Saturday, April 18, 2009

Searching for the Key (钥匙) to the Qi of Cha (茶气)

Invitation to a tea tasting.

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.

We were in search of that elusive energy force we had heard about - Qi. In my research, I had read articles about how tea brings with it this Chinese Qi and many writers often described the Cha Qi they experience in drinking their tea. Why not us? Why not channel the forces of the tea for us in our own special tea tasting ceremony?

The Chinese Tea Ceremony's Seven Steps and what each step means.

The Qi of Tea movie poster starring the five great tea heroes of Emei Mountain.

Ode To Cha Qi

When we five heroes came, we drank our tea hardcore;
No matter how much we drank, we always asked for more;
The table was set to search the world for this thing called qi;
We sat around and philosophized about this drink called tea.

We guests, heroes one and all, drank from cups so fair and small.
The greens came first, two dragons involved in a battle brawl;
The Chengdu one , bought with cash, was the one we qi’ed about,
But both were great and gave us qi of which we were without.

When Ivan and John took the tea, they rolled upon the floor;
John smiled his smile of complexi-tea and quickly asked for more.
Ivan, drinking his stupidi-tea, grasped hard upon the chair,
And as he looked at all of us, he understood this qi affair.

The qi took charge as our visions dimmed, it must have been the tea
For Dave began to wax and wane about things that only he could see.
We tried to calm him down a bit, but nothing seemed to work
He crawled upon the table and quietly went berserk.

Poor Tom our tea master, saw us all heading south,
And wondered how it was, for his tea was in his mouth.
He’d tried to swallow several times, but all to no avail,
And now that the qi had come, he hoped he would prevail.

The qi was now inside of us and all around the room.
The tea had brought it on and now it spelled our doom.
Ole Cecil was dancing high, way up in a big white cloud;
The qi had taken him way up there and he was getting loud.

Poor Tom still could not drink his tea, it simply wouldn’t go,
So he never really experienced how the qi did flow.
He gathered up the four of us, and took us all outside;
He kicked our heads and faces until the qi did subside.

When we five heroes went back in, we drank our tea hardcore;
No matter how much tea we drank, we always asked for more.

The five famous and great tea heroes of Emei Mountain search for the key to the Qi of Tea.

The tea set up was meticulously laid out for efficiency and professionalism. No one could say that we did not have the right tools in our search for the Qi of Tea.

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.

We witness the full effects of the Qi as Dave passes out the cookies. Strange language!

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.

Tom then allows all of us to smell the Jun Shan tea. This, of course, is testing the aroma to see if we could get a little qi going prior to drinking the tea. John takes a whiff and denies knowledge of any aroma, even though some of the tea stuck to his uncharacteristically none-Asian nose.

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

And smell the aroma you describe and never cease to amaze us.

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."

John was voted into the heroes hall of fame for his rapid rise from obscurity to tea hound extraordinaire. Dave remains firmly entrenched as one of the top heroes. He could easily join John in the hall of fame except for his inability to speak modern standard English. His British dialectual English prevents most people from understanding his deeply moving and spiritual thoughts as interpreted to us by Ivan, the adjectival noun wizard.

As to Ivan? Until he approaches the 50% mark of living in reality, he is neither allowed into let alone near the hall of fame. Hero he is but he remains in the "twilight zone" somewhere between reality and his own personal Lala Land. He made great progress this evening in approaching that 50% benchmark with his brilliant translations of the "sayings of Darth Dave" and his accurate and telling descriptions of the tuocha puerh. A few more tastings and he most definitely will have a shot at the coveted hall of fame.

All good things must come to an end and here Tom bids adieu to his fellow heroes. His plans over the next few weeks prior to our next scheduled tea tasting is to practice his swallowing techniques. Thus, he too, will be able to enjoy the Qi of Tea with the rest of us.

The following are the results of our tea tasting as transcribed by Darth Dave:

We witness the full effects of the Qi.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

China Tea Travels To Yunnan For Tea (Naturally)

We left the Chengdu airport at around 9pm and arrived in Kunming after 10pm. By the time we got to our hotel (courtesy of the many touts at the airport) it was well past 11pm. We were hungry so we walked down to the only restaurant open and had some quick noodles.

The next day we took the early bus to Chuxiong, about two hours by express bus from Kunming. Unfortunately, we did not take the express bus and our journey last three and half hours through some very rough mountains and bad roads. Wrong bus station. Wrong bus.

After completing our business in Chuxiong we had the next day's morning to explore this small Yi minority town (see for more information on Chuxiong). The first thing we looked for was a tea shop and we found one in the middle of the town.

Chuxiong Tea Shop

As we entered this couples well-stocked tea shop, they were having their lunch and did not seem too happy to see us. As we visited and had them finish their lunch, they became friendlier. By the end of our visit, they treated us as if we were part of their family, visiting with us about the local tea and giving us advice on how to determine the quality of the tea we were drinking.

Tea ceremony, Chuxiong style.

The tea on the left is a standard blended green from Yunnan. The one on the right is a local tea from White Bamboo Mountain. The first thing I noticed was the cloudiness the local tea had.

This is a close up of the Yunnan blended green tea. We have tried several of the Yunnan greens and all were solid green teas and very drinkable. This one was no exception.

Package for the locally produnced White Bamboo Mountain green tea. This tea was supposed to be grown by Yi people, picked and processed by them. It looked a lot like Bi Lo Chuan.

Here is a close up of the White Bamboo Mountain green tea. It was very unusual and obviously unique so we bought some to give it a try. I will do a tea tasting of it in the near future.

While we were at this shop, we asked about a puerh that we had purchased in Chengdu. Remember the white or tippy puerh we had purchased earlier? Well, this guy had one and so we asked if we could try it. Both, Sunee and I were disappointed and decided against buying his tippy white puerh cake.

Yulin Puerh Tea Shop in Kunming

We went looking for an art house for Sunee to check out some art books and look at some paintings. There is never a tea shop we can pass by nowdays without going in. Here we found the Yintai Shop next to Green Lake in downtown Kunming. It is a tough life chasing tea in China.

Inside we found wonderfully stocked shelfs of puerh. This was a puerh shop after all and we were in Yunnan Province.

We ended up buying one of those golden cans filled with mini tuochas. It turned out to be a rare find when we tried it later on at Emei.

Two different kinds of puerh. The one on the left was the min tuocha we eventually bought. It was great!

A full service shop no less.

And here is our tea master who let us taste tea to our hearts delight. Of course, we rewarded him with many great purchases as well.

Looking For Yunnan's Best Gold

After spending some yuan at the puerh shop we decided to seek out my favorite tea - Yunnan Gold. We stopped at several along the lake only to be told they stocked only puerh. We then walked through the beautiful Green Lake Park and decided it was time to return to our hotel. That was when we found our Yunnan Gold.

The owner had the gold and was happy to let us try some. Seems she did not cut her gold with the normal dian cong but sold it straight. We had to believe her as the tea we saw was solid gold and the taste was even better.

Here the owner's daughter (I assume) fixed us up some of her Gold. Was it fine! Of course we stocked up on it.

Sunee negotiates with the owner so we can have lots more of the Gold when we get back home. She was successful and I was happy.

We also got to try some standard Yunnan green. Got lots of green in Emei so we passed on this tea. Took a bunch of Gold off her hands, though.

The Kunming Tea Wholesale District