Out front of a restaurant overlooking the tea plantations of Hangzhou, an old Chinese man churned leaves in an electric bowl while our tour guide lectured in front of him. The guide's name was Yu, and he described the churning process being undertaken behind him. The old man was pressing the freshly picked leaves into the hot bowl with his bare hands, flattening them. Yu explained to my group of students that this part of the tea process was for men who could handle the hot electric bowl. In front of the restaurant next to ours, a woman sat doing the same routine. Yu spoke English like he did Chinese, adding “ah” to the end of almost every sentence. The result was quite humorous. “What he is doing now is pressing the tea leaves into the bowl ah. You see it is very hot ah. Only men can do this job. Women belong in the fields picking the leaves ah.” If only the strong woman next door spoke English, she could have given him a piece of her mind. More on Hangzhou after the jump....
Yu got an inspired look in his eye. “I will now tell you of a short story of Longjing tea ah. It goes back to the Qing Dynasty ah,” said Yu excitedly. He launched into a long-winded story about Emperor Qianlong, who toured Hangzhou and even worked with the tea farmers. One day news came that his mother was ill, and Qianlong rushed to Beijing. Once back in the capital, his mother asked why he smelled so good. The emperor pulled several flattened Hangzhou tea leaves out of his pocket, and made his mother a cup. Qianlong's mother recovered from her illness that very day.
In the distance a half dozen women walked through the hills that were layered with tea bushes, picking leaves. Beyond the tea hills hung forested mountains. Chickens ran freely among the tea bushes; some even climbed small trees and sat on the branches. After Yu's ah-inspiring monologue, our group walked through the columns of bushes and chatted with the tea-pickers. One laughed and even let me try on her basket, tying it behind my waist and showing me which leaves were good to pick. There was an exotic simplicity to the work. I imagined myself quitting school and working alongside the Hangzhou tea-pickers for the rest of my days. A beautiful, simple life, that's what I'd have.
Hangzhou is only a two and a half hour bus ride from Shanghai. But standing in the Longjing rice fields watching chickens play with dogs and elderly women laugh picking leaves, the two cities might as well have been on different planets.
The next day, our group took a boat tour of West Lake where I finally saw the inspiration for the on the back of RMB 1 bills, three small stone pagodas poking up above the surface of the lake called the Three Pools Reflecting the Moon. Yu informed us, with a tone of embarrassment, that most of the islands are also man-made.
Eventually we reached Broken Bridge (Duàn Qiáo, 断桥), and Yu took the opportunity to launch into another long-winded story, the folk tale of Lady White and Xu Xian's broken love. Lady White was an immortal snake, and fell in love with Xu Xian after the two shared an umbrella under the rain at Broken Bridge. The two got married and had a child, but they were not destined to last. The treachery of a Buddhist monk named Fahai would tear their love apart. After attempting to turn Xu Xian against his wife, Fahai locked Lady White in the dungeon of a temple until her merely mortal love and their child became old and died. In the end, Lady White's maid, Blue, destroyed the temple and set her master free. The are said to still roam Hangzhou today, in search for another human for Lady White to love.
After the cruise, my tour group rented bicycles and rode them around the lake. Traffic was heavy, both cars and pedestrians, and the road outlining West Lake embodied that chaotic movement common on streets in China. Lush green leaves and colorful flower petals shot out of the branches of trees surrounding the road, and the willow trees' sashes hung down like large throngs of seaweed. Along the road were many brides and grooms. They led large entourages to pose in front of West Lake and smiled as though the world would never end. At least ten couples passed by, and I wondered if they minded seeing other wedding photo-shoots taking place—forfeiting any prospect for originality or uniqueness. Amid the pandemonium of pedestrian traffic and frustrated automobiles, small bits of cotton hung in the air. Too light to fall quickly, they floated through the air, carried by the wind like a soft snow. Perhaps the brides achieved beauty in the same way as the cotton, each beautiful in their own right, yet existing with the similarity of others around them, nurturing a collective beauty greater than their own.