Tea Shopping and Indian Food

Last week, I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter in Fuzhou to buy some tea. And so, we went to my usual tea mall and explored a few shops, looking specifically for qingxiang tie guanyin 清香鐵觀音, a lightly-oxidized oolong, and zhengshan xiaozhong 正山小種, which is what we’d consider in the US “black tea” (although in China it’s considered “red tea” hongcha 紅茶).

Upon arriving at the tea mall, we walked into a place staffed by an older couple with TIE GUANYIN in bold letters on the shop sign.

“Do you have any tie guanyin?” I asked innocently.

“No,” the shopkeeper replied. “We don’t sell tie guanyin.”

What a lie. But oh well, I’ve been hit with the “you look too young to actually spend money on tea, so I’m just gonna wave you away” treatment enough times now, so we went next door to another place that had a bold TIE GUANYIN sign on the door.

One middle-aged lady sat at the table and invited us to sit.

“What are you looking for?” she prompted.

Qingxiang tie guanyin, and our budget is about 200 rmb per jin (500 grams),” I replied.

She brought out two varieties for us to sample.

Upon trying it, my heart sank. I had gotten ripped off on my previous trip. Last time I came here to purchase tie guanyin, I had sampled three varieties and ended up spending almost double the price for something that was comparable to what this shop was selling for merely 230 rmb.

While the flavor was mediocre, it was a very smooth tea. Rather than leaving my throat dry and course, it was very refreshing, although I would have preferred it a little bit heavier. It was something I felt like I could just gulp down rather than something I would sip and savor.

As she talked on and on about her tea-selling experience, I turned to my Fulbright friend and asked in English, “Thoughts?”

We had a brief exchange. Neither of us were particularly impressed, and so we decided we’d go elsewhere.

“Wow,” the shopkeeper said. “You’re foreigners!”

We nodded sheepishly.

I wasn’t sure what to think. I guess we both look Asian enough to pass the initial appearance test, and we were fluent enough to get by without raising any alarms. It wasn’t until we spoke in English that our friend the shopkeeper realized we weren’t from the local area.

In any case, we bid her farewell and walked in search of another tie guanyin shop. Being in Fujian, there are plenty of places that sell them.

My Fulbright friend was not particularly impressed, so we went to a second shop.

As soon as we walked in, our host remarked, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?”

We were taken aback. Our previous host didn’t realize we weren’t locals, but this shopkeeper was astute enough to catch that point before we even sat down.

“No, we’re from the US,” I replied.

“Ah, that explains it,” she continued. “I used to live in Spain. You Americans carry yourselves differently from those of us who grew up in China.”

While I can typically notice the subtle traits that distinguish an Asian American from someone who grew up in Asia, I hadn’t thought that it would be visible to the older generation. But I suppose her exposure to a variety of cultures helped her identify that we were not locals, despite our phenotypic expression.

After explaining what we wanted and what our budget would be, she brewed two types. Although I specifically requested qingxiang, she decided to give us a sample of nongxiang as well. Just in case.

While it was more fragrant than the other shop, the tea left a sense of dryness in my throat.

After drinking a few rounds and using the restroom two or three times, we decided this would be a good purchase (it was a bit cheaper than the other place), and that going to another shop might not be worth it.

To seal the deal, the kind shopkeeper gifted us a few samples of their Wuyi Rock Tea. She made it clear that these were very cheap, but that they weren’t too terrible nonetheless.

After making a small purchase of 250 grams, we ventured to Sanfang qixiang, Fuzhou’s most touristy place, looked around at some bookstores, and then met up with another classmate for Indian food.

It wasn’t bad, but I was really disappointed in the fact that the food here isn’t spicy.

We also ordered way too much. After three curries, two types of naan, rice, shawarmas, and a rice pudding dessert, my stomach felt like it was about to explode. But wow, that naan was really, really good.

While I haven’t been able to find a Mexican restaurant in Fuzhou yet, I’m glad to know that there are options for non-Chinese food here. While I don’t mind Chinese food, eating at the same dining hall every single day gets a bit tough.

A bunch of other things have happened over the past few weeks, but I won’t be sharing every detail about my adventures here.

I think my next post will be a reflection on the decade ahead.

Cyber Monday

For those you back home in the US, Cyber Monday has yet to come. But in China, November 11 marked a day of online deals.

My list this year was not particularly expensive compared to years past. Granted, in the US I would have gone straight for electronics, which tend to be pricy. While I had considered getting a smartphone, I decided that there was no need. Albeit slow, my cell phones both work (my usual phone turned out to be locked into the T-Mobile network, so I’m using a cheap one I got in Taiwan a few years back for mobile data and calls).

Instead, I went on Taobao (essentially the Chinese version of Amazon), and filled my shopping cart with goods.

I went shopping in-person as well, opting to spend my Monday at the tea mall I had visited before. When the day was done, I had purchased—either online or in-person:

Three books on tea
Two books on calligraphy
Two kilograms of tea leaves
Two teapots
One desk
Two table runners
And quite unexpectedly, four and half tatami mats.

While I hadn’t intended to purchase the tatami mats, the price went lower, and lower, and lower. And to seal the deal, the store also threw in two free cushions.

I don’t think my room actually has enough area to lay out all of the mats unless I remove some furniture, but it was a very good deal. At the very least, I can ship them to the US and it’d still be considered cheap.

Research has picked up recently, and as more books come in, I’m getting a better idea of how different authors are contributing to and building a contemporary tea culture. In addition to tea research though, I’ve dabbled a bit in guqin research—both in deciphering old qin tablature and in reading scholarly articles on guqin history. I’m honestly surprised to see that barely anything has been done on the intricacies of guqin music theory or the role of music in Chinese philosophical discourse.

In terms of my main research project, guqin as a culture serves as a particularly interesting foil to tea culture. It’s diverse, separated into regional schools; it’s writings are intensely theoretical, unlike tea’s more practical writings; and it has a very explicit connection to self-refinement.

In some ways, guqin reminds me of martial arts. It’s regionally defined, and there’s an explicit master-disciple relationship (which isn’t necessarily true with tea).

As I near the 1/3 mark of my ten months in China, I feel increasingly confident that I’ll return with worthwhile experiences. If anything, I’ve learned more than I had expected to learn with guqin, and I’ve had the fortune of meeting more tea experts than I had ever dreamed of prior to arriving in Fuzhou.

Edit: I wrote this on November 11. Since then, I’ve gotten more tea, a stove, some incense, and all sorts of other stuff.

Matcha in Fuzhou

After a long day of tea drinking with the aunties, I opted to practice at home instead of showing up to guqin class Saturday morning. It was shaping up to be a busy day already, and I was anticipating both a calligraphy competition and—surprisingly—sado demonstration at the Fuzhou City Library in the afternoon.

Let’s start with the calligraphy competition.

Aside from the entire thing being rather poorly run (we were given paper but not mats or ink, the tables were way too small, and the paper was way too big), my fatal mistake was that I submitted a piece of semi-cursive calligraphy.

As I walked out of the room, I noticed that everybody else had submitted regular script.

I froze. Did I misread the requirements? No—the brochure stated clearly that we were free to submit any script we’d like. So did everybody submit standard script because of personal preference?

As I walked to the lobby, a classmate came up to me and said, “Hey—what script was that? The one you just submitted. I can’t really read what it says.”

I laughed, “It’s semi-cursive.”

“Oh,” she replied. “Perhaps the judges will like that your piece is unique?”

I shrugged. We both knew my submission would be cast off to the side because there wasn’t anything to compare it to. It’d be extremely difficult to rank it against under pieces if the script is totally different.

It was 3:30. The sado demonstration had just begun. I hadn’t had matcha in months, and the thought of potentially tasting some again compelled me to leave.

The awards ceremony for the competition was at 4:30, but I wasn’t planning on sticking around. I dashed out of the building and hopped onto the subway train, ultimately making it to the library by 4:15.

It was a demonstration on bonryaku, the first temae I had learned when I was living in Kyoto. It was interesting as I had never heard sado being explained in Chinese before. The audience—mostly local tea connoisseurs and people affiliated with Fujian’s tea industry—were curious about how to grade and price matcha, whereas in my past experiences with American classmates, people typically ask about the wagashi.

In the end, I got to whisk and drink a nice hot bowl of matcha, and the instructor mentioned that while small, there is an Urasenke community in Fuzhou (or at least there was five years ago). She offered to contact them for me and see if they’re still active. If so, I’d finally be able to practice tea again! Fingers crossed~

Textiles and Tea

I woke up early Friday morning to visit my friend the tea arts professor. She had some other instructors she wanted to introduce me to. But, with everybody being busy, our meeting would be limited to 30 minutes.

While this wouldn’t be enough to talk about much, it would at least be a good introduction, and I might get to meet up with them again later. When Fulbright told us that research in China requires a lot of connections and playing guanxi cards, I didn’t realize the extent to which this is necessary. I’m very fortunate to have made so many friends through traditional arts.

We arrived at the offices at 9:20, and water was already boiling. Two other middle-aged ladies were chatting. One was an office assistant, the other was a tea merchant. After introductions, I found out that the tea merchant primarily sold white tea, which I had been curious about anyways.

Upon deeper inquiry, I decided that this would be one main focus during my stay in Fuzhou. White tea seems to be a primary example of shifting tea cultures in the region. To be clear, this is all from hearsay—I’ll need to do more research before being sure. Despite having gone unnoticed for most of Chinese history, there were a few policies enacted in 2013 that aimed to boost white tea production while also regulating the use of pesticides in growing white tea. This has led to a boom in white tea production and sales, with people collecting white tea cakes in a fashion similar to puer cake collection (although it’s nowhere near that expensive… yet).

And now, white tea is being touted as this healthy, anti-inflammatory, all-natural tea, with some recent data showing that white tea production and consumption in China has steadily grown over the past five years, likely as a result of the new policies.

But while these agricultural policies create more supply, they don’t create demand. The demand is being generated through marketing white tea as healthier, and now through tying it to the greater realm of Chinese tea culture. As one of the professors mentioned, this is difficult to do because although “white tea” as a term is in pre-modern texts, it doesn’t actually refer to the white tea we consume today.

But nonetheless, the industry seems to be fairing rather well from the health-oriented marketing alone. Fuding, where a lot of white tea is produced, is near Mt. Taimu, a major tourist attraction and scenic park—which is nice because the foot-traffic alone is enough to sell tea. I wonder if the pairing of tourist destinations and tea production is a conscious decision on part of local (or perhaps national) policy-makers. It certainly helped sell tea and promote an aesthetic of literati-in-nature-drinking-tea in the Ming, and it’s fun to see how this is being reimagined in the present day.

Okay. Enough about white tea, for now at least.

The meeting ended up lasting eight hours rather than 30 minutes. We drank a few rounds of tea, had lunch, and then went to a textiles workshop to drink more tea. Over the course of eight hours, I was treated to a wonderful assortment of rougui, shuixian, and white peony—all Fujian specialties. I also got to meet artisans working to create tea-based dyes for textiles (this is another side of tea as a commodity that I haven’t begun to dig into).

After a long day and plenty of new friends, I went back to campus…

Only to meet another new friend.

Huang Yu is a doctoral candidate writing his dissertation on ink stones. Could this get any nerdier? Perhaps not. He’s also a wonderful calligrapher. And he speaks Cantonese. We connected really well, and after gifting me a box of chrysanthemum tea, he invited me to come join him in calligraphy lessons some time.

At this rate, I’ve met so many people (both young and old) in traditional arts that I don’t know if I’ll have enough time in my life to learn from them. But at the very least, I’m glad I know them and can pay them visits in the future—they’re all doing some very cool things.

Chirp Chirp

I had the opportunity to meet up with one of my Chinese professors from Pomona last week. He had spent the first few months of his sabbatical in China teaching various courses, and now he had come to Fuzhou to visit friends.

Our day began at the West Lake Hotel where he was staying, and after two of his acquaintances arrived, we went to visit Pingshan to stroll through the garden there. It was a beautiful modern Chinese garden with some Suzhou influences, but also meant to be a general public space. It was newly renovated and featured a variety of trails that led up to Zhenhai lou (literally, the Tower which Suppresses the Sea).

The building was originally built on Pingshan, the northern tip of Fuzhou’s three mountains, as a geomantic site to divert calamities from the ocean (in other words, typhoons). Whether or not that was successful, the tower was demolished during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been recently restored. According to Prof. Lin, one of our guides, Fuzhou hasn’t had a major typhoon since the restoration, and there are a variety of internet theories on why the tower actually works.

Prof. Chen, our other friend, shook his head at the claim, saying that there hadn’t been major typhoons since he was born—and he had been born decades before the tower was rebuilt.

Nonetheless, it was a grand tower with a spectacular view. The basement of the tower was a rather well-designed exhibit on Fuzhou history. It was much more interesting than the provincial museum, and featured a Qing-dynasty map of the city.

While I hadn’t noticed this on any modern map, the old map revealed that Fuzhou was built with some serious geomancy in mind. Pingshan, where we currently were, marked the northernmost corner of the city and protected it from evil winds. Situated at the foot of the mountain was the temple to the city’s protector. Then, towards the southeast and southwest were two mountains with pagodas on top of each of them as well—almost reminiscent of Toji and Saiji in Kyoto.

Currently, the provincial government offices are headquarted adjacent to Pingshan, and the city’s administration is located near the two southern mountains, with the city center nestled within the triangle formed by the three mountains.

According to Prof. Lin, the city expanded over time, and it wasn’t until the Qing that places like Cangshan (where Fujian Normal University’s old campus is) got incorporated into the city.

As we look around the main tower, we had a conversation that I think would only happen when three Chinese literature professors come together.

“That calligraphy on the building is terrible,” Prof. Chen said.
“Right?” Prof. Lin chimed in. “It looks like it’s going to fly away.”
“Mhm,” Prof. Chen nodded. “Semi-cursive isn’t the right script here. A building of this size needs Yan Zhenliu’s style of standard script.”
“Yup,” said Prof. Lin. “The current calligraphy can’t hold the building down.”

Now, while I could tell that the calligraphy on the building was a bit off, I didn’t have any suggestions on how to improve it. I had thought that perhaps something a bit more formal like clerical script would be a good match. But then again, like Prof. Chen said, standard script—especially a bold one like Yan Zhenliu’s—would be best.

From there, we went off to lunch. Prof. Chen had some errands to run, so he bid us farewell at the restaurant. Lunch was a buffet, and while my Pomona professor and Prof. Lin argued over who’d pay, I was stunned by the selection—especially the desserts.

Now, I know I had a close encounter with pre-diabetes from Pomona’s delicious raspberry-chocolate cake, but I hadn’t indulged myself since graduation, so my body would surely be able to take the hit.

After a few rounds of hot pot and main dishes, I came back with an egg tart, two kinds of cake, and a mango drink. Ah, much better than Oldenborg.

Prof. Lin had a meeting to attend, and so it was me and my former professor for the afternoon. We went to the provincial museum, which was even more disappointing than the first time I went, if that was even possible. Only one exhibit was open, and it was a regular Friday afternoon.

After the disappointing exhibit, we set off to Sanfang Qixiang, Fuzhou’s premiere tourist destination. I enjoy walking around, even if it just means browsing through the same shops over and over again.

This time though, we stumbled across a museum—the former residence of a local official from the Qing. At first, I thought we had been ripped off. It wasn’t particularly interesting at all. In fact, most of the free spaces in the neighborhood looked much nicer than whatever we had paid admission to see.

Then we saw it. A mini Suzhou-style garden built within the walls of the residence. All of my memories from working at the Huntington flooded me as I recalled the points in the Craft of Gardens. It proved to be an interesting space, although, that was before I knew I’d come back the next day and find an even grander space. But I’ll save that for another post.

After spending twilight among the gardens, we browsed around the shops a bit more and found a rather peculiar bookstore and overpriced cafe. The books included a variety of languages, as well as translated books. These ranged from fiction in English (Harry Potter and Penguin classics) to translated editions of scholarly works (I found a few books by Timothy Brook, Patricia Ebrey, and other esteemed authors). There was also a really robust section on European art history, philosophy, and my personal favorite: Classical Chinese literature.

I think the store was called Timeless World? Something like that. In Chinese it’s 無用空間.

But nothing was priced and judging from the coffee prices, it was probably more than whatever I was willing to pay. But they had good wifi, and it was really aesthetic, so hey, I’d come back to browse.

Before dinner, we made two more stops: one at Minjiang University’s lacquer shop, where I eyed a particularly fine plum blossom natsume and a round tray with pine trees painted in gold leaf. (Spoiler: I ended up coming back for the natsume. I do like the tray, but my wallet is still in tears from the natsume…)

After admiring the wonderful handiwork, we eneded up eating dinner at a Japanese restaurant, which provided perhaps the fanciest hisashi soba I’ve ever had. Rather than on a an austere bamboo tray, it was presented to us in a bowl of solid ice.

Fanciest soba I’ve ever had.

Overall, dinner was quite good, but a bit too high-end for me.

To wrap up the night, we met up with Prof. Lin again, who now took us to the private room of a tea shop in Sanfang Qixiang. While the shop seemed like a cramped little space from the outside, the staircase led to a second floor that was fully furnished with at least five tables for tea. Meanwhile, Prof. Lin was on the phone with the CEO to let him know we were crashing the place.

The store manager came out to brew tea for us personally, and as she brewed the jasmine tea (which came out wonderfully), Prof. Lin prompted me to ask any questions I had. Except, curiously, Prof. Lin was the one who answered my questions rather than the store manager. Either way, I got quite a bit of insight from it, mostly on how jasmine tea has been rebranding itself as a more “elegant” tea by improving the quality of both the leaves and the buds used.

While tea connoisseurs since the Song have praised unadulterated tea for its purity, jasmine tea is Fuzhou’s local specialty, and there’s definitely a push to make it seem like it’s for the upper class by using stories and connections to imperial and political figures, such as continuously mentioning that it’s Empress Dowager Cixi’s favorite tea, and that it was served to Henry Kissinger when he visited China.

Ms. Wu, our tearista for the night.

Ultimately, when we ended the night, I was absolutely exhausted. Having walked over 25,000 steps and nearly 20 km, I dreaded waking up at 7 am for guqin class the next morning. But I was happy I could meet up with my former professor, drink some delightful jasmine tea, and even bring some samples home with me for another day!