Many years ago, before Verdant Tea was even a whim, David sat along the ruins of an old classical garden overlooking the Hudson River, tracing Chinese characters over and over again. He had made a bet with an old friend that he could learn two hundred characters a week for the next four months. The sound of the river flowing down to New York was interrupted by a phone call. “Come to my office, I want to throw an idea your way.
That was David’s advisor and mentor, who just took him back into the Chinese program after he renounced it for philosophy only a year earlier. Her idea was more of a command, as they often were. “You need to go to China on a research grant. We need to get grant proposals in or we won’t be eligible next year.” That was that. David was going to China again. He had been many times before- first to teach Kindergarteners in Xi’an. That trip was revelatory for many reasons. First, there was the hospitality and kindness that David discovered China had a bounty of. Also, there was the epic water balloon fight. David promised his students a patently American game if they all studied hard. Imagine being chased down by a pack of 35 wild kindergarteners wielding water balloons.
Of course, it wasn’t all water balloons in China. It was the philosophy, language and art that brought David back time and time again. Over summer language programs, David made many friends, including the dynamic and spunky Weiwei, who would step into a much larger role as Verdant Tea began to form years later. David studied ancient texts, practiced calligraphy, and had every intent at continuing on to graduate school and becoming a professor of ancient Chinese linguistics.
Now he was supposed to hastily write and win a grant to do sustained research. He went back to the river, considering the many possibilities. Should he look at the modernization of written language? No, that had been done many times before. What about a translation project? No, he already had a grant to work on a Tibetan travelogue and collection of folk stories. That would just be too much of a good thing. Plus, how do you pitch to your family that you are going to be away for so long to do such abstract and academic work? What is linguistics anyways? How do you explain what you are working on at the dinner table? It is all so incredibly abstract and out of reach. Of course, that is part of the joy in delving deeper, but still. There had to be something.
Then David remembered a fleeting moment in the city of Qingdao. The tea market. Of course! Every day on his trek across town to and from class, David would walk by a mysterious building. It felt different than the shopping malls, the jade markets, the silk stalls. It was so… quiet. David would peek in the windows without wanting to disturb anybody. Inside he saw stacks of tea discs wrapped in rice paper, and stamped with woodblock prints. There were tiny little teapots, unadorned and unglazed sitting in glass cases. There were piles of vacuum-sealed foil bags filled with tea. It was intriguing to say the least.
One day David worked up the nerve to peek inside the market. He thought that all the vendors would immediately start trying to sell their goods, and he was even prepared to buy a little tea to take back to the dormitory. Yet, the market was quiet. The gentle strumming of a zheng was playing on someones tape player. There was the sound of water boiling and pouring. Quiet laughter echoed down the hallway. A woman saw David come in as she was pouring tea for a group. “Come in, sit down, have a cup of tea.” Those words were the beginning.
David found himself tasting tea after tea in the smallest of cups. The day started with Tieguanyin, a floral and rich oolong, and moved to black teas and pu’er from Yunnan. While the tastes, smells and textures of the teas were intriguing to be sure, it was the ritual that David noticed most, the air of civility and contemplation. A handful of humble leaves scooped out of a bag, passed around to admire the shape, color and smell. The tea brewed in a way that shows off the quality of the leaf, tasted in small cups to appreciate all that the leaf had to offer. What David stumbled upon was a ritual, beautiful and ancient, that represented the abstract concepts of appreciating the moment, being humble, hospitable and seeking the best in all things. Yet, it expressed these old ideas through all the senses. Philosophy and literature steeped in a cup, tasted, touched, listened to, smelled, and admired. What could be better?
David brought the implements of tea ceremony back to America to share with friends, but thought of tea as a personal experience, a small way of focusing on that which is most beautiful in life. This ritual was shared with close friends and colleagues, and at the time, that was enough.
Tea indeed! Of course, a research grant on tea made sense. What better a way to continue research on the intricacies of language than exploring an entirely new way that communication occurred? David would approach the study of tea ceremony as a translator approaches a text. The end result would be seminars taught on the subject, articles, and more sharing. The romantic lure of the project was the prospect of sharing this “quiet space” that is tea with more and more people. If the ritual of tea drinking could withstand the Chinese revolution, and the fastest modernization process of a people ever in the history of the world, while still maintaining a purity of form, then tea could be a vessel, a panacea for the lives we live if it could only be treated with the contemplation given to it in the tea rooms of China.
This conviction was the beginning of a grand adventure, fragments of which are retold in short stories like “An Afternoon in Laoshan Village,” or “Dragonwell Village.” The goal of David’s tea adventure in China was to get a better understanding of the state of tea culture in modern China compared to it role in people’s lives years ago.
First, David returned to the tea markets asking for an education in tasting. He spent months and months tasting tea, learning what makes each tea unique, and understanding how tea is judged in China. He would be asked to taste 20 or more Tieguanyin samples from the same farm and put them in order from 1st to last picking, in order of elevation, leaf quality, and more. He went through months of tasting the lowest grade pu’ers, challenged by master Wang Yanxin to find something beautiful in the worst pu’er before trying the best.
Next David trained in tea ceremony at tea houses and in the markets, learning how to pour water, how to measure tea, how to hold the tea objects with grace. He would be forced to use thick childish gaiwans and teapots until his hands could withstand the heat of boiling water. Only then was he trusted to pour tea with the priceless antique porcelain collected by the masters. Once, the owner of a tea shop that David was studying at decided to just leave and let him pour tea and serve guests for the day. That was certainly a surprise for the customers!
Finally, David got to work directly with the tea farmers in Yunnan, Dragonwell, and Laoshan. In Laoshan especially, David had time to watch tea being picked and processed, to eat with the farmers, walk the mountain paths with them. The farmers truly took David in and taught him the most critical lessons about tea. For the proud farmers of Laoshan, tea is a connection between people. Tea that they pick with care is an invitation for the taster to visit their home by seeing the bright green leaves as fresh as the day they were picked, smelling the thick aroma of ocean mist, fresh picked tea leaves and sweet water, to taste the spring, the soil, the mineral notes of Laoshan’s rocky mountain face.
For the tea farmers David had a chance to visit, the act of drinking tea brought people together. Tea was a way to bring the landscape they respected so much into homes, into cities. David was grateful beyond belief for the time, the tea, the knowledge given to him freely by those who devoted their lives to the humble plant. At first David wondered why tea people were so generous. As his research continued, it became clear that there was no other way for a tea person to act. It is part of the culture. A tea person is grateful for the chance to give and share, grateful to be a host, grateful to pour tea into another’s cup.
After the research project was over, Laoshan village felt like a second homeland. David had to move to China with his wife Lily and become a tea person too. There was no other way. David and Lily taught literature at Qingdao University to some of the brightest most hopeful students ever, excited beyond belief to be learning. They spent all the afternoons and weekends with tea friends, eating together, shopping together, having fun together.
Yet, fate intervened. David and Lily were not meant to enjoy the benefits of tea culture for themselves. The research project was started with the goal of sharing tea and the beauty it brings to everyday life. The goal was not to move to China, it was to “translate” tea for a western audience.
Family circumstances out of their control forced an early return to the United States, bringing an abrupt end to their time in China. Just as they began to think that they would be living in China for the next several years, they had to say goodbye to new friends and pack their bags, not knowing what a new life back in America would present for them.
David and Lily brought back hundreds of pound of tea, teapots and tea objects, not knowing when they would have a chance to return to China. With no plans, no home, and a suitcase of tea, David started doing tea tastings, first in homes and offices, then at a local tea house. He began to write articles about tea, film videos. He found the tea communities online like Steepster.
David realized that tea would keep following him. In China they talk about tea flowing through the veins. Perhaps when enough tea flows in a person, it becomes essential to who they are. David started a website, the very first Verdant Tea. The name verdant came from the character for tea. The word is composed of two parts, a phonetic element indicating pronunciation and a second element that contains the meaning. This second piece looks like grass growing from the earth. it means green, grass, living matter, or ‘verdant.’ Verdant, the character, is what makes the word tea mean tea. This first website was a simple collection of early articles and videos filmed in David’s little apartment.
David wanted to talk about tea, to share it with as many people as possible. He wanted to repay the hospitality of his tea friends by passing it on to others. He owed it to the farmers, the shop owners, the tea master who spent so much of their time helping him understand what tea was about. Unfortunately, the plan wasn’t working. Nobody was reading the articles, nobody was booking tastings. David realized what was wrong- there was no tea! You can’t just tell somebody about the revelatory quality of sipping the finest most arresting teas prepared using the rituals of ceremony without sharing the tea itself.
David got on the phone with Weiwei, his old tutor from Qingdao University, and asked if she would help him buy some tea from his old friends in the markets and on the farms. She was more than happy to help. David decided to get only pu’er because it was compact and easy to ship, and if nobody wanted any, he could keep it for the rest of his life. David and Lily withdrew their entire saving and sent it using Western Union to Weiwei, nervously awaiting the hundred pounds of pu’er on the way.
When it arrived, it felt like a miracle had occurred. Everything was intact, all the pu’er was there, and it was some of the best that David had ever tasted. He organized a tea tasting and invited everyone he knew. The miracle continued to grow when the entire cache of pu’er was sold at the tasting with people asking for even more. David buckled down, learned some web code and got a tea site up on the internet. The response was fabulous. Suddenly people were reading the articles, watching the videos and drinking the teas. People got it. David was happier than he could have imagined to be sharing tea in the way his friends in China want it to be shared.
From this initial success, Verdant Tea grew into the force it is today. Now, we are able to share tea so far and wide that the friends David made in Qingdao can try out any new innovation without worrying because we will buy their whole crop. They can send their daughter to college so that she can help make Laoshan a better place. Weiwei continues to help us find the best teas in the world, and as a result, she is opening a non-profit reading room-teahouse-library for youth in her hometown. Pu’er master Wang Yanxin has been able to open a large shop in Qingdao representing farmer cooperatives in Yunnan. Of course, most importantly, tea is being shared all over the world. The more we grow the more risks we are able to take in bringing in unique teas, the more projects we are able to fund, and the more articles, videos, and podcasts we can afford to produce. May Verdant Tea continue on the trajectory set by all the fateful events that lined up for David so perfectly to share and strengthen the culture of tea
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