Ancestral Roots

Since I’ve announced to my family that I will be in China for a year, uncles and aunties have been asking me if I will visit our ancestral villages. Being two generations removed now, most of my surviving family has never been back to Chaozhou. The last people to have lived there—on both sides of my family—were my grandparents, all of whom passed away before I was even in kindergarten.

For my cousins and I, this meant that we had a distinctly southeast Asian upbringing. From things like bathing with a bucket, using three languages in the same sentence, to thinking that avocado boba is the OG, I never realized how unique all of this was until this past year.

Being so distant from my ancestral roots, I am curious to see what it’s like in Chaozhou. Where did my grandparents grow up? How is it now?

My curiosities grew deeper, and I decided to do some online stalking, which proved quite productive.

Using an address left on my late maternal grandfather’s gravestone, I was able to trace my heritage to Chaoyang 潮陽. As I searched deeper, I had a bit of trouble locating Shalongzhen 沙隴鎮, but then my friend Simon’s dad kindly informed me that it had merged with a neighboring zhen and was now called Longtianzhen 隴田鎮.

From this information, a few chats with my mom, and the internet at my disposable, I was able to find a general retelling of the family history online. In the Song dynasty, one of my mom’s ancestors was a scholarly bureaucrat who was assigned to Chaozhou. His descendants stayed and eventually became one of the prominent clans in the region. In fact, they have their own website dedicated to clan affairs:

This was mindblowing. Now it wasn’t just that my grandparents had lived in Chaozhou for a while; my ancestors had lived there for nearly a millennium.

Upon finding this out, I chuckled. Perhaps this genetic history can account for some of my eccentric interest in Chinese scholarly arts. My mom (and the aunties) had always joked about how grandpa would have been ecstatic if he was here to see me growing up and learning all of these traditional arts. He was an amateur calligrapher himself, although only we only have one surviving example of his writing, the ancestral tablet proudly honored in the center of my house in Portland.

Recently, I received the addresses for my paternal grandparents. My grandfather hailed from a rural village in Chao’an, and my uncle mentioned that he was a farmer. Curiously enough, the village my grandfather is from is about an hour away from Fenghuangshan, a mountain known for producing Teochew’s famous oolong tea. Again, it is as if my genetic history has predicted my interests…

A bit of online searching revealed that my father’s side settled in the area during the Ming dynasty. Unfortunately though, they also show up on contemporary low-income rosters. Even now, the village houses 1,800 people, barely larger than the Pomona College student population.

Drawing this back to the context of my tea research though, I wonder how tea culture might have evolved differently in rural vs urban areas. I suspect that urban areas, having more contact with other regional developments, would naturally have more influences on their conception and consumption of tea, whereas rural tea drinkers would have a rather stable—yet localized—tea tradition.

This reminds me of an article on Japanese ritual influences on Chaozhou tea I read a few years ago. While Ming dynasty loose-leaf tea culture was known for being free-flowing, fluid, and minimal in terms of etiquette, contemporary Chinese tea (likely under the influence of Japanese tea rituals) has become more formal and has developed prescribed orders and motions that the guest should complete.

In a chat at Hsi Lai Temple, one of the monks mentioned that to him, this overfixation on a prescribed form in Chinese tea seemed antithetical to the entire concept of tea meditation. While he agreed that there should be an order to things, unnecessary, flowery, and flashy movements should be kept out of the tea room. Training mindfulness is one necessity; preserving the spontaneity of Chan is another.

The chat made me wonder: how formalized will Chinese tea preparation end up? Living in an age where everybody seems to be eager to start their own system, arbitrary tea preparation forms regularly appear and float across YouTube—some inspired by Taiji forms, others by Qigong concepts. Or perhaps it is this tendency towards such a diversity of styles that characterizes the current shift in Chinese tea culture—going from one end of the pendulum (no ritual) to the other extreme (complete proliferation of ritual).

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