Last Sunday, May 11th, was international Mother’s Day. Up until quite recently, I didn’t even know that the holiday existed. In my home country, March 8th (Women’s day) is the time when all women, and mothers particularly so, are honored and showered with gifts. In China, however, March 8th is hardly celebrated at all, while Mother’s Day is kind of a big deal, at least within friend/family circles. Side note: the exact date of the holiday varies among countries; in China it falls on the second Sunday of May.
It’s shenshicha. Do you want to go?
On the Saturday preceding the holiday, I was at the tea market, meeting up with some friends, sampling new teas, and putting together a parcel for a tea buddy in Thailand. One of the shops I visited was that of Su Lan, a tea master I’ve known for a about year. We first met when a friend invited me to a tea ceremony that Su Lan gave at an art event. She did a marvelous job, displaying great skill and knowledge of tea culture. We’ve been in touch ever since. So, I go into her shop, say my hellos, and hear her say, ‘We are celebrating Mother’s Day at 3 pm tomorrow. It’s shenshicha. Do you want to go?’
Hundred Tea Clubs and Counting
I just stood there for a while, trying to figure out what just happened, so Su Lan explained that it would be a special event simultaneously celebrated throughout China at over a hundred tea clubs. Shenshi is actually a period of time between 3 and 5 pm (traditionally Chinese measure time of the day in double hours). According to the TCM theory, shenshi is the time when the bladder meridian is most active, which makes it a great time to drink tea. Evidently, a bunch of tea aficionados from various parts of China decided that it would be a great idea to combine traditional tea sampling practice with Mother’s Day. How could I say no to that?
The event turned out to be a lot more about Mother’s Day than about tea, but it was still a very interesting, culturally rich, and emotionally charged experience. Once the guests took their seats around a solid wood table adorned with teacups and rose petals for the occasion, Su Lan spoke about the day’s significance and how well it matched the spirit of camaraderie that is intrinsic to tea circles around the world. Apparently, a common thing to do on a Mother’s Day is to read poetry or sing songs on the subject. Needless to say, most people hadn’t prepared anything of the kind, so Su Lan passed out some handouts with a variety of thematic poems. My Chinese is OK, but certainly not OK enough to recite a poem I see for the first time, so I politely refused and gripped my camera firmly, hoping to let people understand that I would contribute in a different way, documenting the occasion.
A few minutes later, Su Lan did the first recital. Then her husband read a very nice poem. Then friends of the family followed suit. Impressively, a couple of people seemed to have pulled childhood time poems from memory and recited those flawlessly. In the end, Su Lan’s mother took the spot in front of the tea table and sang a joyful and heart-warming song with dance-like hand gestures. There was a well-deserved lengthy round of applause, and suddenly everybody was looking at me. I realized quickly that, given the circumstances, modesty would be inappropriate, and so I hurried to the improvised stage. I spoke in my native language for a couple of minutes, and even though no one understood a thing, people were listening carefully, trying to draw meaning from intonation and shadows of familiar words. Although I technically cheated, I did get a round of applause too.
The sunshine was pretty strong that day, way stronger than what Su Lan’s parents were used to, so we moved the shenshi cha part to a tearoom upstairs. From then on, it was a familiar setting for me: good tea, good ware, and good people sharing joys of a high-end tea drinking experience. The ceremony started with freshly harvested biluochun that and continued with exquisite sheng puer from Jingmai’s old arbors. Around 5 pm, the event was officially over. I said my goodbyes, packed up my thoughts, and left the tea house to ride my bike home through the warm and sunny streets of mid-May Kunming.
This post was written by Roman.