Subtle Essenses

18 08 2008

“…close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.” Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

 The Chinese word Qi represents a concept essential to understanding Chinese culture. Here is the traditional character: . Qi might be translated as “life force” or “energy.” The character depicts a stove with rice at the center. On top of the stove is a pot and the lid of the pot is being raised by an invisible force (steam). Many years ago, a Chinese tai chi teacher with whom I was studying, asked me to prepare a single sheet describing Qi for a handout to my fellow Caucasian instructor-candidates. As a Chinese joke, I illustrated the page with a photo of a giant bowl of rice. My teacher thought it was hilarious. My fellow students were not amused. Trying to explain rice as a central object in Chinese life and the equation of consuming rice to having Qi kind of killed the joke. “No rice, no Qi! No Qi, you dead.”

I once had a dog, Pretty Maggie, by name, who was the light of my life. At the age of 16, it seemed that her time had come. However, the  veterinarian suggested acupuncture as a last resort. The acupuncturist came in and needled dear Maggie. The needles just barely hung in Maggie’s body, ready to fall out. “I think your dog is a goner,” said the acupuncture doctor with not much bedside manner. “Look, ” she said. “When the body dies, the acupuncture points let go and the needles can even fall out.” Stricken, I stared at the flaccid needles. But, Maggie did not die and the acupuncture brought her along enough for more acupuncture, and the needles began to stand up, and she lived another two years, even sporting like a pup, occasionally. The point being, “No Qi, you dead.” 

Which brings us to tea. “Huh?” You say. Well, tea is brewed with hot water and the heating of the water produces steam, emblematic of Qi. And I really wanted to talk about tea, especially my favorite, Yin Zhen Bai Hao. Also called Silver Needle. The Chinese “Bai Hao” means white hair. The very finest tea, when you look closely at the buds, you see what appears to be a very fine white down, white hair. Yin Zhen Bai Hao is all buds, and these exquisite tea buds, with their coating of white hair, look like little silver needles. So “White Hair Silver Needle.”

This is an authentic and traditional white tea. Snapple runs a TV commercial wherein some young American fool is on an airplane wondering where the white tea he is drinking comes from. He is suddenly transported to a field of tea, probably somewhere in Indonesia where Sir Thomas Lipton and other purveyors of inferior tea chose to grow the sacred plant. Then a wizened Asian man says something about the buds on the top of the plant and “we pick it!” Very cute. But he is really describing green tea. Most tea sold in the United States as white tea is really green. Phooey! Real, traditional white tea is processed in the oolong manner and includes sunshine withering. There are only a handful of, or less, authentic and traditional Chinese white teas, and, for my money, Yin Zhen Bai Hao is the very best! The Indians are now marketing something they call white tea. Tastes like dish water to me. I will stick to Silver Needle and another white tea, White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), thank you very much.

Which brings us to the Chabon quote. This was not referring to white tea, but it should. Yin Zhen Bai Hao, the real stuff, as grown and purveyed by my Chinese Tea Master, from his gardens in Fujian province, is so-o-o-o good, that one sip is all you need. One sip of this tea reaffirms all that is right in life. On my death bed, I want my last memory to be a sip of Yin Zhen Bai Hao.

The Chinese have descriptive words for the flavors of fine tea. Note, I said fine tea, nu, nu? You will not find fine tea in any supermarket, or even in most tea shops. The Chinese keep the good stuff for themselves. Shoot, even a well-respected Chinese Qigong Master in England, says white tea tastes like hot water. Either his palate is over-rated or he never had good Silver Needle.

So, Yin Zhen Bai Hao may be described with words like “bamboo” and “orchid.” I like “orchid.” The first time I tasted Yin Zhen Bai Hao from the gardens of my Cha Shifu, my Tea Master, I got a hint of what I called vanilla. My palate was not ready for such a great tea, but I got a glimpse, like seeing a beautiful woman in the periphery of your vision. You know something fantastic just went by, but what in the heck was it? Of course, vanilla is a member of the orchid family, so I was not that far off.

This tea is so-o-o-o-o good…wait, I already said that. Each time I brew this tea, the first sip confirms my previous opinion and I could just stop right there. One sip, that’s all. You don’t need to stare at paradise, just seeing it once is good enough. Well, maybe two sips…or three. This tea is so fine you can keep on brewing it and even after you think you’ve used up every tiny little bit of tea-ie goodness, you find that you have not. A coffee expert friend of mine, Christophe, a Frenchman, sat with me one day and we drank and drank and drank until we gurgled like a tea pot and there was still that sweetness that comes from oolong processing and from the beauty of a true white tea. So we just stopped. It was either that or drown.

Which brings us back around to Qi. The good things, the great things, the fine things in life all have a whole lot of Qi. “It’s hard to keep a good man down.” It’s hard to find a good tea, but when you do, hang onto it by the ears because you are in for one heck of a ride!

Part of enjoying tea is looking at the leaves, smelling them, viewing the color of the brew and sucking it back along the tongue and feeling the Qi tumble down your throat. But there are other pleasures, too. The Chinese and other cultures have long valued the viewing of the moon. That most Yin of planets, glowing with the reflection of the sun in the coolness of the night. When better to enjoy a cup of Silver Needle than by the silver light? Like invisible Qi, inhale the aromas of a pot of Yin Zhen Bai Hao, gaze at the moon, and understand that all that is good is not visible, but, nevertheless, it is there.

And so this blog will attempt to explore the little-seen, the hidden pleasures…the little pleasures of life, be it a good book, a fine meal, or a simple cup of tea.     






3 responses

22 08 2008
Alex Bledsoe

I confess I was finding this all a bit arcane and academic until you described the taste as “like seeing a beautiful woman in the periphery of your vision.” Suddenly I knew exactly what you meant on a tactile, experiential level (well, as much as you can when reading about tasting something). As a member of a coarse society I sometimes feel separated from the small, beautiful things; nice to be reminded of Chabon’s possibilities.
Thanks Alex. I don’t mind esoteric, but I hope I don’t get too academic. However, I am very much a sinophile and can wax enthusiastic, and esoteric, about things like tea and tai chi.

12 08 2009
Tea by any other name…a rant. « The Way of Cha

[…] it fast enough and it became old and stale. It oxidized. It became dry and crumbly. No aroma, no Qi. 氣 Smell it. And if you buy it from a nice tea shop, you can probably buy a cup of it first and […]

21 10 2009
Tea by any other name…a rant. « Moonlight Cha–Tea by Moonlight

[…] it fast enough and it became old and stale. It oxidized. It became dry and crumbly. No aroma, no Qi. 氣 Smell it. And if you buy it from a nice tea shop, you can probably buy a cup of it first and […]

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