By James Norwood Pratt
Photo Courtesy of Jason Chen
Tea (cha) is a treasure of the world, and China is the homeland of tea. Tea is Chinese culture. And as with wine in France, tea in China at its best becomes a true work of art, largely handmade and unquestionably the least expensive of the world’s great luxuries. For most mortals, great teas or wines are only names. Whether Lion’s Peak Dragonwell or Montrachet, Anxi Tie Kuan Yin or Lafite Rothschild, we realize there’s never enough for all to have some. But for all of us, these teas and wines do represent the pinnacles, the towering Alps of the tea maker’s and the winemakers’ arts. We drink them on our knees, with our hats off, as the old author said, even if only in our imaginations.
When he immigrated to the United States, Jason Chen brought with him from his native Taiwan a wealth of Chinese art and culture, riches he carried not in his luggage but in his head and his heart. I have met no one who understands and loves tea more deeply than does Jason Chen. His remarkable books and photography take us as close as we can get to classic teas and the tea-maker’s art. To those for whom the nectar of Camellia sinensis is a form of communion, Jason’s books are a godsend. Please don’t underestimate my seriousness.
Jason is a tea master who is also a master photographer, and his images and words are bound to be of interest to anybody who enjoys good tea. But to us students of tea lore, they are simply invaluable. He enables us to understand the things he shows us as, with him, we witness the transformation of living leaf shoots into China’s greatest teas. For instance, in his first book, on oolong, we are transported to Phoenix Mountain in northeastern Guangdong Province to see single-trunk tea trees—not shrubs—that are often centuries old, the progeny of plants already ancient in the days of the Song Dynasty 800 years ago. This single-trunk varietal of Camellia sinensis is found nowhere else, nor is tea like it produced anywhere but here, at a rate of perhaps 20 pounds per leaf-yielding tree per year. Phoenix Mountain looks huge, but the number of her tea trees is finite. Their yield cannot be increased nor production hurried. Jason’s camera observes these leaves from bud to harvest and through the painstaking processes of manufacture. “Just a few people get a chance to taste it,” he comments. The other subject of this book is Anxi Tie Kuan Yin, China’s best-known oolong tea.
Four World-Famous Chinese Green Teas, Jason’s second book, provides close-ups of Longjing (Dragonwell), Bi Luo Chun, Mao Feng and Ping Shui Ri Zhu. These are cultural artifacts just as surely as foie gras or caviar are, and blessed are they who learn to enjoy them. What makes them so wonderful? The secrets of traditional tea craftsmanship have never before been laid bare and made as accessible as by Jason’s beautiful images and few but well-chosen words. Along the way, we pick up bits of botany or geography like gardening tips and of history like fascinating gossip. We learn of tea gatherings at temples in mountains 400 or 1,000 years ago, when educated men and women of like mind met to enjoy one another’s tea, talk, and poetry. The wealth of pleasure and lore in the pages before us is beyond description. Bilingual Chinese-English picture books on tea like these by Jason Chen are good cause for rejoicing among all lovers of the leaf.
Both books may be ordered directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Tea Lover's Travel Diary sells for $24.95 and 4 World-Famous Chinese Green Teas for $29.95. TeaTime subscribers who mention this review will receive a 30 percent discount.
Having served the cause of tea around the world for three decades, James Norwood Pratt is a highly regarded teacher and speaker and a recognized authority on tea and ta lore. His eponymous Tea Dictionary was published in 20120. He and his wife, Valerie, live in San Francisco.