26 April 2019
Yesterday we arrived in Wuyishan, and half of our journey is over. So far, everything has been fantastic: our group is diverse, interesting, and friendly, our guides Gabriele, Spencer, and Benjamin kind and knowledgeable about tea, but also about China, and the people we meet are hospitable and generous. We have tasted a wide variety of teas, visited several production places and fields, and this only in the half time. The connections and friends our organizers have are very valuable and open doors to places and tea knowledge; and I believe they would not do that for anybody: Gabriele, it seems, has made good friends here over the years.
But despite the fact that this is already day five of the journey, one of the most important experiences for me so far happened on the very first night, basically just after arriving in Shanghai. A friend of Gabriele, Chuan Chuan, invited us to share some tea at her new shop, which just opened in a small mall that is all about tea. Chuan Chuan is part of a Buddhist collective of friends that runs several small shops across town in which they sell high quality tea, teaware, and fabrics. That night, Chuan Chuan and her tea teacher are our hosts, while other friends are hanging around in the back of the shop. They are all rather young, between 25 and 35 perhaps, but I can’t really tell. We take our shoes off before we enter the shop and sit on the floor, in low light. In front of us is a cup that says "all is illusion" in Chinese characters—a teaching from the late Buddhist guru that brought the group together.
"All is illusion" is what is written on this tea bowl in traditional Chinese characters.
Chuan Chuan and her teacher share with us a Lapsang black tea and several high-quality Yancha oolongs, that increase in quality as the evening progresses. While the teacher rarely speaks (and as we shall learn, he does this purposefully), Chuan Chuan guides us through the evening and the different teas we drink.
The Lapsang is delicious. It is smoky as it should be, but not too heavily. Underneath the light smoke is a taste of flowers that lasts in the mouth. They selected this tea as the first one for the night, as Lapsang was the first tea Europeans got to drink—a fitting start for our journey perhaps. Perhaps it is also a cheeky and welcome provocation: historically, the mutual appreciation of tea by East and West not only resulted in friendship but also in espionage, theft of tea bushes, and even war. The Lapsang reminds me that tea is a drink that can tell complex stories about our world.
We continue from the Lapsang to the rock teas—all of them different, all of them wonderful. The tea master explains that the Rou Gui and the Shui Xian we drink are at opposite ends of a spectrum, between which lies the whole world of rock teas. While we drink, they share how they came to appreciate tea. Neither of them grew up into the tea business, but rather made a conscious choice to embrace this part of Chinese culture for themselves, and had to put in the necessary work. We also talk about the teas and try to describe their taste. Chuan Chuan shares with us that a small mission of their shops is to resist the dissection of tea into flavour profiles, trying to take the taste apart, almost scientifically, and analyse its different components—a Western way of experiencing tea, in her eyes. To me, this perception is not entirely wrong. Drinking tea in Europe and learning about tea involves chasing accurate information, often on the internet: in blog posts about tea, descriptions of online tea shops, reading books, and sometimes even looking at graphs that try to map the flavour profile of Pu Erh teas. A big part of it is the abstract experience of reading texts—and sometimes the annoyance of people bragging about their knowledge of tea—but only rarely a lived experience of the culture surrounding tea. Only shops like Gabriele’s can provide a glimpse, and they are rare. To hear our host say that for them it is about the direct experience is refreshing for me, and has stayed with me for the entire tour. Her tea teacher goes even so far as to prefer no conversation over tea at all.
Snapshot from the meditative Yan Cha tea tasting in Shanghai.
While I am thinking about whether I should buy some of their delicious tea or not, I also realize that the reason why I enjoy their tea so much is not only because of its quality, but because of the entire moment: the atmosphere, the presence and knowledge of our hosts, the company and occasion, the value I give this moment all influence how much I like this tea. A description of its flavour, production method, or age as I might get from a blog post would never allow me to have the same experience, nor taste the tea in the same way, as if I were to drink it at home. My tongue, my senses, my mind are more present, I am more awake and willing to appreciate than if I were to drink this tea on another occasion. Even if I buy this tea, this experience I can only have in this moment—it will never taste the same again. Is this what she means, when she shared this little anecdote about their mission? Either way, I might buy some tea anyway—their Tie Luo Han tastes so good.
Written by Max, participant of the Nannuoshan Tea Tour 2019