For All The Tea in China

Translator Zhang Ziqing and myself at the entrance to “Floating Mountain Tea Farm.”

Translator Zhang Ziqing and myself at the entrance to “Floating Mountain Tea Farm.”

If one travels west from Shanghai on a bullet train to Nanjing along the inland plain (and yes, the bullet train comfortably reached speeds of 187 mph thus embarrassing our own Acela), into Jiangsu Province just south of the Yangtze River there is a string of stark hills visually striking enough to be described as low mountains. According to poet Zhang Min-gui, this was once an ancient seabed and though the sea has gone, its namesake river, the Yangtze, compares favorably to the Mississippi. It is one large, deep ponderously moving landscape of water and so near sea level that low hills make for a prominent landscape.

At the top of one of these peaks not yet worn down by the river is Floating Mountain Tea Farm. It stands on the ridge of an extinct caldera hundreds of millions of years old. To get there one must, accompanied by poetry friends, drive from Nanjing,  wind up a narrow concrete road, occasionally pull over to permit a puttering, one-lung farmer’s cart to sputter by, and then near the top, park and walk up a narrow lane between rows of ranked tea bushes until one reaches the weathered top of the ridge.

Fragments of fist-sized and smaller pieces of pumice litter the earth.   Despite a volcanic eruption as old as the Appalachians, maybe older, the evidence still remains fresh.   The air is as clear here as it would be in The Blue Ridge, or Pennsylvania in June, so taking in the ring of hills composing this old crater provides a good sense of how massive the eruption had been.   A large Mount Saint Helens comes to mind. I suspect there were not many surviving witnesses, and today only the pumice and the imagination remain, along with long rows of green tea.

Daughter and poet Zhang Min-gui with caldera in background. Credit Mi Zheng-ying

Daughter and poet Zhang Min-gui with caldera in background. Credit Mi Zheng-ying

Poet Zhang Min-gui showed how workers picked the tea leaves off the tops of the bushes, then, back at the farm  sheds, the farmers demonstrated how they cut, heated, and packed the tea for shipment. They then brought some freshly picked green tea into their sparse office for sampling. A rule picked up at the tea houses in Shanghai indicated one fills the tea pot with a full pot of boiling water and discards that first pot of water to wash away any harshness, then keep refilling the small pots with hot water and begin sipping the ever-more-mellow tea.

Tea has always been close to my heart, since my mother and grandfather (Brits) taught me as a child that tea was good, coffee bad, but normally it was black tea processed the English way—like this:

A child once dreamed his life complete
when he could sit like his grandfather,
in velvet robe, sipping cosied tea,
and gaze at mist spun in from the sea.

This early March that child’s daughter sleeps
And he sits hushed by velvet within
the smooth-grained polish of a captain’s chair.
At dusts of snow, through greenhouse glass he stares
and between the rising twists of steam sips his tea.

He listens to this gentle house where dream matures to prayer:
“Where from here Grandad? Then I was too young
to question beneath your calm. Then, there,
enough to sense peace outlasted your children’s
consumed lungs and cancered breasts.

Then, you understood the orphan,
my brother’s ‘Dance on your grave’ scream.
He knew only the triangle–earth, anger, and pain.
Later, in your garden centered by scent,
your dirt, under your thatch, I learned what survival meant.
And now age sifts itself to a nuzzle of fur.

It seeps like leaves of tea that swell and steep
through clear, hot, liquid life infusing a soul with color.
I am your cup, bone-china thin but no rust,
no scald, no tremor will rim my thrust.”

“Then rise,” he said. “Measure your finest leaf
Into silver spoon and translucent porcelain cup.
It’s time.   Prepare great-granddaughter her tea.”

The Monadnock Reader, 1990

But these later travels have allowed ne to broaden my tastes. Again and again here, my daughter and I spent wonderful hours sipping all kinds of tea combinations in tea houses about Yu Garden, or the water village of Zhujiajio where we purchased artist-made porcelain tea sets. Each time reinforcing my belief that nothing improves reflection so much as a steaming cuppa tea. (For the Yanks, that’s Brit slang for cup of tea.)
Which reminds me, my cuppa needs a refill, and we need to return to Jurong, China.

Later that evening, after sipping green tea in the farm offices, the farmhands cooked and served a typical banquet right there in the sheds. This is a working farm where a few hours before rattling machines were cutting up tea and dryers drying tea so when fine porcelain and glassware appeared I wondered where it had been kept. I suppose when a culture has a five-thousand-year history, it learns that one shouldn’t always keep fine china three meals a day locked behind a gated community wall—though I suspect China has just as many billionaires as the U.S. who somehow convince themselves that gold-plated cutlery can replace community.

Banquets in China are in the round, sometimes 14-18 people at a table with a giant Lazy Susan in the center where all dishes are placed and one simply spins the Lazy Susan picking off whatever edible one chooses as it slowly twirls by.   The variety of dishes is astonishing and it is best, if the Western visitor likes how something tastes, eat. Don’t ask.   Banquets are also the occasion for much toasting via rice wine, the China equivalent of scotch or bourbon, or vodka here.   The only question one must ask if engaged in serious toasting is how much of the next day is worth losing.

A typical banquet setting. Note: the small rice-wine toasting glasses. Do not be deceived. (This one from a 2012 visit at West Lake, Hongzhou)

A typical banquet setting. Note:
the small rice-wine toasting glasses. Do not be deceived. (This one from a 2012 visit at West Lake, Hongzhou)

Poet Zhang Min-gui examining a tea leaf.

Poet Zhang Min-gui examining a tea leaf.

That evening, after the eating and toasting concluded, we walked out into the night air and discovered enough clarity that a full moon, Jupiter and Venus all could appear through the haze in a perfect end to the evening.   In the photo that opens this entry you will see the calligraphy etched into the rock which states “Floating Mountain Tea Farm.” But even more so, this excerpt from a poem by Zhang Min-gui gets closer to what All The Tea in China is really about.

Excerpt from: Tea Tasting by Zhang Min-gui

A pot of good tea
tells you through water
its greenness, its fragrance.
It brings spring to your heart.
A pot of good tea

makes tea lovers gush
over its taste: astringent,
mellow or sweet, and makes them
speak the ups and downs
of uncontrollable fate…                    ——2011

Translated by Zhang Ziqing, edited by Rodger Martin



说出命运无法掌控的沉浮       ——2011


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