We scheduled an official Chinese Cultural Tea Tasting Party for 17 April 2009 (Friday) at 1800. I sent out official invitations to the participants (to include my brother in Oklahoma and John, a former teacher here who now lives in Guizhou Province). Participants were Tom, Dave Bishop (Gap Guy #1), John Whale (Gap Guy #2), Ivan (Gap Guy #3 doing his thing in Leshan down the road) and me. Tom was the designated Tea Meister as he had been practicing for the last two weeks to get things right. Tom also dressed the part as he wore is new Chinese white silk shirt which put the rest of us to shame.
Tom, the Tea Meister, prepares the equipment and tools to start the ceremony. He was most anxious to feel the Qi as quickly as possible.
Our first teas to be tasted were the most famous in China, two different Longjing greens from the Hangzhou area. The first came from the Chengdu Tea Culture Street and the second was given to me by Grace Spright one of our students. She claims to have gone right to the source and bought this tea from the processor himself. We called this the battle of the dragons or dou cha ( 斗茶 ) - tea fight. A competition of tasting different teas to establish which is the best. Of course, we were tasting what was supposed to be the same tea. My research has revealed that many teas from the Hangzhou area are now called Longjing but only the real one comes from the original plantation on Lion Head Mountain. I must find out the exact location where Ms. Grace purchased this green tea. Here Tom shows the heroes the leaves of the Longjing green prior to pouring the first cups.
The first cup of Chengdu-bought Longjing green tea goes to Dave who smiles in "brilliant" anticipation of gaining access to this teas "qi." His excitement was palpable and almost embarrassingly overwhelming.
Here John portrays his normal oblique self-expression of Asian inscrutability. Notice how deftly and passionately he handles the newly purchased tea cups I bought specifically for this ceremony. John, of course, prefers any liquid to tea (especially water) but because of his Asian background felt obliged to enter into the halls of fame and heroism to observe this thing called "Chinese qi." Is his smile the wry smile of Asian amused condescendence or simply the obligatory politeness so often formed on the lips of his ancient ancestors?
Casually, Tom introduces the concept of sipping tea. Most westerners have no real understanding of what "sipping" entails. As an inveterate sipper, Tom provides needed depth to our understanding of how exactly one sips a Chinese Longjing tea to get the most taste from it and force the qi from its unwilling leaves. For Tom, sipping was easy. It was the follow-on swallowing that caused him great concern throughout the tea-tasting evening.
Time for the Grace Spright provided Longjing. After three infusions of the first Longjing and gaining enough experience from the process, we were all anxious to apply the rules of "dou cha" to this second Longjing. Notice, once again, the dexterity that John is applying to his tea cup. Also notice the "kung fu" stance of our great and masterful tea meister. I was led to believe that this stance brings out the "qi" of tea much quicker than just handing out the tea willy nilly.
Ivan jumps the gun on this second Longjing. He could not wait. He refused to wait. He glared at us with his nerdi-tea! He immediately scarfed the tea down in one gulp. Of course, Tom was shocked at this breaking of protocal. He spent the next ten minutes lecturing Ivan on the subtleties of sipping. Ivan was forced to sip slowly four more Longjing teas before he could join in our brilliant wordsmanship and philosophizing. He kept repeating to himself - tea is for sipping, tea is for sipping.
Dave, fully loaded with qi from this second Longjing green tea, begins to speak in a language that no one could understand - British English. Even John could not help but laugh at Dave's ridiculous accent. Tom, unawares of any language being spoken, had become involved with trying to swallow the tea. This was a constant struggle for Tom all evening. It was concluded that both Longjing teas were beyond reproach in their taste and the qi we received from them. We all agreed, however, that the Longjing tea I bought in Chengdu gave us a bit more of a "qi" kick than the one Grace had provided. Could it be that the Grace-provided tea had been unwilling to give us the full force of its qi and needed to be "aged" a few months more to discourage its beligerence? One will only know in two months time.
Qi was flowing amongst us and began to fill up the room to such an extent that I decided to slow things down by showing off my newly acquired Puerh Bing Cha that Jack, one of our students, had given me for my birthday. We are talking a serious bing cha (puerh pressed tea cake) here. The box was beautiful and the cake smelled wonderful. It took me more than fifteen minutes to wrestle this tea back from Tom's grasping hands. He kept insisting that we try it since he had been unsuccessful in swallowing the Longjings and thus sat as an empty vessel on his chair with nary a qi to be seen in or near him.
We also took a break and shared some cookies amongst us to slow down the rapidly expanding qi that most of us had begun to feel. Tom, however, felt nothing but contempt and thus was eager to eat the cookies to hide his inability to drain the qi from his tea.
Our next "dou cha" was between the yellow tea from Emei Mountain and the yellow tea from Jun Mountain in Hunan province. Both were called "silver needles" or "yin zhen" (银针). The Emei Mountain tea I had purchased several months ago from a local department store and had tasted it once with Tom. It was ok but nothing really great. The Jun Shan yellow tea I had purchased on our last trip to the Tea Culture Street in Chengdu. Here Tom examines both teas to see the differences. There were big differences to be sure.
Dave gets some qi quickly and refused to quit smelling the aroma. Tom had to threaten him with "remedial sipping class" to get the bag back. Pouting, Dave, immediately goes back to his version of the English language which only he could understand. We all figured he was bad-mouthing us but none of us could really be sure.
One whiff of this yellow tea sends Ivan into Lala Land (as if he ever left there in the first place). Tom was quick to retrieve the bag of yellow tea before Ivan could eat it. In Lala Land, eating tea must not be thought of as immoral nor in bad form.
Here Tom is pouring our first infusion of the Jun Shan Yin Zhen. Because the gaiwan had grown a bit from handling to0 much of the qi from the tea, Tom needed some help to get the tea poured. No problem as Dave was willing to assist this delicate operation even though no one could understand what he was saying.
Tom proudly shows off his successful pouring of the yellow tea. He also spent ten minutes admiring and telling us how yellow the tea was. None of us were blind, yet that did not stop Tom from his pontification of the yellowness of the tea. The tea was, indeed, yellow.
Since we were all tired of watching John passionately grasp his tea cup as he got his tea, Tom decided to give the first cup of Jun Shan Yin Zhen to Dave. This was done mostly to quiet Dave down so we would not have to listen to the strange noise coming from his mouth that he kept claiming was English. Of course, Tom conned him into thinking that it was because of John's constant hotdogging in grasping his tea cup.
Ivan breaks away long enough from Lala Land to get some of the Jun Shan yellow tea. Here we see him concentrating on getting back to Lala Land. Does he live in Lala Land all the time or is it the qi of the tea that sends him there? None of us could really quite figure out how he moved between reality and Lala Land so easily.
As you can see by this picture, Tom, our Tea Meister, is doing an excellent job of not wasting any of the precious qi coming from the tea. His professionalism was astounding but we all felt remorse at his inability to swallow the very tea he was meistering.
Here Tom is carrying out the pre-dou cha ceremony where we are shown the two opposing teas. The Jun Mountain silver needles knocked the locally grown Emei Mountain silver needles yellow tea out of the ring. There simply was no comparison of the two teas. The Emei Mountain tea looked more like grass whereas the yellow tea from Jun Mountain looked exactly like the pictures I had found on the internet. Fake verses real. Real verses fake. Not even close!
My own cup of Jun Shan Yin Zhen. One can almost feel the qi as it floats up from the yellow liquid. This tea is great! We all had positive things to say about it and spent an unusual amount of time singing its praises.
Our dou cha was interrupted with a beautiful four-year old mini-tuocha that Sunee and I had taken from the hands of a dealer in Kunming two weeks previous. The dealer offered us fifty of these little jewels for 80 Yuan. As we were tasting it and deciding to buy it, he mentioned that we could get 150 of them for only 150 Yuan. A deal is a deal wherever one finds it so we bought the larger can of these marvelous little tuochas. We loved them in Kunming and the five heroes loved them on the slopes of Emei Mountain. This was the best tea we tasted all evening.
Isn't the dexterity of John's grasping of the tea cup amazing? We all stopped talking and stared as Tom handed the puerh-filled cup to John.
His fingers nestled the glazed blue cup filled with tea.
Smooth, feminine-like graspings promising much no respite
To the cup so often held in the light for all of us to see.
Yes, John, yes! It seemed to squeal in pleasure and delight.
Tom answers a question concerning his method of extracting the precious liquid from the mini-tuacha as John grasps with pleasure the small delicate blue tea cup. Notice the glow of qi that surrounds John but seems to be missing from Tom. Once more, Tom's problems continued through even the puerh session of tea tasting.
Ah, puerh. Blessed puerh. All agreed that this was a wonderfully complex tea. We all sipped and took a shot at describing what we were experiencing.
Here is my cup of puerh. This was around the fourth infusion and it remained as dark and beautiful as the first. Talk about a steal! This tea was worth every bit of Yuan we had paid for it.
Amazing but true, Ivan returned to reality just in time to celebrate his first infusion of the puerh. Here he toasts the puerh with Dave. Ivan, a brilliant linguist in his own right, was actually able to interpret for the rest of us what Dave had said over the last few hours. It was also Ivan who most impressively expressed the exact adjectival nouns that applied to this puerh. Such words as "halibut" and "squidy-like" aroma breached the etiquette that Tom was so forcefully trying to maintain as our tea meister.
Infusion after infusion brought on many more of these Ivanistic adjectival nouns to our ears and minds. Here John fakes a sniff of the puerh to show off his now "celebrated grip" of the beautifully glazed blue tea cup. He was obviously sniffing just for the "halibut."
Another infusion. More sniffing. More Ivanistic adjectival nouns. This time it is "the dust of a Rhodesian wine cellar" that Ivan smells in his puerh. What a nose for sifting through the dictionary of his mind to come up with just the right descriptions for this puerh!
The words grate upon the human ear and test our fortitude
Ivan, dear, Ivan bring forth your royal chants of pictured phrases
Let us all travel down your path of words for puerh so crude
Here Tom continues to wonder why he simply cannot swallow the tea he has so brilliantly prepared for us. As John smirks "qi'ingly" at the way the other heroes hold their cups, Tom looks wistfully at the dark orange liquid lying limpid in his cup. No see no qi, we hear him muttering to himself between his tea meistering.
Left alone on a plain of existence below that of the other four heroes, Tom desperately seeks the qi in the actual dried tea leaves. What is it that makes the tea hard for me to swallow? Maybe it is just not my "cup of tea" tonight, he rationalizes to himself.
"I have fully "grasped" the qi of tea," John states emphatically after infusion number twenty of the tuocha puerh. No one dared argue as we all stared at the incredible spectacle of his thin, flawless fingers gently, yet firmly caressing the beautiful blue glazed tea cup from Kunming. Notice the index finger defyingly pointing toward the obviously inferior heroes that sit on his right. How dare this sycophant to the qi of tea so insult his fellow heroes in this "sippingly" uncharitable way! So much for the obvious benefits of puerh.
Round three of our dou cha - Tailand oolong #17 verses the world champion of oolongs: Da Hong Pao or Big Red Robe. Here Tom introduces the wet leaves of the Da Hong Pao to his fellow tea heroes. Notice how Ivan turns his now enhanced respiratory system into a sniffing machine; capable of tracking and classifying even the tiniest hints of adjectival nouns.
Da Hong Pao, the legendary tea of Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province, brings only an arrogant sniff from John. Maybe he has not been clued in on the brilliance of the tea. Maybe his claim to have obtained "qi nirvana" has caused his sensory perceptions to become lazy in his newly-gained status as the foremost hero amongst us lowly mortals. Perhaps, perhaps he remains a neophite in teadom and has been putting on a show to fool us into believing he has reached tea stardom.
Darth Dave reaches a new level of "qi'ness." Denied the use his facade of speaking English, he rapidly moved into a different plain of existence than his fellow heroes. His language had also accompanied him to this higher plain. No longer the language of the barbarian and unsociable Saxon hordes who punished the original inhabitants of the island we call England by forcing them into using the now modern weird and strange language of the Brits, the Darth man's language now consisted of heavenly "hum's and ha's" and a few angelic "mmm's."
Rising up as if already gone
The teamonger Darth Dave
Like a white and flying swan
Moves into the nirvana cave
Entering into the mystery of the qi
As all us poor mortals sit so near
He takes another swallow of the tea
Then floats away on qi to disappear
The Da Hong Pao experience reaches a personal level as I sip and enjoy my own cup. Here the amber liquid reminds one of apple juice squeezed by virgins intent upon gaining the last drop of their precious liquid from the fruit they have so patiently picked.
The Thailand Oolong Number 17 turns out to be but a footnote in our quest for glory and qi. Up against the finest oolong money can buy, it pails in comparison. On its own, it would have done very well. This last round turned out to be a fight between the adjectival nouned - 800 pound gorilla and a pleasant and beautiful bunny rabbit. The rabbit, sweet and affectionate as it may be, was squashed into oblivion by the 800 pound gorilla. And so it was with Thailand's best. A footnote that states that there was no contest and we, as heroes, were guilty of fixing the competition in the champions favor. Guilty as charged!
Tom Terrific ponders his role as our tea meister, reviewing the errors made and the triumphs won. We all agreed that the last dou cha was unfair and promised our "bunny rabbit" of a Thailand oolong a chance against a more worthy and equal opponent. The Da Hong Pao was one of our favorites along with the incredible puerh. The two green Longjings were also very noteworthy in their ability to supply us with a load of "qi."