Tag Archives: China

Tea for three

Yesterday, I had a lovely time in Vancouver having Afternoon Tea with two friends. Jennifer took Tamina and I to Urban Tea on Georgia Street in Vancouver. It is a beautiful tea room, windowed on the south side. The staff is genteel, the tea list extensive, and the tiny morsels that accompanied it delicious. It brought to mind Laura Childs‘ tea shop mysteries which are a fun read on rainy days. Death by Darjeeling, the English Breakfast Murder, and Chamomile Mourning, to name a few. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, the protagonist, Theodosia Browning, exposed me to conversation about tea that seemed more like talk about wine. I had not known there were so many particulars. But, today, for instance, the tea sommelier showed me their gold tip Assam before I left, explaining the initials that mean it is the best possible tea of this variety. I did not know there was such a system but I do know how to appreciate a good cup of tea. I learned to drink Assamese tea in the mid-1970s…strong and served with cream and sugar. I fell in love with it and have sought it ever since. I have a treasured tea tin from Harrod’s, which my mother brought me from London. Tea is in vogue, once again, though I don’t know if it will ever eclipse coffee or the Starbucks invasion. In the 1990s, my father-in-law and I used to banter about which had more caffeine or black tea. I don’t think I will ever know and I’ve seen articles which support both positions.  Along with tea, of course, comes the serving implements. I have a lustrous brown ceramic teapot I bought at Saks Fifth Avenue in Florida but, as much as I like it, it drips. I don’t know how to prevent it in making a teapot, but it makes a big difference, especially if one is using a freshly laundered tablecloth. Two days ago, at Caffe Divano, I had a lovely Yunnan tea, smoky and rich, served in a little black pot with a metal mesh insert for loose tea. It was the perfect tea after walking four miles. Teapots are originally from China and the first ones were quite small. “The Chinese historically drank the tea directly from the spout,” according to the Wikipedia entry for teapots. “The size reflects the importance of serving small portions each time so that the flavours can be better concentrated, controlled and then repeated.” There are a number of sites focusing on tea, including that of the United Kingdom Tea Council. Or you can listen to an excellent audio program by the BBC called “Tea: in our time.” Now that I have experienced Afternoon Tea, it’s time for High Tea. Perhaps at the Secret Garden?

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice very earnestly. “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll

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Bonsai and the art of mud figurines

Tiny little figures, some depicting people, some things from nature. Almost like pieces from dioramas. When I first heard the term Japanese mudmen and mudwomen, I thought, “What?” Investigating, I learned they are tiny figurines used with bonsai to emphasize scale. The custom moved from China to Japan. However, as the asceticism of Zen Buddhism took hold, the Japanese opted for simplicity instead. That didn’t stop them from catching on the West, though, and I was surprised to see quite modern subjects on some sites. There are many websites devoted to bonsai and one can find these ceramic figurines on most of them. Traditional figures show elderly men and women in native dress, sitting or walking, or performing tasks. Also common are buildings, bridges, and lanterns. I have yet to be bitten by the bonsai bug, but I know aficionados become as involved with them as do people who grow orchids. The tiny figurines are in our domain as ceramists and potters, though, because they are made of ‘mud’ and are slipcast, fired, and glazed. The figure of the man reading a book is from a site called Bonsai Boy of New York. It is four inches tall and two and a half inches in depth. The figure below which shows a woman trimming a bonsai is from the same site. In addition to the figurines, the dishes bonsai are grown in are also ceramic…some rustic looking earthenware, others elegantly decorated porcelain. The art of bonsai is ancient. “The container known as the pen originated in Neolithic China in the Yangshao culture as an earthenware shallow dish with a foot,” according to this Wikipedia post. The same article states that “Penjing generally fall into one of three categories classified by subject matter: Tree Penjing, Landscape Penjing, and Water and Land Penjing. Japan’s bonsai tradition (bonsai being the Japanese pronunciation of penzai) is derived from penjing.” The origins of the art of growing tiny trees is shrouded in myth, but the most recent knowledge that is certain comes from the Tang Dynasty. “Penjing seeks to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts,” according to the site. Taoist ethics have never been divorced from the art and opposites are involved, too. Yin and Yang. Mini Forest is another site that sells the figurines, as is Bonsai Figurines. The Bonsai Exhibition of the Hong Kong Flower Show is a good place to see these assemblages created by people who are experts in the tradition. Here are some photos from this year’s show: Figurines in Penjing. If you’d like to learn more about mud figures, please take a look at the Art of Bonsai Project site’s story called “Art of the Mud Man.”

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NY Times: Lead contamination in Chinatown glazes

Chemical symbol for lead

When I saw the porcelain spoons in the photo on the Times site, my eyes grew large. The turquoise, yellow, and red glaze looked very familiar. I cannot tell you if the glazes on the spoons I saw in Vancouver were contaminated with lead, but, according to what I read today, it appears there is a high likelihood. Dr. Gerald O’Malley, who specializes in Medical Toxicology, studied bright glazes used in ceramics in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and found enough lead contamination to cause health problems. The story reporting this study was found in the online edition of yesterday’s New York Times. I saw the photo and thought, “Oh, my!” I have seen many such glazes here in the Vancouver metropolitan area…on porcelain spoons and matching bowls and tea pots. After reading this article, I would not want to take a chance on them without having a stamp of approval from health officials. The ceramic pieces O’Malley’s team studied, which proved to be contaminated, came from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Chinatown. In addition, The Times quoted O’Malley as saying, “If it’s happening in Philadelphia, it’s happening in other Chinatowns in other cities.” (I am now wondering about my white porcelain spoons I bought in Chinatown in Vancouver. They have a clear glaze and no decoration.) The Times story made me think not just of the Chinatown in Vancouver’s east side, but also the huge Asian malls in nearby Richmond and smaller ones scattered around the area. In addition, many local mom and pop stores  often have tiny Chinese ceramics sections. There have been many scares pertaining to Chinese goods here, from tainted melamine to heavy metals in pharmaceutical preparations to dangerous chemicals in Chinese wines sold in Chinatown. A widely publicized toy scare hit North America a few years ago. It’s okay to say buyer beware, consumer beware, but there is no way to tell with some of this stuff. So I am grateful for this article. In the story, O’Malley made clear that the stores were not at fault, saying “the vendors should have the assurance that they’re buying from sources who are in compliance.” He continued, saying, “The vendors are getting bad press here, but we want them to be helped by this, not hurt. I’m hoping that the F.D.A. will do a formal investigation and in the end track this to the source.” I wonder if Health Canada will follow suit here. Environmental contamination that we cannot control on an individual basis is such an issue, we need to be vigilant about the areas we can act upon. Countries that import products from China must take an active role in ensuring the safety of these products because such oversight will not or does not take place in China in a manner that inspires confidence. I also feel very badly about the production potters who must work around such toxins in China.  At home, here, it is up to the health, environmental, and import agencies of the countries of the importers to make sure ceramic ware is safe for the public. If glazes in Chinatowns throughout the world are selling wares that may have lead glazes, action needs to take place immediately. Pieces here need to be tested, then the results of the testing need to be made public…as soon as possible. The dangers of lead poisoning need to be reiterated to the public. Chinatown, Chinese mall and small-business vendors need to be made aware of the potential for danger with the ceramic wares they sell. (It is possible the City Desk at the Vancouver Sun is already aware of this Times article, but the matter will be brought to its attention tomorrow during the Sun‘s daily editorial meeting.) There are Mexican import stores here, too, and the ceramic wares sold in these outlets should be checked, too. In addition to lead, all of these wares need to be checked for cadmium, too…. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but this area has a huge Asian population, many traditional wares are imported and sold here and I want to know if they are safe. I am sure citizens in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and elsewhere will do the same. I just googled O’Malley’s name and there are multi-lingual references to him in current news stories on the web, so maybe change is on the horizon. Now let’s see, what is Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency….

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The History of Bricks: China

When fiancées register with department stores prior to their wedding day, they often list a china pattern. Throughout history, heads of state have served VIPs on fine china with specific patterns. But previous to researching this article, I did not know that bone china does, in fact, contain ash from animal bones. The formula Spode used for its fine china was 6 parts bone ash, 4 parts china stone and 3.5 parts china clay. I had come to take the word china for granted. I never really thought of the country; however, the country is its namesake. Ceramics has been a mainstay of Chinese culture and industry for centuries. Today, China is the largest exporter of ceramics in the world. In addition, last year, China became the largest exporter in the world, superseding Germany.  It is difficult for me to fathom the size of China when I write about it here. It is sufficient to say that the country has enormous clay deposits of every type. Last year, one of the country’s provinces made news. Archaeologists found five bricks in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province which are 5,000 to 7,000 years old, 1,000 to 2,000 years older than the previous claim. The calcined bricks, three red and two gray, were from the Yangshao Culture, “a Neolithic culture that flourished along the Yellow River, which runs across China from west to east,” according to China Radio International. This province was close enough to Beijing to reap the benefits of being near such a hub and it also lay along the Northern Silk Road. A desertous area, it borders Mongolia. “Shaanxi Province is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, according to this Wikipedia link. “Thirteen feudal dynasties established their capitals in the province during a span of more than 1,100 years, from the Zhou Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty.”  There are scads of brick manufacturers listed in the province; however, interesting news is often tempered by bad news when researching a topic.  Child labor in brick factories and child slavery reported reported recently. This is the first time I’ve reported on labor conditions in this series and, while I do not know about conditions in Mesopotamia or the Indus Valley, I did come across information about Egypt, where slave labor was used for brick works. We all know Egypt used slaves and maybe it is because it happened in the distant past, but the news about children forced to work in brick factories is heartbreaking. The heat, the silica, the heavy metals, and weight of materials. At least I can report about it in order to inform you. I was able to come across a site that explains the factors involved with the formation of the Chinese ceramics industry. “clay, fuel, river systems, and markets,” according to Chinatown Connection. “Heavy clay and large quantities of fuel are required for pottery and porcelain making. Prohibitively high shipping costs made pottery production economically impractical in areas without these basic prerequisites,” it continues. “So a locale with plentiful supplies of both clay and lumber as fuel had the best potential for setting up a ceramics kiln.” This Chinese travel site has terrific background information about clays, including the four most famous: “Violet sand earthenware of Yixing in Jiangsu Province, Nixing pottery of Qinzhou in Guangxi Province, water pottery of Jianshui in Yunnan Province, and the Rongchang pottery of Sichuan Province.” Please take a look this link, as it’s well worth your while because I must move on to bricks. Some of the most beautiful examples of brickwork in China are found in its shrines and temples, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian. The folk religion of China combines all three (Shenist). The antecedents of Taoism date back to prehistory, but the Tao Te Ching dates to the 3rd or 4th century BCE. Zhong Yue Miao, shown here, is a 2,200-year-old Taoist temple, and the oldest Taoist temple in China. The Buddhist influence in China is responsible for some of the most beautiful examples of the use of brick, too. Buddhism reached China in 2nd century C.E. via Lokaksema, a monk who translated the sutras into Chinese. Eventually, all forms of Buddhism were practiced in China and the legacy of this way of life includes its art and architecture. There aren’t a whole lot of examples left because of space needed for development or neglect, especially after the Chinese Revolution, when religion was outlawed. Certain structures were central to Chinese Buddhism, however, and the main one was that of the stupa, or pagoda. The design changed over the years: the religion and its architecture was imported from India and gradually the Indian stupa became infused with elements of Asian design. According to this Wikipedia link, during “the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties (386-618) experiments began with the construction of brick and stone pagodas.” Previous to this, they’d been built of wood and few have lasted. The first brick Buddhist one,   Songyue Pagoda, was built in 523 C.E., relatively late. Forty meters tall, it is among the fewest of its age still left and it is a Tentative UNESCO World Heritage site. It is in fair condition, but is crumbling in some areas, so I hope it does receive protected status. Personally, I am opposed to the selling of antiquities that I think should be protected or in museums; however, if you want to spend $8000 US, you could buy this brick, which came from a Buddhist temple in China. Imagine spending eight grand on a brick! Speaking of numbers, though the exact number of bricks in the Great Wall of China is unknown, this travel guide states that”roughly estimated, the length of a 1 yard wide and 16 feet tall wall built from the bricks and earthworks in the Ming Great Wall is equal to the circumference of the earth.” A military defense which started being built in the 5th century, the wall is 5,500 miles long. The height of the wall varies, so I won’t do any ciphering. The Great Wall of China became a UNESCO site in 1987. Fragmented, the wall was built to protect people from enemies throughout the various dynasties, and it is the longest man-made structure in the world. Here are some other facts about it. Many of the bricks are stamped with characters and, according to Stephen Turnbull, author of The Great Wall of China: 221 BC-AD 1644, they are the names of the makers of the bricks. It is sobering seeing this brick because up to one million people are said to have died during the construction of it over time. Turnbull said the bricks are about four times the size of a modern house brick and were “produced by the thousand from numerous kilns, some of which still exist.” Forty-eight Ming Dynasty-era kilns built for this purpose were found in Hebei Province. Actually, quite a few have been found. I also came across something else that is quite interesting, called the Great Wall of China Hoax. According to this Wikipedia link about the hoax it was, “a faked story, published in United States newspapers on June 25, 1899, about bids by American businesses to demolish the Great Wall of China and construct a road in its place.” It’s quite a story. To close this segment of our journey, I’ll leave you with a story about Richard M. Nixon, who visited the wall in 1972. During the trip with Kissinger, they even had an unannounced visit with Chairman Mao. It was later, though, that, according to the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Nixon was quoted as saying, “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall and it had to be built by a great people.”

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