The train speeds up through the modern cities of East China. The more we come closer to the coast, the higher the buildings are. No more forests or mountains, every plot is used. The train drops us off in Hangzhou which is very famous for its lake which attracts tourists from Shanghai during weekends and holidays to find fresh air.

 

The west lake of Hangzhou is very easy to travel by foot or bike and it is very good spot to wander. Lotus flowers, walking path and multiple floors pagodas create scenery worthy of a postal card. We enjoy the sweet life of Hangzhou and its excellent restaurants before starting our next exploration: the Long Jing tea, one of the most famous Chinese green tea.

Long Jing

Long Jing 龙井茶 means « dragon well » and as you can imagine, there is also a legend behind this charming name.

The Long Jing legend

A dragon lived in the hills closed to a spring. One day, a monk came to ask him to make it rain on the region which was suffering from drought. The dragon granted his wish and it started to rain. The spring was named « Dragon well » (i.e. Long Jing in Chinese). The Long Jing grows closed to this spring and got its name from this legend.

We have to escape the city center to discover the surrounding hills. The bus crosses small villages on the way before we arrive at Meijiawu which has produced Long Jing for hundreds of years. There is a very quiet river bordered by small white tea houses with black roof. Nearby, the terrace tea gardens overlook the village. The green leaves are so flashy that it is almost blinding.
The spring harvest is known to better reveal the Long Jing aromas and thus is the most popular and of course the most expensive. The other harvests (from summer and autumn) are less renowned. The Long Jing, victim of its own success, has to fight against counterfeiting. Some teas from Sichuan claim to be Long Jing (to get a better price) whereas it is a pale copy. But here, it is impossible to be misled, we are in the land of Long Jing. We walk around the tea gardens before admitting defeat by the sun and very hot temperature. We stop at a small restaurant of the village and the Long Jing cup costs 13€. Quite expensive so we prefer to decline the tasting offer from the owner. We see on the other tables many teapots filled with bright yellow/green liquid and the loose leaves are floating around. The Long Jing has the peculiarity of being prepared in a transparent teapot, without a filter where the tea leaves are free to float in the water.

It is time to leave Meijiawu to go to the National Tea Museum which is actually a complex gathering a museum, conference programs, trainings, exhibitions and workshops. The modernity of the place surprises us. Well designed and organized, we go through the entire tea history of China before knowing more about the different kind of teas produced in the country (more than a hundred!) And to finish, we have the chance to learn more on the production methods and the cultural habits associated with tea.
This very well-built museum adds theoretical knowledge to all our discoveries and allows us to deepen certain topics. The museum also has tea houses and we end the visit with a tea tasting (which is free!). We discover 3 teas: the long-awaited Long Jing, a black lychee flavored tea and a Jin Seng oolong.

A word about our Long Jing tasting: the young lady who orchestrates the tasting uses loose leaves from a 2017 spring harvest named Xi Hu Long Jing. The teapot is transparent and she adds the boiling water directly in the teapot. The tea leaves roll out slowly upon contact with the water. After 30 seconds, she pours the first infusion. Long-lasting taste with a sweet and mellow flavor, we appreciate the aromas of green vegetables like artichoke. She tells us that the Long Jing can be brewed 4 times but beyond that, it would lose its benefits.

 

After this tasting, we come back down the hills to admire the sunset on the blazing West lake.

The next morning, we head for the railway station. Our next step is the Jiangsu province which is known worldwide for its Yixing pottery. Before visiting the city of Yixing, we make a stop at Nanjing and Suzhou, the latter is well-recognized for its beautiful typical Chinese gardens.

The Yixing pottery

As usual when it comes to reaching by its own (and without a car!) a small town, nothing is easy. First of all in Yixing, the bus drops us off in the middle of nowhere (i.e. the wrong bus station). It seems that we did not make the right bus choice when we left Suzhou… We discover that we need to take another bus to reach Dingshan, the place where everything related to pottery takes place including workshops and retailers. Another 45 mins of bus to arrive in front of … the National Museum of Ceramics!
It seems that our explanations have not been clear enough for the bus driver! We are back on a treasury hunt to reconcile the information. Finally after 20 minutes of walking under a strong sun, we arrive at the crossroads in Dingshan. We were expecting a few streets with small pottery workshops but we need to admit that we are still naïve and that we have not yet learned the lessons of a month in China … In front of us, stand three large buildings, some kind of outdoor shopping centers. For the charm, we will come back. Finally we are there; Our problem now is the size of the place. We do not know where to start! How to choose from all these shops? We are guided by our instinct.

Did you know ?      

We can find the first clay teapots under the Song dynasty (960-1279). The first craftsmen to make them were Yixing potters. They are made with clay thus their typical red / brown color. But of course when it comes to tea in China, nothing is simple! There are many sub-categories depending on the type of clay which is used (Zisha, Zhu Ni, Duan Ni …) which will give the teapots a different color and texture. The first teapots were simple and standard models. In the 18th century, Europeans began to import more teapots so the craftsmen created new original models to meet this new demand. Thus was born the art of the potters of Yixing. Beyond their design, the Yixing teapots have the particularity of having a “memory”. Each teapot must be devoted to a specific type of tea (black tea, oolong, pu’erh etc…), its porous walls will preserve the aromas and flavors. It is said that after many years, it is possible to put water in a Yixing teapot and that it will taste the tea that has been brewed in this teapot during all these years!

All the doors have been closed to keep the freshness inside. After looking at dozen shops, we find a small shop where a man is actually working on a teapot. We get in and silently sit next to him. It is finalizing the shape of a clay teapot.

The ceramist’s hands are firm, no tremor, and only by a slight pressure of the fingers, he can imperceptibly change the shape of the clay. He uses different tools to fine-tune his work. In the light of the lamp, he scrutinizes his teapot carefully to ensure his perfect balance. He then tries to “close” it by affixing a cover on the top and the bottom. It measures very precisely the dimensions and uses a compass to cut the 2 pieces. Then, he gently affixes them and closes them with his moistened fingers. The whole thing lasted easily an hour that we spent the eyes fixed on his hands. He explains (with gestures, he does not speak a word of English!) that it is finished for today for this teapot and that he will have to wait until it dries completely to keep going.

We then visit his shop. We understand that he is a pottery master, his course is printed on the wall but everything is in mandarin, impossible to read for us! What we understand on the other hand is the explanation of the large price differences that we see in the store. A closed showcase displays the works of Master Feng Hua Rong that we saw at work. His creations range from 1,000 to 3,000 yuan (€ 125 to € 380). The other exposed teapots are much cheaper because they are “ban shou gong” which means create by other craftsmen with the help of molds. 100% handmade teapots, i.e. without the help of molds, are much more difficult, time consuming and require excellent pottery skills which need years to acquire.

We came to Yixing to admire the masters at work, to better understand the reputation of the Yixing pottery but also to buy some! As we have not found the “ideal one” in this shop, we go back in the streets looking for our dream teapot. Three stores later, we go into a very nice and modern shop. The portraits of the craftsmen are highlighted above their work. We are lucky to meet a young man, Zhuang Jie, who speaks good English and to whom we can ask all our (many) questions!

Did you know ?      

Each craftsman prepares his clay. It is first dried in the open air. Once dry, the clay is pulverized into small pieces. The pieces of clay are then mixed with water and the artisan will stir until obtaining a paste. This is left again in the open air and then placed in the oven. For this, he can use either a electric oven or the traditional oven, the dragon oven (wood).

He answers patiently with great clarity. In Yixing, being a “master” does not give any real information about the person’s talent even if this inevitably means a certain level of skills. Indeed, a young person who wants to embark on a pottery career must first find a master who will teach him all the techniques. Then every 4 years, his progress will be recorded by an exam. And if he succeeds, he will pass on to the next master level. In total, there are 5 levels. But what is a pottery exam? In the first level exams, the student must produce a teapot of his / her choice and a judges’ committee will grade his/her work. Then, in the upper levels, 3 types of teapot are imposed and the student will have to make one of them during his examination according to the choice of the judge. The perfection requested is such that 4 years are not always enough to perfect the techniques…
He answers patiently with great clarity. In Yixing, being a “master” does not give any real information about the person’s talent even if this inevitably means a certain level of skills. Indeed, a young person who wants to embark on a pottery career must first find a master who will teach him all the techniques. Then every 4 years, his progress will be recorded by an exam. And if he succeeds, he will pass on to the next master level. In total, there are 5 levels. But what is a pottery exam? In the first level exams, the student must produce a teapot of his / her choice and a judges’ committee will grade his/her work. Then, in the upper levels, 3 types of teapot are imposed and the student will have to make one of them during his examination according to the choice of the judge. The perfection requested is such that 4 years are not always enough to perfect the techniques…

Beyond these “academic” levels, there is of course the talent of the master that will make him famous or not. According to Zhuang Jie, some teapots of great masters can cost as much as a few thousand euros! He studies with a great teacher, Zhu Bin. He shows us teapots made by his master and displayed in his shop, they are worth € 12,000!

He explains that he is currently at the 1st level and that his mother, Li Meng Hua, is level 3 while his wife, Xu Ya, is at level 2. In Yixing, pottery is often a family story! Behind us, his wife sits at the table and is currently working on the teapot nozzles.

The shop also has an excellent choice of teapots which have been heated in the dragon oven. This oven, which dates from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), is started once a month to heat the creations of the master potter. Indeed the dragon oven comes from an ancestral art but has the peculiarity of modifying the color of the clay which is fancied by all the craftsmen … So we do not always know what will come out! We finally fall for a Xi Shi Teapot made of Duan Ni clay and heated in the dragon oven. It is a real piece of art made by Xu Ya’s mom. We told you it was family business !

Did you know ?      

The Xi Shi teapot has a very specific shape. It is round, harmonious, elegant and fluid. A great classic among all the Yixing teapots. Its name refers to one of the 4 beauties of ancient China. Xi Shi was the first name of a courtesan of the 5th century BC. At that time, China did not yet exist and its territory was divided among several kingdoms which were constantly at war. King Gou Jian lost a crucial battle against King Fu Chai, his neighbor. He was set on avenging himself and taught the most beautiful woman of his kingdom, Xi Shi, the art of seduction and espionage. She was given as a gift to the king Fu Chai. She bewitched him so well and so well that the king soon neglected his kingdom to devote himself entirely to her. King Gou Jian took advantage of his distraction to launch an attack against the kingdom of his hated neighbor and won the victory. Desperate, Fu Chai committed suicide. As for Xi Shi, her fate remains mysterious … Did she die drowned or did she run away with a general of Fu Chai? The rest of her life is still unknown. Even today her beauty is celebrated through the perfection of the teapots that bear her name.

We test our teapot with hot water while enjoying some tea prepared by Zhuang Jie. He explains to us that a master potter of level 3 makes between 5 and 10 teapots per month, a potter master level 4 between 4 and 5 and a level 4 between 2 and 4. Success is not lacking and they have no difficulty to sell their creations! Their customers are mainly from China where demand is strong. Made by one of the most famous potters, a teapot becomes a piece of art to handle with infinite precautions…
We complete our purchase by another teapot of the same form but smaller and more classic. Zuang Jie carefully packs our 2 teapots and 2 cups but also a tea-pet which looks like a small smiley pig. After a final cup of tea and the exchange of our email addresses, we leave the city of pottery really happy of our day.

Yixing is the last stage of our Chinese journey! Before flying to Japan, we spend a delicious afternoon in Shanghai in an old tea house known as Huxinting. In a wooden lounge overlooking a small lake, we have the chance to enjoy a nice Mao Feng green tea and a Tie Guan Yin oolong. Our little table is quickly overwhelmed with Gong Fu Cha tools, the gaiwan and the sweets which come with the tea tasting. The summer sun is filtered by the bamboo louvered shutters so the atmosphere is great for quietness and meditation. A welcome break in a fast-paced Shanghai!

Tonight, a plane is waiting for us in Tokyo to continue our adventures in the country of matcha … See you soon!

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