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    How to Taste Tea Like an Expert

    What do Chinese mean when they talk about things like a tea’s “qi” and “yun.”
    Apr 24, 2024#food

    When I was living in the United States, one of my favorite things to do was attend coffee tastings, known as cuppings. There was something about the tasters’ almost scientific approach that appealed to me. Baristas have a very systematic and finely honed vocabulary to describe the flavor of a cup of coffee, rating it according to its body, degree of acidity, whether it is fruity or nutty, and what kind of finish or aftertaste it has. Each category is a spectrum, allowing for maximum accuracy and turning tasting into a finely tuned controlled experiment of sorts.

    In contrast, the vocabulary of tea tasting can seem abstract to the point of poetry. When experienced tea lovers comment on a cup of tea, they might comment on its qi — variously translated as wind, essence, or aura — and its yun, a term similar to aftertaste but which has musical connotations. Often, they might not comment on the taste at all, instead focusing on how their bodies react to the cup.

    According to food anthropologist Zhang Jinghong, the two approaches reflect very real differences in how Chinese perceive and discuss taste — itself a function of Chinese material culture and worldviews. In a 2021 paper, Zhang notes that in Chinese culture, food and drink are not judged solely by taste or scent. Citing the ancient proverb, “Medicine and food have the same origin,” she says that the impact of food and drink on the body remains an important factor in how Chinese perceive taste and quality. Just to name one example, common food descriptors like “hot” and “cold” do not describe specific temperatures, but how a dish is perceived to affect a person’s internal temperature.

    Taste is also connected to morality. In her research, Zhang notes the importance members of the literati attached to qing, or clarity, when drinking tea. This refers not just to the clarity of the liquid or its mouthfeel, but also to pure, unblemished moral integrity. In ancient Chinese literature, tea symbolizes purity because it grows in remote mountains and forests.

    Crucial to understanding how this all fits together is the concept of wugan, or the “intuition of things.” Zhang traces the idea of wugan back to statements like the fifth-century writer Liu Xie’s belief that “when a thing moves, the heart also moves... emotions move along with things, and words move along with emotions.”

    The judgment of tea and other food and drink in Chinese culture follows a similar logic. “The reason why Chinese expressions of ‘taste’ are mysterious and symbolic is precisely because those expressions go beyond quantitative and precise sensory evaluation,” Zhang writes. “They instead become a way of expression that mobilizes the entire body and soul, desiring to reflect the essential attributes of the described thing through the echo of the spiritual disposition of the describer,” Zhang writes.

    With that in mind, what exactly do tea lovers mean when they talk about qi and yun? Deng Shihai, an early expert on Pu’er tea, preferred to drink tea so old it couldn’t be reliably dated — commending its “flavorless flavor” as the highest level Pu’er can attain. If that sounds needlessly contradictory, you’re not alone, but to Deng, it was a way to distinguish tea novices, who focus on taste, from experts who see tea more holistically.

    Yun is even more complex. Originally referring to a meaningful, lasting experience, it roughly equates to a tea’s finish, or aftertaste. Although that typically comes from a tea’s terroir — rock teas produced in China’s mountainous southeast have a “rocky yun,” while single-bush teas from the southern region of Chaozhou ideally possess a “single-bush yun” — it is nevertheless impossible and likely undesirable to “measure” yun with any degree of certainty.

    This is seen by Chinese tea drinkers as a virtue rather than a bug. Qi and yun are considered more advanced than any simple description of taste, in part because they imply an ineffable sense of connection between people and things, and even to the broader natural world. As Zhang notes, “Words like qi and yun, although evading reality and leaning toward emptiness, are considered by traditional Chinese culture to more accurately and thoroughly express what people feel when they are touched by things, and to better reflect the unity of people and things, and people and nature.”

    In fact, no matter how many coffee cuppings or wine tastings I attend, I still sometimes feel awkward trying to quantify all their various flavors. Baristas seem to have a unified sense of taste, but I occasionally feel that what I’m tasting doesn’t come close to what they are describing. Notes of “cherry” remain abstract to me, sometimes even more so than qi or yun, perhaps because of my own different experiences and perceptions. Different cultures don’t always taste the same.

    Translator: Matt Turner.

    (Header image: A woman sniffs tea during a tasting competition held in Wuyishan County, Fujian province, November 2023. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)