30 March 2009

Yan Jiu Cha

Han Mulu engaged in smoking and drinking.
When I met him at a reception in the year wuwu 戊午
of Kangxi (1678), the cup and the pipe would not leave his hands.
I joked, What if you were to make the choice, like Mencius,
and choose only one of the two delicacies?
Han Mulu bowed his head and thought for a while.
"I would let the drink go," he then said.
This made everyone laugh.*

January 2009

Yan Jiu Cha

While I have never been inclined towards the enjoyment of tobacco, I have on occasion given in to the flavor of village smoke. Namely, locally grown, harvested, dried, and ground tobacco rolled in whatever avails itself of such a utility - be it scrap of paper or husk of corn. I cannot describe it as particularly fine tasting, but I do find the practice to be quite enjoyable. Having this year visited the Bulang village of Zhanglang, I also engaged in the chewing of betel, combined with other local plants, with the older women - a mixture they refer to as 'bing-lang'. Much to my remorse, the renowned effect of this habit did not impart itself upon my person, a problem of technique perhaps.

There is a relationship between tea and tobacco among the Bulang people. While most of the men now smoke manufactured cigarettes, there are yet to be found in the villages a number of older men and, even more commonly, older women smoking hand-rolled cigarettes or a pipe filled with the homegrown tobacco. This is found growing along the sides of houses or adjacent to arbor tea gardens. Furthermore, within the marriage customs of the Bulang the families of a couple who intend to marry may exchange tea and tobacco. According to Ai Wennan, "One bag of tea leaves and one bag of tobacco represents a boy and girl's desire to engage. Ahh . . then the two sides can be acknowledged as husband and wife, their love can be known." **

Upon my return from the tea mountains of Xishuangbanna and the vagaries of travel in remote climes, yet another discovery awaited me in Kunming, formerly known as Yunnanfu. A recently made acquaintance and fellow tea aficionado had graciously shipped a small package half way around the world. Within, a book-sized humidor which, opened, released a most pleasant aroma. Atop a thin veneer of yellow wood lay a single gingko leaf, botanical token of friendship spanning the time and distance since our introduction. Peeling back the thin protective layer revealed a number of fine, hand-rolled cigars.

That evening, Chen Jian, Zhang Qinmin, and I arrived one after the other to the teashop. We spent some time in visual and olfactory delight of these finely crafted specimens of tobacco culture as we brewed our first pot of tea. Zhang Qinmin, always prepared, retrieved a bottle from his car. We cracked the bottle, lit our cigars, and wiled away the next few hours langouring in the pleasures of fine scotch, smoke, and tea.

While in Menghai this past December a sign caught my eye, one that I had no doubt seen numerous times before but which meaning had this time stood out in quite a different way. The sign read as follows: 烟酒茶 - Tobacco Liquor Tea. As I read these three words to myself, they brought to mind my reason for being in Yunnan, to research tea (研究茶). (In the Chinese language, these two phrases are tonally dissimilar but phonetically alike - yan jiu cha). As previously stated, I have never been given to the pleasure of tobacco, having recently made exception in these parts. My fondness for the consumption of liquor has likewise diminished, though a day may not pass in the villages without imbibing ones modest share of spirits. And there is, of course, the tea! 烟酒茶 - Tobacco Liquor Tea . . . three substances that form a cross-cultural continuum of consumption and connoisseurship.

* taken from an essay by Lucie Olivova titled Tobacco Smoking in Qing China

** "这个茶叶一包抽烟一包那就代表一男一女要订婚。 哎那么就是才能两方才能承认这个夫妻,才能承认恋爱的结果." - 岩温南 (2006)