Friday, June 23, 2017

The 2017 Chinese Porcelain Exhibition of the Tea Institute at Penn State. Day 3: black glazed bowls

The third day's subject were black glazed bowls from the Song dynasty (960-1279). The Song emperor had his made in Jianyang, in Fujian. But being popular at the court, they were made/reproduced all over China. Sometimes the kiln can be determined from the shape, design of the bowl, but the best way is to look at the unglazed foot. A lighter clay indicates a northern kiln, while the original Jianyang clay would be rich in iron oxide and therefore dark/red.

The beauty of the black glaze comes from its apparent simplicity (1 color: black) that contains with so many fine variations: hare's fur (see the modern bowl in the picture) or partridge feathers when the spots are round or lion fur when the bowl turns almost completely brown. These variations were difficult to control when the bowls were fired in saggars in long dragon kilns. The failure rate was very high, but the best pieces are amazing. Song black glaze almost as modern and abstract as Malevich's Black Square! In the many shades of black there's so much more to see than animal fur...
Jianyang bowl from the Met museum in NYC
In the afternoon, Teaparker's student Nancy demonstrated a Song dynasty style brewing for the first time on the American continent!

But before I come to it, let's look at the Jianyang bowl more in detail. There were several possible shapes for the bowl, but they were all designed taller, less shallow than Tang dynasty bowls. This was a practical matter, because if you whisk tea in a shallow bowl it will spill outside easily. A small foot is more elegant, but less stable. That's why the center of gravity is lowered by making the base thicker than the top. Then, there's the strange fact that the glaze stops above the foot (instead of trying to cover it). This is actually made on purpose as an indication for how little tea powder should be put at the bottom of the bowl. And finally, you may also notice that the top of the bowl is not evenly curved. 1 cm below the rim approximately there's a change in the shape. This is also some kind of visual clue for the brewer/whisker: that's where the limit for the pouring the water.
The Song dynasty technique was recorded by emperor Song Huizong (1082-1135) in his Treatise on tea, but this tea whisking tradition was discontinued in China. Teaparker is one of the rare tea scholars to have revived the original technique.

The Tea Institute at Penn State also has a group devoted to learn the Japanese Chanoyu (Omotesenke and Urasenke schools). Its members could see that the Song tea technique is different from what they are practicing, even if the matcha used is the same.

The key differences are:
- using an ewer to pour the water in the bowl while whisking at the same time,
- a lot of whisking and more water to create a thick layer of foam (like a cappuccino).

We then had students prepare the tea using the Japanese technique (less whisking and less water). Guess what style the great majority of the participants preferred? The Sung dynasty style way, because it didn't taste bitter, but smooth and harmonious.
An interesting discussion followed about the differences between the Chinese and the Japanese approach. At the very start of this discussion, Teaparker told the audience that he has the greatest respect for the longevity of Japan's Chanoyu. Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese were able to preserve their tradition until now. Without this big accomplishment, it wouldn't be possible to revive the Song dynasty tea tradition today. The Japanese were quite creative in adapting elements of Tang and Song to make it their own. However, in the process of establishing a beautiful and polite ritual, they lost sight of the essential concept: producing a good tasting bowl of tea. The tea students explained that the bitterness of the tea is a symbol for the human condition and our hard lives. But for Teaparker, this is just a bad excuse. Yes, life may be hard, but when we brew tea we seek pleasure. The goal of brewing is always tea happiness!
After this class, the Tea Institute had a little ceremony to name their tea house after Teaparker. This honor recognizes all the knowledge, expertise... that Teaparker has contributed to the Tea Institute over the last 6 years. And we hope this will continue for many more years!
After the event, we had several tea tastings during the master class (reserved for Tea Institute members). We tasted several WuYi Yan Cha and Teaparker taught the students how to smell and identify if a Yan Cha was made with several different cultivars.
We also had a proper Yan Cha that felt so amazing that just a few drops per cup were enough to enjoy and feel the difference!
On this Satuday night, State College was full of parties as there was a special blue on white football game. That's when State College's defense and offense teams play against each other. Many alumni came back to town for this event and the bars were all full with long lines in front of each.
The Tea Institute members couldn't care less! Most came back to the Teaparker Tea House after dinner for our nightly Chaxi!
Tatum brewed with Mahler's 5th symphony in background. This proved too relaxing for Jason! He missed some excellent roasted Oolong in the process...
We started the event at 10 AM and at 11:30 PM we were still brewing tea, kind of hoping all this tea pleasure would never stop!
Reminder: please place your tea orders on now (before June 29) as I'll be off the whole month of July. 

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