CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Old Man Min's Tea | China Heritage Quarterly

Old Man Min's Tea

Zhang Dai 張岱

Translated by Duncan Campbell
The Australian National University


The late-Ming historian and essayist Zhang Dai 張岱 (1597-ca. 1684) disliked drinking wine; his connoisseurship of tea (its varieties, the utensils used in its brewing and drinking, above all, the varying qualities of the water used), however, was second to none in his own time, except perhaps to the man he immortalises in the item from his Dream Memories of Tao'an 陶庵夢憶 translated below.

Zhang's friend Zhou Monong 周墨農 had tried to introduce the two men on a previous occasion, without success. Once they established their friendship, in the manner told of below, the two 'got on as if we had know each other all our lives,' Zhang Dai tells us elsewhere, in the 'Preface' to his History of Tea 茶史, 'and not a day would go by without us sharing a cup of tea together'. Sadly, apart from this Preface, Zhang Dai's history, discussed in detail with Min Wenshui 閔汶水, is no longer extant.—Duncan Campbell

Zhou Monong had told me that he thought I would never manage to drink a cup of Min Wenshui's tea. During the Ninth Month of the wuyin year [1638], when I travelled to the secondary capital Nanjing, as soon as I got ashore, therefore, I set off towards Peach Leaf's Ford to call upon him. It was already quite late in the afternoon by the time I arrived and I found that Wenshui had gone off elsewhere. When he eventually returned, he turned out to be a rather frail old man. Just as we had begun to exchange pleasantries, however, he suddenly leapt to his feet and exclaimed:

I've left my walking stick somewhere or other!

With which, he took off again. 'I've not come all this way for nothing', I told myself, resolving to I sit down to await his return, however long it took. It was the first watch of the evening before he finally turned up again. Peering at me, he said:

So, you're still here! What is it you want?

'I've long admired you, and I'm not going to leave here without having a good drink of your tea', I replied. This seemed to please him greatly and he got to his feet again and went over to the brazier to boil some water. In a flash, tea was brewed.

He led me into another room with clear windows and clean side tables upon one of which sat a teapot from Bramble Brook near Yixing and a variety of about a dozen teacups from the Imperial Kilns of the Chenghua [1465-87] and Xuande [1426-35] periods, all quite exquisite of design. In the light of the lamp, the tea was indistinguishable in colour from that of the teacup itself, its fragrance quite overpowering. I exclaimed in wonder.

'Where's this tea produced?', I inquired.

Paradise Garden in Suzhou.

I considered his reply as I took another sip. 'No its not', I said, 'you really shouldn't try to make a fool of me. It has certainly been produced in a very similar manner, but its taste is quite different'.

Disguising a smile, Wenshui retorted:

And so you know where it's from, then, do you?

After taking another sip, I replied: 'Why is it so similar to the tea from the Luojie district of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, I wonder?'

Remarkable; truly remarkable!

Wenshui's tongue poked out in astonishment as he said this.

'And so, tell, where is this water from?', I continued.

Beneficent Spring near Wuxi.

'Now you are doing it again!', I said immediately. 'Were it to be from that spring, it would have had to travel over a thousand li to get here. But this water has lost none of its pristine chestnutty flavour'.

Alright then, I'd better tell you. This is in fact water from Beneficent Spring, but taken from a newly sunk well. On a still night one waits until the new spring begins to gush up, then you draw the water up as quickly as possible and pour it into vats, the bottoms of which have been lined with mountain rocks. And then, if there is not a good wind up, the boats don't set of! So, although the water is slightly inferior to ordinary Beneficent Spring water, the effect of the rocks is that it remains far better than water from anywhere else.

Once again he shot out his tongue in astonishment, then he was off again, mumbling to himself as he did so:

Remarkable, really quite remarkable!

In a moment, he returned, a pot of tea in hand. Pouring me a cup full to the brim, he said:

Now, try this.

'An aroma overpowering, a taste full-bodied; this must be made with early spring tea leaves, I think. The previous cup was of tea picked in the autumn', I judged.

With a guffaw of delight, Wenshui declared:

In all my seventy years I have never met anyone who understands tea as well as you.

From that day forth we were the best of friends.




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