The children would run around like crazy, but she wouldn’t flinch for a second, neither would any child even dare to tamper with her delicate movements as she was brewing the tea. With everything whirling around her she seemed to be the eye of the storm, but I later found out I was wrong — it was the tea itself that was the eye!
Ame (whom I also mentioned in this text) was the one who gave me that first informal introduction to Chinese tea drinking. Whenever I would meet her it wouldn’t take long before a couple of tea cups popped up and she started brewing. The tea set was always close at hand (literally always in her handbag).
I tried to explain those tea moments to a European friend. ”Ah, you have been to a tea ceremony”, she said. That didn’t seem right. My general idea about the concept of ceremonies is that ceremonies is a way of trying too hard to do something which is actually very simple. I find most ceremonies to be quite rigid in that sense. There was no trying-to-be in this tea, nor in the way Ame so skillfully brewed it. It was a clean and clear procedure.
Eventually I learned that this procedure had a name. In Chinese pinyin that was: ”Gongfu Cha” (工夫茶). Gongfu had the same meaning as Kung Fu, which in the west mistakingly is believed to represent a type of martial arts. Gongfu or Kung Fu actually means: ”Doing something with skill”.
I didn’t know back then but Ame would always brew her tea with high quality Silver Needle leaves. My curious nose had to dip much deeper for me to grasp the importance of what that meant. It got really soaked one early afternoon in mid-December. With the words I have today I can say that it was during that afternoon that I really discovered tea for the first time in my life.
Making tea with skill
I thought it was going to be a casual cup of tea. Me and Mr. Liu (冰天) were invited to miss Bówén (博文) that Sunday for something like that. I hadn’t met her before and was told that she sold tea from her apartment, only a stones throw away from my own home. I pictured rooms full of brown boxes ready to be shipped somewhere. Boy was I surprised to find a temple there. Delicious heartwood shelves and furniture holding tea cups and cute tea canisters in every nook and corner. Nowhere felt like too much or too meager. The apartment was the textbook answer of ”What is Feng shui?”.
When Bówén welcomed us she was dressed in traditional Chinese clothing that would pleasantly merge with the space. Her manners were that of a young girl playing a tea party. She started pouring us almost directly. Since she and I didn’t verbally understand each other Liu had to translate. But when the tea started to pour and all three of us began drinking I realized that words were not going to be much needed.
What first had been perceived as childlike movements now revealed acute skill and precision. It was how relaxed her body was that had made me think of a child. I couldn’t get enough of looking at that dance, as it poured steaming water from one container to the next. There seemed to be some kind of order to it all. Liu explained: ”First you heat the containers with hot water, then you clean the leaves, then you brew the first brew, but remember that the leaves won’t fully open up until at least after the third brew.”
The six categories of Tea
We drank and drank more, hot brews of pure tea leaves, nothing else. In China tea is only that; the somewhat bitter drink made from the leaves of Camellia Sinensis (tea plant). Different types or categories of this drink is only different ways of cultivating, harvesting and preparing the leaves.
There are mainly six categories of tea according to Chinese categorization. The types relates to the degree of fermentation. Green tea is not fermented but fresh and dried, White is slightly fermented, Yellow more so, Blue (Oolong) even more, Red is what Europeans call black tea and Dark tea is a post-fermented, often aged tea.
Edit: I have later understood that ”fermentation” probably meant something like ”oxidation”, but translating everything correctly was difficult for Mr. Liu.
Bówén shared with us: ”Blue tea is recommended if you are depressed, but if you are hyperactive then White tea will calm you down”. My pen and notepad had already been out for a while. Now I began jotting down as much as possible of what I heard. She found that amusing and started taking photos of me taking notes. But I just had to do that, I felt incredibly inspired by everything that happened there.
Liu asked: ”How do people drink tea in Sweden?”
That felt so far away but I managed to find a way of explaining it: ”Mostly what is considered tea in Sweden is blended varieties, teas with different herbs or flowers, or even chemicals.”
”So they are looking for an impulse of the tongue?” he responded.
What an excellent way of describing it, I thought, that’s exactly what ’they’ are looking for — a taste experience. How on earth could Europeans have gotten so far away from the original culture of tea to reduce it to only a taste experience? Maybe Bówén understood what I was thinking, because she said: ”In the west the effects of tea are reduced to the effects of caffeine. It’s much more complicated than that. Take Pu’er as an example, which is a type of Dark tea…” she started sharing the story that would pave the first part of my Way of Tea.
Thousand year old teas
We had already been drinking White, Yellow and Red tea when she served us Pu’er. Thanks to meditation (and all the countless of hours of practice of that) I could clearly sense the different effects of the first three types: The White had indeed calmed my body significantly, the Yellow had opened up a kind of happiness in the heart whilst the Red had activated the thoughts. But for the Pu’er, I couldn’t clearly say what was happening in the body. The experience seemed to stretch out, slowly eradicating the border between body and not body.
”This tea”, she continued, ”is harvested from a tree which is 500 years old. In the old days, the Taoists, the Yogis of China, they chose not to drink this too often, since it was too complicated for them to assimilate all the knowledge that such a tea would share with them.” I very much understood these Taoist Yogis, as I felt a bit overwhelmed myself from only drinking a few small cups of it.
”Where do you find trees that are even older?” I asked her.
”I have heard about trees that are more than a thousand years old. Only some local people know about the exact location of those trees.”
”In Yunan, the south-western highland of China.”
Suddenly I knew where I was heading.