As you have all probably read in a previous Yak, I really love tea, so when we were all choosing which ISP (Independent Study Project) to do while in Kunming, it was clear to me that I wanted to study tea. The tea master the instructors found for me is named Rong Yu 容与, she lives and teaches from her house that is in the mountains and an hour long drive away.At first I was somewhat bummed that I would have to drive so far away each day, but when I got to her house I understood why. It is very secluded and quiet and from the tea studio one has a view of the mountains, this beautiful setting is quite worth the drive.
The first day me and Patricia (who is serving as translator for my teacher and I) sat in her tea room, drank tea, and learned some of the history of tea and talked about what I wanted to learn. In America most of what I know about tea comes from what I have been able to find on the internet or what I have learned through drinking tea myself, so it was great to be able to speak with someone who knew so much about tea, and had so much knowledge to share. One of the most important things I learned the first day was that what ever the person making the tea is feeling will pass into the tea and then pass into the people drinking it. Another thing I learned was despite the fact that most tea that we drink comes from very short tea bushes, it is actually supposed to come from very tall and very old trees that can grow to the size of an oak tree. The tea we drank the first day was a red tea from a 700 year old tea tree that lives in the wild, it was quite possibly the best tea I have ever had. After the first day I realized that I really did not know as much about tea as I thought I did.
The second day we went to a separate room that Rong Yu uses to teach her students the tea ceremony. Before I could begin steeping the tea I had to learn the Wen Bei Tang Zhan (温杯烫盏), which is the process of using hot water to heat and wash the tea set. Through this process I learned that in the tea ceremony every movement no matter how small has a purpose and that no movements can be added or forgotten. One of the hardest parts is making sure that the exact same of water and then tea is poured into the six drinking cups. Another difficult part is that about every ten minutes I have completely burn the tip of my left middle finger while making sure that none of the guests can tell that you are in pain, which is pretty crazy because the gaiwan is very hot and has to be held for a long time. Luckily I was informed that if I continue to practice my fingers will form calluses and I will no longer be affected by the heat. After learning the Wen Bei Tang Zhan, my teacher copied in Chinese an ancient Chinese poem about tea, and told me to come back the next day and recite it.
The third day I returned and was able to choppily recite the poem and then had it translated for me to fully understand. The poem was about how people drank tea in the Tang dynasty, interestingly enough they didn’t “drink” tea, they ate it. The leaves were crushed into a powder and then boiled in a large cauldron over a fire, and then served like soup into bowls, this process is very similar to Japanese Matcha tea which has its origins in the Chinese practice. Learning this history of tea, and enjoying the poetry alongside studying the tea ceremony made the whole day of studying feel very meaningful. After the poem I practiced the Wan Bei Tang Zhan many times in a row until I was able to do a decent job of it. The hardest part of the Wan Bei Tang Zhan and also the tea ceremony as a whole is pouring the same amount of liquid into every cup, which takes a lot of practice.
The next day I practiced the actual tea ceremony for the first time, but instead of tea I used a piece of paper. I made a big mistake, because I let the lid of the gaiwan (where the tea is brewed) slip and the water spilled everywhere, which is not great so I was glad that there was no tea. Something that makes this ISP so special is how amazing the teacher is, she is always so calm and gives of an aura of total peace and when I make a mistake she merely laughs good naturally and kindly tells me to try again. She has totally changed the way that I think about tea and has shown me how to truly love and respect tea.
The next day I visited a factory where pu-er cakes are produced, pu-er cakes are tightly packed disks of tea. I have seen many while in China and while in America, and I had always assumed that they were made by a machine, but it turns out that the entire process is actually done by hand. The workers all repeated one task over and over again to create the cakes, it was super impressive and also very cool to see how everything was made.
The next few days were taken up with practicing the entire tea ceremony, which altogether is composed of 120 hundred individual motions, no more and no less. Some were ceremonies were better than others, and I certainly made a lot of mistakes. Overall I feel pretty confident about it and even if I can’t do it perfectly it now, I know how to practice and how to get better. I am also lucky enough to have a tea master who has offered to continue teaching me even while I am in America. This ISP has been so amazing and perfect and I am so happy and feel so lucky to have had the chance to participate in it.