by Siyan and Patrick
We first tried Tibetan Yak Butter Tea while traveling to the town of Zhongdian 中甸, in Yunnan Province 云南, China. We immediately fell in love with both the tea and the town. At over 3000 meters above sea level, Zhongdian, known as Gyalthang or Gyaitang རྒྱལ་ཐང in Tibetan is a small traditional Tibetan town with homes made of wood, and where the random yak may wander down the cobble-stone streets that lead out to magnificent mountain vistas. No wonder the town was renamed Shangri-La 香格里拉 སེམས་ཀྱི་ཉི་ཟླ་གྲོང་ཁྱེར།. With its clean dry air, bright blue skies, soft green meadows and snow-capped mountains, it certainly seemed like paradise to us.
On the border with Tibet, Zhongdian and the surrounding area of Yunnan are Tibetan in culture as much as they are in environment. Locals are more likely to drink yak butter tea than the more popular green and oolong teas found in the rest of southern China. Unlike other tea found in China, which is often taken without adding any other ingredients,Tibetan Yak butter tea is made by adding yak butter, milk and salt to the tea (detailed instructions for making yak butter tea are at the end of the article).
Tibetans have a saying: Tea is blood, Tea is meat,Tea is life. Tea has been the main drink for Tibetans for over 1300 years. Traditionally, Tibetan tea is compressed into tea bricks and wrapped with leather or bamboo.
Tibetan tea is known as dark tea or heicha黑茶 (black tea) in Chinese, which is different from what English-speakers know as Black tea, but which Chinese call red tea or hongcha 红茶. Tibetan tea is a dark tea, but unlike Indian black tea or Lapsang Souchong (varieties of hongcha), it is not just oxidized, it is also fermented (like Pu’er tea, another kind of heicha), which means that micro-organisms ferment the tea, improving the flavor over time. This means that Tibetan tea can be stored a long time without expiring, as long as it is kept in a clean and dry place, and that it will in fact improve with age, just like a nice bottle of red wine.
Although consumed throughout the Himalayas and in every Tibetan community, the tea is in fact grown outside of Tibet, in a Tibetan region of the neighboring province of Sichuan, around the town Ya’an. The area has the perfect conditions, including high altitude at 1500 meters above sea level, where tea trees can produce the most flavorful leaves. The process of making the tea includes 32 steps, and takes 6 months to complete.
A Brief History of Tibetan Tea
Tibetan tea has a history of over 1300 years. It began during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), when the Wencheng princess was married to the King of Tibet to cement the friendship between the Tang Dynasty of China and the Kingdom of Tibet. She brought the Tibetan people three treasures of the Tang Empire: silk, pen and ink, and tea. This marriage represented not only a marriage between kingdoms but also between cultures. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, tea was traded to Tibetans for horses. Ya’an, located beside Tibet and which had a thriving tea industry, became a major trade hub beginning from that period. According to historical documents, at the time, 20kg of tea could be traded for the best class horse; 15kg of tea for a medium class horse and 10kg of tea for a low class horse. Tibetan tea was the bridge connecting these two cultures and also acted as the currency of choice.
Tibetan Tea Quality
1) Red, rich, aged, and mellow, these 4 words are most often used to describe Tibetan tea. Red: the color of the tea is deep red, like a ruby. Rich: 700 distinct aromas have been discovered so far, in Tibetan tea, and the mouth feel is plentiful and smooth. Aged: Like most kinds of heicha, aging gives it an earthy and full bodied flavor, the longer it’s aged, the better, and the higher value the tea. Mellow: There is no sourness, bitterness or astringency to the tea, even after being cooked for a long time, and it has a slightly sweet aftertaste.
2) It’s healthy.
– Low in caffeine: The less processed the tea is, the higher the level of caffeine. Tibetan tea is a dark tea. It is fully fermented and goes through 32 steps, which leaves the tea with a lower caffeine level compared to other teas, but which preserves other beneficial elements, such as L-theanine. L-theanine is known to relax nervousness and to improve the quality of sleep.
– Tibetan tea is also high in tea polyphenols and theophylline, which are known to prevent cancer, lower blood pressure, and encourage weight loss.
How to Drink Tibetan Tea
1) Kung Fu Tea Style
Put 3-5g of tea in the pot (strongly recommend using an Yixing Zisha teapot), and fill the pot with boiling hot water and then pour out after a few seconds. Pour out the first steep, then steep tea with boiling hot water again for 30 seconds and enjoy the tea from the second steep.
Generally, the tea can be steeped for over 7 or 8 times before losing its flavor.
2) Cooking the Tea
This is the most common way of drinking Tibetan tea and is the traditional method for preparation. Add 10g of tea per 800ml of water in a pot or kettle and bring the water with tea in it to a low boil for 1-2 minutes. Once it comes to a boil, simmer it for another 15-20 minutes. The steeped tea should be good for 24 hours.
3) Tibetan Butter Tea:
I love it, it’s especially suitable for a winter evening in front of a fireplace surrounded by family and friends, enjoying a great drink and conversation. This is definitely a comfort drink.
– 5g of Tibetan tea, 400ml of water
– 2 tbs of salt (Himalayan salt if possible)
– 2/3 cup of light cream
– 2 tbs Yak butter if possible, or common butter
1) Bring the tea to a low boil in a kettle or a pot for 1-2 minutes and then simmer it for 15-20 minutes.
2) Add the salt and the cream to the tea and stir it while continuing to simmer it.
3 Add 2 tbs of butter to a French press (coffee press), add the tea on top and then press the plunger of the press down. Pour the butter tea into mugs
4) Enjoy your Yak Butter Tea!
To many tea and traditional pottery lovers, Ru Kiln or Ru Yao 汝窑 is a term that conjures images of a rich, jade like texture, pure and deep hues, and a smooth yet subtly cracked surface. Here is a simple introduction to one of China’s most celebrated ceramic arts, Ru Kiln Pottery.
Ru kiln, originates in the late Song dynasty (around 700 years ago), the location of the kiln was in Ru zhou 汝州, hense the style became known as “Ru Kiln.” There were 5 famous kilns in the Song Dynasty: Ru kiln, Guan Kiln, Ge kiln, Jun Kiln and Ding Kiln. Ru kiln was labeled, “top of the 5 kilns,” and was the official royal kiln, producing products only used by the Emperor and his family. What makes Ru kiln antiques especially valuable was the short period that the kiln operated during the Song Dynasty, only around 20 years. Today only a total of 67 pieces from that period have survived. Reflecting it’s imperial origins, Modern Ru Kiln represents a form of sophisticated luxury in the tea world.
Today, Jingdezhen Masters working with traditional recipes and methods have revived the art form. Since the technique is evolving, the modern Ru kiln pieces can be made in a way that closely mirrors the techniques of the Ru kiln from the Song Dynasty. According to archaeological discoveries, the Ru kiln of the Song Dynasty was located in a village called Qing Liang temple( 清凉寺). It was in this little temple, that the craftsmen created the magical recipe for this amazing pottery- Ru Kiln.
During the Song Dynasty, there was a saying, “One would rather have one piece of Ru kiln pottery than to have a fortune”, it shows how valuable Ru kiln was. Here are the 4 specialties of Ru Kiln pottery:
1) Opening crack ( 开片 kaipian): This means the opening cracks on the glaze. When firing the pottery, and as the body expands, cracks appear on the surface of the glaze.
2) The azure glaze: There is a line from a poem that describes this specific color-“The azure in the sky after the rain”. I think this is the perfect way to describe it, by giving a great picture: It’s refreshing, pure, rich, just like Jade.
3) Grey pottery body: We can see this in some broken pieces of Ru kiln pottery in museums, the body is thin and grey color, like the color of ashes. Generally, the side walls of Ru kiln pottery are thinner than the bottom.
4, Plain: Generally, Ru kiln pottery is plain, without any painting or decoration. However, some modern artists paint some blue-and-white designs to give the pottery a bit of personality.
Nowadays, we can easily find Ru kiln pottery on the market. As we have said, there are only 67 original Song Dynasty Ru Kiln pottery in the world, so all the pottery you can find in the market is the result of either artists or factories attempting to recreate this ancient style. It is not easy to follow the traditional recipe to successfully create a high quality Ru Kiln piece. It requires ancient knowledge, professional skills and years of experience. Our Ru kiln Master 李善明（Lee Shanming) is one of the most famous and accomplished Ru kiln artists in China. His work, featured in our Shop, is among the best examples of modern Ru Kiln on the market today.
This is definitely my favorite pieces by Master Lee. The color is Shiny red (霁红汝窑). In order to add the red to the glaze, the artist needs to add iron to it, and fire it. If the temperature is too high, the iron would turn into some black metal spots, and if the temperature is not high enough, the red is dull and rusty-colored. Because of the difficulty in properly firing red Ru Kiln, it has the highest scrap rate of any color and requires a great deal more time and error to produce a piece. To me, it’s really my luck to find this perfect piece, every batch is a little different, the color in your heart, you can either find it or you can’t
Here are some tips when caring for your Ru Kiln piece:
1 Warm your Ru kiln ware a bit before pouring hot tea or water into it, and avoid sudden and extreme changes in temperature as it will cause the surface to crack further.
2, After using Ru Kiln teaware for a while, the cracks will begin to pick up the color of the tea, this is called the opening cracks effect, it’s the specialty of all the cracked porcelain. Some people like it a lot and want to see it sooner, this can be accomplished by soaking the piece in tea.
Jingdezhen Porcelain and the name China
Every Chinese child learns that the country has been making porcelain ceramics as far back as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907), and that the small town of Jingdezhen ( 景德镇Jingde town) has been the center of this craft. While Chinese porcelain is also famous worldwide, few outside of China may know the importance of this town or have even heard its name.
Jingdezhen has over 1000 years of porcelain manufacturing history. The abundance of all the required materials for ceramic production may help to explain this long history. The materials (clay and stone), fuel (pinewood) and the wrapping (bamboo) can all be found in Jingdezhen. During the Tang Dynasty, white porcelain from northern China (Xing kiln) and celadon (a blue-green glazed ceramic) from southern China (Yue Kiln) were very popular. A series of wars towards the end of the dynasty disrupted northern production and led to many white porcelain makers fleeing to the south to avoid the conflict. The town, later named Jingdezhen, welcomed these refugees. Mixing the styles of white porcelain and celadon, Jingdezhen artists created a bluish-white porcelain. During the early Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), celadon was a very popular ceramic: clean, simple and elegant, the bluish white porcelain was similar to the Ru Kilnlater developed under the Song Dynasty.
So, why is porcelain called China anyway?
Prior to AD 1004, Jingdezhen was known as Changnan town(昌南镇), the name meaning “south of Chang river.” The word “China” actually came from the pronunciation of Jingdezhen’s old name “Changnan.” During that year, the Emperor signed an agreement with a northern neighboring country called Liao, and agreed to pay them with money and/or goods each year to maintain peace between the two countries. Celadon was very popular in Liao, so the demand for this kind of green ceramics increased rapidly. The Emperor started to pay more attention to this little town, and encouraged it to develop its porcelain and ceramics manufacturing industry, at the same time renaming it Jingde 景德, after the name of the year of the Emperor’s reign.
Jingdezhen and the Porcelain Road
One cannot discuss the history of Jingdezhen without mentioning Kaolin. After the rapid increase of production under the Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279), the china clay was greatly depleted around the Jingdezhen area, leading to a search for new material. During early Mongol rule over China, known as the Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368), a new kind of clay was found in Jingdezhen – Kaolin clay. Kaolin has a high density and is also thermostable, allowing the temperature to be raised to 1300℃ during firing without destroying the porcelain. This material is also high in alumina, so the whiteness in white porcelain is much purer than previous China clay. With the invention of kaolin ceramics the world had passed from the era of soft porcelain to hard porcelain.
This period also saw a boom in cross border trade through the silk road. It was around this time that Arab merchants brought a blue pigment that contained cobalt (cobalt blue) to Jingdezhen, requesting the potters to manufacture porcelain for them decorated with this blue pigment. This is where China’s most famous ceramic export originates from, the famous Blue-and-White porcelain that later attracted so much European interest. Cobalt blue and white were popular colors used in patterns in the Arab world, and once produced for export, this new blue and white porcelain was a huge success in the Muslim World. That’s why, of the 100 Yuan Dynasty pieces of Blue-and White porcelain, there are 60 pieces in Turkey.
During the Song and Yuan Dynasty, painting over the surface of porcelain was considered tacky and fell out of favor. As the street culture appeared in late Yuan Dynasty and early Ming Dynasty (mid 12th century), painting on porcelain began to reappear and gained in popularity.
Blue and White China
Cobalt blue pigment is used to paint the pattern on the kaolin base clay body, and then a layer of transparent glaze is put over the porcelain, and then the piece is fired once in the kiln. Once applied, the blue pigment will never fade, and because kaolin is such a strong and forgiving material to work with, there is a very low scrap rate during firing. The result is the perfect candidate for early mass-production and exporting.
This Blue-and-White porcelain quickly became very popular in Asia and Europe during the 16th century, as there was no ceramic like it outside of China. During the Ming Dynasty, a Muslim Chinese sailor working for the Emperor, named Zhenghe, sailed to southeast Asia and Africa (AD1405 – 1433). While travelling, he carried a large amount of blue and white porcelain to give as gifts to the kingdoms he encountered. From then on, Jingdezhen Blue-and-White porcelain came to symbolize China for the rest of the world. It was also at that time that the sea wave pattern in cobalt blue became popular.
During the Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644), the multi-colored(五彩 wucai) style of porcelain was perfected and popularized.
During the Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912), enamel was brought into China and popularized by the Qing emperor – Kangxi(康熙). However, this kind of porcelain never gained the popularity of previous forms as it had been kept within the Imperial court as the Emperor’s personal hobby. It wasn’t until much later, only the last few decades in fact, that a few Jingdezhen artists have revived this technique.
The five famous kilns producing porcelain during the Song Dynasty were: Ru kiln, Ge kiln, Jun kiln, Ding kiln and Guan kiln. The techniques once lost during the late Song Dynasty due to war, were brought back by Jingdezhen artists during the Ming Dynasty and have been subsequently passed down to later generations of Jingdezhen artists.
The secret of 1000 years.
The ceramic industry has lasted for over 1000 years in one small town, and it has given the country an international historical influence. What’s the secret?
1) Local availability and abundance of building materials and fuel.
2) Support from the Emperor: Since the Yuan Dynasty, Jingdezhen has gained Imperial support, including contracts, finance and protection. During the Ming Dynasty, official kilns were also built in Jingdezhen. Official Kilns only produced porcelain and ceramics for the exclusive use of the royal family, and even the manufacturing process was under the supervision of an official sent by the Emperor. It ran under strict guidelines and all of the paintings on the porcelain were created by artists from the court. Only 4 pieces of porcelain were chosen out of 100 pieces to be sent to the royal family, the rest of the porcelain had to be smashed to pieces and buried. This production was not be shared outside of the royal family.
3) Division of Labor: By the Ming Dynasty, the division of labor in the porcelain industry had been well developed in Jingdezhen. To make a cup required 72 separate steps and required several dozen workers. This division reduced the training and learning time of new workers by simplifying the work of each craftsman, and therefore encouraged more people to join the industry.
4) Demand: From the story of the Blue and White porcelain road, we can see that Jingdezhen craftsmen have a history of being sensitive to the demands of the market, and using creativity and innovative materials to produce truly unique art that is popular worldwide.
The artists from our studio QingKexuan清可轩, hold the highest respect for this history and consciously follow the techniques that have been developed over the centuries. Every time I pick up one of their teapots or cups I can feel the precipitation of history and respect for the craft and artistry of Jingdezhen porcelain. The product is a message from the maker developed through each step in the production process. The first time I bought a piece of Jingdezhen porcelain – a cup – I told the seller that I was going to place it on the shelf, because it was so beautiful and not as cheap as the factory-made cups from the supermarket. He waved his hand, “Don’t. It’s a cup, use it how it was meant to be used. Through use it will develop character and soul.” He was right, we should use the porcelain the way it was meant to be used. This is the tie that binds the artist, the porcelain, and the user.
Chinese Dynasties and dates mentioned in this article:
Tang Dynasty (AD618 – 907)
Song Dynasty (AD960 – 1279)
*Yuan Dynasty (AD1271 – 1368)
Ming Dynasty (AD1368 – 1644)
Qing Dynasty (AD1616 – 1912)
*Yuan Dynasty is the Chinese name given to the Mongol Empire’s rule over China.