all the tea in shenzhen…

 In Shenzhen, the tea industry is worth over 1.5 billion USD and is deeply embedded in the local culture. Here tea can be thought of like how wine or fine whiskey is thought of in western countries. The whole process – from purchasing the leaves, to brewing, to drinking – is meant to be savored. Check out Shenzhen Book of Changes:

tea time stories

Old Sui makes starkly whimsical woodblock prints the old fashioned modernist way — by hand, alone, and in a studio that is open to friends who drop by for tea and chats. He has collected over 1,000 teapots that when individually shelved and arranged seem oddly menacing. Not a first mind. At first, one sees artistry in the smooth lines and soft glow of each pot. However, as Old Sui opens a drawer to show part of the collection, and then another, and then says that the majority of the collection is elsewhere, the care and time necessary to make and care for a teapot gives way to numbers games and ranking; here are 50+ teapots, here are several dozens, the top  twenty or so have been displayed on a shelf that stretches around the room.

And the rest?

In a room at home.

I know the feeling of insatiable desire. I also enjoy aesthetic displays of objects. But. I am not a collector. Learning that Old Sui has set aside a room for private delectation? The intimacy of this knowledge startles me and my eye settles on a teapot crafted in black clay with flecks of golden sand. Continue reading

daoist china: weibaoshan

Another commercial center on the Tea and Horse Route, Weishan (巍山) is located about 75 minutes from Dali. Weishan was the first capital of the Nanzhao, but was soon replaced by Dali, which has a more temperate climate because located on the banks of Lake Erhai (洱海).

One of the main Weishan tourist sites is Weibaoshan (巍宝山), which literally means “Treasure Mountain Wei”. The mountain has been designated a national park and walking paths that thread from and between Daoist temples have been laid. Contemporary Daoists have occupied many of these temples and it is possible to stay the night there for a donation. However, the architectural treasure is the Long Spring Retreat (长春洞) which was constructed between 1779 and 1799 and is dedicated to the Jade Emperor, the Lord of the Underworld.

Sites like Weibaoshan vex me. I studied Chinese language and history in order to experience places like Long Spring Retreat, as if the poetry and philosophy of classical China still animated everyday life. However, 17 years in Shenzhen have taught me that even if the contemporary cultural mix includes Daoism, nevertheless capitalist forms and modern desires more obviously structure human relationships and desires in China.

And yet, if not for capitalist forms, I could not have visited Long Spring because I not only needed to purchase a ticket to enter the park, but also get myself from Shenzhen to Dali, Dali to Weishan, and then from Weishan to the mountain. Alas, none of those plane rides and car trips  manifest the Daoist virtue of regulating my life by according to natural rhythms. Instead, they more properly manifest the US American virtue of satisfying individual desires through post-industrial convenience.

The point seems to be remembering to take time to reflect on our place in the world, not only as individuals, but also as a species. What does it mean to be human? What does Long Spring Retreat teach that we cannot learn through Shenzhen’s rush to reproduce and exceed the material wealth of North America?

Impressions below.

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A stretch of Gongyi Road, Taichung

The sun today dazzles and dried up all the rain! Cicadas chirping, vibrant green on green topiary, architectural twists and turns, I walked from Gongyi Park along Gongyi Road back to home at Liming with a stop at the Wu Wei Tsao Tang (无为草堂) for tea and sesame pastry. Wow. The tea had a clean but fragrant, slightly sweet aftertaste and the pastry (well, the three of them) had a flakey, phyllo like crust with white sesame seeds and an almost liquid black sesame filling.

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more about tea

The price of tea continues to shock me, which in itself is interesting given that I’ve become accustomed to buying tea that sells for 300-500 a jin (roughly $US 45-70 for 1/2 a kilo). Today, while I was waiting for my tea to be packaged by an assistant, the owner of the shop invited me to try some Iron Buddha that sells for “only” 700 a jin ($US 100). I drank several cups and thanked him for his hospitality, but wasn’t tempted to purchase because I prefer stronger teas – Yunnan Red, puer, and dancong, for example.

But. When I actually translate prices into US dollars rather than simply think about the prices in local terms, I wonder what it is I’m doing paying over $US 45 for 1/2 a kilo of tea. Continue reading

starter teapot


starter teapot

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

72 hours into the rain, rain go away and I am taking pictures of the starter teapot that Xiao Chen recommended, rather than go outside.

Xiao Chen had told me that if I “raise/nurture (养-yang)” a teapot then I will develop affection for it (发展感情). Even if it’s a relatively cheap teapot, like a 20 rmb machine producedteapot or a 180 rmb handmade starter (pictured), the act of caring for the teapot will become affection for it. Lo and behold, it’s true.  A week into the process and I’m considering naming my teapot, Terrance T. Pot, or something equally ridiculous.

To make my tea, I first rinse Terrance with hot water, then add the leaves, which I wash twice, before I pour myself a cup of fragrent pu’er tea. I don’t discard the rinse water, but pour it over Terrance so that it will become 润 (run), a word which may be translated as moist, or smooth, but might be usefully thought of as “flush” as  run also describes the characteristics of well-cared for skin. With each rinsing, Terrance’s color subtly changes and I find myself fascinated by the new colors and different textures; I even note the gradual change in temperature, from too hot to touch to cool smoothness.

This long weekend of intense communion with my teapot and I now understand how is it possible to develop feelings for an online pet – just check in with it every now and again and 养 it. In fact, it is also possible to buy various clay “pets” for your tea set. To yang a tea-pet, give it frequent tea-baths, much as you would a beloved teapot.

Throughout Shenzhen, many have hobbies that are, in fact, yang-ing an inanimate object. I have friends who take care of jade objects by frequently handling them; the oil on their skin nurishes the jade, which like a teapot also becomes run through care.  Others prefer to yang a living creature – a plant, a pet, or even a mistress.

What and how one yang-s is culturally coded and recognized; it is a way of creating an identity. Cultivated people yang things like teapots, jade, potted plants, and tropical fish. Many spoil dogs of various kinds, giving them names reminicent of childrens’ nicknames, Precious and Treasure and Baby. Others yang projects and relationships. Signicantly, the number of mistresses that a man can yang is a symbol of his ability (能力).

There are, of course, deeper implications – caring for a goldfish, or your house, or small patch of earth will lead to love for your goldfish, your home, and your world. Parents, of course, yang their children, who in turn will yang their parents in old age. I believe that this is precisely where 玩儿 (wan’er/playing) seems to diverge from yang. Wan’er is just for fun. In fact, it’s possible to say 养着玩儿 or “nurishing for fun”. In this sense, a person or an object – like a teapot – is just a plaything.

xiao chen – thoughts on how to do “small” business


xiaochen tea

Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

More thoughts on how Shenzhen does and does not work, this time inspired by a conversation with Xiao Chen, my tea vendor.

Yesterday afternoon I went to Nanshan Tea City, where Xiao Chen and her husband have a tea stall. They are from Fujian and sell amazing Iron Guanyin (the new tea is in and fragrant) and different grades of pu’er, which is what I usually drink. Pu’er is a fermented tea, and, like red wine, becomes richer and more complex with time.

Xiao Chen had just received an order of 13 year old pu’er that she wanted me to try. We sat at the table, where she prepared the tea, washing the leaves three times instead of two, poured the tea from the clay teapot into a class pot, and then into my small teacup.

As she has taken it upon herself to educate me about tea, Xiao Chen explained the importance of each step. Washing the tea leaves insures that one drinks the best taste, the small clay teapot preserves the fragrance and quality of the leaves, moreover it achieves these high quality results without wasting tea leaves. A glass pot is necessary because when the tea is poured out of the clay teapot the tea does not have uniform flavor. Instead, the first tea is relatively weak and the last tea is relatively strong.

While we were sipping the tea, Xiao Chen explained how she and her husband do “small” business (做小生意). Unlike big business, she said, small business depends upon “renyuan (人缘)”. According to Xiao Chen, renyuan is about the trust that people have within a human relationship. For their business to succeed, she and her husband need return custumers. To maintain the trust, the vendor and the custumer have to believe that the other has their best interest at heart: the custumer wants the vendor to earn enough money to make a living, and the vendor wants the customer to purchase high quality goods at the most reasonable price. Continue reading