Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 2- The Cultural Charcoal Traditions of China



The use of charcoal to boil water for tea is quite different in each of the traditional tea drinking cultures of China, Japan, and Korea. To understand how these tea cultures use charcoal you must first know a bit about the tea cultures themselves and their style of drinking tea. Each tea culture uses a different type of charcoal that is produced using very specific traditional techniques and is made from a very specific and deliberate local source. The type of charcoal used by each tea culture harmonizes best with the style of tea stove and kettle and the distinct tea ceremony of each country. The way these specific charcoals are prepared follows from their tea culture, the type of charcoal, the tea stove/kettle, and unique cultural traditions of each country. The following will look at the unique charcoal traditions of China, Korean and Japan. Due to length, each distinct tea culture will have its own post.

Currently, in China many consider Chao Zhou's tea culture to be the most preserved. Marshal'N's recent translation of Lin Yutang's Importance of Living gives us a good idea of how charcoal is used in Chinese tea ceremony typical of the Chao Zhou style. There are a few relevant points that pertain to charcoal that should be noted from this description. Note how the tea stove is placed under the window and how is fanned. It is placed under the window because typically the charcoals that the Chinese use tend to give off a bit of odour and maybe a tinny bit of smoke. This smoke is thought to improve the overall taste and energetics of the water, and increase the energetic connection between fire and water. In the Chao Zhou tea ceremony the tea stove is actually placed 9 steps away from the tea setting. This is done to create harmony as strong odours or smoke from the charcoal could irritate guests. Chinese charcoal is always fanned. This is done for a variety of reasons which include the quality/ type of charcoal, energetic reasons for imparting wind, as well as to control the strength of the boil.

The Chinese use a wide range of materials to make their charcoal. Often hardwoods are used. An excellent description of this charcoal is found on a translated paper on Chao Zhou gong fu found in comment #8. It states: "Chaozhou people make tea with charcoal made from the burls or twisted grain of hardwoods. The charcoal must be fired completely, so that no sap remains, and should retain a pleasant smoky scent. When tapped it should have a crisp sound, and be a deep black color. This is good charcoal to make tea with." The highest quality and most sought after charcoal in China is black olive pit charcoal. That same article goes on to say, "Even better is olive pit charcoal. Black olive pits are stripped of the fruit and fired until there is no more smoke. "It is noble like a refreshing breeze, when used to make tea, the flame is live and even, not too strong, nor too weak." This olive pit charcoal is the most precious and rare." This article doesn't mention the energetics of this type of charcoal. It is produced from a local black olive different than the black olive commonly known to those in Western cultures. The colour is energetically significant because black signifies the purist "yin" nature and is also the energetic colour of water. Olive pits are also considered yin in nature because olives are oily and therefore contain in them a connection to water. Seeds, pits, and beans are the form of food that is most energetically connected to water. Therefore all of the energetics of olive pits guide the heat given off by this type of charcoal to naturally connect to the water which it heats.

The small size of olive pit charcoal seems like the perfect fit for the small Chao Zhao tea stoves. The olive pit charcoal is considered one of the four treasures of Chao Zhao tea ceremony and provides perfect harmony to the small sand stove and clay kettle. The Tea Drunk Forum article states, "Chaozhou gongfu cha stove, clay kettle, and olive pit charcoal all complement eachother. Olive pit charcoal requires a clay kettle because so that the fragrant smoke can filter into the water and improve the water quality. The olive pit charcoal is hard to light, and requires the small clay stove, and the olive pit charcoal is a perfect fit for such a small stove."  Here you can see why olive pit charcoal is the perfect type for the Chao Zhao set up.

Fanning olive pit charcoal is done to further harmonize the energetics fire and water. Traditionally, goose feather fans were used and are considered one of the eighteen essentials of Chao Zhao gong fu. The significance of using the feathers of the goose are interesting to consider. The goose is considered one of the most yin types of animals and one of the most yin of all birds. It is observed from nature that the goose spends much more time in water than other birds and that it has a very close connection with water. In fact when observing a goose taking flight they expend much energy to distance themselves from the water. The ancients thought that this was because they have a certain affinity to water that is hard to separate. They are also considered yin because their meat and feathers are very oily. Due to this strong connection to water goose feathers are used.

Fanning actually connects water and fire though the climactic energetics of wind. All of the Five Elements has a related climactic energy- Fire is quite naturally heat and Water is damp and cold. Wood is wind. Wood is considered a bridge that connects the elements of Water and Fire. In nature it is observed that wind strengthens fire and gives it vitality. Although olives are considered a manifestation of the Wood element, it could be said that it is not as strong as real wood so the use of wind fortifies this relationship. Fanning gives the person making tea the ability to influence the strength of the boil. It allows for a quick boil so that the waters essence is not lost over a long slow boil. The goal is always a quick boil over charcoal that is not abundantly strong.

Peace

Disclaimer: Using any flammable substance such as charcoal comes with some level of risk. MattCha's Blog takes no responsibly for any harm done by readers of this blog. Please use common sense and take reasonable safety precautions when using charcoal. Always make sure there is adequate ventilation if burning charcoal inside.

Double Peace

Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 1- Introduction

2 comments:

Philippe de Bordeaux said...

Very Very interesting.
Thanks.
See You.

Matt said...

Philippe de Bordeaux,

Happy you very very liked this post!

Peace