Monday, 27 April 2009

Tea Culture in China

Tea is as much an indispensable part of Chinese culture as Confucianism and plays an important role in the daily life of the Chinese people. In modern day China, tea is not a product solely for the bourgeoisie upper class, a flask of green tea can be seen carried by every factory worker and labourer.

According to legend, around 2737BC, Shen Nong, legendary Chinese emperor and founder of agriculture and medicine, was said to have been sitting under a tree drinking boiling water when a leave fell into his cup. He saw the water change colour and tasted it, being surprised by the pleasant flavour it produced. Another legend involves the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma (Chinese: Puti Damo 菩提达摩), who meditated for 9 years facing a cave wall and then fell asleep. Angered by his laziness, he cut off his eyelids and where they fell to the ground, tea plants grew.
The Chinese word for tea is chá (茶). In ancient Chinese it was known as tú (荼), and then changed to being called míng (茗), which it is someones still known as, particularly in Taiwan. The English word tea originated from the Fujianese/Taiwanese dialect, which pronounces the word as "tê".
In China serving someone tea can be seen as a sign of respect. In old China, during a wedding, the bride and groom would offer tea to their parents, and during the ceremony of a Kung Fu master accepting a disciple, they would offer the master tea. If he accepts it, then he accepts the student. Typically, someone of a lower status would serve the person in a superior position (boss, teacher, older person etc) tea, it wouldnt be expected the other way around. In the south of China people will tap the table with the fingers to say thank you when being served. This is because an Emperor once travelled China in disguise. He served a servant tea and he was so happy he wanted to bow, but couldnt, so he just tapped his fingers so as not to give the Emperor away.

There are 5 common types of tea sold in China. Green tea (绿茶, lu cha) , jasmine tea (茉莉花茶, molihuacha), which is green tea scented with jasmine flowers, wulong (乌龙), which is semi-fermented and makes the water go a golden colour, pu er (普洱), a strong black tea which comes from the Xishuangbanna region of southwest China, on the borders of Burma and Laos, in jungle areas and tieguanyin (铁观音), a variety of wulong which comes from Fujian and Taiwan, in the southeast of China. Green tea is the most widespread and is grown in many different areas around China, particularly the south. Some good types of tea are Long Jing (龙井), which comes from the West Lake in Hangzhou, Biluochun (碧螺春), which comes from Jiangsu and the area where I live, Qingdao, sells a lot of Laoshan (老山) tea, which is grown at the local mountain, which is a sacred taoist area. Tea is never in teabags, its always loose leaves or bricks.

In China the most common way to brew tea is using a gàibēi (蓋杯), which is a lidded cup, a small jug and a small cup. Firstly, the teaware is all rinsed with hot water to heat it up. Then, tea is put into the gaibei, and then washed quickly with hot water to remove dust and it helps prevent bitterness. Then, more hot water (around 70-80c depending on tea type-the blacker the tea, the hotter the water) poured over it and left until the tea leaves open, then it is quickly poured into a small jug, from which it is served, typically in small cups. Tea can be reused several times. Another way is called Kung Fu tea and originates in the Chaozhou region in Guangdong. It is where you put a large amount of tea into a small teapot and put hot water in for a very short time, and serve it immediately into tiny shot glass sized tea cups.

Monday, 13 April 2009

my journey so far

I was first introduced to martial arts when I was 6 years old. After watching power rangers I told my parents I wanted to learn Karate, which I did for 2 years, and then when I moved to York, I started Taekwondo, but I have forgotten most of both styles.

Then, when I was 14, I began learning Wing Chun after watching some Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films. I studied for 3 and a half years, going to class 3 times a week and doing a private lesson once a week. I got my black sash after just less than 3 years. At that point I began to seriously doubt what I had learnt, after training with people from other Wing Chun classes and the fact that our training lacked intensity. Most classes I attended I ended up teaching in and when I did the black grading, I was disappointed how easy it was, everyone thought I was really good, but I felt like I wasnt, just that they all rushed through easy to pass gradings the same as me. Plus the Sifu, was always saying his way was the only way to do martial arts and other ways were no use etc. Feeling like I would never improve if I stayed there, and that I still had so much to learn, I quit.

Then, a big milestone came. I met my second Sifu, who has been my most influencial. An old school friend was also learning Wing Chun and invited me along to his class. This Sifu taught Foshan Wing Chun and was really active and enthusiastic in class and we did a good mix of training, making me realise how much was missing before and how much I still have to learn. We always had an intense warm up with running, push ups, stretches etc for fitness, stamina, strength and flexibility. Sifu thought it was important to build up the body, not jut learn drilled techniques. He was open minded to all styles and ideas and his art was alive and dynamic and I really enjoyed it. Still now I regard him as my Sifu and as the biggest influence in my attitude to martial arts.

Then I took 5 months out to travel China (including Tibet), Nepal and India. The first 10 weeks I volunteered in Xi'an and I met a buddhist monk there who taught me the basic stances, kicks and punches of Shaolin. Then, I went to Hong Kong and spent a few days training with Master Kwok Wan Ping of Yuen Kay San Wing Chun, who was a true master, and confirmed what my second Sifu taught me was right. He was almost 70 and still covered in muscles and his arms were like steel. I knew he could still fight. I went back the following year to train another few days with him. On both occasions he was welcoming to me and his wife cooked me dinner several times and they treated me in a nice restaurant.

Then I had several personal spiritual experiences in Tibet, Nepal and India, stayed in some buddhist monasteries, stayed with a Tibetan nomad family and other amazing experiences. I returned back to the UK to work for a while, saved money, studied Wing Chun again and finally found a job teaching English in Qingdao, China.

The first Shifu I met there was an old man who taught in a park on the university campus every morning. He didnt charge and didnt teach any particular styles, just techniques he thought were effective and theories from different styles like Mantis, Shaolin and Mizongyi. Then, I met after a couple of brief encounters with some different styles, I met a teacher who taught me the basics of Shaolin and a basic form. He was very strict and not very friendly to me, which taught me perseverance and discipline, but then it appeared he wasnt interested in me real kung fu, he just wanted to teach me loads of forms.

The third big milestone came when I met my current Shifu, who is a Taiji master I was introduced to by the dad of a girl I was tutoring English. He doesnt teach forms, but focusses on Tui Shou (push hands), Qin Na, and Zhan Zhuang (standing meditation). I really enjoy learning from him and his skill is amazing, he is 70, but I cant move him or touch him.

Lao Zi said "a journey of a thousand miles is started by taking a single step." I feel like all I have learnt so far is the first step in a life long journey towards mastery of myself; mind,body and spirit. In the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, a buddhist monk, Xuan Zang, journeys to the Western Heaven to get scriptures from the Buddha. He is accompanied by a monkey, a pig and 2 other students. The monkey, Sun Wukong, is mischievous and violent, but intelligent and the pig, Zhu Bajie, is greedy. These 2 characters can be seen as a metaphore for aspects of the monks mind. The monkey is always causing trouble and represents the intellect, and the pig is always eating and wanting sex, and represents desire. In martial arts we strive to discipline ourselves by training our body, calming our mind and honing our spirit. It is easy to talk about this, the hard part for me is actually doing it.

This September my real journey will begin. I am going to study at a Shaolin Academy in the mountains of Kunyu Shan, Yantai, in Eastern China. Studying martial arts full time has always been my dream and will take me to a high level that I could never achieve from doing it casually.