I’m Back

Baller Status Unlocked

Namaste friends, romans, 茶人, & countrymen! It has been far too long, with far too little tea and tea related adventures since I last posted.

But the wait is over.

After this most successful event, the 2015 Yixing Teapot Exhibition, hosted by the Tea Institute at Penn State, I feel alive to the allure of tea once again.

Ryan Ahn (狮子) has done an unbelievable job of taking over the institute I founded and I am so happy to remain involved in an advisory role. Ryan and his executive team are 100x better at recruiting than I (and my executive team, sorry guys) ever was/were.

one of us one of us one of us

Under Ryan and the new executive board, the Institute has grown to 44 active members! (all of whom are directly descendent from my tea linage, making me far more proud than the parents of an honor roll student)

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Anthropology of Chinese Tea Ceremony – Part 1

This is a draft section of my upcoming book “An introduction to the art and Science of Chinese Tea Ceremony”. Please help improve it with your comments, suggestions, and hate mail! 

Anthropology is the study of human culture throughout time, a large topic that can be studied through many vantage points and lenses. By focusing on the historical patterns of production and consumption of tea through the dynastic to modern period, we can shed light on the culture that gave rise to the tea ceremony that we practice today. 

 

Throughout history, the majority, the global underclass from the tip of Portugal to the Korean Peninsula could not expect to gain anything not produced by the toil of their own labor and the sweat from their brow. Life was oft short, difficult, and brutish (to quote Hobbs), in the cities and villages alike. This, I suspect, is in contacts to the usual portrait of idyllic life in an earlier time. Famine, disease, and death were never far from their minds; even as China became the pinnacle society of the pre-industrial age during the Tang Dynasty, the world at that time offered little in the comforts and inanities we take for granted today.

The vast regions of China are home to a diverse set of ethno-culturally distinct people. Life often changes drastically from village to village, valley to valley; culture, language, sustenance, and production were all dependent on the topography, resources, and skills of the city or village.

Tea is a product formed by that most natural of human agricultural experiments; improve on what is already working. As tea moved from its use as a spice and masticant, to become commonly consumed as a beverage, it went from ‘unprocessed’ to a processed good; that processing lead to value and specialization, such that the farming of tea became viable in a world of sustenance agriculture. All of the resulting teas of the past and the teas of today (green, oolong, pu’er) owe their existence to the experimentation of these farmers of yore.

Tea, as we think and write of it, was the domain of the rich. From the ceremonies’ earliest popularized formalization in LuYu’s ChaJing, tea required wealth to partake in its practice.

The first large farms were run by the monasteries. As holders of land and with accesses to the labor of the resident monks, monasteries became fabulously wealthy in the mid to late Tang Dynasty. The production of tea became a source of wealth both spiritual and monetary; it kept the monks awake during their hours of meditation, and the tea could be sold to the local populace and resting travelers.

Thus, even as tea ceremony became a practice of the rich and scholarly, with its collection of wares, implements, and rare samples of famous leaves, all of the production and the bulk of the consumption were dominated by that global underclass of farmers and villagers; a group rarely written about. Tea was traded, purchased, and drunk by the villagers, towns folk, and urban elites alike; but tea was only produced in the villages and tea ceremony was only practiced by the bourgeois class; tea ceremony was (and in many ways still is) the domain of the wealthy. This discrepancy in the written history skews our knowledge and perception of the production and consumption of tea; it’s the victorious, welthy, and educated who write the historical records, and it is their practice of tea we have passed down and continue to learn and practice today.

Why we brew – Constructs for understanding, Part 3

This is part 3 in the “Why we Brew” series of posts. [Read Part 1 and Part 2]
These posts are my writings on why we brew tea, and how we can understand the practice of ourselves and others.
I hope this can be a conversation, and I would greatly appreciate your comments, suggestions  questions, and clarifications.
– Jason

 

There are differences and similarities of Structural- Functionalism and Phenomenism left to be worked out. Structural Functionalism tells us only to consider the function of our wares and the aesthetic value of each individual piece of tea ware as it relates to the whole. Structural-Functionalism does not take into account the diversity of flavor profiles offered by a tea though different brewing parameters, nor the situation or surrounding environment; as long as your set is usable and beautiful you can have tea on the strip of land between the highway and the swamp.

Phenomenism requires the brewer to take into account the experience and expectation of the guests; will they appreciate an up-dosed robust brew of roasted oolong, or should I brew a lighter flavor profile? Phenomenism goes a step further than the other constructs by requiring the setting of a setting; one needs to have a space in which the tea can be appreciated. Phenomenism changes the values placed on function and beauty again; whereas Utilitarianism places no value on beauty, and Structural Functionalism posits that a ware or utensil must be functional in order to be used, Phenomenism requires that you create something you and your guest can appreciate and understand.

 Structural-Functionalism and Phenomenism both state ‘function can be beautiful’. Within structural-functionalism this applies only to the use of the wares. For Phenomenism it applies to anything you or your guests will experience; for example, when selecting a tea pot for green tea, think about the brewing parameters (its function). A beautiful pot with thick walls will scorch the tender buds, yet an ugly pot just won’t do; you and your guests will think less of the tea! Phenomenism is not about balance – it demands both usable and beautiful wares.

These 3 constructs, Utilitarianism, Structural Functionalism, and the Phenomenism can be viewed as guiding principles for your own practice (pick whichever one reaches out to you). In teaching Chinese Tea Ceremony, I have learned to view them as stages of practice and as levels of analysis. Individuals join the Institute foremost because they want to drink tea; it takes time and study to progress through the Utilitarian to the Functionalist to the ‘Phenomenist’ approaches. That is not to say there are not highly skilled and knowledgeable practitioners within each construct; it is simply my opinion of the amount of skill and knowledge required by each construct. Individuals can and should practice tea ceremony in the way that is enjoyable to them.

As a level of analysis these constructs become useful in your reading and experience. Writings and blog posts about tea will with few exceptions fall into one of these categories, and it is helpful to view the practice and tea of others threw these lenses; why are they picking those cups? What effect does that tea pot have on the tea? What assumptions am I holding because of their set? This is not so much a method for critique as a tool for your understanding, and perhaps, as an admonishment against preemptive conclusions. Chinese Tea Ceremony, as in life, has room enough for all practitioners to live and let live.

 

Tune in soon for part 4, where I make a pretty chart detailing different theories!
Have a question, idea, or sneaking suspicion? Post it in the comments!

 

Why we brew – Constructs for understanding, Part 2

This is part 2 in the “Why we Brew” series of posts. [Part 1 is here]
These posts are my writings on why we brew tea, and how we can understand the practice of ourselves and others. 

I hope this can be a conversation, and I would greatly appreciate your comments, suggestions  questions, and clarifications.
– Jason

 

    Modern phenomenology is the study of human experience. Phenomenology has its roots in architecture to describe the feeling of seeing and approaching a structure – one that has such a presence as to stir an emotional response. Imagine with me, if you will, approaching the roman forum, the Acropolis, or the Summer Palace; these structures were formed in order to unsettle or impose. These structures were formed in order to set the tone for their function. Imagine with me the feeling of awe and grandeur at approaching these buildings during their time of use.

Phenomenology may be divided into a limitless array of categories such as the phenomenology of art, how one relates to and understands art (such as in the tea room, if any); the phenomenology of company, how one relates and understands the presence of others (tea is quite different alone or in a group), or the phenomenology of taste, how one relates and understands the sensory stimuli of flavor (not to mention a clean pallet). For our purposes, categorization is unnecessary or even detrimental to the understanding of tea ceremony as a whole. Instead we will look at Phenomenology as a singular and inclusive field.

Phenomenology, in recent years, has been co-opted and expanded by Cultural Anthropology to explain the way in which our setting and external environment effects the perception of experience. This is ½ of phenomenology – that while two or more individuals may share an experience, their perception of events may differ. Yet, it is possible, in no uncertain terms, to create and craft an experience; to create settings and situations in which one cannot help but to feel the set and range of emotions decided on by the crafter. This is what it means to be the director of a play, guiding the audience though the emotional trials of the cast; this is what it means to be the host of a Charity Banquet, creating a situation for your guests to enjoy themselves and (hopefully) donate to your cause; this is what it means to be the host of a Chanoyu ChaJi creating Ichigo Ichie.

 We will label the application of phenomenology to tea ceremony as “phenomenism”. [This is not a real word. It should not be used in polite or intelligent conversation] This is of no passing interest to the brewer, the practitioner of Chinese Tea Ceremony; I will argue it is the summation of our and our guest’s experience.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that individuals vary in their level of knowledge and understanding of tea. When one is brewing for themselves, their approach is inherently matched to their own level of understanding; someone interested in the silent and meditative aspect of the ceremony wouldn’t play music while brewing, someone interested in ceramics may spend more time matching wares to individual teas, and someone interested in tea as part of nature could brew outside. That is creating an environment where you can personally appreciate tea.

When brewing for others more thought, and sometimes planning, is required. If your goal is to introduce your friends to tea, you wouldn’t set up a 30 young pu’er sensory panel; you would probably pick one or two approachable teas and have light conversation interspersed with the explanations. If your goal was conversation with fellow tea drinkers, you should prick different tea than if your goal was for a more serious tasting. When presenting tea ceremony at the Institute for new members, I don’t use our finest Qing porcelain; it is not because I don’t think new members will appreciate it, just the opposite. New members will appreciate and concentrate on the wares too much. It would overshadow the tea. Worst of all, they may come away with the idea that rare or expensive porcelain is required for GongFu (it’s not). It does no one any good to be out-leveled during a tea ceremony.

Phenomenism is a framework that serves to create an experience where the practitioner and guest can appreciate tea on their level of understanding. This is difficult as experience is subject to the perceptual effects of expectation, situation, and memory. Understanding how the external environment effect the perception of individuals is the other half of Phenomenology.

Consider the best tea in the world (whatever that may be); would you have the same expectation if it were served in a hello kitty mug as a Yuan QingBai cup? How would that expectation change your perception of the tea? I suspect you would think less of it, consciously or not, in the mug.

Would you have the same expectations for a tea served to you at a street side stall as one served to you in a specialty tea house?  How would the situation change your perception of the tea? I suspect you wouldn’t give the tea from the stall nearly as much thought.

Finally, how would your experience of a tea with any expectation in any situation be effected by your past experiences? Those experiences, those memories, are the way you reference, compare, and interpret the world around you. Few enjoy sheng pu’er the first time it is served to them (we say it is an ‘acquired taste’); the best sheng in the world is lost on an individual with no experience with sheng (we say they have no appreciation for it). It is through repeated exposure that a formative reference is created and through which one can begin to enjoy the nuance and subtleties of any type of tea (or artisan good for that matter); memory is experience, and experience is what forms our preferences.

The Phenomenism framework is thus sensitive to expectation, situation, and memory. Thinking on the Phenomenist level can help clarify your personal goal each time you brew and can clarify where your concentration should lie. Thinking at the Phenomenist level can also help you uncover and reason your own assumptions and guide you to a deeper level of understanding.

Perhaps it can be said that the point of tea ceremony is creating an experience where your or your guest’s expectations, guided by the wares you use, are for quality; where the situation, guided by the setting, is conducive; where the memories evoked are positive, and the memories formed are clear; all for the appreciation of the tea.

Tune in soon for part 3, where I try to explain why Structural-Functionalism and Phenomenology are different theories!
Have a question, idea, or sneaking suspicion? Post it in the comments!

 

Why we brew – Constructs for understanding, Part 1

Finally, back to tea and academia!
This next series of posts are my writings on why we brew tea, and how we can understand the practice of ourselves and others. 
I hope this can be a conversation, and I would greatly appreciate your comments, suggestions  questions, and clarifications.
– Jason

 

        Individuals each come to and practice tea with their own wants, needs, and desires. No one is forced to practice tea; this Ceremony is a tradition and art propagated by free will. In previous writing I have broken Chinese Tea Ceremony down into its component parts, a reductionist approach, and described each aspect in what I hope has been less than excruciating detail. The problem then is that no one practices components of tea ceremony for its own sake; it is the composite whole, the brewing of tea itself, which they wish to perfect. By all means improve your pour by practicing with cold water, but don’t perform that for your friends and family.

It is now my goal to fit those various component parts into a set of frameworks for understanding. Putting things back together often turns out to be harder than taking them apart (think particle physics or that alarm clock) and tea ceremony is no exception. Chinese Tea Ceremony is an interdisciplinary subject and in my attempt to piece it together I have borrowed heavily from Cultural Anthropology and Architecture; I have taken some liberty in my interpretive applications of the original theories as they apply to Chinese Tea Ceremony.

The goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony is to brew good tea; yet what could be said to be the point?

Surely it must be enjoyment. We drink tea to enjoy ourselves. Are we enjoying the flavor? Are we enjoying the company of our guests (or perhaps we are the guest)? Are we enjoying the moment of silence between brews or the beauty of the wares used? Let us continue with the a priori assumption that the point is some kind of appreciation and walk through the range of possibilities.

The practice of brewers can be categorized by their approach. Individuals differ in the importance and attention to detail they give to aspects of tea ceremony; aging pu’er and tasting the difference over time is the drive for some, while the use of old and rare tea pots is the raison d’être of others. None of these approaches are more right than another. Broadly these forms of practice fall into 3 archetypes: Utilitarian, Structural-Functionalist, and Phenomenology.

Consider the statement “the point of tea is appreciation through consumption”. This is a bold claim and one not easy to parse. This statement would have us believe that to appreciate tea we need to consume it. Consumption is a form of communion; there are few things as intimate with the inanimate as consumption. What you eat becomes part of you, “you are what you eat”. The consumption of tea gives rise to feelings and emotions, perhaps through beauty to some, but through physical response to the psychoactive compounds in everyone. Tea, before anything else, is a stimulating and calming beverage; used in the past and present for study and meditation. Could the real goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony be to brew good tea ‘that one will want to consume’? This is not hard to agree with as I don’t think any of my readers brew tea to smile at a hot gaiwan or to have fun pre-heating cups.

Yet is this reducto ad absurdum? This theory is utilitarian; it only accounts for the derivation of hedonistic pleasure without room for the phenomenology of taste or aesthetic enjoyment. It puts all brewing skill, style, and implements into a singular utilitarian framework that draws no distinction in form, such that the modernist mantra of ‘form follow function’ becomes the form unto itself.  It leaves no room for a tasters swish-and-spit, or the appreciation of an aging pu’ers darkening color (to say nothing of its flavors evolution), or the appreciation of the small QingHua cups I empty my YiXing into. How can we build on this basic construct to include the way in which our setting and external environment effects the perception of experience? What other constructs exist?

Structural-Functionalism, like Utilitarianism and most experiential frameworks, began in architecture. Whereas Utilitarianism discounts the value of ornamentation, to the point of banning it, Functionalism construes value for each entity within the structure.  How is this relevant to Tea Ceremony? Consider a gaiwan; you have a choice among minimalist white, blue and white from Zhingdezhen, or even a gaudy pink and gold from Chinatown.  Utilitarianism sees these all as equal, or even the same. Do you? Perhaps some of you are happy to brew in anything in reach, but I am willing to wager that the majority of you will have a clear preference for one of the gaiwans. That preference is functionalism; each function is unique and we can have a preference for a specific form of function. Just as a gaiwan and a teapot can achieve the same ends (brewed tea), you may prefer to use one or the other consistently, or decide based on the tea you are to brew. An individual can have a preference for one over the other because they differ both aesthetically and functionally. That preference need not be rational; it only needs to be present to be valued in the functionalist framework.

If the function and aesthetic value are accounted for by functionalism, where is the structure? In assembling your tea set, do you consider matching the wares? Do you consider matching the size and scale of your wares? The structure is found by creating a working whole, giving equal weight to the interplay of the wares you chose to use. A beautiful bowl’s aesthetic value may be highlighted or masked by the other wares around it; Structural-Functionalism would have you aim for enhancement. A cup’s function needs to match the rest of the set; some are too small or large for the type of tea being served or the amount held in the brewing vessel. The addition of multiple wares of multiple functions being used together to reach a goal adds the structure to structural-functionalism.  What is this construct lacking?

Answered in Part 2.
(or by you in the comments!)