Sipping Time: Tea in Sichuan Province

Hao kan (好看), pronounced how kahn, literally translates as “good to look.” When I was taught this word first it was from a cheap Learn-to-speak Chinese book that was riddled with errors and typos. My book said it means “handsome.” Handsome, of course, has very specific connotations in English- that of male beauty. I tried my best to use hao kan correctly in my day-to-day life in Beijing but found that the more conventional piao liang (漂亮), which means pretty or beautiful, seemed to work easier in my conversations. (Anyone struggling to keep up in a foreign language with native speakers knows the particular kind of pause in conversation that comes when you use a word that’s just not quite right.)

On a trip to Chengdu, the capitol city of Sichuan province, I found myself intrigued by a tour described as “Giant Buddha/Ancient town/Tea Plantation.” That’s an awful lot to cover in one day but sure, why not. The day before I’d been struggling to remind myself not to over-romanticize country life in China as I recalled the resentment I held for my own country upbringing back in the states. This would be a good way to get in the country, clear my lungs from Beijing’s smog, and put myself in the reality of the country living in China.

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The Giant Buddha was a humbling way to begin my surreal day.

By four in the afternoon, my tour guide, Patrick, was winding at breakneck speeds around the intimately tight curves of Mount Emei. In heavily accented English, Patrick told me this tea plantation had been owned by the same family for 400 years. 200 years ago, the tea had been so beloved by the nation it had been shipped directly to Beijing for the Emperor himself to enjoy. I’ll admit- as a rather die hard coffee fanatic I was skeptical about how good this tea could actually be. Honking at the curves and driving dangerously far off the road to avoid motorbikes careening down the mountain, I hoped the tea was worth it.

The homes were large compared to what I’d come to expect in the city. On the paved road, they were concrete, stout affairs, with large, empty windows. Our car stopped rather suddenly in front of one and a man as short and solid as his home came out to greet us. Li Zhi Quan, the current patriarch of Ya Kou Chaye (丫口茶业) greeted Patrick as only two old friends can. Patrick delighted in letting me know that Zhi Quan had the best English during high school but Patrick’s was much better today.

I believed it. Zhi Quan had intelligent eyes and a curious, open face. As we walked together up to the plantation we began to speak together, both shy in our grasp of the other’s language. I told him, over and over again, how beautiful his home and his farm are. He stood next to me as I snapped pictures of the village nestled into the valley and, after a moment of contemplation, agreed. As we slowly moved up the mountain, a farmer was harvesting the walnuts that fell into the path. He offered us as many as we could hold. With practiced ease, Zhi Quan and Patrick cracked the nuts in their bare hands. Embarrassed by my un-calloused, city-slicker grip, I hid my walnut in my pack and said I’d save it as a souvenir. Undeterred, they cracked away and offered me the earthy, bitter white flesh from their own walnuts.

Further up, we plucked fresh dates from the tree. The grainy sweetness is best enjoyed after spicy hot pot but, a second best is as you run your hands over bamboo growing over your path and look down into a green valley. The rows of tea plants stretched in front of me in ordered, delicate paths and delineated the curves of the mountain. Between them, I was surprised to find something of home. A rich, rust-red earth that, in Appalachia, we know as Georgia Red Clay. The grittiness on my palm was nostalgic and I wondered if there were anything like this back in the states.

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A village lies nestled in the valley with tea plants stretching like cartographer’s lines around the mountain.

We passed a dark building whose smell announced pigs or, at the very least, pig shit. Patrick took me inside to meet the dozens of pink animals eagerly snorting at my hands. While they were confused by my enthusiasm, my guides allowed me the time to run my hands over the sweet, curious animals and feel their soft bodies and insistent snouts.

Near to the top of the mountain, we stopped at a building with a wide open courtyard. Zhi Quan quickly put out a short table and stools and went about preparing two types of tea. The first glass was Jasmine tea and the second was tender green tea. Patrick, who lives at Baoguo Monastery, has an “impure mind” so, as the tender green tea slowly began to fall to the bottom of the glass where they would then stand up straight, he described the particular type of beauty of these leaves. “Typical Chinese girl. Large breasts. Small waist. Good behind. Beautiful.”

Zhi Quan had a more measured approach. We sat together and both took pictures of the leaves as they fell. “Haokan shenme yisi?” He wanted to know what the English translation for hao kan is. Patrick began a lengthy lecture on hao kan. When he said, “The fish in the pond,” he ran his hands in a slow, circular movement, “are hao kan,” it suddenly made sense for me. Hao kan is more than just beautiful; it’s good to watch.

Kan (看) has a more active meaning than I’d previously attributed to it. One uses kan for reading a book and for watching TV. One uses kan to direct someone to look at something but also to watch something. It connotes an active, purposeful engagement.

The tea was hao kan. The steeping of the tea and watching the tea settle in the glass are a vital part of enjoying it here on this mountain in Sichuan province, thousands of miles away from my world of to-go cups. In America, my enjoyment of tea was based only on the quick sipping of the too hot cup as I hurried on to be productive elsewhere. I’d been divorced from this watchful, meditative part of the experience with my opaque mugs. Instead, my experience of tea was of settling for something with less caffeine than my drip coffee to calm my jittery hands while working late into the night. I’d set a timer on my phone so I’d know when I could drink and never stop the flow of productivity. Tea in America, at my desk, was a mindless process meant to excise some of my excess, frantic energy.

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Jasmine tea (left) and Tender Green tea (right).

Here, on this mountain, I suddenly understood. Every time a tea leaf fell away to the bottom of the glass to stand erect and proud was a moment worth being present for. We fell into comfortable silence as we were all absorbed in the careful, active watching of the tea leaves. When they all stood in a small garden at the bottom of the glass, I was poured a small bit into a clear shot glass. Zhi Quan didn’t pour himself any but when I asked if he would drink any with me he hurried away for a glass. Patrick explained that Zhi Quan had drunk so much tea in his life that watching was enough for him.

After we finished our easy enjoyment of the tea we wandered farther up the mountain and I stained my hands, clumsily picking my own tea leaves. In the time I picked an ounce, Zhi Quan’s efficient hands picked enough to fill the bamboo baskets we carried. The tea we picked now in early autumn was the cheapest kind of tea to pick. That is, all the tea is the same sort of plant but the time of the year it is picked dictates its worth and how it is prepared for consumption. The tender green tea and jasmine tea we enjoyed earlier was picked, appropriately enough, in spring when things are virginal and new again. It was carefully dried and sold as is. However, this late summer tea was not so fresh and good. This would be prepared as a black tea. Black tea is cooked in a pan, not just dried like green tea.

Back at the shed, we went inside the building and Zhi Quan showed me this process. Two large woks were settled deep into a wood burning stove. Using a hard bristled brush he cleaned out one wok and Patrick started a hot fire beneath it. Zhi Quan, after testing the temperature of the wok by hovering his hand over the surface for a few moments, emptied the leaves into the tough, black pan and tossed the leaves about for about two minutes. The leaves sizzled in a way not dissimilar from what you might expect from cooking your stir fry as Zhi Quan burned off the first of the moisture.

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Zhi Quan does the initial fry over high heat to burn off any excess moisture.

After this initial frying, he gathered the leaves into a large, flat basket and carried them outside. He squatted in the courtyard with the mountains rising up to embrace him in the background. A caterpillar made its busy way past, every leg working toward its goal. My heart raced to think of the generations of his family who had worked here in the same way, working in time with the mountain next to the caterpillars and all the other busy, striving things here on this mountain lost to the technicolor world.

The leaves were rolled into a large ball and squeezed, the moisture falling into the already dark stained basket. This process rolled the leaves into the cylindrical shape we’ve come to expect. As he worked the leaves, I quizzed him.

“When did you learn to prepare the tea leaves like this?”

He squinted down at the leaves. “Before twenty.”

“In peak season, in spring, how many kilos of tea do you prepare a day?”

My awkward Chinese left him glancing helplessly up at Patrick and I tried again in English.

“The ladies pick maybe 200 kilos a day.” I found out earlier only women and very old men pick the tea. The men all work in the factory which mechanizes the process he was showing me now. “At the end of the day, maybe we have 20 kilos of prepared tea.”

The leaves were returned to the wok and were turned ceaselessly in a counter-clockwise motion. I stood beneath the single, bare light bulb hanging in the center of the room and watched. There was something meditative about watching the motion of his strong hand move with practiced ease through the leaves in the hot pan. Occasionally a pair of chopsticks were used to toss the leaves. The rhythmic, shh shh, as Zhi Quan pressed the leaves into the dry pan was hypnotic and calming. Would this too be considered hao kan? I managed to keep my potentially embarrassing question of Chinese semantics to myself.

Patrick bagged up some of the previous day’s prepared tea and gave it to me. A little disappointed I wouldn’t be leaving with the tea I had picked he shook his head. “This tea must wait another four hours in the heat. Too long.”

Alarmed, I asked would Zhi Quan have to turn the tea by himself for four hours? But no. Only for the first hour. After that, the tea would be ok to leave alone.

We made our way back down the mountain. Zhi Quan and Patrick answered the questioning gazes of the farmers. She’s American. She’s twenty-five. No, not married. They offered cigarettes to the men and explained to me, “This is my friend.” Everyone on the mountain was a friend.

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An old woman makes her way past us down the mountain.

Back in LaShan, the city which had previously seemed so slow and quiet to me now appeared raucous and dangerous. We went into Zhi Quan’s tea shop, an open-aired affair, while Patrick tried to find a cab that would take me back to Chengdu. In the meantime, Zhi Quan offered me a new cup of tea. This was a wild tea from uncultivated plants. Elders in the village had wandered into the forests for these leaves and they were quite valuable.

With new, more patient eyes I watched in silence as the leaves gently opened. They fell slowly at first, just one at a time. But in the time I glanced up at the old woman staring at me as she passed by and then down again they were all falling at once. There was something miraculous about the moment and I felt my throat inexplicably tighten with tears. Zhi Quan met my gaze when I looked up and, for the first time that afternoon, language wasn’t a barrier for us. This ineffable, arcane moment was a gift from his family and it was clear to me what an honor it was to be invited into it. It was haokan.


If you’d like to visit Patrick and ZhiQuan you can reach Patrick at patrickyanglong@aliyun.com. He also offers a variety of other unique tours of Sichuan province you won’t find elsewhere. Visit his website at www.emeiguides.com

Further, if you’d like to purchase any of the teas from Ya Kou Tea Plantation you can email Patrick for more details.

Price

I booked through Chengdu Mix Hostel in Chengdu, Sichuan (which is so well reviewed it hardly bares any more accolades) for 550RMB ($85 US.) This covered

  • the shared car drive from Chengdu to LaShan
  • A ferry to see the magnificent giant Buddha
  • Lunch at the ancient town with undeniably authentic, local Sichuan food (vegetarian options are easily accessible upon request)
  • An intimate tour of LiuJiang, a 400 year old ancient town
    • Includes stops at the local market and a visit to a tea house
  • visit to the Ya Kou Tea plantation where you’ll enjoy authentic, country life in China, drink local tea and tea to take home with you, and you can try your hand at picking tea yourself
  • Your way back to your hostel or hotel
  • A knowledgeable English speaking tour guide

To compare prices, to rent a car and go it alone from Chengdu to LaShan and Mount Emei would cost around 800RMB.

 

If you have any questions or want to hear more about my time in Sichuan province you can reach me at ericaonearth2017@gmail.com

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