see in English (all the more reason to study Chinese, young tea drinkers!). Making this available, in one place, with analysis--the book is worth its price for this alone. If you're interested in Chinese tea poetry, I suggest you look up Steven Owyoung, who I found through this book.

What this book does not set out to do--and thus, doesn't--is research tea economy and trade, the use of tea in court and among the common folk, or anything not related to religion or art. He's left that for another author. Also, noticeably absent is information about tea in the Yuan dynasty. Many authors, in my experience, treat "conquest dynasties" like the Liao, Yuan and Qing as less "authentically" Chinese. I would have liked more information about Yuan dynasty tea and tea during the 5 dynasties/10 kingdoms period, assuming there are surviving relevant texts from that turbulent time.

I'm most appreciative of learning new things about tea in China, about its religious and cultural connections, and even some small facts, like that not all tea was compressed into cakes during the Tang and Song--one of those historical oversimplifications found in many tea books--that leaf tea was consumed, although it was also ground and prepared more or less like cake tea. Also, a little detail about Ming brewing: that tea leaves were rinsed with hot water in a strainer, then transferred to a pot, not rinsed in the pot like the gongfu popular today. The book filled in some finer details for me.

Tea in China, A Religious and Cultural History, if you'd like to purchase it, is available from the University of Hawaii press directly, as well as on Amazon. You can also ask your better local bookstore to order it.

*A type of hei cha, literally "black tea" but often translated now as "dark tea" to distinguish it from hong cha, which means "red tea" in Chinese but referred to as "black tea" in English

**jinhua, aka "golden flowers" is the common name for the fungus Aspergillus cristatus, purported to have medical benefits

01 December 2017

Packing tea

Packing for the move means packing my tea. The move isn't until January, but I've started early, using the extra time to catalog what I have, a task I neglected to keep up with in the past few years.

It's been a trip down memory lane--and a trip down "I don't remember" lane. My local tea friend helped me pack and catalog the first day, and at least five times I couldn't remember buying something, or where I bought it, or if someone gave it to me. For other teas, it took a glance to remember I owned them; but in the intervening years I'd forgotten I had them. As my tea ages, so does my brain.
So much tea
I've come across teas from my first trip to China, the result of days of scouring Maliandao tea market in Beijing. And teas from my second, longer trip to China, bought with MarshalN and our tea friends Liu Bo and Action Jackson. Teas bought with Scott in Kunming, Sebastien in Guangzhou. Teas purchased on trips to Tian Shan and Jiuxing tea markets in Shanghai, accompanied by Thomas from the hostel, where we were trapped over Chinese New Year because the trains and buses were all full. I remember eating way too many red bean cakes.

Who knew packing could be so nostalgic?

19 July 2017

Tea culture in Atlanta, as seen by a gongfu guy

Because my partner and I are likely moving out-of-state this fall, and in response to TeaDB's recent post on "Western Tea Culture & Tea Hermits," I thought I would take the opportunity to review what tea culture is like in Atlanta, Georgia--at least for these handful of years that we have lived here.

This picture has no relation to the content. Just teapr0n for your pleasure.

First, some context

We moved here from Southern California, where we were part of a lively group of tea drinkers who met with irregularity, called the LA Tea Affair. A couple of tea vendors were in the group, notably Tea Habitat and Bana Tea Company. The former even provided our location when she had a shop in Palos Verdes/Rolling Hills Estates (Tea Habitat's current shop is in the San Gabriel Valley, by appointment only, I believe, and well worth a visit. See my post here). We all brought and shared tea, learned from one another, shared opinions on teas and vendors and regions, and had a great time.

The state of gongfu Atlanta (kind of, not really)

On this blog, you can read some posts about my previous attempts to gather gongfu people together to drink tea in the south for the Southeast Tea Affair. The effort resulted in a some success, but only because of a few dedicated out-of-state people who were willing to drive as far as 10 hours to Atlanta to come drink tea. That kind of effort isn't sustainable long-term: People's lives become busy, or they tire of driving, or what have you. I don't blame them; I don't think I could have driven the distances often myself.

Fast-forward to today: There are four of us gongfu drinkers in the Atlanta metro area, including me and my partner. Four, at least, who have found one another on the internet and taken the next step to meet in person for tea. My partner's already in Seattle, so that leaves three. One of those three doesn't have easy access to transportation, so it's more often just two of us. We have a great time, and I'm very glad to be that much less of a hermit. Sharing tea is a joy, and I don't take my tea friends here for granted.
Again, not relevant, just delicious-looking.

Culturally, gongfu faces several challenges in Atlanta

Why so few of us teaheads here, in the United States' 9th-largest metro population? My years of living here have me believe it's the local culture; of the four of us who drink gongfu tea here, three of us moved here from California. That leaves only one Georgia native into gongfu. Of course, if you live in the area and would like to join us, feel free to comment. I'd love to see these "statistics" changed.

TeaDB mentions the lack of shops in the West, and Atlanta follows this trend. We only really have a handful of tea houses: not tea shops, per se, but places where you order (British) tea service and food. They do all sell loose leaf to take home, but they're more places to drink tea than to buy leaves. The tea house model makes tea social, but only as long as you BYOF, bring your own friends. Moreover, it's not Chinese or any other Asian tea focus, so there's no gongfu. The places you might get some hot Chinese tea are boba/bubble tea restaurants, but despite hot tea being on the menu, I've never witnessed anyone drinking it. And some boba places only have bagged tea.

Aside from a lack of even one shop that could teach one that gongfu exists, Atlanta is a sweet tea town, like the rest of the Southeast. Tea without sweetener, artificial or otherwise, is anathema to the culture. When you order tea at a restaurant, the assumption is cold and sweet, and you have to specify otherwise. Even if ordered plain, the assumption is you want to sweeten it yourself or use an artificial sweetener, so the staff will plunk down a caddy with bags of various sugar substitutes. It's more than even tea, really: many friends here tell me that they can't drink water plain because it tastes bad. Adults here drink kool-aid by the gallon, a beverage reserved only for children in my native state. Sugar is a necessary ingredient for the state's local foods. From fried chicken marinated in sweet tea to syrupy-sweet barbeque sauce, from sugar in spicy tuna roll sauce to pecan pie so sweet it hurts your teeth, sugar is inescapable. It helps define the local palate. Bitter tea is the opposite of this palate's preference.

Weather significantly affects the tea culture here, of course. Atlantans collectively sweat and pant their way through hot and humid weather 7 to 8 months of the year. Predictably, most Atlantans want to cool off with sweet tea, not heat up with hot tea. The farther south from Atlanta, the longer the hot season and the warmer the winters. In terms of comfort, it makes sense that cold tea reigns in the area.
Almost apropos, insomuch as I grew this tea in Georgia
and processed it myself. Georgia's first white tea! All 6
grams of it.
Lastly, one gongfu-inhibiting factor, which I don't think most Georgians even realize, is the state's conformist culture. Difference isn't celebrated here like it was in California, and a hobby like gongfu makes people think you strange. Where in California, it was common to meet people of all walks of life, interested in any sort of hobby, here it's uncommon.


We have planned our move for September/early October, and our first choice is Seattle, so TeaDB will have two more teaheads to drink with, if he wants. I'll enjoy being able to visit Floating Leaves in person, and if you have any other tea shop recommendations for Seattle or thereabouts, let me know in the comments.

04 August 2016

Visiting California Part 3: The Return of Tea Habitat

Shortly after I left Southern California, Tea Habitat's physical location closed. Imen, who owns and runs the company, specializes in dancong oolong and offers more varieties of it than any vendor I've visited on this or that side of the Pacific. My partner and I, along with the LA Tea Affair folks, had spent handfuls of mornings - that turned into afternoons - tasting and discovering better dancong oolong teas at Tea Habitat. Of course, any time a physical shop closes, it should sadden us; there are too few places in the U.S. to taste high-end teas before you buy them.

Thus, I was excited to learn that Tea Habitat opened a new shop space, although it's available by appointment only. Even better, Imen was there and tasting when we wanted to drop by.

Imen hated me for taking this photo, but I think she looks good.

The new space is cozy, bright and well decorated.

As pictured, we drank many teas. Many were new shipments fresh from China that she herself hadn't tasted yet. I wish I could remember all the names and which ones impressed me most, but my focus was on catching up. She did take notes, and if they're not already on her site, they will be soon.

I wish I could remember all the names. In addition, we had a delicate green and a punchy, supposedly wild-harvested bai mudan (white peony).

I had to take a break to appreciate a few of her teaware items. This cute vintage plate tempted me, but too many plates line my shelves already.

After this, we took a trip to the Huntington Library and Gardens to see how their Chinese garden had fared. The willows and shrubs have grown in, the koi have grown fat, lotuses and water lilies dot the ponds, and new pavilions and paths have popped up.

We needed a refreshment after all the walking. Ever heard of Okinawa-style milk tea? I had not, but I'm glad my friend introduced me. It's milk tea with caramelized brown sugar as sweetener, and it's aromatic and rich. Not as fancy as the tea we'd had earlier, but a delicious alternative to a cold coffee beverage.

01 August 2016

Visiting California Part 2: Tea with LATA

Way back when, a few of us tea enthusiasts in the greater Los Angeles region met regularly to drink tea together. Most of the original crew have moved or moved on, but some of us have stayed in touch. 

During my recent trip to California, I had a chance to meet up and drink tea with some of them.

We drank a handful of teas, including some well aged liu bao sent from Su, our friend in Malaysia who has been drinking and collecting tea for many years (Su, the pic is a shallow amount of a very late infusion, so don't think we messed it up! It was good).

We also drank xiao huang yin (little yellow label), a tea now upwards of 40 years old. I thought to myself, "Bears, we are aging, too: I remember when this tea was in its early thirties!" Another measure of time passing, I updated my New to Pu'er? post, and realized how many years went by since I last tasted fresh raw pu'er productions. Pu'er and other teas I've aged now bring me nostalgic pleasure in part because they have aged with me. Remembering when I bought this or that tea in China, who I was with, where our lives have taken us thereafter: some teas have become a consumable part of my past, a medicine for remembering to remember.

Sentiments and tea philosophy aside, the visit reinvigorated my passion for tea, which I rue to admit had smoldered. Our drinking gave me fresh inspiration to write this blog again.

Thank you for reading. Expect new content at least somewhat regularly. I will be reviewing a book and maybe a website or two, and I'll update on how some of my teas have aged, including my own production.