Tag Archives: China

Green tea: Mao Feng

Mao Feng

Too expensive and too light.
Green tea » Chinese teas » Oven-dried, ★★★
Also known as: Dancing Mao Feng, 毛峰

Mao Feng traditionally comes from the Yellow Mountain region in China. “Mao” (毛) means “hair”, which represents the curled, brittle leaf structure, and “Feng” (峰) means “peak”, which refers to Mao Feng’s mountainous place of origin. Despite its delicate taste, Mao Feng is a rather common green tea in China, and its price tag is never excessive.

This particular Mao Feng, though, sells for $28 per 50 grams in Australia—a price that 3-star quality doesn’t justify. Tannin is more prominent than caffeine, and there’s no lasting sweetness at all. Mouthfeel is restricted to the lips and the tip of the tongue, and the usual back-of-the-throat warming feeling (茶气) is completely absent in this Mao Feng variety. All the flavours thus seem dull, or muted.

If you’re looking for a similar tea that’s both better and cheaper, then try the lively, fruity Bi Luo Chun (碧螺春) instead. ★★★

Book: An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy

An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy
This book is advertised for $155 on the publisher’s website.

Just too scholarly. Buddhism backwards.
434 pages, ★

I’m a follower of the Venerable Master Chin Kung, a Buddhist teacher from Anhui Province in China. One highly memorable thing I learned from his lectures (which are all on YouTube), is the distinction between 学佛 (xue-fo) and 佛学 (fo-xue).

The distinction is much clearer in Chinese than English. The former, 学佛, describes the study of Buddhism with practice and spiritual belief. We can these students “Buddhists”. The latter, 佛学, describes Buddhism as an academic subject like chemistry. We can call those students “Buddhologists”. Even more beautifully, in Chinese, the words for “Buddhist” and “Buddhologist” are palindromes, implying that the latter of these opposing groups has learned Buddhism backwards.

The Venerable Master Chin Kung said:

我们是学佛,不是搞佛学,搞佛学那就是《没学》。现代人把佛学当作学佛,这个错了,观念上错了,这一步错就错到底,永远都错了!

In English, roughly:

We are Buddhists, not Buddhologists. To treat Buddhism as an academic subject amounts to learning nothing at all! When modern people make the mistake of studying Buddhism without practicing it in their everyday lives, they are failing to grasp Buddhism’s fundamental concepts [of compassion in our everyday lives]. This method is rotten to the core. Buddhology will forever be the wrong way to learn Buddhism.

Given that one of my most-respected teachers said that, how can I give this book any more than one star? It was also dry, academic, picky, and boring. Buddhism is supposed to make you feel good, but this book fails at that, too. Read Tiny Buddha or An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama instead. 

Scented tea: White Monkey Jasmine

White Monkey Jasmine

Overwhelmingly thick, smooth and fragrant. Pralines and crème liqueurs.
Scented tea » Jasmine » Traditional, ★★★

I never expected a traditional jasmine tea to have such a heavy scent. Yet, I feel a powerful praline and crème liqueur taste in this brew.

I say “liqueur” because the vapour feel (茶气) is thick and heavy, rather like breathing in over a shot of alcohol. It’s unique to find such a deep aroma in tea.

The jasmine scent here is a rich one, not a light, floral one. The aroma closer resembles praline than flowers—again, unusual for a jasmine tea.

It’s a good-quality tea, and many people would love it. But the 茶气 is just too heavy for me to enjoy regularly. While the overly-heavy aroma dissuades me from buying White Monkey Jasmine, there are plenty of people who would select it especially for that trait. ★★★

Scented tea: Organic China Jasmine

Organic China Jasmine

Well-rounded. No bitterness, no perfume. Robust enough to stand hot water.
Scented tea » Jasmine » Traditional, ★★★★★

I love this tea. Organic China Jasmine reminds me of when my Mum came to visit in Beijing (that’s the last time I drank it).

This morning, I compared two jasmine teas: Jasmine Pearls (Buddha’s Tears) and Organic China Jasmine. Both were brewed in identical shot-glasses for exactly two minutes.

I think Organic China Jasmine tastes much better. The taste is softer and sweeter than that of Jasmine Pearls (Buddha’s Tears), probably because the leaves are much smaller, and it’s prepared from zaobei leaves instead of green tea leaves.

Small, tender tea leaves tend to have more flavour. They are also more nutritious and more expensive than big ones (think how baby corn is sweeter and more nutritious than full-size corn—and more expensive, too.) The small leaves in Organic China Jasmine are more tender and delicate than those of Jasmine Pearls (Buddha’s Tears), so I’m surprised that it sells for about half the price. Even though leaves of the latter are hand-rolled into beautiful ball shapes, the former is larger volumetrically when packed, which, I’m told, makes it the more presentable option as a gift. Organic China Jasmine wins all round.

True jasmine teas (such as this Organic China Jasmine) are made from zaobei, a specially-prepared leaf distinctly different from the other six types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and dark teas). Zaobei leaf is designed not only to absorb a lot of jasmine flavour, but also to withstand the high water temperatures required to release that jasmine flavour without creating bitterness in the tea. Zaobei is sometimes referred to as the ‘seventh type of tea’ for its uniqueness (see my Tea Types 2012 diagram for a graphic representation). Artificial (modern) jasmine teas, on the other hand, can sometimes taste of perfume—this one doesn’t.

I’m very pleased with this tea. It sells for $14 per 100g in Melbourne (460 RMB per 500g) and is totally worth it—for yourself or as a gift. ★★★★★

See also my review of Jasmine Pearls (Buddha’s Tears) on jameskennedybeijing.

Green tea: Jade Ring Jasmine

Jade Ring Jasmine

Tastes too weak.
Scented tea » Jasmine » Traditional,  ★★

Dry leaf Jade Ring Jasmine has no fragrance but the leaf shape intrigues me.

Brewed as described on the packaging, this tea looks like water. It has no flavour and no aroma but does carry hints of a fudge-like aftertaste.

Vendor’s brewing directions: “Place 4-5 rings into a cup. Pour over water at 80 degrees Celsius and brew for at least 7 minutes. For a pot, use 4 rings per cup.”

Four to five rings looked like too little, so I decided to brew this tea my own way, as described below:

jameskennedybeijing’s brewing directions: Place 15-20 rings into a cup. Pour over water at 80 degrees Celsius and brew gongfu style.

Brewed stronger, the broth is still almost colourless. There is a feint aroma, but it isn’t one of jasmine. The sweet aftertaste is replaced by a bizarrely burned, smoky flavour, which is interesting but not pleasant. I prefer brewing according to the vendor’s instructions.

Instead of this tea, I recommend Rolling Clouds for its leaf shape (great for gifts), and Organic China Jasmine for its flavour (great for drinking at home). Jasmine Pearl (Buddha’s Tears) has a balance of both characteristics (taste and interesting leaf shape), yet has a much higher price tag to match.

I definitely wouldn’t buy Jade Ring Jasmine. Nor would I send it as a gift. Maybe I just haven’t yet learned to brew it properly? ★★

Black tea: Qimen Hongcha

Qimen Hongcha

Stimulating breakfast brew that’s as light as a Rooibos tisane.
Black tea » Chinese » Anhui Qimen teas, ★★★★★
Also known as: 祁门红茶, Keemun, 祁红, Qihong.

Qimen Hongcha was the original “English Breakfast Tea” before it became too expensive for the mass market. The British purchased so much of this tea in the 19th century that the price rocketed within a couple of years after they first imported it. Today, Qimen Hongcha tea costs around $10 per 100g—a price that is highly justified.

Qimen Hongcha is delightful to drink. It has light, sweet, floral overtones, but (like Rooibos) lacks undertones completely. This is one of few teas where I can clearly taste the water in the brew! There’s no astringency or bitterness, and even though many tasters note smokiness in the brew, I couldn’t feel any. The subtle fruitiness resembles dark, sugary fruits like figs and sultanas, whose lingering aftertaste develops charmingly on the palate.

Qimen Hongcha makes a great breakfast tea. It awakens you without feeling heavy—in fact, it’s as light on the palate as a Rooibos tisane. Brew it before a day’s work and you’ll feel calm and alert, with a pleasantly sweet, lingering aftertaste that stays until lunch. I love it.

I tend to prefer white, green, and the greener oolong teas, but there are a few more oxidised teas, such as Fenghuang DancongDejoo Estate Assam and this tea, Qimen Hongcha, that even I am in love with. ★★★★★

Oolong tea: Tieguanyin (Iron Buddha Tea)

Tieguanyin

Exhilarating flavour profiles that build with age.
Oolong tea » Southern Fujian » Iron Buddha Teas, ★★★★★
Also known as: 铁观音, Iron Goddess (of Mercy).

Fresh Tieguanyin is very grassy. Its leaves are a luminescent green and brew into a tippy, caffeine-and-nutrient-rich yellow-green broth. Most people don’t drink fresh Tieguanyin because it’s supposedly bad for your stomach, but if you live in China, you can ask your local tea merchant to brew some for you. Sip some and you’ll feel like it’s brushed your mouth with an entire bunch of watercress! (It’s a fun experience, but just taste it—I don’t suggest buying any.)

Six-month-old Tieguanyin tastes just right. It’s grassy, but not overpoweringly so. The leaves are a slightly darker green but still ‘jade-coloured’. The nutrients (including caffeine and catechins, which are very, very abundant in this tea) are still present and the mouthfeel is still complex. After six months, the sharp taste has developed into a smoother, blunter, creamier feel. Like the Taiwan Dong Ding tea I reviewed, Tieguanyin is a perfect choice for drinking at work. I’m drinking it now.

Older Tieguanyin tastes even more oxidised. The dry leaves will have unfurled and will have turned a disappointing brown colour. In my experience, these leaves also turn bitter much more easily than the young ones. As a fan of less-oxidised teas, I like my Tieguanyin while it’s still green.

So don’t buy Tieguanyin that you can’t see (e.g. if it’s boxed then shrink-wrapped in plastic). Invariably, these are the lowest-quality over-oxidised tea leaves packaged into (sometimes very nice) boxes by unscrupulous tea traders. They are the fruit-equivalent of compost. Aged Tieguanyin might be cheap, but it is a total waste of money—I’ve even known it to put novice tea-tasters off oolong teas as a whole. Only drink Tieguanyin with a jade-coloured leaf.

Find a good-quality Tieguanyin and you could drink it daily. But store it properly (cool and airtight but not near food); buy a little at a time (no more than 6 months’ supply); and drink it seasonally (look out for your local tea merchant’s posters that read, “Spring Fujian Teas Coming Soon/Now In Stock!” and buy some). Every tea-lover should have at least a little Tieguanyin in their tea collection. Classic. 

Oolong tea: “Oolong Formosa”

Dong Ding Oolong

Unidentified dummy oolong. Maybe a dead Dong Ding.
Oolong tea » Traditional » Taiwan, ★★

Hmm. The nomenclature’s incomplete. My local tea merchant labelled it lazily as “Oolong Formosa”. But “Formosa” means “Taiwan”, which tells us only the genus of the tea but not its species. (The same merchant sells other teas from Taiwan such as Dong Ding and Oriental Beauty, which are labelled correctly.) So I set about discovering what this mystery “Oolong Formosa” really is.

It looks like any other oolong tea with a tight curl and a relatively unoxidised leaf (about 40%, I’d say). But when I brew it, it lacks the fragrance and freshness I’d expect after examining at the leaf—the brew gives me mouthfeel but no flavour. It certainly cleansed my palate, but didn’t really leave me with any taste.

I think this mystery tea is a lower-quality pluck of Dong Ding (a Taiwan Oolong). The leaf is indistinguishable, but the pluck contains more stems. “Oolong Formosa” carries more undesirable fizziness and grittiness, and while it does give the mineral-induced mouthfeel of a quality oolong, it just tastes fake.

Oolong Formosa” is priced just a little lower than Dong Ding. Needless to say, I strongly recommend getting the real deal (Dong Ding) instead of this sleepy impostor just for the sake of a few dollars more. Dong Ding is worth every cent. Don’t skimp. ★★

Oolong tea: Dong Ding

Dong Ding Oolong

Very slightly tangy. Alert yet aloof.
Oolong tea » Traditional » Taiwan, 
Also known as: 冻顶乌龙茶

Dong Ding has the characteristic ‘buttery sensation’ (of course, without a buttery taste) that underlies all good oolong teas. This arises as the tightly-knotted leaves unfurl and change the mineral composition of the water.

This particular oolong is special for its subtle notes of tangy orange, peach and lychee. There’s a very slight acidity that tickles your mouth and leaves you feeling very refreshed (I’m tempted to replace ‘tangy orange’ with ‘lemonade’). The caffeine and catechin content is very high in this tea, so it makes you feel alert but not shaky. Dong Ding oolong tea makes you feel effortlessly energetic yet slightly automatic. It’s perfect for work.

I used to drink this tea when I taught 8 noisy English classes in China. Between classes, I’d go to the hot water machine and re-fill my mug of Dong Ding oolong tea. (Chinese tea stores can pack your chosen tea into convenient 7-gram packages).

Eventually, this tea loses its fragrance and gains astingency. Brewed gongfu style, the second and third brews are the most pleasant because the flavours need several minutes to unfurl out of the leaves. Unfortunately, for $380/kg (1300 RMB per 500g), I would expect fewer stems—or even none at all—and many more buds in the mix. On the bright side, the stems and rugged tertiary leaves in this pluck allow you to brew it all day, at the end of which, you’re drinking an inexhaustible broth of tea-stems with barely any colour. Dong Ding brews forever. It makes you work harder, and it makes you keep drinking. Take it to work. 

Oolong tea: Fenghuang Dancong

Fenghuang Dancong

Tastes naturally of honey and expensive flowers. Exquisite bouquet.
Oolong tea » Traditional » Guangdong » Mt. Phoenix, ★★★★★
Also known as: 凤凰单丛, Phoenix Single-Bush, Oolong Dancong

Fenghuang Dancong (Phoenix Single-Bush) has hints of honey, vanilla, osmanthus and pomelo over a lightly-oxidized oolong leaf. This tea is grown on the protected slopes of Mt. Phoenix in China’s Guangdong Province. Like champagne, only tea produced in this region can legally be called Fenghuang Dancong, making this tea special, rare and expensive.

I generally like the greener, fresher, less-oxidized oolong teas—in fact, the more oolongs resemble green tea, the better, in my opinion. But Fenghuang Dancong is special: despite its purple-brown leaf colour, the brew doesn’t taste particularly oxidised at all. It tastes smooth, light and floral, and there’s no bitterness. It’s extremely fragrant, not just with flowery overtones, but with fruity undertones (think about peeling a warm pomelo with honey on your lips) that are soothing and slightly warming to drink, as well. It’s a sexy tea.

I love how the level of sweetness matches the level of fruitiness. It delivers the same amount of fruit to the palate as it promises to the nose. Don’t brew it too cold, as the flavours need to be persuaded out of the leaf (by 85 degree water) and there’s no bitterness to be afraid of. This is my favourite tea. Goldilocks. ★★★★★

Book: 钟博士讲解弟子规

弟子规(钟博士讲解)
Maosen Zhong’s annotation of Dizigui (“Rules for Children”). Written in Chinese.

Recommended for all under 40 years of age. Study the original text intensely before reading.
196 pages, ★★★★
Language: Chinese 

I’m already a fan of Maosen Zhong’s teachings. Recently, I finished reading his annotated collection of classical excerpts on femininity called 窈窕淑女的标准 (which roughly translates as “How to be a Fair Lady“). I gave it five stars and recommended it for men, too.

Dizigui (pronounced ‘deetzergway’)  is an ancient Chinese classic that teaches children and adult students how to behave in daily life according to ancient Confucian principles. It focuses mainly on how to treat ones parents and teachers with “禮”, or “lǐ”, which is roughly translated as “respect”. Since Confucius placed so much emphasis on 禮, a book that fully expounds its meaning comes as a great relief.

Among the 360 rules in this book are:

  • Don’t be picky about food
  • Always get enough sleep
  • Stay away from drugs (including alcohol and karaoke bars)
  • Don’t be lazy
  • See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and read no evil.
  • …and many more, with stories to illustrate each rule.
Zhong interprets and illustrates these rules using his own (usually exemplary) experiences and the (usually erroneous) actions of others.

The original text consists of 360 lines of three characters each, which form a beautiful poem just 1080 characters long. Zhong has printed this original text in full at the beginning of the book, which you should study meticulously before reading. The author expounds each line in great detail (sometimes too much detail) later on in the book—so I strongly recommend trying to make your own interpretation of the text before reading the author’s.

All children under the age of 40 should read this book. It should be taught in all Chinese schools (and it is starting to be introduced). Accessible English versions, however, are still hard to come by. The Pure Land School of Buddhism offers the best English version, available free for download hereBetter still, I think this book should be translated as poetry. So I started. ★★★★

Book: China’s History

$45.99 on Amazon USA. ¥56.90 ($9.01) on Amazon China. I bought this from China, of course.

Read Quick Access to Chinese History before this.
210 pages, ★★★★

China’s History was first written (or at least planned) in Chinese before being produced in English. The paragraph structure and rigid coherence to China’s official historical narrative screams “China!”. All Chinese history books, including this one, tell exactly the same story. This is reassuring. 🙂

However, having already read Quick Access to Chinese History, I didn’t learn much new from this book. It just reinforced what I’d already read. There’s a little more detail on several historical events, but this could be too complicated for absolute beginners. I strongly recommend reading Quick Access to Chinese History (a clear, event-by-event summary) before reading this book. ★★★★

Book: An Introduction to Modern China History (1840–1949)

I like to reading the English. Do you?

Tragic period of Chinese history made funny by terrible English and production.
191 pages, ★★

An Introduction to Modern China History is riddled with errors, some of which are funny. Fonts and text colours change haphazardly, which indicates careless copy-and-paste jobs from external sources. Fixed-width symbols are used instead of Roman numerals, and the book suffers greatly from bad grammar, repetition and missing punctuation throughout. Historical references are sometimes questionable, too: answers.com and blogspot.com are each cited several times. I would have a field day proofreading this book.

Grave historical mistakes are also made. Confucius most certainly did not “invent” Confucianism, and the Taiping Rebellion did not occur in 1950.

The intended audience is explained in the book’s opening sentence: “Generally speaking, this book is provided to the overseas students who study in Jinan University.” The majority of overseas students in Jinan University probably won’t even open this book.

The second sentence is utter nonsense: “As a book of history, the basic historic events should be the most important material of the book”. Delete.

As a proofreader, terrible English prevented me from taking this book seriously. I learned little. Read Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 instead. ★★

Book: 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)

I finished reading this book before finally learning how to pronounce the first three characters of the title. It's "Yǎotiǎo shūnǚ de biāozhǔn", for reference. 🙂

The good life: a beginner’s guide based on Song Dynasty culture.
Written for women but highly relevant for men too.
322 pages, ★★★★★
Language: Chinese

Maosen Zhong (钟茂森) is highly regarded in China. He writes books and essays, and teaches ‘open classes’ (公开课) about traditional Chinese culture. His academic background is impressive, too: he studied undergraduate in Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, then finished his masters and doctorate degrees in Louisiana and Kansas. In 2003, at just 30 years of age, he was awarded a lifelong position as Associate Professor in Finance at the University of Queensland, Australia. Such an impressive degree collection earns one great respect in contemporary China.

Maosen Zhong uses this pedestal of respect to preach the growing movement of Traditional Chinese Culture (传统文化). His books and ‘open classes’ are mostly about history and Chinese spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. In my view, Zhong’s teachings are an attempt to plug China’s “spiritual vacuum” (a problem to which almost everyone in China acknowledges); China’s “self-racism” (which causes many young Chinese to reject Chinese norms in favor of KFC, basketball, and California); and the “moral breakdown” that’s occurred since the Communist era ended (from which corruption and other misdemeanors stem). To solve these issues, Zhong advocates moral education (伦理道德教育), a greater influence of Chinese religions in modern life and a greater respect and understanding for China’s own history and culture.

[Zhong addresses China’s] spiritual vacuum… self-racism… [and] moral breakdown

Maosen Zhong first convinces us of the need for moral education not just in China, but worldwide. He appeals to common sentiments by referring to the collapses of Enron and Lehman Brothers, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 that followed. Personally, I didn’t need much convincing: I already know that mainland China is morally bankrupt. People are kept in line by the heavy hand of the government, not by an inner sense of doing what’s right. Thank God for that heavy hand.

The Solutions: society is made up of families, which in turn are made up of people. To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

This book therefore starts at the individual level. It tells us to wake up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., to open the curtains immediately, to stretch, sweep the floor, make a lukewarm breakfast, and wash the tea leaves ready for brewing after breakfast. And so on. He teaches the tiniest aspects of a good life in polite verbatim. I feel more educated than patronized.

The book then progresses to how to look after your family. There’s a chapter on taking care of your children and a lengthy chapter on taking care of elderly parents. The most minute aspects of life are spelled out very clearly.

“Men and women are equal but different” is very clear in this book. It contradicts the Western feminist movement, which was based on the idea that “women can be men, too”. Despite the Chinese title (which intends the book to be read by “fair ladies”), the role of women is a very minor aspect of the book.

To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

Dozens of key ancient texts are quoted throughout this book, each followed by Zhong’s own interpretations of these texts in a modern context. I didn’t fully understand these text excerpts (古文), but I still get the intended message: “the ancient Chinese would have done better”.

I learned two lessons from this book: the first is, “take great care in absolutely everything you do”. The second is, “no matter how morally you think you’re behaving, you’re almost certainly not doing enough”. China should listen. How to get masses of morally-starved, money-obsessed Chinese to listen to Zhong’s teachings, however, is a tricky problem to solve. ★★★★★

Book: Quick Access to Chinese History: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century

Beautifully-produced. The cover feels like ancient paper: it even has imperfections. Made by Chinese authors and Chinese publishers in perfect English. That's rare!

No. 1 Chinese history overview. Basically China’s National Museum in print. A Syllabus.
357 pages, ★★★★★

I’ve been looking for a Chinese history overview for many months now. I tried ancient history authors like Jonathan Spence (too detailed) and Gavin Menzies (wildly outlandish); and also modern historians such as Martin Jaques (increasingly confused). Nothing has come close to Quick Access to Chinese History‘s in terms of a clear overview.

Surprisingly, this full-color book was only $8.50 (¥54) on Amazon China with free delivery. It’s entirely made in China. Since mistakes in language and production usually jump right out at me, I’m proud to say that this book is almost completely error-free! As a proofreader, high-quality editing and production makes me very happy. 🙂

History in this book is exactly the same as that in China’s National Museum: even the pictures are the same. This is important because China, unlike Britain, seems to be very sure of its ancient history. Unlike British authors, Chinese authors seldom present conflicting views or alternative versions of the last few thousand years. Quick Access to Chinese History is therefore the only version of Chinese history you’ll ever need.

Rather than waking up at 6am to get museum tickets, then skipping lunch in order to see everything, this book can be read at home with tea, chocolate and breaks for meals. It’s more relaxing.

Each of the 1000 or so events in this book warrants reading a whole other book. Quick Access to Chinese History gives you more of a reading list, or a syllabus, than an in-depth understanding. It describes the Neolithic Era to the year 2010.

Rather than brainstorm this book (as I do with all books), I made a list of topics I want to research further. My further reading list starts like this:

  • Did Yuanmou Man of 1,700,000 years B.C. really use fire?
  • What was the Ganzhi dating system?
  • Yi Ching (易经)
  • “Upamichad” (Indian philosophy)
  • Spring and Autumn Period (春秋). Mohism, Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Naturalism and Yinyang schools of thought all emerged during this turbulent period.
  • Zhuangzi (庄子) and his furthering of Daoism (道教)
  • Taichu calendar
  • Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经)
  • Communist-style land reform first occurred in 485 A.D.
  • Eight-legged essay…
  • … and many more

This is the best-value book I’ve ever bought on Amazon China. And it would make an excellent starting point for a Chinese history syllabus in a school: not just as an ancient history syllabus, but since the 20th century occupies the last 25% of the book, as a complete modern history syllabus too. I recommend this book as a history starting point for all Sinophiles. A gem. ★★★★★