29 August, 2007

Tea Spirit

One of the realisations that has come from a busy period hosting an academic visitor is that nefarious nature of "tea spirit".

Lei and I often discuss this obscure notion: that some people make naturally pleasant tea-company, and that others, while perhaps being good company, are not necessarily good tea company. So what makes the difference?

My search initially took me to London. The combined effect of squeezing a visa out of the Chinese Embassy and the potent pollution levels made for a tiring and painful experience. However, it gave me a rare opportunity to see how the "Tea Smith" teahouse is getting on, which I encountered before, in April.

Its proprietor knows a great deal about tea, of course. Ordinarily, this can be quite an obstacle to being good tea company - the desire to impress knowledge on someone else seems to get in the way. I remember Phyll writing something similar about a recent tea-tasting event in the US. However, in a man of quiet modesty such as the owner of Tea Smith, this knowledge, appropriately delivered, can be conducive to a good tea atmosphere. With aching head and sore throat, I slumped over my diary and a copy of Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel and let the calm of Tea Smith bring me back to myself. Exhibiting the consummate skills usually found in legendary bar-keepers, the staff of Tea Smith ensured my good mood was eked out of me like the slow flavour from a tough tea-leaf.

I remembered Phyll's other comments, about his brewing of a 1950s pu'er at the tea-tasting event: because of the busyness, he reportedly found the experience of drinking the famous tea surprisingly unimpressive. Being a modest type, he put this down to faults in his brewing - however, having experienced the same thing several times in the company of all manner of accomplished brewers, I put this down instead to the nature of the company itself (or rather, the nature of the interaction between the people present). Many times have Lei and I sat down to tea with various guests and simply found it very hard to enjoy our favourite teas. Something just... isn't right with some tea-company.

Now, surely, this is no flaw in the natures of the people themselves, but merely an unexpected result of putting people of different dispositions at the same tea-table.

As our academic visitor joined us for tea most nights (being Chinese, he was particularly keen to do so), these thoughts revisited me. What made Tea Smith such good tea-company, and what made our visitor (and other well-meaning souls like him) less good tea-company?

Sitting in Tea Smith, listening to a pair of web-writers interviewing the owner, the four tea-concepts of Rikyu came back to me from a recent book of Lei's that I had strayed across. I realised, recovering at the bar, that these four concepts adequately define that which I previously held to be undefinable: what makes good tea-company?

Wa
(harmony)
Kei (respect)
Sei (purity)
Jaku (tranquility)

The four words are easy to read, and there are a hundred vague explanations in a hundred vague books, and I appreciate how easy it is to dismiss them, and the bad poetry that accompanies them. However, the significance of the four simple words really made themselves apparent when I directly applied them to the practical task of defining good tea company. I am conscious that this subject could easily border on the preachy, or the distastefully faux-poetic, and so I'll try my hardest to make it as concrete and practical an interpretation as my limited skills will allow.

Wa: without harmony of spirit, there is violence on some level. Many times have I sat to tea with people that have different expectations, different characters, that have led the tea session to be instantly disappointing. The tea becomes characterless, hard to concentrate upon, and instead the hosting instincts are at work trying to manage a lack of harmony between characters. This hard work ensures that the tea session has instantly failed, often before it has even begun. Rikyu stated that there is no place for the fuss of manners and the endless wheels of etiquette at the tea-table, which should instead be a place of sincerity and simplicity. Lack of harmony between characters, even well-meaning characters, is bad tea-company. I see this when sitting down to tea with people I don't know very well - the lack of wa soon becomes obvious.

Kei: respect is harder to achieve, even if the characters are harmonious. It indicates gratitude: not necessarily gratitude to the host, but that gratitude that Suzuki calls (bear with me here) the sheer gratitude of living - the understanding that what is important here is not, for once, "me". It is the ability to put personal considerations out of the way, and simply enjoy a simple tea-experience in a simple way. To put something else ahead of oneself is kei, and it can be very hard for some people. Many of my friends from London are like this, maybe due to the dog-eat-dog nature of life in the capital (and I'm no saint in this regard, indeed in any of the four regards).

Sei: purity is simplicity, getting rid of the unnecessary. Drinking tea is not complex, and to make it so can create bad tea-company. Though gongfucha can involve several implements, if any of these feels redundant and is used only for show, there is no sei. For some, this could mean no wenxiangbei, perhaps, but I believe that it mainly involves avoiding the desire to flourish, and to show off. It is simplicity of spirit that is at stake here, and without it we have the flourishing, "impressive" gongfucha of the tourist districts. In guests, that same simplicity of spirit means the avoidance of showiness of knowledge. This is where Tea Smith scores highly, and where several other knowledgeable tea-friends (including myself) have something to learn.

Jaku: so hard and fast is recent life, even in the relatively slow "backwater" of academic existence in comparison to modern financiers and industrialists, that tranquility is something so often desired and so rarely achieved. Our recent academic visitor had no jaku: for him, sitting at the tea table was merely a continuance of normal life, networking, discussion. Ordinarily, these are beneficial - but not at tea. The ability to let go that which truly does not matter determines the quality of tea-company.

So many tea sessions have Lei and I had, with so many people, and sitting in Tea Smith, I realised that it was only those in which wa, kei, sei, and jaku were present could I count as being good tea-company. They made for a good metric by which to explain my dissatisfaction at previous experiences, and also to give me pointers about how to improve myself in future.

Good tea-company is a rare thing to be cherished, I've learned. Its rarity says much about how modern people relate (or rather, don't relate) to one another.

Wa, kei, sei, jaku.

Thanks for reading.

17 comments:

Brent said...

Beautifully written, as always! Sadly, I rarely have the opportunity for tea company (good or bad), but I can still empathize. :)

One large obstacle for me (and, I imagine, many of my fellow American tea drinkers) is the utter lack of public knowledge about the simplest aspects of tea. This is understandable and I don't judge them because of it, but it makes sharing tea with friends... difficult.

The problem is that the attention seems focused on *me* rather than the tea. All of a sudden, what was once the goal of the session-- drinking tea-- has become secondary to seeing some strange and weird performance of what many of my friends see as a quaint (and feminine) hobby. Unfortunately, as you mentioned earlier, impressing knowledge onto others (even when necessary) isn't conducive to enjoying the experience.

Oh well, such is life, I guess. Thanks again for another insightful article!

謏 約翰 said...

Eloquently put David. I find that with a harmonious group, the tea blends in seamlessly. Heightened awareness of the tea, the less harmonious the group. Even when we meet with an aim to try new teas or compare taste buds. cheers john

Hobbes said...

Dear Brent,

I've found that sharing tea with people doesn't really depend on how much they know about tea, but how open their character is. Someone who's naturally curious is going to love that new wulong. Someone that's cynical is going to enjoy it less.

I've definitely learned not to give good tea to newcomers to gongfucha. Even if they have really decent tastebuds trained in other things (my brother's wine taste-buds come to mind), just through sheer lack of familiarity, the things that make a great tea so good could well be wasted on them. I've given awesome tea to so many (genuinely good) people who have enjoyed it just as much as they would have enjoyed a much less expensive example.

I see what you mean about the oddness of gongfucha. That definitely needs a certain kind of familiarity, too, or someone who's simply willing to sit down at something new and really just... be tranquil (quiet).


Dear John,

It sounds as if you've come across some good tea-company, from your words. Lucky man!


Toodlepip both,

Hobbes

vl. said...

Interesting!

I find that the words alone seem to say more than their description, this is a little scary to me :)

-vl.

Hobbes said...

Dear Vlad,

Do you mean the four Japanese words? If so, then I'm sure my descriptions are mere shades of their real meaning, at best - I'm not at all familiar with Japanese, let alone Rikyu-era Japanese. That said, the descriptions were my interpretations, sitting in Tea Smith, mulling over why I couldn't enjoy tea with our visitor - and they're (for me, anyway) quite fitting for the purpose of describing that, at least, if not the meaning of the original Japanese.

Tea-company seems to have little to do with how good a friendship exists, or how "good" the persons involved are - it's something more elusive. Wa, kei, sei, jaku.


Toodlepip,

Hobbes

vl. said...

Oh I didn't mean that your descriptions were in any way unsatisfactory, what I meant is the words themselves seemed to have some kind of lucid meaning to me... beyond description, which was odd... they're just simple words.

-vl.

Hobbes said...

I do simple!

Hobbes ;)

Brent said...

Thank you for correcting me-- I guess it would be better to say that the lack of exposure, as opposed to the lack of knowledge, is what makes my friends less open to enjoying a tea session and more likely to see it as alien. That, and I'm cynical enough in everyday life to warrant a good amount in return, mid-tea session or not. :)

MarshalN said...

The four terms are, I believe, 和、敬、清、寂. You know Chinese, right? That might make more sense :)

MarshalN said...

No, they don't sound similar to mandarin, but as a native Cantonese speaker, my ability to guess the Japanese reading of kanji is very good because of certain proximities. I surprise myself sometimes.

Hobbes said...

Dear MarshalN,

Many thanks. I popped these in an e-mail to Lei, and Googlemail's contextual advertising started placing lots of Japanese adverts to the right of the e-mail! I understand that the characters are probably the inherited Chinese (manyogana), but even so I was impressed that Google successfully dug out the essentially Japanese semantic context of the four nominally Chinese characters.

wa = he2
kei = jing4
sei = qing1
jaku = ji4

They don't sound very similar!


Toodlepip,

Hobbes

Lewis said...

MarshalN's conjecture about the 4 characters is right, if Unihan is to be believed:

http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=548c

http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=656c

http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=6e05

http://www.unicode.org/cgi-bin/GetUnihanData.pl?codepoint=5bc2

/Lew
---
Lew Perin | perin@acm.org | http://www.panix.com/~perin/babelcarp.html

Hobbes said...

Cripes, what a great site. Cantonese pronounciation has been a closed book to me, this is the first reference I've seen equating it to Mandarin (and Japanese, and Korean!).

Many thanks, Lew.


Toodlepip,

Hobbes

~ Phyll said...

Thanks for mentioning that I am a modest man. I don't feel so (there I go again). :)

Kidding aside, I still think it was my brewing problem with the 1950's Hongyin.

This is such a relevant essay. The company that you drink with is perhaps the most important dynamic of tea appreciation. Thank you, Hobbes.

Dear Brent: if you are still following this thread, there is a certain way to brew gongfu tea and be seen as masculine and graceful at the same time, even by the uninitiated eyes. I do understand very much your frustration with such friends, though. :)

Hobbes said...

Is there anything more masculine than gongfu Shaolin-style brewing? Have you seen the photograph of Phyll wearing his traditional outfit at the US tea event?!


Toodlepip,

Hobbes

~ Phyll said...

Gosh, if I knew I was being photographed, I wouldn't have done that. :)

Anyway, that two-hand approach has nothing to do with martial arts. It's just a sign of respect (like presenting something with 2 hands instead of 1) towards the people who I was preparing the tea for. It kept my mind focused and not sloppy by following a certain self-taught protocol.

~ Phyll said...

PS: I certainly DON'T do that stuff when brewing tea for myself.