Some of my Western friends were always asking me why the Chinese wanted to use a brush and black ink to paint a giant picture. Or, why do the Chinese want to use a couple of sticks to eat food? Why did the ancient Chinese like tea, not coffee? Why do the Chinese like following so many rules? I always get so many interesting questions from my friends, and gradually, I started to ask their questions to myself, too. Those questions actually are not easy to answer, especially as a modern Chinese person. Drinking tea and painting are two of my favorite things. Through these two things, we can find even more connections to traditional Chinese culture: Chinese martial arts, Chinese medicine, Chinese food…it has become more and more interesting for me to look at those things.
In ancient China, if you wanted to be a literary man (the equivalent in the West of the Renaissance man), you had to learn such skills as playing the zither, chess, calligraphy, and painting. If you can also write some poems, know some martial arts, know how to taste and evaluate teas and how to eat healthy food for healing the body, then might you be considered a literary man. Why was being a literary man so important in ancient China? It was because being someone who was cultured and had taste was one of ancient China’s most important standards of judging a person of the times. By comparison in modern China, we are much more focused on who has more money.
The more I think, the more I would like to share some of my superficial understanding of tea in Chinese traditional culture. I believe as you read it, you will have some ideas that are different from mine, but this is exactly what makes tea amazing – it creates a dialogue and brings together a multitude of different ways of thinking.
I’ll start with one of my favorite ancient Chinese painters to show you how Chinese traditional culture relates to tea.
Huáng Bīnhóng (黃賓虹) (1865-1955) was a Chinese art historian and literati painter born in Jinhua in Zhejiang province. His ancestral home was She County in Anhui province. He was the grandson of artist Huang Fengliu. He would later be associated with Shanghai and finally Hangzhou. He is considered one of the last innovators in the literati style of painting and is noted for his freehand landscapes. He was also significant for creating several societies devoted to painting and calligraphy.
In Huang’s lifetime, he was not only a great artist but also an important connoisseur of culture. I got a very thin but rare book from my father which is Huang’s few notes on how to paint and appreciate a good Chinese painting. I kept this book for over 20 years, and the more I read it, the more I understood things beyond painting. In Chinese traditional culture, everything was connected, and I found that I could use everything from Chinese traditional culture to explain tea, and tea can explain everything else from Chinese traditional culture, too. If you are interested in tea and ancient Chinese culture, please allow me to share a little bit of my views with you.
From Huang Binhong’s Chinese Painting Theory Notes:
“Painting is the same as playing chess – you need to create chances for survival.
The more chances you get, the more opportunity you have to succeed. So-called chance in painting is the part where you don’t paint things exactly as they really are.”
Nowadays, we can easily make different types of tea, but most teas are just like a very normal or not very good at painting, tasting too real to be true. People add different chemical essences into teas to give them a specific flavor. It tastes so real, but it’s not tea at all. You are just imbibing different essences. Bad tea is like a bad painting. There is no opportunity to follow a natural path, resulting in people developing diseases.
The best tea is not machine-made and is without essences. The best ones are pure teas that come from nature and are made by pure handcraft using only traditional methods and without any additional modern techniques. These types of teas offer real “chances.” When you taste them, their taste is unique and not quite like any other. It might bring up deep memories or feelings. Really great tea gives your mind and body the opportunity for spiritual growth.
“写生只能得山川之骨，欲得山川之气，还得闭目沉思，非领略其精神不 可。余游雁荡过瓯江时，正值深秋，对景写生，虽得图甚多，也只是瓯江之骨 耳。”
“If you want to capture the spirit of the landscape in your painting, you need to get the qi from the landscape. To get the qi, you need to close your eyes and calm your mind until you can feel it. In autumn, all birds fly across the river. You can find lots of images for your painting, but they are just images. If you can’t feel nature’s qi, the images won’t have spirit.”
We have described qi (Chinese: 氣/气) in Chinese medicine. As you can see, qi is not only important in Chinese medicine, but also in Chinese painting. If you have experience practicing Chinese martial arts, you will know that qi is the key to understanding the discipline. Qi is not a physical thing you can see or touch; it is in the mind and can only be felt and kept by the mind, but it is a real thing that all things in nature have. It is the energy or spirit of things, and without it, all things die.
The most important word in traditional Chinese tea evaluation is qi. To judge tea as being good or not is to judge whether or not it has qi. In Chinese, we always say, “Chaqi zu (Chinese: 茶气足),” which means the tea has strong qi. Qi is not the physical flavor you can taste, it’s the feeling you get from the tea. Good tea having qi depends on who made the tea, if it was made by a very high-level tea master purely by hand, people’s feelings and the energy and emotion put into the tea by the people who made it. What type of person you are will be a deciding factor in what kind of tea you can make. If you are a person with deep qi in your body, the qi of the tea you make will be stronger and carry a strong spirit. Like a martial arts master who has deep qi in his martial arts, you can tell and feel his movements will be much stronger than normal people’s. That’s why we always consider a good tea to not only be from a good environment, but it is also very important to know who picked it, who processed it, who transferred it, who brewed it, and who is drinking it! Every single step affects the tea’s qi. Taoism says we drink tea for nothing other than its qi. When you calm your mind totally to taste the tea, you will get the qi from the tea. You won’t care about the flavor or aroma – the only thing you should focus on is whether the tea has qi or not. This is the highest state of tasting tea.
“When I am looking at a mountain, I like to see the distant hills enveloped in clouds and mist at morning and dusk, because during these times, the mountain undergoes many more changes.”
Change is a natural law. Only change gives rise to life, and without change, there is no life. This is the reason why Huang Bing Hong liked to focus on viewing the mountain’s changes in the clouds and mist. If the painting can have these changes, it will be a good painting that has a spirit.
Some tea tasters can taste thousands of different teas in a day and are able to discern if it is the tea they need for blending in just one moment. When you taste tea, you might be able to tell very quickly whether you like it or not. I have had friends tell me they found a tea that tastes exactly like some fruits they like. Unfortunately, this type of tasting is a very basic level of tasting according to the ancient Chinese way of tasting. The first level is discerning the flavor; the second level is moving on to identify the aroma; the third level is focusing on flavor and aroma together, and the feelings you get from it; the fourth level is to not focus on the flavor and aroma at all, but rather to focus on the qi; and the highest level is to focus on how the qi from the tea affects your body from one cup of tea to the next.
This is why the ancient Chinese never created tea fannings or tea bags or blended teas. Only by drinking pure loose-leaf tea will you have the chance to feel the qi in teas and have the chance to feel how the qi changes from the very beginning of the brewing until the final brew. Every single tea leaf is grown from nature and embodies the soul of nature. When you brew tea, from water temperature to the brewing time, if you keep changing the factors with each brew, the tea flavor and aroma will keep changing, and with the last cup, you will experience the soul of nature completely. This is why it is important to slow down when drinking tea, and it is also the reason why you shouldn’t drink teas made by machine, or pack leaves into a tea bag, or brew in a fancy bottle so you can only taste it once. Really great tea can continue to be re-brewed again and again. Being able to brew it more times means the tea contains more Qi(chi/氣).
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