The way of the tea

Hangzhou, Nyugati TóThe Western Lake of Hangzhou, about which Zhang Dai wrote his novel The Search of the Western Lake in Dreams

With a teapot, a Chinese is happy wherever he is.
(Lin Yutang)

Yesterday, in search of the citation of Lin Yutang, I have browsed through the My country and my people after twenty years again. Again I enjoyed its pleasant, conversational style, and I was impressed again by his easiness in translating into the language of Western culture – of course into the language of bygone pre-war culture, which itself requires translation already – his own Chinese world. But I also needed these twenty years to realize that those samples of Chinese literature, art and history he seems to quote so randomly, as if they came to his mind by pure chance, are in the reality carefully chosen by him, thus offering in the middle of easy talking a representative reader of Chinese culture.

When he for example intends to illustrate the importance of tea for the Chinese, he quotes the most famous tea story from the greatest author of the Ming period, from the Dreams and remembrances on Tao An by Zhang Dai (1597-1689). The story is so beautiful that I also have to quote it. Perhaps it will give inspiration to my brother Gyuri to the continuation of his recently opened tea blog of The Lover of the Two Shengs.

Chou Molung often spoke to me in enthusiastic terms about the tea of Min Wenshui. In September of a certain year [1638], I came to his town, and when I arrived, I called on him at Peach Leaves Ferry. It was already afternoon, and Wenshui was not at home. He came back late and I found him to be an old man. We had just opened our conversation when he rose suddenly and said that he had left his stick somewhere and went out again. I was determined not to miss this chance of having a talk with him, so I waited. After a long while, Wenshui came back, when it was already night, and he stared at me, saying, “Are you still here? What do you want to see me for?” I said, “I have heard about your name so long, and am determined to have a drink with you to-day before I go!” Wenshui was pleased, and then he rose to prepare the tea himself. In a wonderfully short time it was ready. Then he led me into a room, where everything was neat and tidy, and I saw over ten kinds of Chingch’i pots and Hsüanyao and Ch’engyao teacups, which were all very rare and precious. Under the lamplight, I saw that the colour of the tea was not distinguishable from that of the cup, but a wonderful fragrance assailed my nostrils, and I felt ever so happy. “What is this tea?” I asked. “Langwan,” Wenshui replied. I tasted it again and said, “Now don’t deceive me. The method of preparation is Langwan, but the tea-leaves are not Langwan.” “What is it then?” asked Wenshui smilingly. I tasted it again and said, “Why is it so much like Lochieh tea?” Wenshui was quite struck by my answer and said, “Marvellous! Marvellous!” “What water is it?” I asked. “Huich’üan,” he said. “Don’t try to make fun of me,” I said again. “How can Huich’üan water be carried here over a long distance, and after the shaking on the way still retain its keenness?” So Wenshui said, “I shan’t try to deceive you any longer. When I take Huich’üan water, I dig a well, and wait at night until the new current comes, and then take it up. I put a lot of mountain rocks at the bottom of the jar, and during the voyage I permit only sailing with the wind, but no rowing. Hence the water still keeps its edge. This water is therefore better even than ordinary Huich’üan water, not to speak of water from other springs.” Again he said, “Marvellous! Marvellous!” and before he had finished his sentence, he went out again. Soon he came back with another pot, and asked me to taste it. I said, “Its fragrance is strong, and its flavour is very mild. This must be spring tea, while the one we just had must be autumn tea.” Then Wenshui burst into laughter and said, “I am a man of seventy, and yet have never met a tea connoisseur like you.” After that, we remained fast friends.

Zhang Dai saw the decline of the Ming dynasty and also lived its destruction (1644), in the course of which he himself lost all his property. During the remaining thirty and some years of his life spent at the Western Lake of Hangzhou he recreated this lost life and world from his memories and dreams in his monumental stream of a family saga, two hundred and fifty years before Proust. It is strange that those great figures of ancient Chinese literature whom we consider the most modern, often created their masterpieces during such destruction between two periods, like Li Yu, the last Tang emperor who was executed in captivity, or Xin Qiji, the brilliant general of the last Song emperor who, before retiring to become a hermit, had to see the terrified imperial court driven to the south of the Jangce signing a humiliating peace with the barbarians defeated by him, a peace that swept off all the result of his victories. This modernity and dreamlikeness of Zhang Dai is emphasized in his recent biography by Jonathan Spence, who has a good sense to put a finger on such themes. In his successful previous book he depicts for example the “palace of memory” used by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci to demonstrate the science of European mnemotechnics to the exceptionally educated emperor Kangxi (whose biography was also composed by Spence). In The question of Hu he reconstructs in the form of a fictive diary the life of the Chinese servant of another Jesuit who, upon his arrival to Europe in 1722 lost his reason at the sight of the totally different culture, while in the Gods Chinese Son he presents the New Jerusalem founded by the Taiping Rebellion that mixed Catholicism with Chinese popular religion. I also want to write on these books later.