Swallowing Bitter

Swallowing Bitter

Posted by So-Han on Jun 30th 2020

We're excited to be adding a new Sheng Pu'er, Shitou Village Gushu Cha, to our website options. I'm personally excited for several reasons.

For one, Sheng Pu'er 生普洱 is my favorite kind of tea. Specifically, Sheng Pu'er from ancient trees. More specifically, specific Sheng Pu'er from specific ancient trees.  

What I mean by this is: there is a school of connoisseurship around Sheng Pu'ers that revolves around appreciating the terroir of increasingly smaller regions. These "patches" have their own unique conditions and microclimate, and the plants living there are related to each other. The more restrained the geographical region the teas are sourced from, the more distinctive its character and the more refined the experience. For example, tea from a single mountain is more distinctive than tea from a whole region; tea from a single patch is more distinctive than tea from the whole mountain.  

This culture is represented in our catalog by single-patch Sheng Pu'ers such as Duoyi VillageBanpo Village, and Yakou Village Gǔ Shù Chá 古樹茶 ("Ancient Tree Tea"). Our farmers have access to a limited annual harvest of ancient tree material, and they combine the harvests of these different patches to create blends such as Immortal Dew. This is made from three patches with different characters to create a well-rounded tea. The Duoyi patch, the highest of the three, is known for having the sweetest leaves. The Banpo patch is known for being fragrant.  And the Shitou Zhai, or Stone Village, patch is known for being bitter.

Bitterness in Chinese has two components: Kǔ 苦 means "bitter" in the way that coffee or beer is bitter, a refreshing, satisfying bitterness at the back of the throat. Sè 澀 means "astringently bitter" in the way an underripe fruit is; it is centered on the tongue, has a "rough" texture and puckers the mouth. Kǔ 苦 can be considered desirable in teas, especially Sheng Pu'ers, while Sè 澀 is associated with inferior tea.  

There is a saying in China: bù kǔ bùshì chá 不苦不是茶 ("If it isn't bitter it isn't tea"). This is an idiom, and while I have heard it referred to many times in reference to actual tea, its larger use is to talk about the suffering inherent in life.  If it isn't bitter, it isn't tea. If you aren't suffering, you aren't living.  

This use of the word "bitter" is common in China - to refer to suffering or hardship, as reflected in the common Chinese phrase 吃苦 chīkǔ, "eat bitter," which means to endure hardship for future rewards. It is often said in China of Americans that we lack the ability to "eat bitter." Whether that is a fair portrayal of our capacity to endure hardship or not, it is noteworthy that Americans do not, in general, like to eat bitter foods. We think of the taste of bitterness as undesirable. Likewise, the idea of suffering or hardship is, for us, something to be avoided.

This Western lens leads to an interpretation of sayings like "eat bitter" as a sort of resignation to a life of hard work and deferred pleasure. This plays well into the classic American trope of the Chinese citizen as a poor, broken-spirited drone who is so downtrodden that they endure intolerable conditions because it's all they've ever known. Likewise, the phrase "If it isn't bitter it isn't tea" sounds like a sort of consolation; life is hard, but that suffering is worth it in the end.

For the Chinese, the consideration of whether life is ultimately worth living despite the hardships is a nonissue. We live, and life is full of hardship. The end. The Western condition is more acutely existential than the Chinese condition, and this is reflected not only in food preferences but in language.

It is noteworthy that when Hamlet is translated into Chinese, the immortal line "To be or not to be" is reduced to "To do or not to do." The way the being verb is used in Chinese, a literal translation is completely nonsensical. To the Chinese, you need a reason to die, but you do not necessarily need a reason to live. You live because you are alive. You do not live because you estimate the pleasures of life to be worth the hardships. You live; life has joy and suffering. These are continuous parts of a whole, not individual elements that can be excised and evaluated against each other.  

So if it is not, as it seems, a pessimistic worldview, where does it come from? A major source of this perspective is Buddhism, arguably one of the most definitive social forces in Chinese culture. In Buddhism, the first of the Four Noble truths simply states: Life Is Suffering दुःख. To strive to be happy is natural. But to seek to eliminate suffering is a recipe for disappointment. Suffering is an inextricable aspect of the nature of embodied life.  

Anyone who has spent time in China knows that the Chinese are not a miserable people. Laughing, smiling, dancing (especially old ladies), singing (karaoke), getting drunk, eating delicious food, being with their family and friends - these are pretty much the main things Chinese people are into. But they do not, in general, agonize over their suffering, but rather accept it as an inevitability as much as the sun setting at night. They will avoid hardship and suffering at all costs, as any organism will, but they do not, in my experience, tend to perform a grand "reckoning" of their joy and sorrow and evaluate from it whether they are "in the black" and that their life is worth living.  

Suffering takes many forms. The suffering due to material need is an unnecessary and much-pitied form of suffering, but the suffering of those free from material need is not eliminated. Indeed, those who enjoy material superfluity often suffer the most intensely. We observe that the increase in wealth is correlated with an increase in neuroses and mood disorders; these psychic hardships replace the physical hardships, but their burden is no lighter. To flee from suffering is to run into the arms of failure, because no embodied being can avoid it.  

At this point I would like to return to our discussion of food. Americans do of course consume some bitter foods - beer, coffee, chocolate - but these last two are frequently sweetened, and the list does not go far past there. The Chinese are genuinely fond of bitter foods, and consume them in diversity and abundance. They also consume bitter medicine - Chinese herbal medicine is notoriously bitter, and it often has to be consumed frequently and in large doses to be effective. Just as hardships endured in the present yield future gains, the taste of bitter medicine is also the flavor of wellness.  

Like life, the conventionally "positive" aspects of a tea - the Qi, the fragrance, the mouthfeel - can not be separated from the bitterness. Shitou Village Gushu Cha is much more than just bitter - it is complex, profound, mineral, clean, refreshing, satisfying. It is not these things in spite of its bitterness, but because of them. The bitterness is an innate part of its character.

Like coffee, beer, or chocolate, tea is bitter. Pu'er is genetically much closer to the ancestral tea plants than the refined and highly cultivated varietals of Eastern China that give us oolongs and green teas, and it is likewise more bitter. If it isn't bitter, you aren't drinking tea. If you're not suffering, you aren't living.