Having received a few letters of late on the subject of the dear wenxiangbei [smell aroma cup], I thought that a recent question posed by DV might be of general interest, and so (if DV will pardon me), I'll reply in open format. DV was interested in how Lei and I go about using our wenxiangbei, and this got me thinking about gongfucha in general - which led to the following article. I invite you to see what you make of it.
As with all aspects of gongfucha, the instruments and processes that one uses are very much an individual choice. In contrast to the Japanese chado, the Chinese chadao is much less prescribed. Which is "better"? I read this enquiry quite often. It is an answerless question: each method is complete within itself. The real question is, "Which is better for you?" This principle constantly informs my approach to tea (and most things in life, by extension).
I note immediate similarities with the contrast between the formalised Japanese Zen school of Buddhism, and the somewhat less-prescribed Chan school of Mainland China (from which Zen derives, when Eisai imported the Linji/Rinzai school to Japan). I find many parallels between tea and Zen, and for me, to practice one is to practice the other - considering one in the absence of the other is like trying to separate the two sides of a sheet of paper.
In Zen, practice is formal - most of the actions are prescribed (like a Christian Mass, in some churches - definitely here in Oxford). On this subject, the famous master Shunryu Suzuki said, "We have formal practice, but informal mind." The argument is that following a defined routine allows one to avoid the burden of working out what we do, instead concentrating on how we do it - allowing us to concentrate on the quality with which we conduct the actions.
If I could commit a Zen sin by trying to surmise it in my humble words, I would say that Zen is all about "quality". In a world where quality is whittled away in favour of profit margins and rushed lives, Zen and Zen-like practices (such as drinking tea) become very relevant.
The precise routine we choose should be made entirely on an individual basis - just as you would let no-one foist a religious belief on you, or adopt a religion simply because someone else does, so too should you evaluate your own method of brewing tea (and of everything else).
"Learn the rules, and then forget them" is one of my favourite quotes. It was Basho's advice to his students in learning the rules of writing Japanese haiku poetry, and is habitually taught in painting, calligraphy, flower-arranging, martial arts, and tea.
When Iwii and Tea Logic's VL came to visit Lei and I for a tea-meeting, both gentlemen expressed surprise that we made tea in rather a long-winded fashion. We wash and rinse, we pour and sniff, we juggle various cups and jugs.
In the photograph, some of these are shown: from chaxi [water bowl for holding cups] to chahe [tea lotus, for holding leaves], to pots and gongdaobei [fairness cup], to wenxiangbei and pinmingbei [taste tea cup], ultimately to chagang [pot for used leaves and water] - it all looks like a bit of a fuss. However, like zazen or a Mass, it is natural to me, and each part of its whole has arisen to meet a specific need. Redundancy, pure aesthetism, has no home in something of "quality", in my eyes. Zen resounds with this principle.
When Iwii brewed, when VL brewed, they did so with the consummate skills acquired through countless previous brewing sessions - but it was a different process. Though different in each case (and this is my rather tortuously-reached point), each brewing method has evolved to fit the character of its practitioner. None right, none wrong, all different.
Some people distrust Zen and the more "formal" churches of Christianity because they find the ritual to be suffocating. I know some people who distrust Thai Buddhism or more "Evangelical" Christian churches because of what they perceive to be a lack of structure. Even within Zen itself, some people prefer Rinzai [meditating on koans/puzzles], while some are more suited to Soto [freeform "no object" meditation]. There are as infinitely many varieties of practice as there are practitioners, and each of us must find his own way (and thus find his own Way, so it is said).
With that said, I return to DV's initial question, on the particulars of the wenxiangbei. For me, this has arisen because I gain a certain amount of information (and pleasure) from the wenxiangbei. I know some prefer to get this information from elsewhere - perhaps through the scent on a gaiwan lid, perhaps just from the soup of the tea itself. However, I use a gaiwan only for lucha, and so the need for a good source of aroma information has led to the need for the wenxiangbei.
Here follow a few words on my own use of it - which, as I understand it, follows the Southern Chinese method (though I consider this to be a point of only subsidiary interest). In the light of my previous words, these are merely a description of how I make tea.
Step i: The soup starts in the gongdaobei. Pour it into the wenxiangbei. Pictured top is a collection of wenxiangbei during a comparative tea-tasting session of two similar teas.
(On a more detailed note, I pour each half-full in turn, briskly moving from one to the other, and finally back again in reverse order to fill them all full. This is qingting dianshui [dragonfly flitting over water], in order to ensure that each cup contains a similar concentration
- it is often a courtesy step, as the use of a gongdaobei [fairness cup] causes a lot of equalisation in concentration. I also pour to my guests' cups first, in order of "social precedence", again out of courtesy. It is interesting to note that traditional English rules of precedence almost exactly match those of traditional Chinese that I have come across in formal events with Mainland colleagues: guest-of-honour first, if one is present, then ladies in order of seniority, then gentlemen in order of seniority.)
Step ii: Place the inverted pinmingbei onto each wenxiangbei, so that they look a little like mushrooms. Then, holding the two cups together, turn them over so that the pinmingbei is the right-way-up, with the wenxiangbei sticking out of it, as may be seen in the second picture from the top.
All of the soup should remain in the now-inverted wenxiangbei. Maybe a little tea will spill when one is first getting used to the technique, but it soon stops spilling seemingly of its own accord, as the action becomes unconscious. Sometimes, the grip of the cups to one another can be so strong that the pair can be held aloft by holding the wenxiangbei, as pictured second-from-bottom.
Step iii: Pull the wenxiangbei upwards, so that the soup remains below, in the pinmingbei (as may be seen in the bottom photograph). This is where the aroma comes in, and it is entirely evaporative - the scent changes as more soup evaporates from the walls of the tall wenxiangbei, giving layers of information.
Putting the nose inside the cup (as in wine-tasting), the initial aroma that arrives is the beidixiang [cup bottom scent]. It contains the "high" notes of the aroma, which are the shortest-lived in duration. These are often caused by initial leaf sweetness, and by the floral characteristics of oxidation. This beidixiang will vary in duration depending on the potency of the tea, giving further clues as to what to expect of the endurance of the tea in the mouth and throat (termed the "patience", in some spheres).
An obvious change often occurs, as the short-lived beidixiang vanishes, and hands over the longer-duration scents of the lengxiang [cold scent], so called due to the cooling of the wenxiangbei. These are the "low" notes of the aroma, and often relate directly to the roast of the leaf, or its lingering sweetness (which can be a clue to the huigan).
This transition from "high" to "low" characteristics is often played out in similar form in the mouth, with the "high" flavours appearing as the tea enters the mouth, and the "low" flavours appearing as the tea progresses to the throat. Relating the wenxiangbei to the pinmingbei can provide plenty of mutual information, and this is my primary reason for its use. They are the yin and yang of my tea-tasting experience, respectively.
Over to you.