Sunday, February 11, 2018

Five Reflections for Meals at Tea Sage Hut by Connor Goss

We reflect on the effort and sacrifice that went into this food.

The food that we consume and take into our bodies is the accumulation of millions of years of birth and death. Countless beings have sacrificed their lives for us to take this food. Death and life are interwoven into this food; the greatest offering another being can make—to offer their body, their life for the greater good of all beings. It can be quite an uncomfortable idea to sit with, that no matter what we do, there will always be death in our food, even the greens we gather from our humble vegetable garden here at the Hut contain within them untold suffering and sacrifice, that cannot ever truly be measured. The untold, immeasurable suffering and sacrifice that goes into even a single meal is far beyond what our human selves can offer in return. We can, however, orient ourselves to understanding that while there is sacrifice in the food we receive each day, we can consume it with an open heart filled with gratitude. As that is one of the functionary roles of human beings in this world—to breath gratitude onto the eternal wind, in all directions.

Offering gratitude for the sacrifices that allow us to live is truly important. It connects us, reminding us of the cycles of life, of birth and death. Reminding us to cherish each moment. To honor those who give us everything, and hopefully, in return, we may wisely steward what has been given freely. Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks beautifully about this in saying that “Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship.” We should not squander what has been given freely, or abuse its energy. It was never ours to abuse. We are simply the stewards of this energy. This food will in turn fuel countless beings, through our direct actions, and eventually our physical bodies as they return to the Earth—fueling another cycle, another life, and the many beings who share this world with us. We are part of a world of reciprocity. But what is it that we give in return? We offer gratitude. That is all that we have to offer them. Gratitude.

May we not squander this opportunity for reflection. We have been gifted this precious moment to draw inwards and acknowledge the immense effort that has gone into this food. I bow humbly before all those who have sacrificed their lives for the benefit of others, of giving nourishment to other beings. And, may, I have the unending strength and courage to honor their sacrifice in each breath. Celebrating joyously all of life.

We reflect on virtue and our own worthiness to receive this food.

Am I worthy to receive this food? After all that has gone into preparing and creating this food, do my actions and state of mind honor this? Or am I carelessly wasting this food, through using its energy for unskillful means? I know within my heart of hearts, through every fiber of my being, that I am not worthy of receiving this food. There are countless other beings who would be far more worthy of receiving nourishment—how can I place myself above the beggar or the starving child? Or any of the other beings of this world, who each living beautiful, meaningful lives. Why am I worthy? Have my actions elevated me into the heavens—into worthiness? The untold, immeasurable suffering and sacrifice that goes into even a single meal is far beyond what our human selves can offer in return.

As we recite these words, with all our heart and soul, reflecting on virtue and our own worthiness, we invite deeper understanding into our lives. We begin to orient ourselves, slowly, to living more skillfully and with greater moral integrity. We, endeavor to become worthy of receiving this food—climbing the mountain that truly has no end.

We reflect that attachment to find is a hindrance to freedom of the mind.

Do I consume this food from a place of attachment? Am I motivated or controlled by habit patterns that cause me to desire food as sensual pleasure? Those habits that influence our relationship to food are incredibly dangerous. They have the power to uproot all that we have cultivated. Often, and particularly in the Western world, we abuse food, creating an attachment to food which hinders our growth and greater potential. I have grown to realize during reflecting on this line that I must endeavor not to seek a space of pleasure orientation when it comes to how I relate to food.

I, like many other people who have grown up in our modern world of convenience, have experienced the attachments to food that arise through being able to source literally whatever your mind envisions with little hard work or sacrifice. We often do not see the energy that goes into our food, and thus, it becomes easy for us to abuse our relationship to food. We develop habit patterns over the years, seeking more and more sensual satiation—instantaneous gratification. It is one of the greatest hindrances on the path to freedom of the mind. How can we ever hope to be free of suffering, if every time we sit on the cushion, we are thinking about what we will have for breakfast or lunch—those delicious pieces of tempeh consume the mind and all its focus! Wherever did this one chance, this one moment for cultivating ourselves disappear? Have I become lost on the path because of food and my relationship to it?

 We reflect that this food is amongst the most important medicines we will take on this day.

Food is medicine. There is no arguing this statement, whether spiritually, scientifically, or emotionally. The food we consume each day has the capacity to nourish us or equally cause great suffering. Where do we source our food? Has it been harvested or gathered honorably? What is the energy that goes into this food—do we see it as medicine? The energy that goes into the food as it is gathered, processed, and prepared for us, ultimately, goes into our bodies. If the vegetables we consume have been grown disrespectfully, without honoring nature, without honoring their inherent qualities as nourishment for the body and soul, then they will not be medicine. They will not offer themselves completely.

It is one of the many ways we can cultivate our tea practice, through nurturing a healthy relationship to one of the greatest medicines we will take on each day. And, when we begin to seek deeper, subtler ways of refining our tea brewing, the food we eat each day influences our brewing immeasurably. Changing this part of our daily life has tremendous results—beyond all measure, and, yet, still within our grasp of experience. When food is approached as medicine and offered and received with a pure heart, it becomes the greatest fuel on our path of cultivation.

As I sit with the words woven into this line, it stirs contemplative energies within, revealing to me the uncomfortable truth of my relationship to food throughout my life. Similar to many people in the world today, I have struggled with my relationship with food, not really in a sense of poor eating habits, rather in my orientation to food—I do wonder though are these the same? As our orientation is everything! I struggled, particularly throughout my teenage years, to orient myself to perceiving food as medicine; it was instead a chore that I had to get over with each day. It was in its essence a mundane activity that often deprived me of the time and space for more rewarding experiences. I simply could not see the beauty in the food or its inherent quality as medicine for the body and soul.

Around the time that I found Tea, my orientation to food shifted tremendously, especially as I observed how the food I consumed affected my body and subtle awareness. It has been a slow journey of changing my orientation, as with anything in life it is impermanent and requires continually nurturing and disciplined. There are times where I slip back into my old orientation, even for a moment, and likely I always will have to face these habits that can uproot my practice if I do not stand steadfast.

As fuel on the path to Truth, and for the good of all beings, we accept this food.

The food we consume each day, on the most physical layer, fuels our bodies, and, then the ways it fuels expands infinitely into subtler and subtler layers. It is like an onion, each layer exists both separate to the others, but also intimately connected.  I am here because of the food that has been received during my lifetime. It is from the innumerable gifts of other beings that I am alive right now. The very least I can do for them in return is to offer service. If it was not for them I would not have the energy or physical strength to continue my practice—instead, I would be curled up on the side of the path in great suffering.

We must accept this food, understanding that in doing so; we accept the responsibility to serve all beings. May we wisely steward the energy this food offers us, so that all beings may benefit from it. This food nourishes our body, offering us energy to continue our cultivation and to serve others We must orient ourselves away from consuming the food we receive each day from a place of satiating desires or attempting to fill an emptiness within. This food is consumed as part of our vows to serving all beings, not just for our own bodies, rather for everyone—from those you love, to those you do not like, and to those who are not even human. Within the food we receive exist the seeds for deeper realization and cultivation. It allows us to journey further along the path to enlightenment.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Living with Tea Medicine - The Ninth Session: Fire

Having studied what composes the best leaves for brewing tea and what makes for the best water in brewing tea, now we turn our attention to the final basic ingredient for making the best tea: fire. And here is where I must humble myself before you and admit that, on my tea journey, I have not yet reached the pinnacle of this element in my own tea brewing: I have not yet had the chance to brew tea using a charcoal brazier of any kind. I can, however, vouch for the superiority of tea brewed with real fire from coals. Charcoal produces water that is somehow hotter and holds a very coherent structure when it hits the tongue. Tea melds right into this kind of water. The cups I have tasted brewed in this way are those that I myself seek to brew someday. Getting a chance to drink living tea steeped in Taiwanese mountain spring water boiled with charcoal heat by a tetsubin held by a hook hung over a brazier is one of the many profound reasons why one should pay a visit to the Tea Sage Hut sooner rather than later.
Yet instead of daydreaming about what tea could be somewhere far away and perfect, let's talk about what fire for tea has been, at least for me. My journey through various heat sources in my tea brewing improved over time as I learned the necessity of proper heat for various kinds of tea. I, like you perhaps, started with simple kitchen tea. For my first bowls of tea, I used my gas stove in the kitchen to boild water in glass kettle, heating filtered reverse osmosis water from my tap. Once I had heated the water on the stove to a full rolling boil, I moved the kettle over to my kitchen table and placed it on a trivet to sit. Drinking bowl tea, I let the heat dissipate bowl to bowl, the third bowl always being much cooler than the first. It took a while before I saw the many flaws of heating water in this way. I grew to love that very first bowl in lieu of the rest. In this way, my sessions always arced downwards on the scale of satisfaction.
Fortunately for me, after I graduated from three bowls of tea to start the day to longer sessions with better teas, I was forced to come up with a method of heating water where I sat. Running back and forth from my tea space to the kitchen quickly got old. I soon purchased an alcohol burner for use in my tea space. I started out optimistically, boiling my water from start to finish on the burner. Not knowing the proper use for these types of tools, which work primarily to keep water that has already been heated to a proper temperature continuously hot, I started every session with a 25 minute meditation as I waited no less than that for the water to finish boiling. This was good for my meditation and tea spirit, but not so good for my tea. My experience with water boiled slowly on a less than ideal heat source versus water boiled on a proper burner has shown that rapidly heated water wins out every time with better mouthfeel and qi. (Don't take my word for it! Do the experiment yourself!)
Months of heating my water in the kitchen while I sat mindfully in another room out of earshot of the kettle, guessing whether the water had finished boiling or not (and getting it wrong a lot once I bore witness to water gushing out all over the stove upon making it to the kitchen), grew laborious. On my first trip to Taiwan, I bought a electronically controlled infrared burner in Yingge, just like the one they use today in the kitchen at the Hut. It was the first thing I opened once I returned home, eager to start brewing tea with a proper initial heat source to compliment my alcohol burner. However, what I found was disappointing: the gurgle of the fish tanks at the Hut concealed a fatal flaw of this particular model of burner - a loud fan. I took it apart to tried to fix it, thinking I might replace the fan, but this proved beyond my skills. The whirling of the fan greatly detracted from my tea sessions. I quickly concluded that I needed a replacement.
My Tea brother Jasper (Jing Ren) had figured out how to incorporate a certain brand of off-the-shelf infrared burner into a wooden enclosure with a knob for temperature control, all with silent passive cooling; but alas, he was out of stock (and still is!). So I did some Amazon research and ended up with a nice Narita burner, all shiny and metal, perfect for a living tea aesthetic (not!). It annoyingly had a "feature" whereby it would turn off upon reaching a certain temperature in order to prevent the burning of food. My experience with the Yingge burner hadn't completely turned me off from opening the hood on these burners. This time, I was able to open the Narita unit and bypass this feature to obtain a steady constant high heat. I was left with a disabled temperature control knob and a voided warranty, but so far so good! It's been heating my water quickly and is as close as I can get to actual fire in my tea room as of right now. It's been going strong for over a year and I have no complaints. I think it makes good water for tea. I do hope Jing creates some more of his fine burners soon, though! Today, they use his burner at the Tea Sage Hut in the main tea room as a compliment to their charcoal braziers.
Let me describe in more detail the setup I now use and will continue to use until I graduate to charcoal. I have two clay kettles. If I am drinking tea by myself, one kettle is probably enough. In the event that I am serving tea, I will fill both before the start of the session. As I explained last post, I have a large water jar (complete with a taboo spout!) that sits next to where I serve tea in the tea room. Working alone, I can refill kettles if need be. The Narita burner quickly heats the water at the start of the session. After reaching its peak boil, I move it to an alcohol burner or directly to a trivet. I like the interim stage of setting the kettle on the alcohol burner, which give the tea some of the actual element of fire. During the session, I dance the kettle between the alcohol burner and the trivet, being mindful of maintaining consistent temperature and not allowing the water to overboil. This back-and-forth becomes a major part of my own practice while serving tea: having to manage water temperature keeps me alert and constantly aware of my surroundings. For me, it is a major element of "staying with the Tea", listening to what the tea needs at every steeping and being prepared as best as I can to respond to its needs. It is a great litmus test for my awareness, or lack thereof. As sessions draw to a close, caping off the alcohol burner with its metal burner cover is a sign that prepares my guests for the end of the session. The room grows quiets as the gentle hiss of the burner is silenced. Plain water is served. The fire is out.

A Life of Tea Practice: Fire

A 10 minute meditation on boiling water at the start of a tea session is one of the best ways to come into the tea space. This meditation requires one to become familiar with the stages heating water takes while on its journey towards a full boil. There are two means of determining boiling points: either with the eyes or with the ears. A glass kettle is very helpful when first learning about boiling points. Seeing the way bubbles form and at what rate they form is essential to gauging water temperature. At a later stage, you might find it more meditative to keep your eyes closed and instead listen for the sound of the water's various boiling points. Different burners and kettles, even different surrounding environments, have different acoustic properties. Start by getting used to the equipment you have and learning its patterns. I am now well aquainted with the sound of a Lin's kettle boiling on a Narita infrared burner. I listen for different stages of the kettle's whistle. It grows with intensity until a point at which it rapidly becomes nearly silent. This is "dragon water", as far as water will ever need to go for any tea we brew.
Of course, not all teas wish to be brewed with "dragon water". Every tea has different needs. Even different brewing methods have different needs. Becoming aquainted with what each moment of brewing tea needs is the path of a Chajin!

Ask Yourself: Am I grateful for the basic gifts of life, like heat for warmth and cooking, or do I take them for granted?

I am an American living in an affluent suburban neighborhood. Of course I take the basic gifts of life for granted! But I feel very fortunate that I am becoming more and more aware of the incredible clockwork required to sustain my wonderful life here. I am part of a vast integrated web of activity amongst animals, plants, human beings, corporations: life itself. I could spend the rest of my life comtemplating the components of this web. As it is infinite in its complexity, sometimes my only recourse to understanding is to light the fire on my burner and set the kettle on its way to Tea, resting in the gratitude of simplicity.

This post concludes Book I of Tea Medicine.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Living with Tea Medicine - The Eighth Session: Water

Last post we started gathering the first of the three materials necessary for brewing healing, medicinal tea: leaves. Now let's turn our attention to the second: water. Like the sages of yore described in this chapter of Tea Medicine, "fulfilling the alchemy of Tea" with magical waters, gourds, and urns, we too are going to need our own toolkit. We can add as little or as much magic as we wish. I'll describe my own tools to start.
First things first, we are going to need to find a good, clean source of spring water. For many of us, this is simply unattainable around the geography in which we might find ourselves. For my part, I live in a suburban area within driving distance of mountains. Using resources online, albeit with some struggle, I have been able to find three sources so far, all a little under two hours away. Every experience I have had traveling to these places has been rewarding and challenging for me, but the spectacular difference these waters make on my tea brewing makes it worth it, and for some teas in my view, necessary. So with a map to the potential sources and a car with ample room for bottles, I at least know where I am going.
From a local water shop, I purchased as many 5 gallon water bottles as my car can transport. I opted for glass carboys, as I have found with all things Tea, hand-crafted tea stuffs (including tea, of course!) made from natural materials win out every time. Anytime I have the option to avoid plastic, I take it! My (gas guzzling, air polluting) SUV can fit 16 bottles, but driving up and down a mountain with that many unprotected glass bottles could be disastrous. I found a company online that makes padded covers for carboys of all sizes. On one water gathering trip, on the last turn on the way back home, one of the bottles smacked into another one, causing all the water to pour out all over the car. Not Zen! With the cover in place, at least glass didn't fly everywhere. I have learned since to pack blankets between the bottles for extra protection as well as using bungee cords to secure the water bottles from bumping into each other. I use plastic lids for the bottles while traveling. Once home, I switch over to corks so the water can "breathe". I store them away from light in my (less than ideal) garage.
In use, I fill up a glass dispenser in my tea room before each session. I find that I am often serving tea without the aid of another and so for my purposes, I do use a spout conveniently located next to me for filling kettles without having to get up and greatly disturb the session. Preferably, I would keep my water in a clay or stoneware vessel that does not allow light in. I would also employ a scoop and skim water from the top to fill the kettle. As it is, the water I use does not generally have too much time to settle before it is served to guests, so I don't mind this compromise so much.
Another tool I use in the gathering of mountain spring water is intention. I start my trips with the strong intention that the water I gather will be used to serve the best tea I can to my guests and that my effort will help them all find their way to Tea. Setting off in this way makes it easy to stay present and conscious of the reason for my mission, and less guilty for expending the energy of a polluting car to make the trip.
Gathering water from far away places can make for a long day, but I always try my best to have the energy to unload the car at the end of the trip and have a tea session with the newly retrieved water. These sessions are a great reward to cap off all the hard work of the journey.
There are certain teas that, when brewed with filtered tap water, have the tendency to make my guests and I nauseous. I found that once I switched to brewing these teas with spring water, the tendency towards nausea went away almost immediately. Teas that before made me sick now rest on shelves as potent tea medicine. Because of this experience, I view gathering mountain spring water as indispensable for brewing medicinal tea.

A Life of Tea Practice: Water

One of the marvels of water is its ability to transmit Nature to us. The art of brewing tea is a testament to this! But what about the effect of human energy on the water? Above all other factors surrounding making and serving tea, the one I am most in awe of is the effect of the brewer on the tea. That water, somehow, can contain that which the brewer contains and be able to transmit these contents to another... There are no words.
Here's another experiment to add to Wu De's homework in Tea Medicine. Take a few months to become acquainted with a given tea. Commune with this tea on a regular basis, maybe even daily. As we serve tea to ourselves, we will find ourselves in various states of mind. See if you can discern the effect the mind you are carrying has on the tea on any given day. Pay attention to the thoughts you carry into the session and then what you get out of the session through its duration. After many days of this, you should be able to understand the qualities that the tea leaves impart to the water and that which perhaps you yourself are adding through your participation. Then, find another tea person in your life that you can share this same tea with and have them brew it and serve it to you. You may know someone who exhibits a unique air of wisdom about them; in that case, have tea with this person. Otherwise, pick anyone! Whoever you find, I can almost guarantee you will be floored by what you find another human does to the same basic leaves and water you've grown accustomed to.

Ask Yourself: How do I relate to the water within me? And without myself? Are they the same?

Asking these questions to myself is a very sad exercise. We are living in a world where we can't drink the water readily available to us coming from the tap, or the river, or the lake. Ubiquitous access to potable tap water around the world is a marvel of human engineering, yet chemicals unsafe for human consumption abound in all of it. I personally have the luxury of employing advanced filtration systems to my tap in order to safely bathe and drink the water I have available to my family, but what I have purchased and installed is far beyond the capacity that most can afford. My personal commitment to making sure that the water I contain within and the water that surrounds me in my daily life is free from pollutants is very strong, so I felt utterly compelled to invest in cleaning my tap water after educating myself to the various dangers (horrors?) contained within the water provided to me through municipal systems. I am glad that there is no longer a noticeable chlorine smell in the water we bathe and brush our teeth with, for sure! But I certainly feel saddened about all the hoops I've had to jump through to protect my family and doubly sad about the number of people in this world who have no recourse to this kind of technology.
What humanity at large is doing to our water supply on Earth is a hellish version of the story of the Japanese chajin burying precious spring water at the source of the Yodo river for the benefit of all. The number of atrocities committed daily that pollute our water sources far outweigh, by a staggering magnitude, acts of kind protection such as these. I myself, a person committed to clean water, am complicit in this very act of water pollution just by owning and operating a car.
Even if there were to be a large shift in consciousness at the local level about our municipal water and a demand for change, the political will required to change our ecosystems back to a quality where the water that falls from the sky is the very same water that we can safely drink goes far beyond the level of a city. We can't separate water at the local level from the environment at the global level. The air above my town doesn't have a border protecting it from the millions of people in the surrounding area contributing to the air pollution that makes it way into the water supply. Water is an orchestra of factors that cannot be separated from one another. I can strive to keep the water within myself as clean as I can and it still can't ever be clean unless we all commit to being clean within and without across the planet. I don't see this happening in my lifetime.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

March's Further Readings

Liu An tea

By Luo Yingyin (羅英銀)

If you ask tea lovers what comes to mind when they think of Liu An tea, you’re likely to hear many different answers. Taiwanese people might answer that it’s a smooth, refined tea with a distinctive fragrance reminiscent of ginseng; a tea that brings a leisurely, unhurried feeling to the drinker. Other people might say that in Guangdong in years gone by, wealthy families would all be well stocked with An tea – the older and richer the tea, the more highly-prized it was. Still others may recall scenes from 1930s Cantonese movies where the characters would open bamboo baskets and brew some aged An tea. Some people know Liu An as the preferred drink of high-society people in Hong Kong as an accompaniment to smoking cigars—according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Liu An tea dispels the excess internal heat produced by cigar-smoking. Others may remember that in the past, the restaurants of Hong Kong mostly served two kinds of black tea—loose leaf Yunnanese puerh and Liu An.

Many Chajin in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan have a deep attachment to old Liu An tea, thanks to its delicate, sweet, smooth flavor and its fragrant steam that warms you all the way through.

Past meets future: the revival of Liu An
Liu An tea has several uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It used to be added to medicines as a “guiding herb” to enhance efficacy, as well as drunk for its intrinsic health effects. It’s considered a “cool-warm” food in TCM—this means that Liu An, particularly when aged, is good for dispelling dampness and excess internal heat. Because of this, it’s very popular with tea drinkers in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and South-East Asia. Like puerh, Liu An is best when aged; tea merchants and individual tea drinkers usually buy some Liu An and then store it away to age, so they are able to witness the tea’s aging process. In the past, Liu An was quite popular; however, during the Sino-Japanese war, traditional Liu An trade routes were interrupted—this, together with the chaos of wartime, meant that Luxi Village in Qimen was forced to stop producing Liu An tea in the mid 1930s. The last shipment of Liu An produced there was unable to be exported until 1947. It fetched a high price on the market when it was finally sold to Singapore tea merchants.

From that time on, Liu An tea was no longer produced in Qimen for over half a century. Many Chajin from the older generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan longed to rediscover its flavor. Around ten years ago, the second large-scale tea expo was held in Taiwan, and the organizers arranged to open a bamboo basket of “Three Labels” Sun Yishun (三張票孫義順), one of the most well-known original brands of Liu An. We went along to the tasting with the aim of exploring and reporting on Liu An’s fascinating journey through history, and recording the unique charm of this old tea. A few years earlier, in 1983, some representatives of the China Tea Fund in Hong Kong sent a basket of Liu An tea to the Anhui Province Tea Company, accompanied by a letter. In the letter they sent their greetings on behalf of all the old friends of Tea in southern China and South-East Asia who missed this special tea that had been gone for several decades, and expressed their hope that Liu An might be given a new beginning.    

There were quite a few twists and turns before production was finally re-established. Because the tea is named “Liu An”, the Anhui provincial government first thought that this tea variety was originally produced in Liu An City (also pronounced “Lu’an”), so the basket of tea took a wrong turn and ended up there. It wasn’t until further enquiry that they realized it actually originated in Luxi in Qimen, so finally, in 1984, the well-travelled basket of tea made it back to Qimen, and Liu An manufacturing began once more.  

The origins of Liu An: researching Sun Yishun
There were a number of people involved in researching the original manufacturing techniques used to produce that basket of Sun Yishun tea. Among them was Wang Shoukang (汪壽康), a descendant of the original tea merchant Sun Yishun who established the brand, as well as two staff from the Luxi Village administrative office, Wang Zhenxiang (汪鎮響) and Wang Shengping (汪昇平). These three, along with various representatives of the provincial and county-level tea businesses, formed a group of about seven or eight people in total. They all gave careful consideration to the manufacturing techniques, sending several batches of samples to Hong Kong for quality approval throughout the process. Finally, four years later in 1988, they were satisfied that the quality was consistent, and Hong Kong tea merchants came flocking to place orders for the newly available Liu An.

Riding on the success of this foray into Liu An manufacturing, the local Luxi Village government decided to open a tea factory to produce red tea, so they funded the establishment of the Jiangnan Spring (江南春) Tea Factory with Wang Zhenxiang as factory director. The next year, Wang Shengping contracted the factory to make Liu An tea. After some time the factory ceased production for several years due to unstable sales. A few years later, in 1997, the market for Liu An picked up again and Wang Shoukang, the descendant of Sun Yishun, invited Wang Zhenxiang to partner in opening a new Liu An tea factory, again with the investment of Luxi Village. They registered their business under the old Sun Yishun brand name, and so continued the legacy of Wang Shoukang’s forebears. Wang Shoukang himself passed away the following year, and since Wang Zhenxiang was a legally appointed representative, the company was able to keep operating under the Sun Yishun name—and so the name has survived to this day.  

Today in the Luxi Village area there are four main manufacturers producing Liu An tea. As well as Jiangnan Spring and Sun Yishun, another company was established in 2004 as an offshoot from the Sun Yishun tea factory, and called their brand “Luxi Sun Yishun—Lu An Tang” (蘆溪孫義順─蘆安堂). More recently, in 2015, Wang Guofeng (汪國峰), then-mayor of Luxi Village and former business partner of Wang Zhenxiang, established a fourth brand and named it the “Sun Yishun Tea Brand” (孫義順茶號). The combined output of these four Liu An manufacturers is modest in volume—they produce around eighty tons of Liu An per year. There are also a handful of other tea factories in Luxi that are officially listed but have either shut down or never started production in the first place.

You may be wondering: why do almost all of these factories in Luxi have the “Sun Yishun” name as part of their brands? In the early years of the Republic there were all sorts of Liu An brand names, including Zheng Ai Ji Yishun, Kangyang Chunzheng Yishun and Qimen Wang Bai Tang An Tea House, among others. But, because of the reputation of the Sun Yishun An tea brand at the time, there were many imitators. Later, Liu An production in Anhui Province was forcibly brought to a halt by political unrest, but this didn’t quell the demand for the tea. To satisfy this market demand, a new tea company named Can Zhao Sun Yishun set up in the relatively peaceful Hong Kong and Macau area and began to produce a tea called “Macau Bamboo Rain Hat Liu An.” This tea was supplied to the market in the neighboring regions and in nearby South-East Asia. So it was that the Sun Yishun name became synonymous with quality Liu An tea.

“Dispelling the clouds”: recreating the Liu An manufacturing process
How it is that the production of a certain tea variety can stop entirely for over half a century? Aside from the political and social background and the changing economy, it was largely because of the complex methods required to produce Liu An. The whole process takes over eight months and the leaves go through five stages of firing; on top of that, the finished tea must then be stored for three years before it’s ready to sell. So the first barrier that hindered the production of Liu An was the detailed knowledge needed to make it; the second barrier was the large amount of time and labor required; and the third was the cost involved in securing storage space for three whole years.

The Liu An manufacturing process is quite complex compared to other black teas. On top of this, certain steps must be carried out at particular times of year, measured by traditional Chinese solar terms. The tea picking occurs in Guyu, or “Grain Rain,” in late April to early May; and one of the final steps is leaving the tea leaves out overnight to absorb the dew during the Bailu, or “White Dew,” solar term. The main steps in the process occur in spring and include picking, spreading the tea leaves, pan-firing, rolling, and drying until the leaves are about 70% dry (as the tea is not dried completely, it’s sometimes called “soft stem” tea). After this, the tea leaves are piled into large bamboo baskets to a depth of around 10 centimeters, and undergo about an hour of “heaping” before being dried a second time. The leaves are then chopped, mixed, sifted and sorted into grades.

Once Liqiu, the “Start of Autumn” solar term, arrives in mid-August, it’s time to take out the tea leaves and arrange them ready for the next step. On a clear evening sometime in mid-September once Bailu or “White Dew” begins, the tea leaves are placed onto bamboo drying frames and baked briefly over a high flame to enhance the fragrance of the tea. The leaves are then arranged on a bamboo mat and placed outdoors ready for the most important step in the Liu An process: the “night dew” or yelu (夜露) step. The leaves mustn’t be spread too thickly, and should be turned over once or twice during the night to fully absorb the dew. When the small water droplets of the dew meet the tea leaves, the moisture causes the tea to oxidize further. One can well imagine that this contributes to Liu An tea’s refined, delicate, smooth flavor, with a fragrant note reminiscent of ginseng. This is also why old-time cigar smokers in Hong Kong liked to drink Liu An, as the cooling properties of the tea help dispel excess internal heat.
The next day, after being nourished by the night dew, the tea is prepared for compressing. A wooden frame is placed over a hot pan, and on top of that is laid a bamboo mat and then a cotton cloth. The tea is placed on top of this to steam for a few minutes, then, while the leaves are still hot from the steam, they are packed into small bamboo baskets lined with bamboo leaves.

The little baskets of tea are placed in pairs, then three pairs are strung together into a row with bamboo strips. Row upon row of baskets are placed neatly onto racks in a tall drying kiln and covered with a cotton quilt, then dried over wood charcoal that is laid at the bottom of the kiln. The purpose of the quilt is to absorb the steam from the tea leaves and to make the hot air in the kiln circulate. The leaves generally need to dry like this for about two days, until the quilt is warm and dry to the touch. This is the most crucial step in determining whether or not the batch of Liu An tea will turn out to be a success. 

From picking to drying, the whole process takes several months and involves five different firings: kill-green, drying, high-heat firing to enhance the fragrance, steaming and charcoal drying. The traditional “night dew” method is also an integral part of the process, and is known for its use in processing other food products too, such as old-style soy sauce. It plays an important role in preserving and flavoring the product.

Unravelling a mystery: where does the “An” name come from?
Nearly 30 years have passed since production of this tea was revived, and the market has gradually caught wind of its unique fragrance. But as for its name, many tea drinkers are still confused: An tea? Liu An tea? Lu’an tea? Is there a difference? For starters, the two spellings in English, “Lu’an” and “Liu An,” reflect two alternate pronunciations of the character in Chinese (which is the number six). In the case of 六安, the city in Anhui Province, it is traditionally pronounced lu, whereas the standard Mandarin pronunciation is liu. So you may see both versions used for the name of the tea.

So, pronunciation aside, where did this name come from? According to records, a tea variety by the name of Liu An had been produced in two parts of Anhui Province since the Han Dynasty, namely the Liu An (or Lu’an) prefecture, and Huoshan County. By the time of the Tang Dynasty this tea had gained some reputation, and was known by such names as Huo Tea, Xian Ya (“Immortal Buds”), and Rui Cao Kui. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that it began to be known as “Liu An”; at that time it was also classified as a “tribute” tea, that would be gifted to officials and the royal household. The Qing Dynasty Liu An Records contain the following passage: “In the whole realm there are ten provinces and counties that produce tea, but Lu’an is the only tea that often crosses the thresholds of government officials.” There’s also a line of a poem describing a bustling scene in the capital city that goes: “The shop fronts are decked out in splendorous gold; the merchants compete to see Lu’an tea sold.” Liu An tea also appears in Chapter 14 of the famous literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber. The Liu An tea that all of these examples refer to is in fact a green tea, which genuinely originated in Liu An itself.  

So, the Liu An tea we’ve just discussed in the previous paragraph is in fact a different variety from the Qimen An tea that is this month’s focus, and is distinct in terms of both origin and production methods. One is produced in Huoshan, the other in Qimen. One is a green tea, and one is a black tea. Their markets are different too: the first is supplied to the local market, whereas the second is shipped south to Guangzhou and supplied to Hong Kong, Macau and the overseas Chinese population.

How, then, did a black tea produced in Qimen’s Luxi Village come to be known as Liu An tea? Before Qimen red tea began to appear during the reign of the Qing emperor Guangxu, a variety called An tea was produced in great quantities throughout the whole of Qimen. By the early days of the Republic of China there were over 50 different tea producers in the area, and each company had their own tea label. In this case, the word “label” is used quite literally—each tea would have a small slip of paper inside the packaging much like the ones one finds in puerh tea today, explaining the origins of the tea and confirming its authenticity. The Sun Yishun brand that is still so well-known today was one of the biggest tea producers during the early Republic. Their tea labels from that era read as follows: “This tea is genuine Anhui Sun Yishun An brand tea; made with only the most delicate and tender spring buds, picked in Lu’an before the rains, carefully selected and processed, with no expense spared…” The Qimen Museum also has a tea label on display from the Hu Ju Chun brand—on the back, in small characters, it reads: “While fine tea is produced in many parts of China, this Anhui Sun Yishun An tea is truly one of a kind, with naturally unique qualities…” So, as more and more tea with labels such as these crossed oceans, it’s not hard to see how tea drinkers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia came to know An tea as “old Liu An.”

Where, then, does the “An” part of the name come from? The characterin Chinese means “peace” (as well as a few related meanings), and features in a number of place names. This has given rise to several theories as to how the tea got its name. The first theory is that, since it was largely sold in the southern province of Guangdong, the tea was simply named after Anhui Province where it was produced. As the labels in Sun Yishun put it, the tea was “shipped to Foshan Village and Guangfeng for sale…”. The second and more common theory is that it was named after the original Liu An tea, the green tea variety from Liu An that we discussed earlier. A third theory has to do with production methods. Hu Haochuan (胡浩川), who was head of the Qimen Tea Factory during the early Republic, writes in his Qimen Tea Manufacturing that the majority of tea produced in Qimen was red tea, though there was also a small amount of green tea being made. Because the production methods used imitated those of the original Liu An tea, it became known as An tea. Yet a fourth theory is based on one literal meaning of the character an (), “to calm or pacify”: the tea is known in Chinese medicine for its ability to soothe the organs of the body and balance the six different types of Qi.

So, whether it originally referred to a green tea from Anhui or the An tea that we know for its soothing properties, the mysterious Liu An name made a place for itself in the hearts of Chajin in Hong Kong and Taiwan, thanks to the tea labels that traveled with it across the seas. As it is picked and processed to the rhythm of the seasons, the fragrance of An tea has once again begun to waft out across the green forests and blue skies of Anhui’s Luxi Village. It’s a tea that has waited patiently over the years for its forgotten charm to be revived and once again carried on the wind to the tea drinkers of the world.