Outing: West China Tea House in Austin, TX

Sohan pouring tea

In my post on tea and travel, I mentioned that I didn’t need to pack any gongfucha essentials because if I needed my gongfucha “fix,” I could visit West China Tea House in Austin, run by the tea community great Sohan of the Tea House Ghost YouTube channel. Well, I didn’t just visit once, but twice! It’s a gorgeous space in an unassuming building off of I-35 and I had a blast.

The first visit was on a Wednesday evening, around 6pm, with a friend. We sat at the communal table, where you can have tea served by one of their tea-arts-trained staff for $5 a pot. We had Ben make us tea and he shared some of his favorites with us: the Sticky Rice Sheng Puer, the Haunted Plum 1992 Oolong, and the Ultra Violet Red Tea. The sense of community is palpable and my friend and I were able to both catch up with each other, as well as make new friends at the table. We met Sohan’s wife Lindsay and their baby, Lark, and just generally had a blast. Plus, I got to taste three new-to-me teas that I immediately turned around and ordered for my own collection so I could recreate my tea house session at home, at least in theory.

Golden Turtle oolong to start the session

The communal tea table itself bears mentioning. It is a beautiful piece in dark wood, designed by a well-known tea practitioner in California and perfect for communal gongfucha. Despite practicing gongfucha for over five years, I feel like sitting at this table truly helped me understand the essential community aspect of tea. The semi-circular ledge of the table makes it easy for the host to reach all the guests from the central seat, creating a seamless tea experience that allowed the tea to be a centerpiece or an accompaniment to conversation as the session went on.

Of course, I did not get to meet Sohan that evening, as he was teaching a class the whole time. So I had to return. I went back on a Saturday afternoon, when the tea house was quiet and Sohan had just finished an Instagram Live. We immediately sat down and were able to converse like old friends, over copious rounds of teas, from oolongs to heicha. Every session was a revelation of the style of tea, and of course included stories from Sohan about sourcing each tea. I had mentioned that I had never had a truly memorable Dancong and of course was treated to an excellent one. I felt so special, treated to teas picked just for me from Sohan’s collection.

A fascinating hei cha

And of course, we talked. We talked about tea and tea houses. We talked about history and tea culture. We talked about our children and about life in general. We talked like it was college and we were staying up drinking until the wee hours of the morning. We spent three hours drinking tea and talking and I only left to make it back to my room before an event I had that evening. I could have easily spent all day at the shop drinking tea and talking with Sohan, Bernabe, and Montsho.

I will definitely be returning to West China Tea House the next time I visit Austin, but until then, I’ll be replenishing my own collection with teas from their site to help capture that thought and care Sohan puts into choosing his teas in my own personal practice.

NB: Nothing to disclose. For information about collaborating with me, see my contact and collaboration information.

Difficult History: Gong Fu Cha Isn’t the One True Chinese Tea Practice

Okay, so this is the one that I’ve been the most hesitant to write, not only because I think it might upset some self-avowed “teaheads,” but also because I pride myself on my use of good sources, and frankly, I can’t actually read many of the primary sources that I would really, really like to in this case. But I have phenomenal respect for Lawrence Zhang and his excellent article that is the main source for this post (also cited below with the one primary source I found in English). So here we go.

The concept of gongfucha as “The Chinese Tea Ceremony” is a product of political turmoil and erases the complexity and variety of culture in the country of China. And it isn’t the only way to make tea “in the Chinese style” or the pinnacle of tea brewing practice. There are not only other ways to make tea, there are other Chinese ways of making tea. And the way Westerners talk about gongfucha sometimes borders on fetishization (and it can even erase other, non-Chinese ways of making tea).

First of all, it’s important to understand that gongfucha is not an “ancient Chinese tea ceremony.” It’s not ancient, and until the 20th century it was largely unknown outside of a small area in the southeast of what we now call the country of China. Brewing loose tea leaves was not common practice among the noble class in Imperial China until the Ming Dynasty (the 14th-17th century), but loose leaf brewing may have become popular in the 14th or 15th century in the regions where the practices that influenced gongfucha originated. And while the 14th and 15th centuries are before tea came to Europe, it isn’t really “ancient.”

And then there is the fact that this practice was simply a regional method, unknown outside of the region it was practiced, until the late 18th century, when famed Qing dynasty poet and gastronome Yuan Mei published his Suiyuan Shidan in which he described the tea practice of the monks in the Wuyi mountains. And even then, he didn’t use the phrase “gong fu cha” to describe it. That came later.

Even in the 20th century, gongfucha was not a common style of tea in China. In 1937, Fuijian native Lin Yutang describes a method of steeping tea that sounds remarkably similar to modern-day gongfucha and then comments that this is “a strict description of preparing a special kind of tea…in my native province [of Fujian], an art generally unknown in North China.” The first dedicated writing on gongfucha comes in 1957 when Weng Huidong publishes his documentation of this process.

So why is this regional practice, largely unknown until the 20th century now considered “The Chinese tea ceremony” outside of China? Well, that comes from its association with the Han Chinese who fled to the island of Taiwan in the 1970s. You can read the details in Zhang’s paper, but basically, the Han Chinese who opposed the Communist Party in mainland China set about developing formal cultural arts that they felt connected them authentically to their mainland heritage.

And yet, when we practice gongfucha in the States or in Europe, there is very little acknowledgement of this history of displacement and political turmoil. We simply see it as a fancy art that makes us feel connected to another culture. And while it’s not a problem to share in a culture that has been shared with us, it is important to recognize that viewing gongfucha as the only authentically Chinese way to make tea is not only a product of deeply complicated politics, but also simply untrue. I’ve spoken before about how many people in China drink their tea in a way that Zhang dubbed “grandpa style” after the older men he saw drink this way. I personally saw that my Chinese friends in grad school drank their tea this way — loose leaves in a mug, often with a cover to keep it warm as it just steeped untimed, refilled with hot water as needed. Even in the famed Pu’erh-producing regions of Yunnan province, this is a common way to drink tea.

Finally, by focusing on gongfucha as the “true tea,” we are erasing other country’s tea practices (which is ironic, considering that Japanese tea practice directly influenced the framing of gongfucha as “the Chinese tea ceremony”), which can have deep roots in their resistance of colonialism. I have seen someone in a tea group ask for a way to make masala chai using gongfucha methods because he wanted to make it “better.” But this implies that the cultural tradition of boiling tea with milk and spices that makes masala chai masala chai is somehow inferior to our perception of what makes tea preparation “correct.” Gongfucha is not the only way to make tea (it’s not even the only Chinese way of making tea) and it is not the “best” way to make tea. And treating it as such, especially as a Westerner without a firm understanding of its complex history and modern origins, turns appreciation into fetishization.

So enjoy your gongfu tea practice. Collect your teaware. Tell receptive friends about it. But don’t treat it like it is somehow on top of a false hierarchy of cultural practices. And recognize that gongfucha, as we practice it, is not an ancient practice.

Sources:

“A Foreign Infusion: The Forgotten Legacy of Japanese Chadō on Modern Chinese Tea Arts,” by Lawrence Zhang: http://www.marshaln.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/GFC1601_06_Zhang-3.pdf

The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang (pub. 1937)

Tea and Travel

As you may be aware, the last year and a bit have been unusual. But recently, I received my second vaccine dose and not long after that, my job decided that it was time for me to start traveling for work again. What you may not know is that I actually haven’t traveled for work in almost three years, since I was pregnant, because I didn’t travel for the first year of Elliot’s life, and once I was ready to consider it again, we were plunged into isolation. So last week, I found myself back on a plane and plopped down in a new city.

And of course, I cannot travel without having a plan for my tea. Now, I love my travel gongfu set, but because I was visiting Austin, TX, I knew I could forgo a lot of equipment in favor of some simple grandpa-style brewing and teas that work well for that. Of course, if I needed a gongfucha fix, I could visit West China Tea House.

This gets at the heart of my travel philosophy: travel to the place you are going. You aren’t going to need all things for all places. If I were going to a small resort in the mountains of New England, I might prioritize different things, but going to a city where I knew there was a world-class tea house, I knew I could save space in my bag (I travel exclusively with carry-on) and focus on quick, everyday tea that wouldn’t immediately brand me as high maintenance or eccentric in my professional life. Well, at least not more eccentric…

My favorite travel brewing method is grandpa style because you just pop the tea in your vessel, add water, and go. I can use my trusty 16-oz. thermal flask that also doubles as a water bottle. And my favorite teas for brewing grandpa style are teas that don’t become unpleasantly bitter when steeped for a very long time, and teas that are large-leaf or rolled, like rolled oolongs or pearl teas. So this time, I brought my beloved Black Dragon Pearls from The Steeped Leaf, as well as a 10g sample of Pear Mountain oolong from Mountain Stream teas. I love samples for travel because they don’t take up space, I feel free to share them with interested colleagues, and I can usually finish the whole packet on my trip so they don’t take up space on the way back.

All I need at my hotel or room is a source of hot water. I try to choose teas that are not fussy about water temperature, so that I can plunk some tea into my vessel, add water, and go. In a room with a kitchenette or a shared apartment or house, I can relax with a mug and watch the leaves unfurl, but on a busy morning, I can go straight into my travel flask and be ready for my day.

If I’m going somewhere with good examples of tea culture — like when I visited Tetere in Barcelona three years ago — I try to look at my schedule and at least roughly plan when I might be able to visit the tea house during my trip. This trip, I was lucky to have two opportunities to visit West China Tea House: once with a fried as a sort of spur-of-the-moment decision, and once again on my own over the weekend. Of course, those visits deserve their own post, so watch for that this week. But exploring tea culture in the cities I visit is a wonderful way to connect with places I might not be visiting entirely by choice, but by necessity, and also scratch my tea itches. And sometimes, an enthusiastic tea artist introduces you to the most amazing aged oolong you’ve ever had…

NB: Nothing to disclose. To learn about collaborating with me, see my contact and collaboration information.