The Coronzon Press

Lin Yutang and George Orwell on tea

Lin Yutang wrote the kind of book that hardly gets written any more, books of whimsical philosophy and delightful observation of life from a background of familiarity with both Chinese and western literature. I particularly like this piece he translated in The Importance of Living (p 230), from a classic Chinese treatise on tea, the Chasu:

Proper moments for drinking tea
When one’s heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one’s thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.
Playing the ch’in and looking over paintings.
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.

Lin deals with reinfusion of the same leaves:

Strictly speaking, the second pot is regarded as the best; the first pot being compared to a girl of thirteen, the second compared to a girl of sweet sixteen, and the third regarded as a woman. Theoretically, the third infusion from the same leaves is disallowed by connoisseurs, but actually one does try to live on with the “woman”.

Lin makes clear a distinction or two:

… the ideal color of tea is a clear, pale, golden yellow, never dark red like English tea.

By contrast, I rather think that George Orwell was speaking of the tea of shopkeepers when he wrote in his 1946 article for the Evening Standard, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’:

… why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?

I haven’t seen anyone drink out of their saucer since I was a child. But perhaps they still do it up north. Given a saucer with a teacup is these days regarded as a sign of refinement or special occasion (funerals etc), I can hardly imagine anyone daring to drink out of the saucer, or even wanting to, let alone commit the ultimate vulgarity of blowing across the surface to cool it. I remember drinking out of the saucer as a habit of elderly people and children. Don’t let me get onto dipping biscuits in tea. I think one of the funniest ‘Candid Camera’ programmes I ever saw was when the guy in a cafe started dipping his biscuits in the tea of an old woman sat at the same table. Such a simple idea to provoke a fuming sense of outrage bubbling up beneath the disinclination to say anything.

I can’t say I greatly warmed to Orwell’s insistence that Indian or Ceylonese tea is to be preferred to Chinese tea, although I see where he is coming from, and of course the Chinese teas that were available to him in 1946 were probably of the cheaper variety, I doubt he had drunk a Mao Feng Keemun or a good Yunnan in a Flowery Orange Pekoe or a fine Lapsang Souchong, probably just a Black Congou or a bottom-of-the-bin teacrate-dust Oolong. Who wouldn’t prefer a ration-book Assam in those circumstances?

Orwell is a man after my own heart when he writes as one of his eleven golden rules of making tea:

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

While these days I use an electric kettle, pressing the toggle-switch in after the time it would normally want to switch off to get a good rolling boil going, I must confess to regarding it as sub-standard to a good old whistling kettle on the hob rising from a low murmur up to a full-belted shriek. I must reconsider the use of a kettle on a flame and divorce myself from this modern convenience, the electric kettle. Lin Yutang describes the boiling kettle thus:

He turns round to look at the stove, and from the time the kettle begins to sing, he never leaves it, but continues to fan the fire harder than before. Perhaps he stops to take the lid off and look at the tiny bubbles, technically called “fish eyes” or “crab froth,” appearing on the bottom of the kettle, and puts the lid on again. This is the “first boil.” He listens carefully as the gentle singing increases in volume to that of a “gurgle,” with small bubbles coming up the sides of the kettle, technically called the “second boil.” It is then that he watches most carefully the vapor emitted from the kettle spout, and just shortly before the “third boil” is reached, when the water is brought up to a full boil, “like billowing waves,” he takes the kettle from the fire and scalds the pot inside and out with the boiling water, immediately adds the proper quantity of leaves and makes the infusion. Tea of this kind, like the famous “Iron Goddess of Mercy,” drunk in Fukien, is made very thick.

Note that, he scalds the pot inside and out.

JB, Jan 27 04