Monday, May 16, 2016

In search of Tea culture on Mount Emei, Sichuan

Fuhu temple
The tea culture on display at the Emei Shan's Tea Expo was commercial and felt artificial, shallow despite (or rather because of) the huge size of the booths. MarshalN makes a good case that most traditions you find in Chinese shops are invented and have only been very recently imported from Taiwan, Hong Kong or even Japan (here I simplify his article, but I invite you to read it all if you haven't done so, yet).

The communist (cultural) revolution (1966-1976) destroyed China's traditions. Then the recent economic boom has emphasized the modernization of the country. One of the rare place where you can still have a glimpse at the past are historical temples like those I visited on Emei Shan. They are the guardians of ancient architecture and spirituality.

Baoguo temple
Did they also preserve some tea culture? Sichuan Province has one of the oldest tea history in China: Lu Yu's tea classic already mentions its tea plantations. Look! These 2 signs mean that it's possible to get tea in these temples!
Fuhu temple
Let's have a look at how tea is prepared there!
It's very simple: inside, you'll find dispensers of boiling water. The employees of the temple (and many local visitors) use them to get boiling water.
Then the water is brought to the tea guest and the water from the thermos fills a gaiwan with green tea.
The green tea is drunk directly from the gaiwan where the leaves are brewing. When the gaiwan is empty or the tea is too strong, the drinker adds hot water from the thermos in the gaiwan. Since the water is getting less and less hot with time, this method really only fits green tea and wouldn't go very well with Oolong or puerh.
There are 2 ways of looking at this degree 0 of Chinese tea culture:

1. Sad. Over thousand years of refined tea culture are forgotten, gone. All that's left is the gaiwan, green tea leaves and an ugly, big, plastic water kettle.

2. Hopeful. These local Chinese visitors are still drinking local whole leaf tea (as opposed to coffee, tea bags with sugar&milk or soft drinks)! And they do so in a place that connects them with nature and Chinese history through the architecture of the temples.

Tea books sold at Chengdu's airport
The Tea Expo in Mount Emei and the high number of people who came to visit my booth shows that there's a big appetite to learn and practice China's forgotten tea traditions.

A Chinese tea Renaissance is in the making. Tea books are becoming popular in China. A couple of years ago, Teaparker's most recent books have been published in simplified characters on the Mainland. Such books help make the link between the past and the present.

Lost knowledge is just waiting to be dug up from old books, paintings, archeological research... As China focuses its vast resources on tea culture, it will make great progress in reclaiming its ancestral tea culture.

This next real challenge is more difficult: knowledge alone isn't sufficient to renew the link to ancient traditions. You also need a good teacher who helps to make the link between theory and practice. The knowledge of the classics must be translated into action, into Chaxi!

Each generation grows when it builds on what previous generations have discovered. The more you understand the past tea culture, the more you'll understand the present and can shape its future.

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