14 February 2010

If so Fated, the Brew will Find You

"Tea and people resonate with each other.  If you want good tea, you will find it when you are ready.  Actually, it will find you."

award DD jar                                        (Jar of award-winning Dong Ding from 1975)

My Dong Ding teacher pulled a box off of a high shelf in his house and showed it to me.  I’ve learned that if he’s going to let me drink something, he’ll automatically offer it to me.  If he doesn’t intend to serve it, my requests might instead earn me a lecture about greed.  Or one about asking stupid questions.

I keep my mouth shut as he opens the box and pulls a jar out.  I am salivating already, imagining what a legendary caliber of tea like this one will taste and smell like.  He gently unties the red ribbon on the jar and removes the lid.

Award DD tea
I peer inside and the tea is beautiful.  Loose, ball-like shapes and a medium brown color that reminds me of caramel.  It hasn’t been touched by fire for nearly 35 years.  The tea is alive: it’s earthy, but sweet, bold and energetic.  I snap a few pictures and my teacher smiles and quickly places the lids back on before returning the tea back to its shelf.

“Tea finds a person when that person is ready for it.   A person is ready for it when his heart and mind are clear to understand the nature of the tea water.”

As I glance at the tea placed on the shelf high above me, I feel surprisingly relieved.  How many wondrous brews have I chanced to encounter, and how many more are to come my way?  The treasures of the tea world are vast, and there will be many more opportunities to see and try new things. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 February 2010

The Story Behind the (Non) Frozen Peak

“I have been here several times now, even in the winter, and it’s never cold.  Why is this place called 凍頂 – the cold peak?  Also, why is it called a mountain when we’re not that high up?  The name doesn’t make sense to me.”

I had been sitting in the tea room of a new friend’s house on Dong Ding with some old-timers – farmers & roasting experts - when I felt comfortable enough to bring up these curiosities that had been bugging me.  My Dong Ding teacher’s cousin said it never gets very cold, and as far as he can remember, it has never snowed.  It’s also not very high (definitely not high enough to be considered a high mountain).

The gathering chuckles together.  Taiwanese chatter erupts for a few minutes, heads shake, more chuckles pass around and the tea in the pot is changed, a good sign that I’m in for a nice story. 

One of the old masters bent over in his chair and scraped around the pile on the floor. He picked up an old sheet that was the calendar page for a past day, turned it over, and reached for a pen.  On it, he wrote in 4 vertical columns and then drew what looked like a 3-legged stool.  This brief history behind the naming of the mountain, as told to me by my Dong Ding teacher, his cousin, and several other mountain old-timers, is what I’ll pass along today.

As far back as they know (probably early Qing Dynasty), 崠頂 – Dong Ding (different “Dong”) – was possibly named after a village in Fujian province, possibly where some early Chinese settlers came from (they say possibly because none of them have written records, although the National Archives probably do somewhere).  As the area was settled, it was discovered that the region’s soil was quite fertile.  To this day, the region produces famous red yams (紅薯), bamboo shoots (冬筍) and a plethora of fruits and veggies.  The greater Nantou county is home to many of Taiwan’s major tea producing mountains and is a major agricultural production center.  As the population grew, the name for Dong Ding mountain changed to Fu Ding Feng (覆鼎峰).  The name refers to a ceremonial urn that has 3 legs, which is then overturned.  The new name reflected an abstract interpretation of the topographical appearance of Dong Ding mountain.


(Imagine this upside-down; image from the Harvard Chinese Rubbings Collection)

“We promise we’re not lying to you, the mountain does look like an upside-down bowl with 3 short legs.”  One of the old-timers thought it was funny to talk about the mountain that way.  In Chinese, this type of ceremonial urn can be used as a funeral accompaniment and thus, doesn’t allude to the most fortuitous of events.  The old-timer thought it was strange that his ancestors were so senseless as to name such a special mountain after a burial urn.

DD 3 leg edited(My pic of Dong Ding as seen from Shan Lin Xi; the 3 stubs of the inverted 鼎)

Possibly realizing that the especially fertile area needed a better name than “upside down urn,” the inhabitants changed it again.  Still called Fu Ding Feng, they replaced the first two characters with similar-sounding, but more auspicious ones.  Fu (福), meaning good fortune/blessed, and Ding (頂), meaning, among other things, the top or extreme of.  Feng was possibly also changed to ”豐”which alludes to abundance, but the gathering could not agree on this.  Thus, the new Fu Ding Feng name implied extreme prosperity and good fortune. 

Why and how the name was later changed to its present moniker, 凍頂 – the cold peak – no one gathered seemed to know for sure.  It had somehow come full circle, though why Dong was replaced with “凍” is not clear.  My teacher joked that maybe everyone was too busy accumulating good fortune to think straight.

With an average temperature in the 50s to 70s and an elevation of 1500-2000 feet, Dong Ding mountain is neither very cold or very high (it is roughly 1/6 the height of Yushan).  The area of the mountain is also very small in relation to how much “Dong Ding” tea is sold, so chances are, precious little of the actual tea from Dong Ding mountain is sold around here.  That’s nothing particularly alarming, though, as the same can be said of Longjing, Biluochun, Alishan, Da Hong Pao…. 

Cold Peak?  Frozen Summit?  Frosty Mountaintop?  Nah, but it is pretty close to being the Extreme of Coolness – for tea, that is.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.