Posted on February 6, 2023
There is heaven above, and Su-Hang below… and it is here in Hangzhou, China, where I returned after a three-year absence.
Truth be told, this was the heaven I needed after the past three years. Eight days of quarantine bliss, where the only voices I had to deal with were my own. A perfect recipe to re-enter a country where I had spent much of my adult life.
Speaking of perfect recipes, the first meal in my room: DongPo Rou 东坡肉, a famous Hangzhou dish named after the great Song dynasty poet Su Shi. And for someone who doesn’t get poetry, I sure spend a lot of time trying…
Su Shi’s poem: Drinks at West Lake through Sunshine and Rain (饮湖上初睛居雨) has significance, as it was written about Xi Shi, one of the four beauties of ancient China, and West Lake is said to be the reincarnation of her.
“The shimmer of light on the water is the play of sunny skies,
The blur of color across the hills is richer still in rain.
If you wish to compare the lake to the Lady of the West,
Lightly powdered or thickly smeared, she is the best.”
~ by Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101), aka Su DongPo
Returning to Hangzhou set the stage for one of those magical moments that pop up in life, where once again, the only thing is to relax, step into something new and see where it goes.
Decades ago, as a young man, I was told when the moon was just right late at night, the swaying willow trees of West Lake would transform into a beautiful goddess. I imagined her to be the ancient beauty Xi Shi.
Poets and lost souls would become enraptured by the sight of her alongside the lake and willows, and with imagination, it was almost possible to touch heaven.
There were many drunken nights where I stumbled around the lake, only to wake up humbled by the morning sun and a mouthful of willow leaves…
With this memory, my first stop out of quarantine was easy, visit West Lake to chase the ancient Chinese beauty Xi Shi once again. This myth I’ve been pursuing for the past two decades.
For most Chinese, visiting West Lake is something one must do, just like in ancient times: to experience West Lake is to experience the epitome of Chinese culture.
Poets, artists, and lovers flock here to live through the stories from Song dynasty greats comparing Xi Shi’s beauty to the lake. One famous Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, wrote about her entrancing beauty, including her in a renowned idiom: 沉鱼落雁 ~ Upon seeing Xi Shi’s reflection in the water, fish would forget how to swim… Fortunately, I am a pretty strong swimmer.
During the month I spent in Hangzhou, it was impossible to walk around the streets without imagining I was in the Song dynasty, around me a blend of achievement while not forgetting the Daoist nature of compassion and being one with nature.
Over its 2,100-year history as “the Heaven on Earth” for its culture, beauty, and romantic feel, Hangzhou and West Lake have fueled many dreams.
In times we have now, where the world is spinning wildly with epidemics, war, politics, and challenging business, it is good to have a place to escape to, to wrap ourselves up in the culture of romance.
West Lake holds the subtle Daoist culture of romance and oneness between man and nature. As cold and calculating as the world can be, Daoist thought reminds us of the flip side: art, culture, and nature to balance our lives.
West Lake is where Lao Zi’s philosophy of Daoism impacted my life, specifically part of verse 67:
慈故能勇；俭故能广；不敢为天下先，故能成器长。Lao Zi, Dao de Jing, verse 67
I have three treasures of the Dao to hold and protect.
The first is compassion.
The second is self-discipline.
The third is humility.
From compassion comes courage. From self-discipline comes generosity.
From the humility of putting others ahead comes leadership.
The advice is rooted in simplicity, which contradicts today’s modern world. We often wish to have a simple, enjoyable life, but in an age of hi-tech, where everything comes at increasingly fast speeds, we are forced to react just as quickly and move at such a pace.
We work with technology all the time, and it is easy to forget that in between all technology is human interaction. Human interaction requires compassion; it is where love is derived, and we build relationships that guide us into becoming better people.
Compassion creates a deep-seated love, giving us the courage to defend all that is good in the world. It is the creed of a great society and great people, and I do not know anyone who would not do anything to defend what they love.
At the end of the day, if there is no compassion, there is nothing.
My West Lake journey was a perfect reminder of how compassion allows people to connect with others and their culture, and from this, happiness takes seed.
Compassion towards ourselves allows us to reconcile with all beings in the world. How can we live in peace if we aren’t at peace with ourselves? At peace with ourselves, we have the self-discipline to be generous, to avoid petty arguments, prejudices, and irrelevant gossip that can veer the spirit from growth.
With a generous spirit and self-will, we broaden our thoughts. Ridiculous biases of the past are tossed aside, and we embrace the simplicity of the world. We develop the patience to be compassionate and seek a greater understanding, a genius.
Genius is not only for the few; it can strike anyone, anytime. All we need is the patience and awareness to let it happen.
Awareness… this is a bit of a problem even with me. Staring at our mobile phones, snapping photos at each moment we see, we speed through life without taking the time to enjoy the calm.
In this world of clicks, likes, and social media influencers, being bold and gregarious are traits we are taught to exemplify. There is not much self-discipline or generosity in this art – where success lacks compassion.
We understand this. See it in existence, and we can all agree that something is missing here. Yet here we are…
The irony of the above selfies and my participation is not lost. I understand the triviality of sharing the world’s beauty at the expense of not fully experiencing it as I should 🙃.
The younger me would shake his head – it’s a delicate balance to manage.
Self-discipline is needed to keep things simple. Simplicity is harder than complexity; it takes effort to think clearly.
Hiking around West Lake, I thought of all the great Chinese and Western artists and philosophers. The one thing they had in common was spending time in nature. It was part of their thought process: hiking up mountains, through fields, or around lakes. Humbled by their surroundings, they developed the discipline to unravel an idea.
Truth cannot be forced. Humility requires self-discipline and patience. From humility comes the inevitable arrival of an answer, a form of leadership. This is a strange contradiction when aligned with the high-pressure, running-with-your-hair-on-fire attitude of the modern world.
Always in a rush, we never get the answer or the spark of genius because we never let the mind relax and “be” which allows us to enjoy hidden smiles to brighten up an evening.
In this world where everything happens instantaneously, it is easy to forget we are on a humble journey. Our current evolution of having an attention span of a gnat creates superficial happiness at the expense of depth – the expense of developing emotional roots in our own lives.
I’ve mentioned this before in my writing, and again I am amazed at how important the words my sister, Sandi, wrote in a journal she gave me over twenty years ago: “Take it slow, keep it simple.” In essence, be humble.
I often forego this simple tenet, but I understand the importance of reflecting on these words… take a deep breath, roll back time, and start again.
Taking a deep breath helps when I lose sight of the simple joys life can bring and how easy it is to accomplish by sitting down and enjoying the harmony of life.
Modern life appears not to appreciate humility or simplicity. But nature does not care what kind of car you drive, what phone you use, or the diamonds and pearls you wear… Instead, sit next to a lake, stretch out on the soft grass with friends, and watch the magic of a setting sun. Nature by your side.
Without the basics of compassion, self-discipline, and humility, it is impossible to achieve the potential of who we are as humans. To over-achieve and find happiness in the simplest of things.
West Lake still holds magic for me. Its history and beauty, and the romance of culture it creates. It is where I fell for my favorite verse of the Dao de Jing. It is at the heart of who I want to be. To become.
I suppose this person is someone Xi Shi could be impressed with, and just maybe, if I can become such a man when I ascend to heaven, I can sit with her and have a cup of tea… or perhaps 一杯白酒.
When one is humble, one can be brave.
* Special thanks to my niece Miu Miu Qiu who helped with the photos, and Happy Year of the Rabbit to all on this Lantern Day Festival.
Category: China, Dao De Jing, Lao Zi, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, Travel in Asia Tagged: China, compassion, Dao de Jing, Hangzhou, Humility, Inspiration, Laozi, Nature, Philosophy, photography, Self-Discipline, Su Shi, West Lake, Xi Shi, Zhuangzi
Posted on May 29, 2013
The sweat of migrant workers is essential to bring the famous West Lake Dragon-Well Tea (西湖龙井茶) to tea mugs around the world. It is in the village of Meijiawu, the heart of Longjing tea production, where the workers proudly offer us these roasted green tea leaves, and do so with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.
Today, as I sit back and watch the dancing tea leaves swirl in rhythm with the spring water in my mug, my mind drifts back to the hills surrounding a village outside of Hangzhou city, the origin of the green tea I am enjoying. This tea is commonly known as Longjing tea, the most famous green tea in China and therefore, I believe, the most famous in the world: a true delicacy among tea connoisseurs.
The West Lake Longjing green tea I am now enjoying is special: one of the first lots of Longjing tea picked in the West Lake area this year, and with only 168 square kilometers making up the West Lake Longjing tea area there is a limited supply. Through a farmer (Mr. Yang) in the village of Meijiawu (梅家坞), I was able to explore and experience this region for a few days and accompany a group of migrant workers into the hills. Every morning, after a breakfast of steamed buns and pickled vegetables, we would make our way into the hills and pick the highest quality tea leaves available (or in my case, just photographing the picking…a much easier task!).
For me, this trip was completion of a decade long dream and one I almost failed to make as both exhaustion of travel and travel delays left me stranded elsewhere. The small harvest window for these special tea leaves (perhaps a week or so depending on the weather), made getting to Meijiawu a priority and I ended up putting together a 48-hour trek to arrive in time.
Arrival at my room at Mr. Yang’s guesthouse was pleasant enough, a place to lay down and hot water is all I need, but one surprise my first night was that Mrs. Yang was also hosting a small group of Shanghainese women for the night… and there was only a paper-thin wall separating me from a very energetic mahjong game that went strong until 3am. The ladies were very polite and hoped that I would play, but I have had many expensive mahjong lessons in China, so while it is a beautiful game, it is best to stay away from the pros!
The long night did make the 5 a.m. start a bit difficult, but the hilarious and upbeat group of peasant ladies that took me in during my time there made the mornings wonderful. One of the women, Ms. Li, provided many of the details: they were all from the same town in Anhui and have an annual contract with Mr. Yang. Every year they return to work his fields for they admire his tea (they describe it as more beautiful than the rest) and since his tea is known to be one of the best, it gives them face as well as better pay. Laughter did erupt after this explanation, as the other ladies joked “she put pay last, but actually it is our first reason!”
I have found that the migrant tea leaf pickers come to Meijiawu and the surrounding area for about one month for the tea harvest season, generally Mid-March thru Mid-April. And as in the States, when harvest season arrives all available sunlight means time in the fields. The premium tea is picked the first week, followed by later picks (and lesser quality tea leaves).
The first evening I arrived, I took a long walk up through the hills to check out the area so I could have an idea of what to shoot, with some apprehension on how open the workers would be with me photographing them. As some of the workers were preparing to return home I politely asked them if I could take a few photos of them, expecting a shake of the head or wave of the hand…but was met with laughter and teasing among the women about their future stardom. Every group I talked with enjoyed discussing their work, explaining their ideas about tea and their history in harvesting the famous Longjing. Seamlessly, photography would work into our discussions and, without a pause, the words would continue to flow as the shutter started clicking. Extreme pride in their work and their role in the industry.
The group of ladies from Anhui on my first morning were no different. After our morning introduction at breakfast there was endless joking and laughter with not too many hints of shyness or discomfort that many migrant workers have. It surprised me. Perhaps this is linked to the knowledge that:
1. They are here for only a month, and while the work is hard, they are all here with a family member or friend from their home town.
2. They know their contribution to this fascinating niche of the 龙井茶 tea industry is invaluable… A billion RMB industry annually, and without experienced migrant workers – the local plantation owners could not efficiently harvest more than a fraction of what they do now.
The spirit of these women is absolutely inspiring. The commitment to their work and the harvest reminds me of the farmers in Eastern Oregon, breaking their backs to make a living and provide for the rest of the country (and world). Being reflective and considering my work and salary (quite a bit higher than these great ladies), and I am not just humbled, but a little embarrassed… especially when after a couple hours of shooting the first small plot of land, I excused myself to go back to the guesthouse to get a few more zzzzzz’s.
Above photo: preparing the leaves prior to roasting (Longjing tea does not “ferment” as other types of teas such as Oolong, Black Tea and Pu’er).
Above photo: roasting of the tea leaves is done after picking, and while there are electronic roasters most of the high quality tea leaves are done by hand.
Above photo: sorting after roasting is an important step, making sure that only the top quality leaves are kept especially since the tea culture in China is so advanced that buyers (large tea companies or individuals) will look at the leaves presented in front of them and immediately be able to tell the quality. This makes presentation of the tea outside individual stores important as well (below photo).
There is always something special about drinking or eating a product fresh from the source, at the source. A Guinness at St. James Gate outside of Dublin, fresh oysters or salmon while sitting along side the shore on Hood Canal in the Puget Sound, or sitting in the fresh air with a glass of fresh 龙井茶 (LongJing tea) brewed with local spring water…nothing, it seems, could ever taste better.
One of the first lessons anyone will ever learn about drinking tea: water quality can be just as important as the tea itself. This is why, as it was explained to me, that almost 400 years ago, Longjing tea was declared an Imperial Tea for its exquisite flavor and appearance, and because it was brewed with the sweet Meijiawu spring water, it became historic. It is great to see how much pride there is with the locals and their tea.
Over my first cup of this year’s harvest, Mr. Yang made clear that from the tea pickers to the roasting and sorting (which him and his wife control), there is a pride knowing they are contributing to a very ancient and important craft that remains vibrant both culturally and economically in China. Along with this cultural significance, he added, the long friendships and camaraderie that is created and shared every season makes this a wonderful life. Pretty cool.
The final day ended on a fun note. As we were returning to the house, we ran into a good friend of the ladies who for the past three days was too shy to have her photo taken…but finally through the determination of the team we got the shot. I told them I would e-mail them a copy of the photo, and Ms. Li said “no, we have decided that you must also come next year and you give us all a copy of your photos…and this time, you will actually pick your own tea leaves” which ended up in laughter as we learned earlier in the day that my tea leaf picking skills are atrocious.
The immediate impact this trip has had on me is pretty obvious, and that is I have a huge affair going on with my Longjing tea right now. Granted, nothing will replace that first cup of coffee in the morning (the influence of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest), but recently putting a couple healthy pinches of those roasted tea leaves into my mug after lunch has been invigorating. Endlessly refilling my tea mug throughout the afternoon, as Longjing tea holds its flavor for a very long time, I not only get to enjoy the dancing tea leaves but I also get to reminisce about the wonderful journey of my tea from the hills of Meijiawu to my glass.
Category: China, Photography, Travel in Asia Tagged: China, Green Tea, Hangzhou, Longjing tea, Migrant worker, photography, Tea, West Lake