Tea Medicine & Mental Health

The clear distinction between mental and physical health is something that is recognised as being distinctly post-Cartesian and European. Some movement has started to emerge in recent years to dilute this dualistic distinction. The Kings Fund has highlighted new strategies encompassed by the strap-line “no health without mental health” that aims to achieve parity of esteem between physical and mental health and emphasise the interconnections between mental health, social welfare and well-being and physical illness demands upon health services (  www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2011/02/will-governments-new-mental-health-strategy-succeed ).

Despite this, catergories and distinctions still remain as emphasised in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, known more commonly as ICF, which defines seperate but inter-related domains of health and include the bio-physical domains and personal/environmental domains.

It is therefore a challenge somewhat to discuss in real terms and paradigms the role of tea medicine in mental health as in discussing such it assumes a degree of separation of mental health from physical and social health. Equally culture and social practice as we have seen with the last 100 years in Yoga has more and more become over-medicalised, something that Tea culture has not remained free from. But when we talk about tea medicine we are not just talking about the medical value of tea but the value of tea in holistic terms in contributing to being an antidote to the negative accumulations of human life both internally and externally and how it can mediate in the relationships and interactions of humans in their environment and being in the world.

It might be worth starting from the view point of mental health in traditional chinese society and working backwards. Diagnosis of mental disorders and the treatment prescribed by traditional healers are often based on the indigenous beliefs and cultural interpretations of the problem peculiar to each local culture (Shankar,Saravanan & Jacob 2006) and Traditional Chinese Medicine is not unique in this. More traditional  beliefs in strong inter-familiar groups can explain that mental illness is visited upon the present generation as a punishment for of their ancestors(Pearson 1993). Thus mental illness is construed as a highly shameful indictment of the whole family, and extraordinary measures can be resorted to in order to keep the matter hidden from neighbours and colleagues or to attempt to redress the imbalance. When we look beyond terminology and the boundaries of tradition and culture it is not really so different than more “scientific” approaches to mental health embedded in western medical practice and european culture. Mental health is still a stigma globally in all cultures and different approaches to it medically or culturally is often easily separated into key themes and views of “disturbance”,”imbalance”, “damage” and “social marginalisation”. All of which is somewhat true. Whether a medical or social or psychological model is used these key themes or views appear in all.

Hsien-Ch’inh (1980) differentiates between “psychology” which is a century-old science developed in the West without parallels in ancient China, and “psychological thought which includes theories about the mind, which is definitely represented in traditional Chinese thought.

In the Taoist work “Huai Nan Zi”, “body”,“qi”, and “mind” are composed of three treasures of life. These namely “jing” , “qi” and “shen”. Jing (精) which can be best described as “nutritive essence, essence; refined” and resides in the kidneys, is yin in nature and is said to be dense and the material basis of physical body and hence likened to DNA and inheritable substance. Qi (氣) or “vitality, energy, breath” is more familiar, especially as we discuss cha qi or the qi obtained from different plant extracts or material, and hence I could spend a whole blog on detailing the qualities and attributes. Simply put it is the moving principle, the flow of energy that resides in living phenomena, the breath of life and the what differentiates a corpse from a body. Indecently the Chinese philosopher Mozi describes it as the fumes or vapor leaving the dead body. It can also be seen as the metaphysical or subtle substance of blood itself and the blockage or disruption of qi moving through the meridians leads to imbalance and illness. Another way of understanding it is through the principles of Qigong, which is basically translated as the effort or work of qi. In Qigong the Dan t’ian or “red field” is located in the area where there is a vast amount of blood vessels are encapsulated in the omentum and mesentery tissues and where energy and nutrition is absorbed from food, hence this enrichment of blood that occurs is also an enrichment of bodily qi.
Shen 神 often translated as “spirit; soul” but also “mind” and said to reside in the heart and departs first at death. Interestingly, the translation of shen as “mind” is perhaps because of the understanding that most dis-harmonies that have their equivalent in western psychiatric medicine are attributed to heart disharmony in traditional Chinese medicine. However, it is in fact the disturbance of all these three treasures that leads to decline in mental health.

What we should therefore realise is that the tea medicine that is embedded or intricately woven with traditional Chinese medicine does not distinguish or discriminate between body and mind. The body and mind are non-separate and inter-related, the mind is somaticised i.e. embodied in the physical. Something we all can recognise when we get “butterflies” from being anxious or nervous.

Therefore tea medicine for the body is also tea medicine for the mind as well as the soul.

If we are particularly considering tea medicine for the mind then we can appreciate the social aspects of sharing tea that addresses the isolation and loneliness that often leads to imbalance in health. We can also consider that taking time out through tea practice gives us a break from the busy and hectic modern lives we lead that only keeps us agitated or “ready” or “switched off” rather than relaxed and focused. Such hectic lives without balance only leads to jing depletion, qi expenditure and imbalances, and shen lassitude.

Equally there is direct medicine from tea medicine that address such imbalances. If we consider something akin to a Heart Shen disturbance, that might present as restlessness, agitation, insomnia and worry and diagnosed as an anxious disorder in western medicine we would approach it by delivering a tea that strengthens kidney and tonifies the stomach. Cornelian cherry is well known for its effect on the kidneys and might be incorporated into a tea medicine alongside snow chrysanthemum, but equally old traditionally ripe stored tea that has softer cha qi and nourishes the stomach could be the focus of our tea practice.

When I first started to write this blog I wanted to convey how within tea there is all medicines and hence it fulfills Shen Nong’s description of tea as “king of medicines”, however as it is not always easy to find the exact tea for the right need, without a lot of experimentation and practice then I reiterate that it is through practice that we ultimately master the medicine yet along the way we need support of other medicines such as other herbs, practices and artifacts. Perfection is indeed in practice.


Pearson V. Families in China: An undervalued resource for mental health?. Journal of Family Therapy. 1993 May 1;15(2):163-85.
Ravi Shankar B, Saravanan B, Jacob KS. Explanatory models of common mental disorders among traditional healers and their patients in rural South India. International Journal of Social Psychiatry. 2006; 52(3):221–233.

Water revisited: Temperature

In a previous post I focused on the quality of water and its source. I touched briefly upon the temperature of water in brewing tea, but perhaps failed to emphasize how for different types of tea the temperature of the water is important in preserving the tea medicine material so as to deliver its benefits and optimal experience.

There tends to be a rule of thumb on types of teas and required temperature and to some extent there is also a history of boiling tea leaves in the tea soup, which suggests that the range of common temperatures for tea medicine is perhaps between 90 degrees Celsius and up to 110-120 degrees depending on brewing techniques and whether additional ingredients are added to the tea soup e.g. salt. Generally the more delicate the tea the lower the temperature, such that old aged compressed teas require higher temperatures and young fresh and greener teas require less.


The temperature is further modified towards the lower end if the tea has additional herbal ingredients, particularly if this material has more saponin and essential oil content. This is because at higher temperatures will vaporise these components and the benefits ultimately depreciated. Saponins start to vapourise at temperatures above 40 degrees yet such temperatures may be too low to extract other components, hence it is recommended that 60 degrees to 70 degrees is a good temperature to brew such materials but for a longer time to allow optimal extractions of all components of tea medicine. Interestingly enough is this popular anecdotal advice that pouring tea from a height helps with retaining saponin content in the tea medicine, if anything this might cool the water down at least both for brewing and also drinking.


Whilst brewing water temperatures can be high, recommended drinking temperatures are significantly lower (Islami et al 2009). Traditionally you will find the boiling of tea and tea requiring higher brewing temperatures, such as Xiaguan Tibetan Flame (https://yunnansourcing.com/products/2004-xiaguan-tibetan-flame-raw-pu-erh-tea-bri) tends to correlate with extremer and colder climates, such that the tea medicine not only delivers the benefits of its soup but also the benefits of highly appropriate hand warmer. In fact it is notoriously suggested widely in China and Tibet that the drinker does not blow there tea to cool it down when poured as it destroys or contaminates the Cha Qi. Instead the drinker should enjoy the warmth of the tea in their hands and wait until cool enough to drink. Perhaps there is a lesson in patience in this and it would not surprise that there is a Taoist interpretation of “Perfection of Patience” (Khanti pāramī) outlined as one of the six perfections in the Buddhist Lotus Sutra, but also possibly Upekkhā pāramī or “Perfection of Serenity”.

Catechins are rather unstable molecules and are important phenols and anti-oxidants contained in tea medicine. Kamatsu et al (1993) have already establish that temperatures above 82 degrees Celsius leads to conversion of four significant catechins present in green tea. Hence temperatures less than 82 degrees is preferably optimising catechin content in green tea medicines. Interestingly this same study does not show any significant impact from heating time. Hence to achieve the optimimum tea medicine the rule would be cooler and longer with this type of tea material. However only experience and trial will lead you to the right amount of brew time and a good temperature to brew.


Islami F, Pourshams A, Nasrollahzadeh D, Kamangar F, Fahimi S, Shakeri R, Abedi-Ardekani B, Merat S, Vahedi H, Semnani S, Abnet CC. Tea drinking habits and oesophageal cancer in a high risk area in northern Iran: population based case-control study. Bmj. 2009 Mar 27;338:b929
Komatsu Y, Suematsu S, Hisanobu Y, Saigo H, Matsuda R, Hara K. Effects of pH and temperature on reaction kinetics of catechins in green tea infusion. Bioscience, biotechnology, and biochemistry. 1993 Jun 23;57(6):907-10.

Varietal and Differences in Tea Medicine

Yunnan province is noted for its large leaf varietal teas and this varietal of tea is part of the recognised quality of Puerh that lends itself to government legislative on quality control and cultural recognition. The large leaf varietal teas also make it ideal for long term storage by compressing into cakes, that said there are numerous varietals of tea trees in Yunnan, some indigenous and some imported into tea gardens and terraced farming. Equally, as discussed in an earlier post, large leaf does not necessarily indicate the size of the leaf used in blends or cakes, and often smaller buds are picked from such varietals.

One of the up and coming varietals of tea is the natural mutation of tea trees presenting purple leaves and buds. This is often known as zĭjuān (紫娟) or purple lady. Other varietals include Chen Yun Hao (陈远号) which is more common in YiWu district.

The question remains whether the sub-species and varietals effect the tea medicine.

As with all the variables such as conditions, processing, storage and brewing conditions the tea medicine between individual teas can greatly change even with productions of bing from the same batch, such that producers undertake a great deal of effort in retaining consistency by formulating their own controls and methodology in formulating a distinct tea “recipe”, e.g. the well known Menghai 7592. Therefore, also, the type of tea varietal has a distinct effect on the resulting tea medicine.

To understand this, it is worthwhile just focusing on some of the common varietals as to date there are registered :

Camellia dehungensis – This varietal is more often found in south west Yunnan and Laos, and delivers a delicate almost white tea medicine and is more often consumed with minimal processing. This varietal was named and registered in 1984 as separate varietal to sinensis sinensis and named after Hung T. Chang.

Camellia sinensis var. assamica – despite its name is most likely used in Puerh recipes due to its large leaf which can achieve proportions of the size of a human hand. Often old arbor trees are assamica varietal as in the 1950’s the Chinese state encouraged replacing these with more productive plantation tea sinensis var. sinensis with its denser growth and smaller leaves.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis – this variety is the “classic” tea tree and often incorporated in tea terraces as its able to form compact rounded growth rather than open tree formations, making it ideal for mass production efforts. The leaves tends to be small and dark green with bright buds. Similiar to dehungensis varietals its most often consumed as hong cha.

Camellia Taliensis – is most often found in recipes such as Yue Guang Bai (月光白 “Moonlight White” which reflects its white appearance and nature. The leaves are large in nature and in storage struggles to obtain the dark appearances of other varietals.

Science has supported the concept of varietal differences resulting in different tea medicine. Peterson et al (2004) identified that different tea varietals affect estimates of flavonoid intake in the final brew. Flavonoid content (namely Flavan-3-ol ) contributes to the tea medicine in a number of ways including the level of bitterness (Peleg et al 1999) in the taste of the tea medicine and the level of anti-oxidant effects and consequential health benefits such as reducing oxidative modification of low density lipids (Miura et al 1994) and may therefore protect against cardio-vascular sclerosis.

Even though there are lots of studies around the health benefits of tea , there is equally lots of skepticism. I wonder whether some of this is due to over-inflating health benefits as a way to commoditize certain teas over others by retailers. Equally it could be that as with any scientific based dialogue on evidence there is not sufficient longitudinal studies or data to underpin such claims and hence evidence is devalued by claims of reporting or selection bias.

Even so there are some interesting results from Chen et al (2005) upon the impact of varietals on tea medicine.The study showed Camellia sinensis var. assamica to have a
high content of polyphenols when compared to C. sinensis var. sinensis, as in other studies.


The bitterness of tea governed by the phytochemical components of the brew and mediated by the type of tea varietal as well as other variables can actually have a distinct selection influence on the tea medicine. Ahmed et al (2010) study demonstrates a strong relationship between the taste of tea upon selection of teas for tea medicine, supporting this idea that the taste of tea may guide societies in the search for particular tea medicine and beneficial phytochemicals. That is to say that varietal is just one variable that guides us in selecting the tea medicine and the qualities of the tea medicine required. This is also somewhat suggested by Chen et al’s study, in that Camellia sinensis var. assamica  is likely to provide higher experience of astringency and bitterness due to higher polyphenols.

One study is of interesting note, in that caffeine levels were shown not to change significantly by tea varietal but rather processing (Suteerapataranon et al 2009). It may therefore be hypothesized that caffeine has less influence on the expereince of Cha qi than often suggested, as anecdotally different teas processed in exactly the same way  by the same producer but consisting of different varietals do exhibit different Cha qi.

Another, interesting point is that purple tea varietals are often anecdotally felt to have higher anti-oxidant content due to the perception they have higher anthocyanin content based on the pigmentation of the leaf being purple/red. However Kerio et al (2013) report that products from the purple leaf coloured tea cultivars had levels of antioxidant activities similar to those from other varietals. However whilst other studies express an opinion of the anti-oxidant activity of purple varieties, these studies seldom compare phytochemical levels with other varietals and therefore show a reporting bias around claims.


Ahmed S, Unachukwu U, Stepp JR, Peters CM, Long C, Kennelly E. Pu-erh tea tasting in Yunnan, China: correlation of drinkers’ perceptions to phytochemistry. Journal of ethnopharmacology. 2010 Oct 28;132(1):176-85.
Chen J, Wang P, Xia Y, Xu M, Pei S. Genetic diversity and differentiation of Camellia sinensis L.(cultivated tea) and its wild relatives in Yunnan province of China, revealed by morphology, biochemistry and allozyme studies. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 2005 Feb 1;52(1):41-52.
Kerio, L.C.; Wachira, F.N.; Wanyoko, J.K. and Rotich, M.K. (2013). Total polyphenols, catechin profiles and antioxidant activity of tea products from purple leaf coloured purple tea cultivars. Food Chemistry, 136: 1405-1413
MIURA S, WATANABE J, TOMITA T, SANO M, TOMITA I. The inhibitory effects of tea polyphenols (flavan-3-ol derivatives) on Cu2+ mediated oxidative modification of low density lipoprotein. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 1994 Dec 15;17(12):1567-72.
Peleg H, Gacon K, Schlich P, Noble AC. Bitterness and astringency of flavan-3-ol monomers, dimers and trimers. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 1999 Jun 1;79(8):1123-8.
Peterson J, Dwyer J, Jacques P, Rand W, Prior R, Chui K. Tea variety and brewing techniques influence flavonoid content of black tea. Journal of Food composition and analysis. 2004 Aug 31;17(3):397-405.
Suteerapataranon S, Butsoongnern J, Punturat P, Jorpalit W, Thanomsilp C. Caffeine in Chiang Rai tea infusions: Effects of tea variety, type, leaf form, and infusion conditions. Food chemistry. 2009 Jun 15;114(4):1335-8.


Storage Revisited: Dew point and Aging

As discussed in previous posts storage of Tea has a profound affect on the tea medicine, especially types of tea that are traditionally ripened by age due to the encouragement of microbial interactions with the tea material.

Traditionally stored tea often relies on certain circumstances and factors. One of these important factors is space, such that Puerh storage in Guangdong often involves vast warehouses devoted to piles and piles of cakes. In Malaysia, Liu Bao was traditionally stored in old air raid tunnels that were left over from WW2.

Secondly, humidity is important, hence the popularity of the storage of Puerh in Guangdong and Hong Kong due to the stable humidity. This often produces a wetter ripening and the trend of Western tastes on drier teas have led to the increase in Kunming storage where the environment is drier and cleaner, however ultimately results in a slower ripening. Some discussion about this has been undertaken by James at TeaDB.org and is worth a read https://teadb.org/what-to-expect-from-traditionally-stored-tea/

There has been a push to experiment and experience tea medicine from individual collectors and drinkers and many people are encouraged to age their own tea in their own private collections. As discussed previously it is something that I undertake myself and not only does it bring you closer to the tea experience it is a good practice in developing tea medicine. Hobbyist storage and aging should not be shunned but encouraged as it can also be a social delight when sharing your own aged tea as well as helping to develop knowledge about the subtly of changes in the tea medicine when a particular tea ages.

One thing I do want to revisit and share on tea storage is this idea of humidity. A lot of the hobbyist or small scale storage experiments focus heavily on maintaining humidity at the equivalent of such areas as Guangdong, and perhaps less on temperature and even less on this concept of dew point.

Dew point  is the atmospheric temperature (varying according to pressure and humidity) below which water droplets begin to condense and dew can form. From my own observations dew point is important when aging bricks, cakes (bing) or compressed tea as it effects the amount of water that condenses on the outside of the bing and can potentially change the amount water content in the tea material thereby altering the environment for microbes that are encouraged to ripen the brick. This is perhaps more important with drier tea material that have more potential to soak up the condensing water such that rapid and radical changes can occur in the water content of the tea material. This can often lead to problems with storage including unwanted mold and even decomposition.

Recently I’ve turned my attention to temperature and dew point over humidity in storage and would like to share some of my findings.

Over the last few months I have kept records of temperature and humidity.

To remind ourselves, apart from some individual storage of loose teas, I tend to prefer open shelf storage with particular attention to location of the storage,ventilation and light.


As the above chart shows there are natural seasonal variations and whilst this is something that perhaps occurs with traditionally stored tea, it is important to consider this idea of dew point and the risks that temperature drops have on changing the water content of the tea material.

I have compiled a few figures together below to exemplify this:

Humidity Temp Dew point Temperature drop required for condensation
80 20.7 16.7 4
79 20.7 16.5 4.2
81 14.7 10.9 3.8
81 15.3 11.5 3.8
83 17.4 14 3.4
83 15.4 12 3.4


As the chart shows, the higher the temperature and relatively lower the humidity the more stable the conditions are, as a larger decrease in temperature is required to reach dew point. However, the higher the humidity the more unstable and smaller changes in temperature are required to reach dew point.

Significant changes in temperature are likely to occur in any season but dependent on latitude perhaps these are more likely to be extreme towards the winter months. It makes sense therefore to control temperature not humidity, unless of course humidity drops to a point that there is a drying effect and as such all aging process is suspended.

This is exemplified in natural mummification where humidity is so low that there is not enough water in the environment to support microbial life. This idea has been exploited in the process of freeze drying food for long term storage and prevention of decomposition. Indeed the American Museum of Natural History report humidity levels for storage of mummified material varies between 30-50% RH such that if humidity levels fall below 50% in tea storage then their is the risk the tea will start to desiccate and ageing will be suspended.

Reluctantly I have introduced an element of heating to my storage area, making sure the heating component is neither producing additional water or altering air quality. Therefore the heating component is a dry and clean source of warmth.

This has had an effect in raising the dew point but not necessarily changing the humidity.

However this isn’t in disregard to the level of humidity, as we can see above. Therefore the point to be made is it is far easier to modify the temperature by degrees than Relative Humidity (RH) by % to effect the dew point.

Its worth playing around with this to see how your own storage experiments develop. Heating should not be excluded but care must be taken with the choice and the level of temperature introduced as well as the source and its impact on both tea and the environment.

Attention to dew point helps in deciding when such modifications are needed or if at all.





Golden Flowers, internal medicine


In her very accessible book on Taoism, Eva Wong discusses the term “hidden sky” as the concealment of wisdom within, rather than the flamboyant display of knowledge and expertise often seen in different media and embellished with honorific titles. Indeed the last time I looked I don’t remember seeing letters after the name of Lao Tzu or Chaung Tzu.

I pick up a little with this opening point from my previous post around trusting your own intuition and mind, that is in the external noise of expertise and dialogue of wisdom it isn’t always easy to recognise good advice, wisdom and knowledge from bad or deceitful truths, hence, as previously suggested we become vulnerable to forgery or fakery.

Taoism is very much a internal tradition and beneath its external practices there lies a deep silent ocean of wisdom. It reminds me in someway the golden flowers (金花) blossoming inside Hei Cha bricks such as Fu Zhuan tea or traditionally stored Liu Bao. Deep within the layers of tea leaves is a mycelium factory of Eurotium cristatum working their medicine, not unlike, in principle the internal practices of Taoism.

This growth of golden flowers in some teas could be seen as the “hidden sky” or integral wisdom concealed in the tea that empowers the tea medicine. I suspect that the Eurotium cristatum traditionally was innoculated naturally  through the tea processing either by contact with soil dust or from contact from spores during piling. In more recent times wheat is often used to inoculate the tea possibly due the increase demand for production and to ensure consistency.

Interestingly enough the taoist text Tàiyǐ Jīnhuá Zōngzhǐ which has been translated as the “The Secret of the Golden Flower” and attributed to Lu Dong Bin of the late Tang Dynasty is a Taoist manual on meditation or Neidan (internal alchemy) which aims to inoculate the body and internal organs with the breath. Much like the spores are breathed into the tea to develop golden flowers the breath is taken into the body to blossom the golden flower of the elixir of immortality.

I still find it a surprise when I come across an aversion to fermented or “mouldy” tea and recent scares and studies that flooded the internet around aflatoxin is a good example of this. The South China Post covers this recent scare extensively on its post on the 10th September 2017 www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2110638/chinese-tea-growers-threaten-sue-campaigner-over-claim-highly

However, as Terence Mckenna has in the past pointed out, there are cultures that are “myophobic” and cultures that are “myophilic”. That is to say some cultures who are extensively accepting of mycelium and even extol their virtues not just in diet but in medicine and society. Whilst there are other cultures who express utter revulsion or fear of mycelium. Chinese traditions tend to be extensively myophilic and, as in previous posts revere the “mushroom” in all its forms. However China is a large place with many ethnic groups so its not so simple to universally state what Chinese culture is, but certainly there is a prevalence of fermented and fungus related foods among many of its people. The Bulang of Xishuangbanna, an area also known for Puerh production, actually ferment and pickle tea leaves, eating them like a vegetable. Its proximity to the highlands of Burma is perhaps influential in this in that famously a similar dish of fermented tea leaves is well known and called Lahpet. Its cultural value was often recognised in its use as a peace offering between warring kingdoms and to settle disputes.

We have somewhat wandered away from the idea of “Golden Flowers” in order to exemplify the value of microbes in both tea medicine, tea culture and human society. But it is an interesting point to reflect upon that we are not individual isolated beings but part of a process of life that is interconnected to species big and small, despite what current social opinions on technology and reductionist philosophy tells us. It is also interesting that increase in reliance on antibiotics has somewhat been followed with the decline of traditionally fermented and microbe innoculated foodstuffs, particularly of note is that some of these foods have been shown to contain natural state Pencillium, tea being one of these (Zhang et al 2013)

The anecdotal link between golden flower tea and Taoist Neidan techniques is not just by name, the potential for microbial inoculated tea to increase health and longevity is also the purpose of “Golden Flower” Neidan.

One question to ask is are we still drinking tea when we drink golden flower innoculated Fu Brick or are we consuming a fungus soup, as fungal counts can reach as high as 5.8 × 105 colony forming units (cfu) per gram (Tournas & Katsoudas 2008). In regard to tea medicine the answer is a simple and resounding Yes as we understand that medicine is always compounded, much like the traditional image of a physician laboring over a pestle and mortar. Even with apparent simplest tea medicine, that is contained in green Mao Feng, the process from tree to cup involves the compounding of minerals and sunlight in the leaf, the compounding of qualities of heat and enzyme deactivation in the “kill green” stage and the compounding of energy and sunlight in the rolling and drying stages. Additional storage of tea is compounds the medicine achieved from the tea breathing its environment and the changes that occur with time. All of which makes the tea medicine unique.


Similiary, the practice of Neidan, approached in Lu Dong Bin’s manual exists within a doctrine of compounding the various elements of practice to create the elixir or medicine for longevity. This is nowhere more exemplified than in the Ru yao jing (“Mirror for Compounding the Medicine”) a 10th Century Taoist Neidan manual attributed to Cui Xi Fan. Although cryptic to a certain degree the manual describes the process of compounding the internal medicine to such a degree that if we were to be able to see into the growth of golden flowers in Fu brick tea we would possibly see a direct expression of Cui Xi Fan’s vision of internal alchemy.


McKenna T. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A radical history of plants, drugs and human evolution. Random House; 1999.
Tournas VH, Katsoudas EJ. Microbiological quality of various medicinal herbal teas and coffee substitutes. Microbiology insights. 2008 Jan 1;1:47.
Wong E. Being Taoist:Wisdom for Living a Balanced Life. Shambala;2015
Zhang L, Zhang ZZ, Zhou YB, Ling TJ, Wan XC. Chinese dark teas: Postfermentation, chemistry and biological activities. Food research international. 2013 Oct 31;53(2):600-7.



Fake or Cake??

There has been a lot of buzz on the net about fake tea recently, Puerh particularly being prone for this. Much of the discussions and concerns have evolved from the similar conversations around the commercial value or investment value of tea.

The real value of tea however is in the experience and in the tea medicine it brings. Yet we cannot ignore entirely such conversations which are easily glossed over as “capitalist” rhetoric as ultimately it is the tea medicine and drinker that suffers from fake tea.

It is arguable that investors and big commercial producers suffer but this is relative to the individual who consumes it and taking a Buddhist perspective on interdependence it is a suffering we cannot remove ourselves from.

To gain a background in this there are some interesting reading on the following sites:



Counterfeit culture isn’t a modern phenomena, and certainly China has had its share of grief and blame over the centuries. Equally counterfeit behavior is not entirely linked to capitalist ideology, however much on the surface it may appear to be.

The point is that anything that is produced has a value that is rooted in cultural, social and historical framework. As such exploitation of this framework is not always entirely for material gain but also prestige, display and individual “romanticism” may also play a part amongst other concepts.

For example “Fakery” may not always have the intention to deceive the consumer. Brands or products that already have a status are appealing to the consumer because of the status they confer to the consumer, in this way more famous productions from Menghai Tea Factory are more prone to counterfeiting than the lesser well known productions. Whilst, to a certain extent the mis-representation of tea gardened tea as “wild” or “ancient” arbor is itself fraudulent or counterfeit but often the consumer accepts this level of “fakery” because it adds value to the tea that is entirely experienced subjectively.

What we may conclude is that “fakery” is both endemic and part of human culture. Certainly in China in the 13th Century when paper money was introduced  guards were stationed around mulberry forests to prevent access to paper sources, whilst anti- counterfeiting law threatened punishment by death. There is also suggestions that marked pottery that appeared around 4 to 5 thousand years ago in China was an attempt to prevent cheap counterfeit reproduction.  This has led to some suggestion that “fakery” is more of a cultural phenomena in some societies than others.

Lai & Zaichkowsky (1999) suggest the Chinese, have traditionally emphasized that individual developers or creators are obliged to share their developments with society and is embedded in the proverb, “He that shares is to be rewarded; he that does not, condemned”. Hence such notions of intellectual property rights are somewhat flexible and acceptable. This appears to be in stark contrast to the previously mentioned 13th century anti-counterfeiting laws , however may indicate complex sets of cultural values around faking products and especially tea.

Certainly as others have pointed out, before the Puerh “goldrush” of millenium, if you were a small producer of bings (tea cakes) it was deemed acceptable to fake their wrappings with more well known branded products just to get your product on the market. This was acceptable as the tea was usually good quality, drinkable and enjoyable if only unknown. Yet with changing economics come changing morals and value sets such that often the “fakery” extends now to cakes or bings being branded with famous wrappings and having contents that may not be puerh tea or even tea at all.

Questions remain, what has this got to do with tea medicine and why is it even a problem?

We are right to adopt some healthy nonchalance about this as a problem as it will undoubtedly restrict our opportunities to experience a wide range of tea medicine and may embed a rather depressing and negative view of tea. Equally we are right to be a discerning drinker, as going back to some original notions , the true value of tea is in the experience.

Trusting our senses and wider instincts on consuming and enjoying tea will undoubtedly serve us well as its not difficult to tell from smell, taste and feel “fake” from real (“if it smells like a fish it probably is a fish“). Equally, instinctively its not difficult to discern potential fakes upon initial engagement with a tea, that is if a cake or bing appears to have an illogical price tag (i.e. cheaper than you would expect ) they are often fake. Tea is just like any product and generally follows the same axiom ,”you get what you pay for”.

Sometimes it is hard to trust our instincts as our desires for that bargain product takes over our rational and discerning mind, whilst also some “fakes” may not actually be any cheaper than the genuine and hence the level of “fakery” gets deeper.

Its not therefore surprising  to be a bit mind boggled by it all.

In the current climate “fake” cakes only exist in a market where the most important feature is the name. Hence lesser known brands are unlikely to be faked. When people are buying a brand they are buying all the symbolism and meaning that is constructed around it (Lin 2011), a powerful thing that counterfeiters can tap into to sell less favourable products.

The Buddha talks about the idea of Māyā which is a well known Indian philosophical term. Māyā connotes a “magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem” which is a particularly good description of “fake” tea.

Generally Buddhism proposes an answer to Māyā through practicing non-attachment. If we are attached to that brand of tea, or “ancient” “wild arbor” labels, similarly to being attached to the idea of owning that Louis Vuitton bag, we allow our senses and sense aggregations (skandhas) to take over our mind and thus lead us down the path of illusion and ultimately suffering.

Perhaps the best answer therefore is to be less attached to such ideas of brand, labels etc. etc. and in this way keep our mind not our desires or senses in control and continue to experience the tea medicine. Perhaps along the way we might have a few bad experiences but overall we will be better able to brush off the suffering from it.

Lai KK, Zaichkowsky JL. Brand imitation: do the Chinese have different views?. Asia Pacific Journal of Management. 1999 Aug 1;16(2):179-92.
Lin YC. Fake stuff: China and the rise of counterfeit goods. Routledge; 2011 Mar 29.


Does size matter?

Numbers come into most human to human interactions and the language of numbers often overtakes the ideas of the qualitative. How big something is or how much bigger something is , no doubt, is a question that is repeated millions of times on a daily basis. Such is our obsession with capital, category and comparison.

Tea has not escaped this and whilst a healthy amount of math is important to tea medicine, sometimes it can be confusing, especially when it comes down to grading leaf.


I want to spend some time on de-mystifying leaf grade in tea medicine as size does matter to some extent. Leaf size is perhaps also perplexing as to some extent tea such as Puerh is produced from the big leaf varietal Camellia Sinensis v. Assamica , hence when you hear of talk of leaf size or grade its natural to assume all Puerh produced is the same, which it isn’t.

We have to start with the common grades which are (smallest to largest) Gong Ting, Te Ji, Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, Grade 4, Grade 5, Grade 6, Grade 7, Grade 8, Grade 9

There are views that the larger the leaf the better the tea develops with age, and to a certain extent there is some science behind this in that there is more surface area to volume ratio in large leaf than such as Gong Ting that makes the magic of ageing work better for the tea medicine. A lot of Puerh producers have certainly gone to the trouble of specifying the grade of their leaf to exemplify this point, especially noted in the 7592 productions from the Menghai Tea Factory, where the third number denotes the leaf grade. Equally, larger leaves tend to have more complexity in their chemical composition as they have been on the tree longer which gives more time for the tree to impart its Qi and also the minerals from the earth.

This doesn’t mean that Gong ting tea has less tea medicine value, far from it, as the truth is that different grades will impart different flavours and chaqi to the mix.

Personally I find the smaller the grade of tea the easier it is to drink and experientially “gulpy”. Additionally Gong ting grade is often also called “imperial grade” but this is somewhat complicated as “imperial grade” can also refer to the picking of tea where the leaf material is from a picking in the few short days in spring to obtain the tenderest of shoots.

Another important note is that many Puerh bricks or cakes will contain a variety of grades with each grade adding a different layer of complexity and chaqi to the resulting tea medicine. Whilst also many cakes will be “dressed” with smaller leaf on the outside of the cake to add to the aesthetic appearance.

The truth then is that size does matter, and selecting the grade of tea is a bit of math and quantitative value that effects the tea medicine.

However this does not give us a clear answer about which grade is best, perhaps because the question is somewhat absurd as each tea will deliver different layers of complexity with each grade that can only be appreciated by experiencing it.

The point is, whilst grade and size does matter to some extent it is hard to translate quantitative values into qualitative value.

Some days I will choose a “tippier” (smaller leaf) tea for my bowl, some days a larger leaf tea. My choice is entirely down to my knowledge of each tea from experiencing them and how it’s chaqi effects me through tasting the tea medicine, much like it is said Shen Nong knew all the values of all the medicinal herbs from tasting each and observing the effects. It is of course a pleasure to know what grade of tea I am tasting and relate it to my experience , in this way substantiating my experiential knowledge, but equally it is a pleasure when I am being served a tea and not knowing the grade but just experiencing the tea medicine.