Chinese medicine has a history of over 5000 years. Unlike western medicine, it has evolved very slowly, with advances taking place little by little. The theories of Chinese medicine were first written down by the mythical Yellow Emperor, who, in his classic “Yellow Emperors Canon of Internal Medicine”, set down the theories of five elements, yin and yang and there relation to the human body, as well as the relationship of the human body to the natural world and seasons; and another emperor named Shen Nong, who was said to have lived in the remote mountains and would make himself sick and try various herbs to find which ones could cure him. The main idea behind Chinese medicine is that the body is full of meridians, which “Qi” (often translated as energy/gas/air) moves through. Sickness is caused by blockages of these pathways. The body is looked upon as a whole; it is often joked in China that if someone has a headache, the doctor will examine the patient’s foot! The idea behind this thinking is that the doctor will search for the root of the problem, not just a mere symptom. He can do this by utilising the theories of yin and yang and of the five elements.
In fact, many classical Chinese theories are universal, in that they transcend schools of thought, such as medicine, martial arts etc. The same theories for curing the human body of sickness can be used in martial arts, war, even the harmonious placing of buildings in relation to the environment (feng shui). Yin and yang is the theory of the interrelation of opposites, such as day and night, male and female. A lot of people think of it as opposites, but that is wrong. The correct name for this theory is Taiji (supreme ultimate) and is represented by the yin/yang fish symbol seen all over the world today. The theory proposes that positive and negative are inseparable and are always in a process of change.
Five elements is a way of expresses the interrelation and cycles of functions apparent in nature. They are metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Each of these elements corresponds to a function or process, such as wood (growth/generation), fire (expansion), earth (stabilising/nourishing), metal (contracting/falling) and water (conserving/stillness). Each element feeds the next one in the list, and conquers another one too (wood conquers earth, earth conquers water, water conquers fire, and fire conquers metal).
Tea is of course closely related to Chinese medicine. In fact, in ancient times, tea was regarded as a kind of medicine. Tea is said to clean the body of toxins and different teas can have different effects on the functions and energies of the body.
As mentioned above, the seasons have their effects on the human body. For example, the differences in temperature, climate and length of day and night all have their effects and the body will adapt to these changes. Spring is the start of new life, the coldness of winter subsides, and the weather starts to warm and everything wakes up. In five element theory, this corresponds to the element of wood, which symbolises growth. Flower tea such as jasmine, or early picked green tea is good to drink at this time of year. Jasmine tea can dispel cold energies accumulated in the body from the winter. Green tea and jasmine tea can soothe the liver; the liver is associated with spring and its emotion is anger, so they can help to calm the mind and ease frustration.
Summer is the element of fire; fire represents heat and rising energy. It is a season of happiness, growth and development. The energies of the body rise and move outward at this time. Rising energy in the body can cause frustration and agitation. Green and white teas (including young raw pu er) are the best teas for these seasons. They will replenish Qi, relax the body and clear excess heat in the body. As they contain less caffeine than other teas, they aren’t diuretic, so they can also help to rehydrate the body. Summer is associated with the heart and the hearts emotion is joy. Green tea can help us to calm our heart, so we aren’t overly emotional.
Autumn in Chinese metaphysics corresponds to metal, representing an axe chopping wood or a scythe cutting crops. This is the time of harvest, and spiritually this represents harvest of the years work too. You could think of it as a time of reflection or gaining clarity. At this time our Qi returns to the source, the kidneys preparing us for the cold winter (in Chinese medicine Qi and Jing – our vital essence, is produced by the kidneys). Oolong tea helps the body to calm and collect our Qi. It is semi-oxidised, so neither green nor black, neither hot energy nor cold energy, perfectly balanced. It soothes the lungs and the throat, especially good for smokers. The lungs are connected with sadness, and as the summer ends, it’s natural for people to feel some nostalgia. Oolong can soothe these kind of feelings, helping you to centre yourself. It can also help with skin problems caused by excess heat in the body.
Winter is the season of water, represented by the still nature of a lake or snow. It is a time where activity ceases and hibernation begins, restoring energy for next year. The bodies Qi will condense into the core (mainly the kidneys, dantian –lower belly, and reproductive organs). Black and cooked Pu’er should be drunk at this time. The fully oxidised nature of black tea and fermented nature of Pu’er will warm the body, strengthening the immune system and aiding digestion of heavier winter meals. The soothing effect on the stomach of darker teas can also aid relieve stomach aches. Winter is connected to kidneys and kidneys emotion is fear. The shorter days and colder weather can create feelings of fear, as your Yin energy can be in deficiency. Black and Pu’er teas can nourish the kidneys removing this kinds of emotions.
My local teashop is tea growers from Fujian province. I’ve spent many lazy afternoons sitting drinking tea with them, while they’ve been explaining a lot about tea to me. The teas they grow are high up on the mountains. “High mountain” tea refers to tea grown at high altitude, where the air is cleaner. It is believed the Qi is much better in mountains and around flowing water. High mountain tea will grow much slower and stronger due to the thinner air. This will impart a more robust flavour, and the leaves should hold more brews. Legend has it that a certain kind of high mountain tea, grown on Wuyi Mountain, was found growing wild on the rocks and cliffs high up in the mountains. This tea came to be called “rock tea” (yan cha). Buddhist monks would collect the leaves which naturally fell and prepare them for drinking. The tea was so nice, but so hard to get, they decided to train monkeys to climb the rocks and pick the leaves. Nowadays, monkeys are not used, but the name “monkey picked tea” has come to refer to the highest quality of tea in this area. High mountain tea is mostly known in Fujian province in the mainland, and the neighbouring island of Taiwan.
They grow all kinds of tea, but one of my favourite is their black tea. They didn’t specify the name to me, but I think it is Jin Jun Mei (golden eyebrow).When first brewing, I notice the colour of the tea liquor is golden, slightly orange. It doesn’t brew overly dark. It has a very rich, full flavour which is warming and soothing. When it first hits the tongue, there is a hint of caramel, which gives way to a kind of sweet, liquor feel, like cognac or whisky. Drinking it has a heavy calming effect and activates your Qi, I find it a nice brew for the early evening after a tiring day. The leaves are long and twisted, with hints of golden fur, which when brewed get trapped in the sieve.
Green Tea – “high mountain jade snow”
This is a high mountain green tea, grown in Fujian province, south east China. The flavour is vegetal, with a little tanginess. The leaves are rolled and in their dry state have a hint of blueness. To be honest, I’m not the hugest fan of green tea, I generally drink heavier teas such as oolong or black tea, but I have found their green tea to be refreshing and revitalising on a hot day, after sweating a lot.
White tea – “white peony” “white tipped silver needles”
White tea is pure tea buds, unprocessed in any way. It is hard to come across as it has a more specialist taste. Its very light and refreshing. It has the lowest levels or caffeine and highest levels of antioxidants in any tea. The tea liquor is very light, with a delicious fresh aroma. White tea doesn’t have any of the bitterness associated with green tea. The white tipped silver needles white tea has a very fresh flavour, very light and refreshing, slightly more “leafy”, while the white peony tea is reminiscent of soya milk. Both varieties are great on a hot day to refresh the body.
I have some friends from Fujian who run a small tea shop downtown. I recently bought some of last autumn’s Tie Guanyin, which still retains the freshness and floral fragrance typical of this lightly oxidised Wulong. Using my yellow Zisha teapot, I sit down, boil some water and take a moment to centre myself. First I rinse the leaves; they immediately give off that token fresh vegetal fragrance, preparing the first brew, I notice the leaves opening up. They are mostly whole leaves, with a withered but tough look to them. Some hints of browning, but mostly a deep green.
I always think TGY is a particularly “tough” kind of tea. As the name suggests, it’s a real contrast between Yin and Yang. “Tie” (铁) in Chinese means iron, it symbolises strength, power and masculinity. “Guan Yin” (观音) is the Boddhisattva of Compassion in Buddhism, a symbol of tenderness, love and care. Truly, the tea represents this contrast. The leaves are large, robust and tough, but the flavour is delicate, light and fresh. Perhaps “iron” is represented in the quality of the leaves, its resilience and toughness, surviving the weather of the high mountains, and “guanyin” is represented by the delicate flavour, fresh and vegetal. Softness within hardness, enlightenment within roughness.
I’m always surprised at how many brews TGY can yield. Its flavour doesn’t seem to die down, delicate and fresh, with a floral, vegetal feel. It’s not too heavy, but less bland and more complex than green teas. It has a nice mouth feel, not drying the mouth too much, but leaving it feeling cleaned and fresh.
After an hour train journey out of Shanghai, we arrived at a town called Wuxi. There, a driver collected us and drove us a further hour through the countryside, our destination being a town of concrete, with the occasional fake European house and factories belching out smoke. We had arrived at Yixing, the home of the Zisha teapots. The town itself was the most hazy polluted place Ive seen so far in China, and I immediately felt uncomfortable and started coughing. My girlfriend’s stepdad has a close friend living there, and he is very into the Zisha teapot scene. We met him for lunch in a luxury restaurant, and, as a boss of a factory, took us through the usual Chinese formalities. Huge amounts of incredibly heavy, rich food came out, with the boss acting the host at the top of the table and the conversation always being directed towards throwing over-exaggerated compliments to each other. After lunch was over, the driver took us to Ding Shan, which is where the teapots are actually made.
good to be there. We went to a larger shop and were greeted by a man who constantly had a cigarette in his mouth and would explain the smallest thing so enthusiastically. We sat down and drank some tea. After a while, he took us upstairs to “the privileged area”, where he kept his good teapots. He started to take his most prized ones out of the locked cabinets, explaining the different kinds of clay.
He explained theres 5 main colours of clay: purple, green, red, coffee and yellow. These can be mixed together to get many more colours. Also, the more sand-like grains in the clay, the better. The teapots are all made naturally and by hand. He also showed several ways of looking at the quality of craftsmanship, such as the tightness of the lid. Basically, if you cover the air hole on the lid with your finger, no tea will pour out of the spout. Also, when you tap the lid onto the handle,
the sound should be very flat, if you hear a dang, dang, dang sound, then it is low quality. His most treasured pot was going at 80,000 yuan (about £8000)!!! It was a bulky pot with orangey coloured clay with obvious grains in it.
After bargaining prices, we bought a lot of teapots, some for me, one for my girlfriend, and her parents bought some too. Later, he agreed to take us to see a master pot craftsman working. Apparently, this was a rare treat. The master worked in a very small hut, with the most basic tools, but his pots were selling for high prices and were very beautiful. It was very interesting to see how him making a pot, he truly had gong fu in his work!
All in all, it was an interesting experience, and I learnt a lot that day. Im now much more informed about teapots, but like all things Chinese, knowledge must be gathered, little by little, over a long period of time.
Huang Shan is probably the famous mountain in China. It has inspired poets and artists for centuries and even the Yellow Emperor, mythical founder of China and Taoism was said to have become a recluse here. The peaks of the mountain jut up into the sky and are often surrounded by clouds, giving it a mystical, heavenly feel when at the top. There is a phenomenon known as Buddhas light which can occur, where a persons head can become surrounded by a rainbow of light, resembling a halo. This is caused by a refraction of light. The mountain is also famous for its sunrise scenesand hot springs.
Of course the moutain is home to a variety of teas, most of which are listed in the 10 famous teas of China. Huang Shan Mao Feng is a light green tea with a slight smoky aroma. Mao Feng translates as furry peak, describing the appearance of the processed leaves. Taiping Houkui is another green tea,, grown around Taiping Lake (ultimate peace lake) which has extremely long, large leaves. It has a stronger flavour and can be brewed up to 8 times. Qimen Hong Cha is a black tea grown in Qimen village close to the mountain, and has a rich, brandy like flavour.
are also produced locally, photos below.
Annie can organise tours of the nearby area, including the tea plantations and she will often perform the tea ceremony for visitors, where you can sample many different teas in a relaxed atmosphere.