Monday, April 30, 2007

China’s Great Teas: A View from the U.S.

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: We are fortunate to be able to present here the full text of a plenary address delivered last week at the 2007 International Tea Exposition in Liyang, China, by Peter Keen, Chairman of Keen Innovations. Dr Keen works globally, as a professor, adviser to senior management in business and government organizations, author, executive educator, and public speaker. He has held faculty positions at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Duke, Fordham and Wharton in the United States and Delft, Oxford, The London Business School, and Stockholm in Europe. He is the author of almost 30 books, mostly in the field of business innovation. His next book, however, Great Teas for Everyday Pleasure, is on a subject of central interest to readers of this blog; it is due out later this year. For more information on Dr Keen, see]]

China’s Great Teas: A View from the U.S.

Dr. Peter G.W. Keen
Senior Fellow and Director of Research and Innovation Development
Global Strategic Corp, Virginia, USA

In this short speech, I want to introduce you to what is happening in the United States that offers many new opportunities for Chinese producers of what I call great teas: whole leaf, hand-processed specialty teas with distinctive names and histories. They are entirely different from the mass market teas. Most of them are produced by smallholders and many of the best are not exported.

America is discovering great teas. This is very new. Most Americans are used to either coffee, low quality tea bags, instant teas, powdered green tea, iced tea or herbal teas. The consumption of tea per person in the U.S. is about one tenth that of the big tea-drinking nations, such as Britain, Ireland, Germany, Pakistan and Iraq. That is changing very fast. There is a growing interest in really special teas and Made in China will be as commonplace for tea as it is for manufactured goods. There are now three very different U.S. markets for tea. The first is bulk tea, largely for iced and instant drinks, many of them flavored. This is a ferociously competitive business in which countries compete against each other. Kenya is very much the driver. It produces just 10% of the world’s black teas but accounts for 25% of global exports. China is a major player, too, with 60% of green tea exports. Prices have fallen by around 40% in the past decade. There is massive long-term overcapacity. The economics of production push towards more and more mechanization. The tea is not whole leaf but basically ground up to make it suited to tea bags and iced and instant teas. It is part of the drinks industry, with a flow of innovations in how the tea is packaged and used. The multinational giants are flooding the supermarkets with new products, but the tea is just a raw ingredient and a commodity.

The second market is for fine teas. These are the ones that are heavily marketed under generic names like Earl Grey and English Breakfast or a historical name like Twinings or Jackson’s of Piccadilly. Much of this business is built on the Indian rather than Chinese tradition, simply because it was until recently dominated by black teas from India and other ex-colonies, British tea drinkers, British blenders and British names. It includes many good teas, but few great ones. It is also marked by counterfeiting and misrepresentation. The sales of Darjeeling teas, for instance, are four times the production of them. A package of “Japanese” green tea may well originate from Brazil. A China Oolong is often not whole leaf tea but dust and fannings. The fine tea providers are largely aiming to provide a reliable and well-packaged product that is also convenient. They rely heavily on blends. They build strong brands and in general satisfy the tastes of most tea drinkers.

The third market is for great teas. These are “different” and very individual. They are the ones that Americans are discovering. They are bought by tea enthusiasts rather than just tea “drinkers.” They are as much a personal choice as vintage wines. Great teas have shared features, whichever country they come from and whether they are a black, oolong, green or white tea. First, they are grown in special places, mostly on hillsides, in moist climates and in rich soil. Darjeeling in India, Yunnan and Anxi in China, Guranse in Nepal, Shizuoka in Japan, Nuwara and Ratnapura in Sri Lanka are just a few examples. In China, though not yet in the U.S., Liyang is noted for its great green teas.

Great teas must be organic, both for reasons of quality and law. Darjeeling is losing much of its reputation and revenues because of soil erosion, aging of its tea bushes, and overuse of pesticides and insecticides. More consequentially for the global industry, European and Japanese regulators are setting very strict standards concerning “green barrier” laws for tea imports. The three main growth markets for great teas are Germany, Japan and the U.S. Chinese exports to those countries fell by 40% in 2001 because of the new regulations. Only organic teas can capture the high end tea consumers in these countries. Increasingly, too, Fair Trade or Eco Exchange certification is a differentiator for both tea drinkers and retailers. This has important implications for social development in Asia, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. As much as 60% of the national labor force work in agriculture, at an average daily wage of $1-2. Fair Trade and organic methods increase this by as much as 50%. The elite U.S. grocery stores and online retailers uniformly select Fair Trade teas; organic faming is a requirement for Fair Trade certification. The tea drinkers who know and carefully select the teas they choose, instead of buying supermarket tea bags, have shown how important they view this as being; they pay an extra 10% premium for Fair Trade products.

Great teas are hand-processed, in contrast to the mechanization of bulk tea production. The motto here is, of course, “Two leaves and a bud.” Every element of their production is selective, from the time of harvesting, the selection of buds and leaves, the timing of fermenting and oxidization, the shaping of the leaf, and the packaging. For bulk teas, the leaf is just the raw ingredient and in many instances is turned into an extract; green tea comes in pill form, as a cosmetic, and even as a cure for baldness. For fine teas, the brand is the generic blend or the seller’s name. For great teas, the leaf is the distinction.

Great teas rely on great names. These are not the fine tea packages labeled “A blend of…” or “Ingredient; green tea”, but Dragonwell, Silver Needle, Toucha, Houjicha, White Peony, Iron Goddess of Mercy, Lapsang Souchong, Pu-erh, Gyokuro, Se Chung and Oriental Beauty. Liyang’s Nanshan Shoumei, Gui Ming Xiang, and Longtan Qinfeng are local examples. In many instances, great teas are marked by a specific producer within a region. Ambootia Estate and Poobong stand out from most other Darjeelings. In a country that mainly produces bulk black teas, Sri Lanka’s Kenilworth Estate is a premium name. The growing number of enthusiastic buyers of pu-erh teas looks for specific factories, the recipe number and the age. For a hundred years or more, Nepal was noted mainly for leaf smuggled into India to be mixed in with Darjeeling to produce a fake product and increase revenues. Now, Guranse Estate stands in its own right as a rival to Darjeelings.

With a great tea, the ingredient is not substitutable. For bulk teas or even fine teas like Earl Grey and English Breakfast, the blender can substitute, say, a Kenyan tea for an Assam or a Korean green tea for a Brazilian one. The only real issue is cost. Kenya is losing exports to Vietnam because of differences in labor costs. There is little it can do, since the tea itself is just a commodity. That is not the case for, say, an Imperial Dragonwell, an Ambootia White Darjeeling or a Liyang Shoumei. There are many differences in grade and many tricks in labeling, say, fannings from oolong production as a premium tea, but discerning buyers know the differences. And they choose the grade they want, with most looking for the overall best value combination of price and quality. They will, for instance, pay for a first rate second flush Darjeeling but not for a top-end Gyokuro.

Most of the distinctive characteristics of great teas that I have listed are highly historical and traditional. There is one new factor that is sure to transform many aspects of the entire global industry. This is science. The quality of harvesting and processing the leaf can hardly be improved and will remain hand-crafted and dependent on the skills of pickers and tea masters. But the leaf and soil will improve dramatically. In Malawi, cloning of new bushes has doubled the production yield per plant. Darjeeling’s revival rests on replacing old bushes with clonal ones and adopting organic methods. Research on the biogenetics of tea is rapidly moving ahead. Tea research institutes in Taiwan, China and even Kenya and Malawi are aggressively looking to upgrade every element of quality, product innovation and productivity. Jiansu Province’s published list of research projects combines advanced technology, manufacturing, agriculture, tea and water.

Great teas are often produced in locations that are isolated, hard to reach and harsh in their climate. However, a growing number of these regions are also becoming eco-tourist centers. This is the growth opportunity for Darjeeling, Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, and, of course, Liyang. Tourism is the world’s largest industry. Costa Rica has built its entire economy on eco-tourism. In California, high-tech Silicon Valley is next to the beautiful vineyards of Sonoma and Napa Valley, which draw millions of tourists. Here, technology, tourism and agriculture add to each other, instead of being in conflict. I term this combination as the eco-path to development. I believe that this path is a key to innovation for regions that produce great teas. This is apparent in Liyang’s economic plans. These include the technology and industrial parks, international collaborations, and education programs that mark Bangalore and Singapore. They also, though, emphasize “zero pollution” and a “One Village, One Product” movement. Tianmu Lake is core to Liyang’s eco-tourism, which is complemented by its agriculture and tea-growing. I note that travel agents and tour operators in the U.S. highlight Liyang’s teas and farms as one of its attractions.

The eco-path in my view will become more and more a source of economic and social development. Much of the tea industry is moving in a different direction: from great tea to bulk tea production, to more pesticides, and mass mechanization. In Anxi, the source of many of the globe’s best oolongs, small growers are putting their future at risk through overuse of pesticides. Assam, the largest tea-growing region in the world, is producing worse tea at ever lower prices, losing thousands of jobs and destroying its environment. If Darjeeling continues to move in the same direction, it will, in my view, follow the same erosion. If it combines eco-tourism with a sustained shift to organic teas and preservation of its great tea names and estates, it will thrive. The Liyang development plan is a blueprint for other regions: tea, tourism and technology acting together.

So far, I have focused on a supplier perspective on great teas. Let me now shift to the buyer view. There are three main reasons why the U.S. is taking off as a market for great tea: information, availability and accessibility. Basically, most Americans know little about tea; very few green and black tea drinkers, for example, are even aware of oolongs and whites. They buy what they see on the supermarket shelf. They are changing their habits, though, as they hear more about the health benefits of tea, mostly green tea. They are sharing information via the Internet. Dozens of sites provide discussion groups where tea lovers provide expert advice and opinions that are quite amazing in their breadth and depth. I learnt more about pu-erh from one of these groups than I could have ever have gathered otherwise.

The size of the great tea market in the U.S. is small, but the demand is growing, fed by such information. The interest in the health benefits of tea is now immense and a topic of daily conversation. In many ways, this is nothing new. Tea and medicine have always been identified with each other. The very first known reference to a tea was made by a Chinese surgeon, almost 2,500 years ago. The first book, 1,400 years ago, stresses its medical benefits. When tea was introduced into Europe, it was sold in apothecary shops. The first English newspaper advertisement, 500 years ago, claimed it would cure any ailment. The demand for information on the tea-health link is indicated by the number of references to it on the Internet: 38 million.

China has the supply of great green and white teas and the U.S. has an explosively growing interest in green teas, many of them very inferior to the elite Chinese names, and more and more tea drinkers are discovering white teas, an area in which China is predominant. That enthusiasm is expanding as they explore oolongs, which have been almost entirely unfamiliar to most people, and pu-erh teas, which have been very limited in their accessibility. I have never seen one offered for sale in a U.S. or European store. These teas have been available for a thousand years and anyone who comes to Hong Kong or Yunnan could choose from hundreds of varieties. But they have not been accessible. By this, I mean easy to locate and buy.

The fundamental shift in the U.S. market is that all the best teas available in the world can be made accessible via Internet retailers. From a hotel in Mexico, I was able to buy aged oolong. Here at this Exposition, I could in the next twenty minutes or so buy any of around 300 pu-erh teas on the Web, plus one of 200 Yixing teapots. On Amazon, I have 8,000 teas to pick from, including 350 oolongs and 450 white teas. I have 900 choices of Dragonwell greens and 78,000 Silver Needle options. Many U.S. online providers of great teas are visiting the producers to buy direct, instead of relying on the complex trading systems for tea that, in the case of Indian black tea, involves six levels of intermediaries: brokers, agents, shippers and other parties. This adds heavy costs; a Guranse cooperative receives 50 cents a kilo for a superb black tea that will sell for $100 a kilo. Direct relationships between producer and seller increase their profits and provide a far better deal for the consumer. I estimate that the teas I buy online cost me 20-40% less than the same ones in specialty stores – and in most instances they are not accessible in any type of store. Individual companies in Hong Kong and China are beginning to sell direct to the consumer via the Web. The best Japanese green teas, rare pu-erhs and exotic oolongs are becoming more and more accessible in this way.

China’s great teas are a national asset, India’s black teas were such an asset for a century but failure to move along the eco-path has put its industry at great risk. Let me end with some brief strategic principles for Chinese producers to leverage this asset. My recommendations apply to the European and Japanese markets as well as to the U.S.

1) Organic production and certification are vital, together with Fair Trade.
2) Information drives consumer interest and demand. The Internet is the most powerful information and hence marketing resource.
3) Science and technology must enhance traditional methods: clonal bushes, soil management and environmental protection are priorities. China differs from India in two main regards, both of which need strong direction from economic and regional planners. First, it is dominated by small producers, who need assistance in applying new methods and reaching new markets. Cooperatives are the building blocks of a strong international export capability. Second, China’s productivity needs to increase. The large Indian tea gardens produce around 2,000 kilograms per hectare. At its peak, the average Chinese yield was 900 kilos; it is now just 500 kilos. Local government, tea associations, research institutes and universities must help improve individual growers’ operations and methods.
4) The eco-tourism/eco-tea combination is an opportunity for the tourist industry and the tea industry. Collaboration across these sectors will be a powerful source of economic growth, help improve the wages of tea workers and preserve the profits of the labor-intensive harvesting and processing great tea demands.
5) The Internet is the most effective distribution and sales vehicle for great teas. Indeed, the better the tea, the bigger the opportunity to reach buyers and for buyers to reach producers.

I wish to thank the organizers of this Exposition for inviting me to an event at a location and on a topic that illustrates the eco-path and its impacts on Liyang. I also offer my thanks to the Mayor and his senior planners for the opportunity to help extend that path from Liyang to the U.S. I do not think it is at all an exaggeration to apply the word “great” to the teas, the location and the Exposition.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

a US movie premiere: ALL IN THIS TEA

i have much to relate about my time in san francisco last saturday, so i will split it up into less indigestible portions. this bit actually begins with a drive across the bay to berkeley, where tickets were waiting for us to attend the premiere of the long-awaited documentary, ALL IN THIS TEA, the latest release of les blank's 'flower films' production company. strictly speaking, this was the official premiere, but not the first-ever public showing, of the film; that, as far as i know, took place on 24 march 2006, in a special screening of a 'preview version' under the auspices of the national geographic society in washington DC. still and all, this weekend's screening was a gala event, and many of those involved in the making of the film were in attendance, including:
  • les blank [LB], who has long been known for his documentary film-making, and who was the director of photography [read: principal cameraman] for the shooting of this film;
  • gina leibrecht, who co-directed and edited the film, and shot some of the footage as well;
  • james norwood pratt [JNP], a living legend [and rightfully so, as he is one of the greatest living authorities on tea culture] and intermittent personage in the film; and
  • david lee hoffman [DLH], surely one of the most beloved names in the world of china teas, and the focal character of the film itself.

    [[at the berkeley premiere. L-R: gaetano kazuo maida; james norwood pratt; david lee hoffman; gina leibrecht; les blank]]

    the film was screened as part of the SF international film festival, which takes place from 26 april to 10 may this year. this premiere was sponsored by the saul zaentz media center and the SF film commission. the saturday screening [they have also scheduled shows for sunday and wednesday -- both at sundance cinemas kabuki, 1881 post street @ fillmore, SF] played to a completely sold-out house. moreover, the audience was highly appreciative; the affection for these film-makers and tea-people was palpable in the room. the venue was nicely appointed, with comfortable seats and ample leg-room; the only [slight] disappointment was that the screen itself could have been a bit bigger. but this is to cavil.

    the film, we learned, took shape over the course of a full decade, beginning in 1997 when LB encountered DLH at the berkeley himalayan fair, merrily serving up tea to all and some. by this point, of course, DLH had already been importing hand-crafted china teas for twenty years, often by tramping through the hinterlands of china in order to find the best-quality teas. the difficulties to be faced were unimaginable: the language barrier [barriers, plural: DLH had/has to deal with speakers of many different dialects besides putonghua]; the limitations of transportation across such a vast country; the often quite remote locations of the farms where the best teas are grown; and the reluctance of the government-appointed export company, which at that time held a monopoly on the rights to export teas -- any and all teas -- from china. DLH, that gentle renegade, often found his resourcefulness taxed to the full in trying to circumvent the iron-clad obstacles so politely set in his way by the powers-that-be [or, at least, that then were].

    the film begins with a sense of racing the clock: there is a clip of DLH tasting an excellent tea, pronouncing on its extraordinary quality, and opining that in a few years' time this farmer may, for lack of sufficient commercial support, have to abandon tea-production altogether and seek other work. it was in the face of this potentially tremendous cultural loss that DLH undertook his mission of helping the Little Guy -- the tea-farmer of modest means and holdings, living simply and far from urban environs, raising a small [possibly tiny] crop of top-grade tea [organic by default] and in some cases also processing the leaf himself. how can such davids survive against the goliath cartels of the tea industry, who ship many thousands of pounds of leaf each year? LB shrewdly casts his main character in truly classic [even mythic] terms: the Hero on a Journey, setting out to achieve the Impossible Task against incalculable odds. this gives the movie, which is overall fairly serene in tone, an undercurrent of urgency that a tea-loving audience cannot help but appreciate on the affective level.

    [[photo: flower films inc.]]

    other issues are addressed as well as the plight of the small-holding farmer: the looming menace of chemical pesticides used by the large-scale tea industry in china, threatening to toxify our tea; and the questions of sustainability over time and the danger of soil depletion.

    DLH [followed, let us not forget, by LB across mountain and plain] interacts over and over with tea exporters, tea growers, and tea drinkers. his very engaging openness of spirit makes him irresistibly charming, to filmgoers as well as [evidently] to recalcitrant tea officials who were initially reluctant to bend or break the rules of the People's Republic for his sake. though he laughs infectiously and connects easily with these sometimes bemused and shy people, he never loses his laser-like focus on the nature and quality of the tea he is encountering. if it is good, or even superb, his praise is unstinting; but if his reaction is negative, he does not sugar-coat it.

    driven by a sense of preserving the world's heritage, as well as by his personal zest for the drinking of fine teas, DLH moves very naturally into the heroic role LB has prepared for him. the scope of this anointing comes into focus very early on in a memorable cameo of the film, when the legendary werner herzog pays DLH a visit at his west marin home, and shares some tea with him. [herzog was the subject of an earlier documentary by LB, BURDEN OF DREAMS, which itself aired at the SFIFF in 1995.] in the course of his brief remarks, herzog muses on all the things that the tea in his cup evokes -- the mist and clouds on the mountainside, the soil of china, the rain that made the tea plants grow: 'it's all in this tea,' he says.

    the main course of the narrative is interrupted from time to time with cameos by norwood pratt [a pretty charming guy himself, as his own adoring audiences and readers know], by gaetano kazuo maida, and by winnie yu, proprietor of TEANCE in berkeley. these tea experts proffer opinions and aperçus that supplement, illuminate, and expand upon the points made by DLH as the film progresses.

    in addition to the footage shot by LB, by gina leibrecht, and by tom valens, we see still photos of DLH in earlier years, including some of him hobnobbing with the dalai lama [who wanted to 'practice his english'] and various tibetan monks. the music is well-chosen and evokes the traditional nature of the culture that gave birth to the production of these artisanal teas. the frequent use of hand-held cameras underscores for us the rugged terrain [and considerable hiking] involved in the making of this film. there are some wonderful moments -- the tantalizing glimpse of DLH's famous cave full of pu'er; his participation in the first-ever organic tea farming conference, at which he was the only non-chinese conferee; and the hurly-burly in which DLH finds himself surrounded by a bevy of tea-vendors importuning him to have a look at their bags of fresh tea. he puts his nose into one bag to give it a sniff; pronouncing one word -- 'chemicals' -- he swiftly consigns the tea to eternal damnation, and moves on.

    perhaps the most surprising cameo appearance in the film is made by the common earthworm. in the interest of avoiding spoilers, i will say no more about it here. but really: who knew?

    the Q&A after the screening gave the audience ample time to respond verbally to a film that clearly had a powerful effect on them. we were able to laugh at what the announcer called the 'liptonian dictatorship' over the world tea industry. it was bracing to hear DLH proclaim unequivocally that 'the best tea in the world is still found in china.' and it was exciting to hear LB announce that ALL IN THIS TEA will not only be screened at other festivals, but will soon be released on DVD; if you want to receive an email alert when it is available for purchase, send him a request at

    after the Q&A, the crowd milled about in the sunshine on the elegant terrace. there were some intriguing first meetings and some happy reunions. but after such a focused experience, there was only one thing that made sense to do: go and drink some tea. and that is exactly what we did.

    FILM MAKERS [these blurbs are from the SFIFF page for the film]:

    Acclaimed filmmaker Les Blank has made numerous documentary films since 1960, including Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (SFIFF 1980), The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (SFIFF 1995) and Gap-Toothed Women (1987, SFIFF 1995). Chulas Fronteras (1976) and Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980, SFIFF 1995) have been selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Retrospectives of his films have taken place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. In 1990, Blank received the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement.

    Gina Leibrecht has worked as an editor on several documentary films, including Katrina Epperlein's Phoenix Dance (SFIFF 2006 Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Short) and Frank Green's Counting Sheep, which won a Northern California Emmy for Best Documentary in 2006. Leibrecht has been collaborating with Les Blank since 1998.
  • Friday, April 27, 2007

    two more bay area tea establishments

    you may think of this, if you like, as a bookend with an earlier CHA DAO post by dog ma, 'comments on a few bay area tea establishments.' had i his silver tongue and rapier wit, i could hope to match the charm and acuity of that post. faute de mieux, i'll do my best.

    palo alto, which is where i've been visiting, must be a tough market for the aspiring tea-house. in an area already enjoying a plethora of upscale shops and boutiques, a mass of drinkeries already in place -- from starbucks to the numerous one-off cafes -- and a highly sophisticated clientele, the competition is, i'm guessing, pretty fierce. it's certainly a buyer's market: even the least upscale restaurants have carefully designed interiors, and [as they are typically blessed with gorgeous weather] many such establishments capitalize on the abundant sunshine by incorporating skylights, light wells, or other connections to the outside. clean lines and simple elegance predominate in the appointments. retail prices tend to reflect the likely investment these vendors have made in their emporia. there's lots of creativity around here: google was invented in menlo park, just a stone's throw away.

    so i didn't know what to expect when stepping out of my quaint hotel, the cardinal, on ramona -- just a stroll away from the edge of the stanford campus.

    but 'imagine my surprise,' as they say, to discover not one, but two tea houses [not coffee houses that also offer teas: actual tea houses] within two minutes' walk of my hotel. and one of these, moreover, advertised in its very window that it specialized in 'premium chinese teas.' naturally, for you, dear reader, i had to investigate them both. herewith, a few notes, with accompanying pictures.

    TEA TIME []

    'tea time' is an attractive little establishment -- a 'tea lounge,' to use their terminology -- in a row of shops on ramona, between university and hamilton [542 ramona street]. it has a couple of tables outside, to take advantage of the mild climate, and several more inside. there is free wi-fi inside and out -- a welcome draw in a college town where academics tend to travel with a laptop tucked under one arm, and want to park for awhile while they sip something hot and surf the web. the interior is an attractive creamy yellow color, and the airy quality of the skylight conspires with the height of the ceiling to create an inviting, comfortable atmosphere in which to sit and read or chat with friends.

    the sandwich-board sign outside the shop, which was the first thing to draw my eye, advertises 'over 100 fine loose teas.' once indoors, one sees a whole wall full of shelves offering cups, saucers, mugs, kettles, teapots, and other tea equipage for sale. some of this is of quite fine quality. some -- a minority -- is of asiatic provenance, and would equip one to execute gongfu cha brewing.

    the tea list, as promised, is an ambitious one. while it includes many teas from india and ceylon, it also has a reputable section of red, oolong, green, and white teas from china, taiwan, and japan. [the complete list takes up fifteen pages on their website.] my sense is that they are still focused more on the english tea experience, including tea sandwiches, scones, and such; but i also get the impression that they are aware of the increasing interest in china teas, and want to expand their offerings in this regard. for instance, the website feature labeled 'new information: feature of the month' for april lists three items: 'pu-erh superior'; 'yixing set "cycles of life"'; and 'chinese emperor greens.' what's new this month, in other words, is all from china. the pu'er is only of one type [apparently a loose-leaf shu] but it's a start.

    i ordered a yunnan hong cha, to go. here again, they only offered one grade of the tea -- not the highest by any means; a lower-mid-grade with some tips -- but they put it together carefully [in a paper tea-sac, inside a tall paper cup] and gave me explicit instructions on how long to brew it. [i did not wait anywhere near their recommended five minutes, but that's just me.] it was quite potable, and the service was cheery and welcoming.

    NEOTTE []

    over on university, a minute or two away from 'tea time,' is neotte -- 'passionate about finding and bringing the best quality Chinese teas for you,' as their website proclaims [429 university avenue]. the art-nouveau facade of the building housing this 'tea bar' [as they call it] is nonetheless plain enough not to disrupt the minimalist limning of neotte's design concept: postmodern industrial, but not so aggressive as to be repellent: on the contrary, the overall feeling is one of cleanliness and simplicity.

    the bar at neotte is equipped for serious business: the barista here will take your order for any of their teas -- excluding herbal infusions, they only post twelve, two of which are pu'er -- and will brew it for you in a specific yixing teapot, set up on a large stone tea sink, which will enable him or her to douse the pot repeatedly with hot water while the leaf is being infused. in my case, which involved a large yunnan to go, the procedure actually required two yixing teapots, which were done infusing at around the same time, and which were emptied simultaneously into my large paper cup.

    neotte does not have a huge space for clientele, but it was bustling while i was there. several people arrived and departed, while others sat and wi-fi surfed on their laptops as they drank. i did not do a careful count, but it did seem as though at least some of these were drinking iced teas, or perhaps an 'iced neolatte' -- a chilled tea with milk. but while my own tea was being brewed, one patron came up and ordered a small pot of pu'er for his table, so at least some of this clientele is showing up specifically in order to drink traditional china teas.

    whether by chance or design, the walls of neotte are painted in almost the same color as one finds at 'tea time' -- perhaps a bit greener. it may be that the color scheme here was suggested by a greenish oolong. it certainly evokes some of that floral freshness. again, the high ceilings provide a sense of airiness and space that is quite expansive and attractive. this is the kind of environment that encourages one to come often and stay long -- an option encouraged by their late opening hours [10.00 pm daily].

    one of the most intriguing aspects of neotte is the very ambitious array of tea equipage for sale, virtually all of it sourced from china or taiwan. some of the prices here are quite high, but the porcelains were of uniformly high quality, and the yixing pots elegantly made. on the same shelves were canisters of the teas sold by neotte, each labeled with the house logo. again, prices for dry leaf are at the higher end.

    another intriguing aspect -- of a very different sort -- is the fact that neotte does not hesitate to sell, alongside its china teas, an array of pastries that clearly come from the west-european and american tradition. in the year and a half since they opened their doors, they appear to have found that their clientele, while willing to sample teas that might be less familiar than those they grew up on, nonetheless want to be able to nosh on familiar baked goods. in that regard at least, neotte does not attempt to hew too closely to the hard-core chinese tea-house, and [in fact] could be said to be treading the same ground as its neighbor 'tea time,' although the latter advertises the fact more openly.

    ~~~~~ · ~~~~~

    what both these tea-houses put me in mind of, more than anything else, is the current popularity of 'asian fusion' restaurants. westerners are growing increasingly aware of, and interested in, asian cultures -- not always with any clear sense of their multiplicity or diversity -- and by no means always with the kind of unqualified enthusiasm that signifies readiness for total immersion. mainstream america wants access to a well-defined, clearly-modulated experience of otherness -- to be sampled within carefully limited parameters and [above all] not too far from terra firma: we need to be able to scuttle back to familiarity whenever necessary. for precisely the same reasons, mainstream USA is much more likely to crave [e.g.] a trip to taco bell than to eat the way actual mexicans eat.

    and that is natural enough. maybe some cultures are, overall, more adventurous than others, but traditions and styles of eating and drinking are an extraordinarily intimate part of what makes each culture what it is. it would be unfair to expect any of them -- including the north american -- to jettison its own customs and cherished favorite foods to embrace those of another.

    in view of that, it would be unrealistic to expect that every new tea-house featuring china teas attempt the faithful and thoroughgoing recreation of the cha-guan of beijing or guangzhou. and indeed, it is not only not feasible, but also not even fully desirable: the real issue is that americans, living american lives in america, nonetheless broaden their perspective and worldview enough to realize that other peoples, in other lands, live lives very differently from our own; and that there is something rich and beautiful to be appreciated in each of these cultures. and maybe even, from time to time, to be borrowed into our own.

    -- corax

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    The Flavor of Tea: The Polyphenol Connection


    The enjoyment of drinking tea is a complex phenomenon. On a specifically physiological level, what we enjoy most about drinking a particular tea is the result of the interaction of various biochemicals that are present in the tea. These, in the right proportions of quantity and quality, give the resultant pleasant flavour -- just as, in a good symphony, the different musical pitches are combined in right proportion.

    In an earlier essay I discussed the presence and importance of polyphenols in tea. The partial oxidation of polyphenols in the tea-leaf is a vital aspect of the production of Darjeeling and oolong teas. Indeed it has a decisive effect on what the final flavour of these teas will be. In this connection, it is worth examining just how -- and to what extent -- polyphenols are (or should be) brought to a process of oxidation.

    The Physiology of Aroma

    Flavor sensed by nose is called "Aroma." Aroma is perceived by two different mechanisms. It can either be sensed nasally (via smelling the tea infusion through the nose) or retronasally. Retronasal perception occurs when the tea liquor is either present in the mouth or has been swallowed, and aromatic volatile compounds drift upward into the nasal passage.

    Polyphenols in Darjeeling & oolong Teas

    Polyphenols in the tea brew give astringency/ briskness/ body and strength to the tea brew, and these characteristics tend to overlap or shadow the flavor. Hence:
    • A lower level of polyphenols in the brewed tea yields more/better flavor.
    • The lower the percentage of polyphenols in the tea shoot, the lower the percentage of polyphenols in the brewed tea. Hence the better will be the flavour of the liquor. For this reason the C. sinensis cultivar, having lower polyphenol levels than the C. assamica cultivar, in general leads to better flavour.
    • In oolong processing, only a limited number of cells are bruised before inactivation of the enzymes. Hence there is more limited oxidation of polyphenols in the course of the oolong process, which in turn yields its excellent flavor.
    • Substantial amounts of polyphenols are polymerized during the processing of the tea, to the extent that they become insoluble. This yields better flavor, for the same reason as detailed above.
    Less bruising of the leaf cells during processing yields better flavour, for the same reason as detailed above.
    • Clones having lower levels of polyphenol oxidase (PPO) activity give more flavor.

    Shading Tea During Growth

    • Tea that is shade-grown prior to plucking yields more theanine and less polyphenols, besides small size. And less polyphenol content in such leaves is one of the major factor to give better flavor in oolong teas and Darjeeling teas which are processed from such leaves. as is known to all. Shading is used in Japan for the production of some of its best green teas, but this practice also improves the quality of oolong teas, as is clear from the following information.

    The effects of different levels of shade (0, 40, 60, & 80%) & different durations (5 & 10 days) were tested in Taiwan to determing how these influenced variations in the quality of oolong tea. The best results were obtained with 60% shading, maintained for 10 days prior to plucking; this yielded smaller and more tender green leaves than the unshaded control. The tea made from such leaves was low in polyphenols, high in caffeine, & had a good appearance. It is concluded that shading treatments could be used to improve the quality of summer tea generally.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Anodyne on Golden Hunan and Golden Luo

    Golden Hunan

    I purchased a sample of Golden Hunan via Harney and Sons, a tea from Hunan province, described as "long golden buds with tinges of black, shaped into a slow twist." The dry leaf has a very fresh scent to it, even in the small sample packet. It brews up to a mellow cup with spicy notes intermingled with toasty-grain and hint of honey. There's a hint of floral bud in that breath you draw in after swallowing. It's what I think of as the fresh scent a bud has just before it becomes fully floral once it opens.

    Second trial of the Golden Hunan with two full teaspoons of life, 6 ounces water to boiling, 4 minutes: Very fragrant aroma, even deeper and more pervasive than my first cup above. The cup itself remains very mellow, too. It's a very likable and approachable tea--has a nice clarity to it, not muddy or heavy on the palate. I definitely find that I need to get at least the two teaspoons of leaf for the aroma and flavors to pull forward in this more decisive way.

    Golden Luo

    Golden Luo is also from Hunan province. The leaf on this tea is shaped like little black and gold curls. This tea brews up comparatively darker in the cup, both as to color and depth. It is a bit less spicy than Golden Hunan. There is a sweetness to the aroma, but it is not as honeyed as Golden Hunan. Instead it almost seems to have a sweet-floral note wafting in and out. Rather than the toasty-grain emphasis in the cup, there is a darker thing going on in the cup that is related to that powdery dark cocoa taste. Even though it's darker in emphasis, the tea still has a freshness to its taste and something almost floral that meanders into the finish and aftertaste along with the hit of bitter cocoa. The floral isn't flamboyant. It is more like the delicate sweet-green note of one of those heather plants I've purchased from grocery stores. What lingers on the palate is a mix of the dark cocoa powder and a slight pungent hit that seems more green bud-floral.

    And later: Using up the last of my purchased sample, I upped leaf amount on this one (two full tsp plus the smidgen left in the sample packet per 6 ounce cup, water to boiling) and shortened brewing time to three minutes. The almost floral note pulls forward even more against the dark cocoa depth. The aroma is even more pervasive today.


    Friday, April 06, 2007

    A Story of the Qianlong Emperor and the Jade Tea Bowl

    (A tale told on reading the corax review of A la table de l’empereur de Chine, with further reflections on the art-historical traditions of Stéphane Erler’s silver teapot)


    The Qianlong emperor was born an imperial Manchu prince and raised amidst the grandeur of the Forbidden City. On ascending the dragon throne of the Qing dynasty at age twenty-five, Qianlong inherited the empire as well as its fabulous wealth. The flush palace treasuries and steady flow of provincial tribute allowed the emperor to pursue domestic and international policies with confidence and power, extending the prestige of the throne throughout the provinces and abroad. Imperial armies swept through Central Asia, extending the imperium into “new territories,” Xinjiang. Qianlong’s riches also permitted him to indulge in two passions: art and tea. A prolific calligrapher and painter, the emperor was an avid collector whose enthusiasm for art was revealed in the imperial collection, a vast treasury of artworks -- scrolls, bronzes, ceramics, lacquer, and jade -- that he built over more than sixty years. As for tea, Qianlong had a keen interest and broad knowledge of the herb and beverage. During his reign, he made six journeys to the tea-growing regions, learning about the harvest, production, and preservation of tea, and even picking leaves from tea bushes with his own hand. Qianlong, whose inventory of tea rivaled his art collection, examined and tasted tea as studiously as he appraised a work of art. Each spring, tea was sent to the palace to offer the emperor the “first taste” of the season. Specially picked, processed, and packaged for the palace, seasonal tribute teas were sent express from Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hunan, Sichuan and elsewhere, reaching the throne within days. As the year progressed, the palace filled with an extraordinary variety of tea of nearly inestimable quality. The amount of tribute was so great that the emperor might never taste all of the teas presented, bestowing the tea instead as gifts on family and officials or as beverage at state banquets and as sacrificial offerings at ancestral shrines.

    As a consummate connoisseur, Qianlong combined art and tea at intimate gatherings within the palace walls. A party hosted by the emperor was a remarkable experience, an aesthetic confluence of artwork and tea leaf. Qianlong brewed and tasted tea with the finest objects in the palace collection, a great treasure of implements and wares dating back to the eleventh century. His selection of ceramics -- the subtlest Song celadons, precious Ming blue and whites, or extraordinary porcelains of the early Qing -- was meant to enhance the color, aroma, and taste of tea selected from the choicest tribute in the imperial stores. During a gathering, the talk flowed in gently swirling eddies from the age and glaze of a tea vessel to the specific number of buds and leaves plucked for a particular tea. Brewed and served, the tea itself was appreciated for hue, scent, and flavor, prompting a new yet leisurely stream of comments and observations. As the guests departed at the end of the party, each savored moments of the gathering, remembering the instant the tea bowl met the lips and the sensuous touch of its perfectly shaped rim, and recalling the herbal notes of the aromatic steam rising in the nose just before the first sip.

    Seeing off his guests, Qianlong pondered the arrival of the next tribute tea, silently calculating the traditional harvest dates, and anticipating his next gathering. But as he settled back into his daily afternoon routine -- reading, painting, or writing poetry -- the emperor nodded to his eunuch to call for a pot of tea, knowing that unlike the tea served at the gathering, this would be a proper Manchu drink. The attendant bowed and hurried to relay the order through the palace to a special place known as the “tea kitchen” where a tea master waited on call to prepare the beverage. Shortly, a train of servants arrived bearing a subtly decorated bowl of white jade, a carved jade teapot, and a small jade tray of pastries. Qianlong looked up from his book gratefully to receive the bowl, now filled with his favorite drink, a rich, coffee-colored liquid known as milk tea. He lifted the jade vessel with two hands and took a long draught, filling his mouth with the full weight and feel of the hot, creamy mixture before swallowing. A small sigh escaped his lips as he took another sip and thought how utterly satisfying milk tea was to him. Qianlong then smiled as he remembered when once asked how the empire could do a day without its emperor, he had waggishly replied, “How can the emperor do a single day without his tea?” -- an oblique but mischievous play on an old Manchu saying, “Rather go three days without eating than go a single day without tea.” Although made in jest, the remark revealed that Qianlong was truly addicted to milk tea and, indeed, could never do without it.

    Milk tea was the customary drink of the Mongol and Manchu. Distinct from the ethnic Han Chinese, the Manchu were a nomadic race and heirs to the great equestrian culture of the northern steppes. In the late Ming dynasty, the Manchu established a strong, sinified state with its capital and Chinese-style palace at Shenyang in Liaoning from where they controlled Mongolia and Korea as vassal states. Conquering China in 1644, the Manchu expanded the empire to its greatest extent in history and ruled for over two and a half centuries. In their new capital at Beijing, the nobility maintained and reinforced Manchu manners and customs. The imperial family and aristocrats dressed in traditional style; the men with shaven pates and long, plaited queues and the women with elaborate coiffeurs and unbound feet. They also retained their dietary customs. Like all pastoral peoples on the northern and western borders of China -- the Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongols -- the Manchus ate mutton and drank milk, habits and tastes that were quite foreign to the Chinese. Milk from horses, cows, and goats was a staple that was drunk whole and made into wine, cream, and butter. Mare’s milk was used to make kumiss, a fermented drink, snow-white in color and slightly alcoholic in content. Kaymak resembled a delicately flavored clotted cream that was used in cooking dishes of the highest quality. Heated to make a reduction and then lightly skimmed, kaymak produced a sweet, clarified butter. Milk tea, made with tea, water, milk, butter, and salt, was drunk by young and old, comforting and sustaining the Manchu on the windswept grasslands of the northern steppes.

    Tea was introduced to the nomad cultures in the Six Dynasties period around the fourth century A.D. The highly sinified and sophisticated Turkic rulers of the Northern Wei dynasty served tea as a matter of courtesy, a gesture of ceremonial welcome at court and banquets. The tea of the time was molded into cakes and ground in a mortar before being boiled in a cauldron and ladled into bowls. But although they served it, the Northern Wei did not drink tea, and they laughed at anyone who did. To them, the green, foamy liquid looked like pond scum. Its taste was bitter, foul, and unfit to drink. It was not until about the sixth century that the northern tribes took up the habit of tea. Famous for their fine horses, the Uighurs sold their herds to the Tang imperial army and bought tea in the markets of Chang’an, becoming inveterate drinkers of a variety of fine teas. Among the nomads, tea came to be valued as an important source of nutrition and health. In addition to being a hot, stimulating drink, the essential vitamins and minerals in tea augmented a heavily meat-and-milk diet. Moreover, tea was highly beneficial as an herbal remedy; it was a restorative, disinfectant, digestive, and a valuable source of fluoride, to name but a few of tea’s medicinal uses. Thereafter, tea was an integral part of steppe culture, and over time tea was adapted to the needs of nomadic life and the demands of the migrating hearth.

    According to legend, it was a Tang princess who first mixed tea and milk. Sent from the palace to the northern steppes in a marriage alliance to a Uighur chieftain, the princess taught the clanswomen to make a strong, rich tea, adding milk to fortify an already potent brew. Among the nomads, milk tea was made in the yurt, a circular tent of felt. The ceiling of the yurt opened directly above a central fireplace where a smouldering, dung-burning pit heated the tent; this fire also cooked the meals and boiled the tea. The making of milk tea was passed from generation to generation, mother to daughter, as a skill of considerable importance. The “five necessities” of milk tea -- implements, tea, milk, salt, and heat -- combined at appropriate times and in proper proportion, made for good milk tea. Black tea (hei cha) was formed into rectangular bricks or compressed rounds; these were broken into pieces, and a handful of leaves was put in an iron cauldron filled with water and heated. The pot was allowed to boil on the fire for four to five minutes before milk and a measure of salt were added. The pot was brought to a second boil that lasted another five minutes until the ingredients were thoroughly blended and emitted a fragrant aroma. The milk tea was ladled from the pot into bowls and served. If the pot was not completely emptied, more water, tea, milk, and salt were added. The second pot was slowly heated to cook in the fire and left in the hearth for use throughout the day. The strong brew, taken in frequent and copious measure, habituated the nomads to tea and fostered the saying, “Three meals with tea a day lifts the spirit and purifies the heart, giving strength to one’s labor. Three days without tea, confuses the body and exhausts the strength, making one loath to rise from bed.” Morning, noon, and evening, milk tea was drunk no less than three times a day with meals. Adults and the elderly took two to three more bowls during the day. Seven to eight bowls were not unusual, especially when guests arrived and were served again and again until all were sated. The welcoming of visitors was just one of the ceremonial uses of milk tea. Milk and tea were exchanged as tribute between leaders and their clans. Tribal councils, gatherings, banquets, and festivals were all times when it was served, and in ritual, milk tea was solemnly offered with meat, grain, and wine to the clan ancestors.

    The habit and ceremony of milk tea were taken from the yurt to the Manchurian palace at Shenyang and from there to Beijing where the Manchu emperors merged the drink with the pomp and circumstance of the Forbidden City. The drinking of milk tea at Qing official functions was a distinguishing mark of Manchu culture and served the same political purpose as the nobles wearing ethnic dress and hair style, riding and hunting on horseback, and practicing archery. In the Qing palace, nearly all imperial rituals, ceremonies, and banquets were punctuated by the service of milk tea. On the sixtieth birthday of the emperor, prefectural officials throughout the empire encouraged elders of the local towns and villages to travel to the capital to celebrate the event. On hearing of the many elderly subjects coming to honor him, often traveling weeks to reach Beijing, the emperor ordered a great banquet held in the Garden of Flourishing Spring for the more than 1,800 who attended. Elaborate tables, settings, and seats were arranged for the imperial family, aristocrats, officials, and elders. Milk tea was sent from the palace kitchen to the garden where the emperor was formally presented with the first cup. Then, the emperor ceremonially presented milk tea to the assembled guests. When all had drunk the contents of their cups, the elders were astonished by the emperor’s invitation to take their cups home with them as souvenirs of the auspicious event. In 1655, milk tea was recorded in detail by the Dutch author Jean Nieuhoff at a feast given by Qing officials in Canton for the embassy of the Dutch East India Company:

    At the beginning of the Dinner, there were served several bottles of The or Tea, served to the Table, whereof they drank to the Embassadors, biding them welcom: This drink is made of the Herb The or Cha, after this manner: They infuse half a handful of the Herb The or Cha in fair water, which afterwards they boil till a third part be consumed, to which they adde warm milk about a fourth part, with a little salt, and then drink it as hot as they can well endure.

    When the English arrived in Beijing in the heat of August in 1793, the Qianlong emperor, who was then eighty-three years old, was away enjoying the cooler climes of the summer palace at Chengde, the Qing imperial hunting preserve far to the north of the capital. The British ambassador, Lord George Macartney, was summoned to Chengde where Qianlong gave two audiences to hear the English press futilely for diplomatic privileges, greater trade, fewer tariffs, and access to more shipping ports. During the meetings, Aeneas Anderson, a member of the embassy, noted that the emperor “drank a tea mixture that would little please the Chinese, since the Emperor’s tea was infused with as much milk as water.” The observant Anderson, who was reputed to be able to tell at a glance the difference between Manchu and Han, was equally aware of the differences in their tea practices. For over two hundred years, the experience of the British and the Dutch was replicated by other Westerners seeking to trade with the Qing. Obliged by diplomatic protocol to suffer long audiences and longer banquets, foreign embassies and court officials negotiated over innumerable bowls of milk tea with predictable effect: Manchu milk tea accounted in no small measure for the British and continental practice of adding milk to tea.

    The tea kitchen of the imperial palace employed a tea master and a strict recipe for milk tea. Highly skilled in the Mongolian brewing technique, the master tended his stove and cleaned his implements and wares until the awaited order from the emperor reached him via the chain of eunuchs stationed throughout the palace. Luckily for the tea master, Qianlong was a stickler for a rigorous but regular daily routine during which calls for milk tea could be anticipated. The emperor rose early at six o’clock and breakfasted at eight, his simple meal lasting only fifteen minutes to consume a light congee, pickles, condiments, and a bowl of milk tea.

    Leaving the apartments of the inner palace, the emperor spent the morning at court with his officials discussing policy and administration in meetings that were relieved periodically by rounds of milk tea. At two o’clock, the emperor posed for a daily charade, the procession of over a hundred dishes, porcelains nested in silver warming trays piled with perfectly seasoned delicacies cooked by a score of master chefs. The long parade of food passed his table, each dish presented by a bowing servant holding the platter aloft. Standing by, the chief eunuch ceremoniously waved aside each dish, returning it to the kitchens and back rooms to be consumed by the palace staff. Meanwhile, Qianlong quickly ate a simple, light lunch ordered in advance by his court physician and prepared by two of his favorite cooks: the emperor selected mere morsels of small but superbly cooked dishes of chicken, duck, and pork accompanied by a bowl of boiled white rice, a clear soup, and followed by a delicately steamed dumpling or two stuffed with tender bamboo shoots for dessert. On occasion, the empress and imperial consorts might send him a delicacy specially prepared in the harem kitchens. These particular dishes he considered carefully, always tasting them and immediately sending his thanks and appreciation. If he dared do otherwise, the consequences among his household could be unpleasant to say the least. Quaffing a bowl of milk tea to finish lunch, Qianlong never worried about his favorite drink. It was always at hand, made by the tea master, and supplied by the abundant tea tribute and milk from the imperial herd. The emperor had fifty head of cattle that produced one hundred thirty pounds of milk a day. According to palace regulation, Qianlong’s daily allowance of milk tea required the entire herd’s production, twelve pitchers of water from Jade Spring at the Summer Palace, one pound of butter, and seventy-five packets of tea at two ounces a pack. Although the emperor might never drink all of the milk tea allotted to him, he would never lack for it either. Retiring for the afternoon to his library and studio, the emperor read into the evening or examined his latest acquisition of artworks for the imperial collection. At dinner, Qianlong sat again in review of another march of another hundred dishes, but the evening meal was leisurely and his doctor might be cajoled or intimidated into consenting to his eating a forbidden but favorite dish. When the emperor drank his last bowl of milk tea for the day, the tea master was sent out of the palace, returning the following morning to repeat his single task.

    There were times, however, when Qianlong ordered state banquets and the tea master was required to prepare for and serve many hundreds, even thousands of guests. Well before the imperial feast, the palace contacted the Court of Imperial Entertainments, an institution in charge of state banquets. The temple, in turn, ordered the necessary victuals from the capital market, from the imperial gardens, and from the palace stores that held enormous inventories stocked by the flow of tribute sent from the provinces. In advance of the event, tribute tea, milk, salt, and butter were requisitioned by the tea master and prepared by him and his staff the day before the feast. Assembling a score or two of large bronze kettles, the kitchen staff meticulously scrubbed and cleaned each pot to gleaming. Each kettle was filled with over four and one half pounds of milk, butter by the weight of two-tenths of a Chinese ounce, two ounces of yellow tea (huang cha), and an ounce of fine salt. Placed on the stove, the mixture was boiled until thoroughly blended. The milk tea was then strained and put into silver storage containers until needed. Just before the banquet, the milk tea was parceled out into hundreds of serving vessels, teapots of either polished bronze or silver mounted with dragon-headed handles and spouts. Teapots in hand, a battalion of attendants served the many guests milk tea poured steaming into ceramic bowls.

    While the assembly drank from fine porcelain, the emperor’s milk tea was served from a carved jade teapot and drunk from a jade bowl. For his personal tea bowl, Qianlong was partial to nephrite jade, the rare and unctuous river stone of the fabled Silk Road. Jade tumbled down from the freezing peaks of the Kunlun mountains at the southwestern edge of the Tarim Basin to wash and grind down into boulders and pebbles in the swift running streams and rivers that eventually sank and disappeared into the sands of the Takla Makan Desert. Since ancient times, the jade traded at the market town of Khotan had been prized by emperors and used for ritual emblems and ceremonial vessels. Unlike brilliant green Burmese jadite, the palette of Khotanese nephrite had colors that were warm and soft, the finest likened to the look and feel of congealed fat. In the eighteenth century, jade from Khotan was traded to Chinese and Indian markets to be carved into vessels and objets d’art. But the trade was unstable, disturbed by Moslem uprisings and the Dzungar, the Western Mongols. In 1759, Qianlong sent the imperial army to quell the disturbances; his victory extending the western reaches of the empire through a great swath of Central Asia to the borders Russia, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Named Xinjiang, the new territory was made a province with imperial army garrisons securing the abundant trade that flowed east and west. At Yarkand and Khotan, the Moslem begs and Qing officials left in the wake of the conquering armies to administer the new territory sent jade stone and vessels as gifts to the emperor in Beijing.

    To the delight of the emperor, the palace ateliers produced a remarkable number -- thought to be in the tens of thousands -- of jade objects for the imperial collection. Of the tribute jade, Qianlong was enthralled most of all by rare vessels of such refinement that they were as thin as fine porcelain, decorated in precious metals, and encrusted with jewels. The emperor learned that such fabulous jades were from Hindustan, traded along the Silk Road, cut from Khotanese stone, and inlayed with rubies and gold. He immediately sent for more.

    In time, Qianlong received a covered bowl of light green jade flecked with milky inclusions resembling delicate flakes of cracked ice (Image 1). The exterior of the lid and vessel was decorated with floral inlays of white and dark green jade and ruby-red glass, all captured in cloisons of pure gold. Lightly engraved on the interior bottom of this bowl were four characters that read, “For the personal use of the Qianlong emperor” (Image 2). The bowl was housed in the Hall of Heavenly Purity.

    Hindustani jades entered the palace collection in quantity and were among Qianlong’s prized possessions. He so admired the Indian jades that he wrote over seventy poems extolling their virtues, and often had the vessels engraved with his poetic verse. The emperor praised the Hindu lapidaries as a “supernatural craftsmen,” who were “devilishly skilled,” mistakenly believing that they worked jade stone with nothing but water, carving and polishing with no abrasives. He characterized the inner and outer surfaces of the vessels as “equally smooth and finished, the color and form blended together.” He likened the extreme thinness of the jades to “the wings of a cicada” that were as “lustrous and thin as paper.” Being so thin, the vessels were translucent and lightweight. Inspired by an extraordinary work of Hindustani jade, Qianlong wrote that holding it was “like holding nothing,” and that in his hands “there is really nothing there.” The emperor marveled at the carved decoration of acanthus and lotus patterns that covered the jades and the illusion of layers and depth that could be seen but not felt: “I see flowers and leaves, but feel no trace of them.”

    The emperor reserved his greatest praise for the hue of the vessels, especially the pure white jades with the color of fresh snow. These white jades were so smooth and glossy that Qianlong described their color and texture as “trimmed fat” or “mutton fat,” the highest accolade bestowed on jade by the emperor. Qianlong’s jade vessels for milk tea were stored in the great halls arrayed throughout the Forbidden City. An elaborate, lobed teapot of white jade carved with a ram’s head spout and twisted handles (Image 3) was stored in the Hall of Everlasting Longevity.

    A special milk-tea bowl of white jade was kept in the Hall for Nurturing the Heart. Unlike the huge, cavernous halls of the outer palace, the Hall for Nurturing the Heart was Qianlong’s private study, a very small, secluded apartment at the back of the inner palace, protected by many gates and walls, and near the emperor’s garden. The tiny sitting-room was just comfortable for but a single person to lounge or stand in. An extremely close and intimate space, it was the emperor’s sole place of refuge from family and court. Here, Qianlong read and wrote poetry, peacefully enclosed in a cocoon of favorite books and art, nodding to his eunuch now and then to order milk tea. The bowl that he kept by him and always used was made of a lovely white jade finely carved with very faint floral designs and handles of pendant flower buds (Image 4).

    In 1781, he composed a poem to honor the vessel and had the inscription engraved around the body. Qianlong praised the fine color and look of the jade as “mutton fat,” but he struggled to describe the “fluttering and fleeting” quality of the carved design, ineptly comparing its ephemeral character to the fragility of mulberry paper. Finally, he surrendered and confessed to being positively abashed, unable to justly express the full and virtuous nature of the bowl. But in penance and in adoration of its singular beauty, Qianlong always kept the bowl in his little study and within his easy reach. Until the very end of his days, the white jade vessel remained the emperor’s favorite bowl, and from it Qianlong drank his fill of milk tea, his favorite drink.


  • Whereas tribute-grade huang cha -- yellow tea -- was evidently drunk on special occasions, it seems likely that Qianlong's daily milk tea was made with hei cha. But the Chinese records and commentary vacillate between describing the brick and compressed teas of this period as both hei and hong, i.e. "black" and "red" tea.

  • Each of Qianlong's jades was registered and tagged by Qing eunuch officials with a yellow slip that described and recorded the hall in which the object was stored. The registration records have survived and have been of inestimable help in indicating the palace storage locations for these antiquities. For example, because the green and white bowls as well as the white teapot illustrated have been in the imperial collection of the National Palace Museum (Taipei) -- i.e., not lost during the palace lootings of 1860 and 1900, and not pilfered during Puyi's short reign, 1909-1911, and his residence in the palace until 1924 -- the record of this jade and its former storage place in the Forbidden City is without question.

    Notes on the Illustrations

    Image 1. Qianlong's covered tea bowl for milk tea. Light green stone: round bowl with handles and cover with knob; inlayed with jade, gold and glass in floral designs. India.
    D: 12.9 cm. H: 9.7 cm. National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei. Tian 349/Qianqing kong

    Image 2. Detail of the preceding: interior engraved with hanzi stipulating "For the personal use of the Qianlong emperor."

    Image 3. Qianlong's teapot for milk tea. White nephrite jade: lobed body, ram’s head spout, and twisted handles. China.
    L: 17.8 cm. W: 12.7 cm. H: 15.4 cm. National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei. Chin 244.149/Yungshou kong

    Image 4. Qianlong's tea bowl for milk tea. White nephrite jade: round bowl with handles carved with floral designs and engraved inscription. India.
    D: 16.6 cm. H: 7.8 cm. National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei. Lü 640.7/Yangxin tian