Did I ever write how readers of this blog are amongst the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable tea fans in the western world. It's a pleasure and a privilege for me to write for and be read by all of you. It gives me the opportunity to exchange lots of ideas and knowledge also through emails. Here are the best pieces of an email exchange I've had with 2 students of Chinese medecine from San Francisco. We are trying to define cha qi:
"Your question is a very simple one, but very hard to answer. Even after 2 years of TCM school and more years of practicing internal martial arts, I have trouble with that question. I've pretty much come to the conclusion that anyone who can give you a definitive answer is wrong. It's much easier to point out Qi than it is to describe what it is.
Everything has Qi. That is the common bond between all things in existence. Without Qi an object isn't 'here.' Without Qi there isn't such a concept as 'here.'
Ok, beyond the grand cosmic view of Qi, there is the much simplified idea of Qi that is usually referenced in chinese medicine. This is the Qi that provides the spark of life in people... it gives you life, moves your limbs, makes your organs function, your hair grow, protects you from illness, etc. This is the Qi of humans. If you want to know more about this from a much better writer, I recommend reading "The Web That Has No Weaver" by Ted Kaptchuk.
Cha Qi: the qi of tea. I assume all tea has Qi. My guess is that when someone says that a tea has a strong Qi, they are probably talking about how the cha qi interacts with their own Qi. In herbal medicine, herbs are described energetically they move qi up, down, internally, externally, they are spicy, sweet, bland, bitter, sour, they dry, astringe, moisturize, warm, cool, etc. When an herb is used medicinally, its Qi has a certain effect on a person; for instance, an herb that is warm and spicy and goes to the surface (e.g ginger / sheng jiang) will cause a person to sweat. So, my guess is that teas have certain energetic qualities that generate energetic responses in the drinker. Aged sheng puerh has many layers of complexity -- the qi of the original tree (young, old, ancient, plantation, wild, etc), the processing method (sun dried, etc), the aging (wet/dry), and the locale (Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, San Francisco, etc.) All these qualities combine and are both the result of Qi and a reflection of Qi. A good combination of all these qualities is discernible by the drinker as an intangible quality that is a result of all of this and the interaction with the drinkers Qi."
"Some people say that cha chi (qi) is just the effect of caffein in the tea. It goes to your head and then you can't sleep. Some others say the soothing, warming effect comes from the high temperature of the water. Both points play important roles. Some young puers will keep you awake like Italian expressos. Drunk cold, tea doesn't reach so far in your body. However, cha chi is more than that. I recently drank a young puer with strong caffein, but which gave me a headache. My 1990 also has a strong caffein level, but it clarifies my mind and relaxes my body. Hot water's warming effect is far from that. So, I agree with you that cha qi is the sum of everything in the hot tea. And we experience it through the interaction with our senses (and the way our qi is set). Like taking the pulse in Chinese medecine (my father learned both western and Chinese medecine, like you) this takes lots of practice and concentration because we are not used to pay attention to such little variations."
And now Michael:
"I had one thought: when we talk about the qi of tea (“this one has strong/good qi”), we’re of course talking about an essential quality, the presence, the gestalt of the experience of “communing” with the tea. As David suggested, any herb (or for that matter, any natural element) has specific properties, features that are particular and that make it what it is (including regional differences in quality).
What all this makes me think of is the term “shen,” or spirit (or mind, or a number of other possible translations). It’s a term that’s used to describe the overall quality of something or someone—in clinical assessment, in tongue and pulse diagnosis, and in many other contexts. It seems to me that in some ways when we talk about the “cha qi” we’re talking about the shen of the tea—which includes the energy, the appearance, the feel, etc., but more importantly describes its overall presence and our experience of it. Shen is really a refined (more yang) form of qi anyway—just as qi is, in the body, a refined form of essence (jing—for further discussion of jing-qi-shen, I recommend Daniel Reid’s books). As shen relates to the heart, which is the king organ, so shen encompasses all the other aspects of experience; in tea terms, this might mean everything from basic appearance and color and fragrance to flavor and aroma to the feeling/effect to whatever else you can think of.
This seems to me to be why, in gongfu tea preparation, the presentation and intention are so important—it’s not just the tea we’re dealing with, but our interaction with it in the process of brewing and drinking. All of this creates an energetic process, a holistic experience, a kind of shen."
You're welcome to add experience or idea of cha qi as a comment. We may never exhaust the subject, as David says, but I feel we're coming very close!
Eloge de l’ombre
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