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The Squire's Greatest Love - Tieguanyin

Author, Photos: Gan Hou

On late autumn afternoons, the squire laid out a medium-sized flowered porcelain bowl from Fujian on his table. In the center of the bowl, he placed a crimson clay Mengchen teapot. Also, a shallow round Geyao saucer carried from southern China and four small Ruozhu Jingde teacups were laid out flat in the shape of a Chinese character.

A four tael tin can from Shantou was inscribed with: "Point to the silver bottle to search for new tea." It was filled with spring Tieguanyin from Anxi. The 250cc Yushuwei kettle was clearly too small and too much trouble. Instead, a Japanese iron kettle sat steadily on the locally made coal stove. The water had already boiled, and the squire personally pulled out a handful of tea leaves. He placed them in the scalded crimson clay teapot, picked up the kettle and poured the hot water into the teapot.

The overflow water flowed into the large bowl (haiwan), and he carefully placed the lid over the teapot. He poured the first pass of tea liquor evenly into the small teacups and again filled the teapot with water. Guests waited with baited breath as he kept track of time. No one wanted to disturb his timing. After washing the cups twice, the squire pulled the small teapot out of the bowl. Moving from left to right, he made two passes, immediately pouring the remaining tea liquor into the teacups. The air was filled with the steaming tea. In the space of a breath, the scent of tea filled the room.

The squire loved to entertain guests. He not only enjoyed drinking tea with friends, but was even more fond of tea tasting with his wife. At times his wife brought home Oolong teas from the Nangang area. The squire said that although fragrant, it was only useful for relieving thirst. Its flavor was mediocre. His friends gave him tea of the Manting Fengqi variety. The spring tea had a pleasing fragrance, while the fall tea had a rich flavor.

The squire simply brewed them half-and-half, resulting in an even color and flavor. The squire's greatest love, and the tea he came back to every day, was green Guanyin produced in Anxi. Its gentle fragrance seeped into every part of the body, while its orchid-like, but not orchid-like, and musky, but not musky, aftertaste was aimed directly at the human spirit. Innocent and profound, words were insufficient to describe it. For many years, the squire maintained a daily habit of brewing a pot of Tieguanyin after his noon nap. Even when he had no guests and his wife was out, he still consistently followed this routine.

What is it that so captivated the squire's attention? Is the floral fragrance of Baozhong from Wenshan or the "rock flavor" of Qizhong from Wuyi not equal to this newly roasted Anxi tea? Among the squire's tea brewing instruments, he had too few for brewing Oolong. They were only really suitable for Qizhong and Anxi Tieguanyin. Qizong has a has a strong flavor. The squire preferred not to drink too much liquid - three cups to quench thirst, clear the throat, and moisten the lungs.

Nothing was better for this than Tieguanyin. Its frog-green appearance and its rich body are alone sufficient to cause love at first sight. Its deep fragrance attests to its extraordinary quality, and its faint astringency appeals directly to the spirit of man. Its meditative houyun strikes directly at one's center. How many people could possibly refuse a tea with these qualities? From ancient times to modern day, tea lovers have invariably been a gifted and intelligent group. The squire was no exception.

Books of historical tales indicate that Taiwan has had tea since the Jiaqing period (1796-1820). Official historical records indicate that Fujian provincial governor Shen Baozhen lifted the ban on crossing the strait to Taiwan. Following this in 1874, large numbers of immigrants from Fujian began to arrive in Taiwan.

During the 89 years of the Jiaqing to Tongzhi periods, a continuous tide of unauthorized immigrants went to Taiwan. It is not at all news that they brought with them tea seedlings and tea production techniques. Tea has grown in Taiwan for nearly 200 years. Throughout this period, the most developed tea-growing region has always been in Taipei County. Wuyi Mountain sstriped tea and Anxi ball-style tea settled respectively in Wenshan Prefecture and Muzha.

Sixty years after Ke Chao brought tea to Taiwan, Lin Fengchi of Nantou country is said to have brought Qingxin Oolong from Wuyi Mountain. This became the basis for tea in central Taiwan, which combines ball and striped styles. These three different styles of tea, striped, half-striped, have and ball tea, dominated tea drinking culture in Taiwan for over one hundred years. In 1980, the rise of Gaoshan tea altered the situation, causing people to forget Wenshan Baozhong, Muzha Tieguanyin, and Dongding Oolong.

Tea drinkers with more than 30 years experience are undoubtedly the primary drinkers of these three types of tea. Wenshan tea is delicately fragrant. Dongding is simple and vigorous. Muzha is strong and intense. Geographical factors influence the relative status of the teas. As a child I watched my father drink tea. From central Taiwan, Ke constantly spoke of Dongding made by Su family producers. When I grew up and traveled north, everyone around me spoke of Wenshan Baozhong made by people named Hua. As I began to develop my own taste for tea, all I saw were Muzha Tieguanyin's made by people named Zhang. I remember that my father often looked forward to Wenshan Baozhong tea sent to him by the Shoulin Tea Company. He also once told me about the great taste of Muzha's Yidilu. But among his own canisters of tea, the fullest was Dongding. I noticed that his tea brewing setup was just as Lian Yatang described in his poetry. In his later years, my father gave me an Yixing teapot. The watermark on its top said "Tongchenghu Tieguanyin," and its capacity was four cups, approximately 80cc. I asked him what was so good about this teapot. He replied, "isn't it written right on the top? But I guess if the very best isn't available, a compromise will do. Next time you go to Muzha, bring me back a can of Yidilu."

My father loved to drink strong tea. He lived to be 95. He loved Dongding throughout his life, but he reserved his highest praise for Tieguanyin. Regrettably, he was never able to drink Tongchenghu Tieguanyin. Muzha tea was also rarely available to him. I have had better fortune than him. I have not only come to know numerous Muzha tea growers, but have also been able to regularly drink the green Guanyin produced personally by Yanqixiang. A kilogram of Muzha hand-processed, cloth-wrap kneaded, traditionally steamed tea 一 this pure flavor captivates the imagination. Green Guanyin, with its orchid fragrance, is a product of absolute quality. It is a pity its price is so high and quantities are so low. Over the course of my professional involvement in tea, the ecologies of tea have continued to change. These changes include the explosion in popularity of High Mountain (Gao Shan) teas, reforms in the Dongding tea growing district, and the struggles of the Wenshan tea district. Most tea growers in Muzha look to Anxi, whose Tieguanyin has also changed in recent years. Lightly fermented Tieguanyin with its golden-yellow liquor has surprisingly taken hold. In Taiwan, if you wish to purchase moderately fermented medium roast Tieguanyin, you will find it has become a very rare commodity.

Specialty coffee drinks represent an overthrowing of tradition. Iced tea drinks, likewise, represent a change from small teapot brewed tea. No matter which coffee shop you go into, if someone orders an Italian espresso, they are guaranteed to attract a sidelong glance. Cold tea drinks have captured the Taiwanese tea market, leaving small pot brewed tea as the favorite pursuit of a small minority of people. Dongding is already old enough, but who knows and still drinks Muzha or Anxi Tieguanyin? According to Jiang lie, the third stage of human life is climbing a tower alone, looking to the end of the earth, and then turning around. A love of tea is truly like this. Where the light is growing dim, it is not easy to find a fire to light the way.

Late autumn afternoons I also like to pull out my precious tea brewing instruments and prepare a brew of my self-roasted Qixiang Tiequanyin. European aristocrats spread much of their culture - for instance. red wine - throughout the world. Post-Ming dynasty China saw its culture diluted by the horse riding Aisin Gioro (clan name of the Manchu emperors). When will the squire's greatest love spread throughout the world?