Friday, April 06, 2007

A Story of the Qianlong Emperor and the Jade Tea Bowl

(A tale told on reading the corax review of A la table de l’empereur de Chine, with further reflections on the art-historical traditions of Stéphane Erler’s silver teapot)


The Qianlong emperor was born an imperial Manchu prince and raised amidst the grandeur of the Forbidden City. On ascending the dragon throne of the Qing dynasty at age twenty-five, Qianlong inherited the empire as well as its fabulous wealth. The flush palace treasuries and steady flow of provincial tribute allowed the emperor to pursue domestic and international policies with confidence and power, extending the prestige of the throne throughout the provinces and abroad. Imperial armies swept through Central Asia, extending the imperium into “new territories,” Xinjiang. Qianlong’s riches also permitted him to indulge in two passions: art and tea. A prolific calligrapher and painter, the emperor was an avid collector whose enthusiasm for art was revealed in the imperial collection, a vast treasury of artworks -- scrolls, bronzes, ceramics, lacquer, and jade -- that he built over more than sixty years. As for tea, Qianlong had a keen interest and broad knowledge of the herb and beverage. During his reign, he made six journeys to the tea-growing regions, learning about the harvest, production, and preservation of tea, and even picking leaves from tea bushes with his own hand. Qianlong, whose inventory of tea rivaled his art collection, examined and tasted tea as studiously as he appraised a work of art. Each spring, tea was sent to the palace to offer the emperor the “first taste” of the season. Specially picked, processed, and packaged for the palace, seasonal tribute teas were sent express from Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hunan, Sichuan and elsewhere, reaching the throne within days. As the year progressed, the palace filled with an extraordinary variety of tea of nearly inestimable quality. The amount of tribute was so great that the emperor might never taste all of the teas presented, bestowing the tea instead as gifts on family and officials or as beverage at state banquets and as sacrificial offerings at ancestral shrines.

As a consummate connoisseur, Qianlong combined art and tea at intimate gatherings within the palace walls. A party hosted by the emperor was a remarkable experience, an aesthetic confluence of artwork and tea leaf. Qianlong brewed and tasted tea with the finest objects in the palace collection, a great treasure of implements and wares dating back to the eleventh century. His selection of ceramics -- the subtlest Song celadons, precious Ming blue and whites, or extraordinary porcelains of the early Qing -- was meant to enhance the color, aroma, and taste of tea selected from the choicest tribute in the imperial stores. During a gathering, the talk flowed in gently swirling eddies from the age and glaze of a tea vessel to the specific number of buds and leaves plucked for a particular tea. Brewed and served, the tea itself was appreciated for hue, scent, and flavor, prompting a new yet leisurely stream of comments and observations. As the guests departed at the end of the party, each savored moments of the gathering, remembering the instant the tea bowl met the lips and the sensuous touch of its perfectly shaped rim, and recalling the herbal notes of the aromatic steam rising in the nose just before the first sip.

Seeing off his guests, Qianlong pondered the arrival of the next tribute tea, silently calculating the traditional harvest dates, and anticipating his next gathering. But as he settled back into his daily afternoon routine -- reading, painting, or writing poetry -- the emperor nodded to his eunuch to call for a pot of tea, knowing that unlike the tea served at the gathering, this would be a proper Manchu drink. The attendant bowed and hurried to relay the order through the palace to a special place known as the “tea kitchen” where a tea master waited on call to prepare the beverage. Shortly, a train of servants arrived bearing a subtly decorated bowl of white jade, a carved jade teapot, and a small jade tray of pastries. Qianlong looked up from his book gratefully to receive the bowl, now filled with his favorite drink, a rich, coffee-colored liquid known as milk tea. He lifted the jade vessel with two hands and took a long draught, filling his mouth with the full weight and feel of the hot, creamy mixture before swallowing. A small sigh escaped his lips as he took another sip and thought how utterly satisfying milk tea was to him. Qianlong then smiled as he remembered when once asked how the empire could do a day without its emperor, he had waggishly replied, “How can the emperor do a single day without his tea?” -- an oblique but mischievous play on an old Manchu saying, “Rather go three days without eating than go a single day without tea.” Although made in jest, the remark revealed that Qianlong was truly addicted to milk tea and, indeed, could never do without it.

Milk tea was the customary drink of the Mongol and Manchu. Distinct from the ethnic Han Chinese, the Manchu were a nomadic race and heirs to the great equestrian culture of the northern steppes. In the late Ming dynasty, the Manchu established a strong, sinified state with its capital and Chinese-style palace at Shenyang in Liaoning from where they controlled Mongolia and Korea as vassal states. Conquering China in 1644, the Manchu expanded the empire to its greatest extent in history and ruled for over two and a half centuries. In their new capital at Beijing, the nobility maintained and reinforced Manchu manners and customs. The imperial family and aristocrats dressed in traditional style; the men with shaven pates and long, plaited queues and the women with elaborate coiffeurs and unbound feet. They also retained their dietary customs. Like all pastoral peoples on the northern and western borders of China -- the Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongols -- the Manchus ate mutton and drank milk, habits and tastes that were quite foreign to the Chinese. Milk from horses, cows, and goats was a staple that was drunk whole and made into wine, cream, and butter. Mare’s milk was used to make kumiss, a fermented drink, snow-white in color and slightly alcoholic in content. Kaymak resembled a delicately flavored clotted cream that was used in cooking dishes of the highest quality. Heated to make a reduction and then lightly skimmed, kaymak produced a sweet, clarified butter. Milk tea, made with tea, water, milk, butter, and salt, was drunk by young and old, comforting and sustaining the Manchu on the windswept grasslands of the northern steppes.

Tea was introduced to the nomad cultures in the Six Dynasties period around the fourth century A.D. The highly sinified and sophisticated Turkic rulers of the Northern Wei dynasty served tea as a matter of courtesy, a gesture of ceremonial welcome at court and banquets. The tea of the time was molded into cakes and ground in a mortar before being boiled in a cauldron and ladled into bowls. But although they served it, the Northern Wei did not drink tea, and they laughed at anyone who did. To them, the green, foamy liquid looked like pond scum. Its taste was bitter, foul, and unfit to drink. It was not until about the sixth century that the northern tribes took up the habit of tea. Famous for their fine horses, the Uighurs sold their herds to the Tang imperial army and bought tea in the markets of Chang’an, becoming inveterate drinkers of a variety of fine teas. Among the nomads, tea came to be valued as an important source of nutrition and health. In addition to being a hot, stimulating drink, the essential vitamins and minerals in tea augmented a heavily meat-and-milk diet. Moreover, tea was highly beneficial as an herbal remedy; it was a restorative, disinfectant, digestive, and a valuable source of fluoride, to name but a few of tea’s medicinal uses. Thereafter, tea was an integral part of steppe culture, and over time tea was adapted to the needs of nomadic life and the demands of the migrating hearth.

According to legend, it was a Tang princess who first mixed tea and milk. Sent from the palace to the northern steppes in a marriage alliance to a Uighur chieftain, the princess taught the clanswomen to make a strong, rich tea, adding milk to fortify an already potent brew. Among the nomads, milk tea was made in the yurt, a circular tent of felt. The ceiling of the yurt opened directly above a central fireplace where a smouldering, dung-burning pit heated the tent; this fire also cooked the meals and boiled the tea. The making of milk tea was passed from generation to generation, mother to daughter, as a skill of considerable importance. The “five necessities” of milk tea -- implements, tea, milk, salt, and heat -- combined at appropriate times and in proper proportion, made for good milk tea. Black tea (hei cha) was formed into rectangular bricks or compressed rounds; these were broken into pieces, and a handful of leaves was put in an iron cauldron filled with water and heated. The pot was allowed to boil on the fire for four to five minutes before milk and a measure of salt were added. The pot was brought to a second boil that lasted another five minutes until the ingredients were thoroughly blended and emitted a fragrant aroma. The milk tea was ladled from the pot into bowls and served. If the pot was not completely emptied, more water, tea, milk, and salt were added. The second pot was slowly heated to cook in the fire and left in the hearth for use throughout the day. The strong brew, taken in frequent and copious measure, habituated the nomads to tea and fostered the saying, “Three meals with tea a day lifts the spirit and purifies the heart, giving strength to one’s labor. Three days without tea, confuses the body and exhausts the strength, making one loath to rise from bed.” Morning, noon, and evening, milk tea was drunk no less than three times a day with meals. Adults and the elderly took two to three more bowls during the day. Seven to eight bowls were not unusual, especially when guests arrived and were served again and again until all were sated. The welcoming of visitors was just one of the ceremonial uses of milk tea. Milk and tea were exchanged as tribute between leaders and their clans. Tribal councils, gatherings, banquets, and festivals were all times when it was served, and in ritual, milk tea was solemnly offered with meat, grain, and wine to the clan ancestors.

The habit and ceremony of milk tea were taken from the yurt to the Manchurian palace at Shenyang and from there to Beijing where the Manchu emperors merged the drink with the pomp and circumstance of the Forbidden City. The drinking of milk tea at Qing official functions was a distinguishing mark of Manchu culture and served the same political purpose as the nobles wearing ethnic dress and hair style, riding and hunting on horseback, and practicing archery. In the Qing palace, nearly all imperial rituals, ceremonies, and banquets were punctuated by the service of milk tea. On the sixtieth birthday of the emperor, prefectural officials throughout the empire encouraged elders of the local towns and villages to travel to the capital to celebrate the event. On hearing of the many elderly subjects coming to honor him, often traveling weeks to reach Beijing, the emperor ordered a great banquet held in the Garden of Flourishing Spring for the more than 1,800 who attended. Elaborate tables, settings, and seats were arranged for the imperial family, aristocrats, officials, and elders. Milk tea was sent from the palace kitchen to the garden where the emperor was formally presented with the first cup. Then, the emperor ceremonially presented milk tea to the assembled guests. When all had drunk the contents of their cups, the elders were astonished by the emperor’s invitation to take their cups home with them as souvenirs of the auspicious event. In 1655, milk tea was recorded in detail by the Dutch author Jean Nieuhoff at a feast given by Qing officials in Canton for the embassy of the Dutch East India Company:

At the beginning of the Dinner, there were served several bottles of The or Tea, served to the Table, whereof they drank to the Embassadors, biding them welcom: This drink is made of the Herb The or Cha, after this manner: They infuse half a handful of the Herb The or Cha in fair water, which afterwards they boil till a third part be consumed, to which they adde warm milk about a fourth part, with a little salt, and then drink it as hot as they can well endure.

When the English arrived in Beijing in the heat of August in 1793, the Qianlong emperor, who was then eighty-three years old, was away enjoying the cooler climes of the summer palace at Chengde, the Qing imperial hunting preserve far to the north of the capital. The British ambassador, Lord George Macartney, was summoned to Chengde where Qianlong gave two audiences to hear the English press futilely for diplomatic privileges, greater trade, fewer tariffs, and access to more shipping ports. During the meetings, Aeneas Anderson, a member of the embassy, noted that the emperor “drank a tea mixture that would little please the Chinese, since the Emperor’s tea was infused with as much milk as water.” The observant Anderson, who was reputed to be able to tell at a glance the difference between Manchu and Han, was equally aware of the differences in their tea practices. For over two hundred years, the experience of the British and the Dutch was replicated by other Westerners seeking to trade with the Qing. Obliged by diplomatic protocol to suffer long audiences and longer banquets, foreign embassies and court officials negotiated over innumerable bowls of milk tea with predictable effect: Manchu milk tea accounted in no small measure for the British and continental practice of adding milk to tea.

The tea kitchen of the imperial palace employed a tea master and a strict recipe for milk tea. Highly skilled in the Mongolian brewing technique, the master tended his stove and cleaned his implements and wares until the awaited order from the emperor reached him via the chain of eunuchs stationed throughout the palace. Luckily for the tea master, Qianlong was a stickler for a rigorous but regular daily routine during which calls for milk tea could be anticipated. The emperor rose early at six o’clock and breakfasted at eight, his simple meal lasting only fifteen minutes to consume a light congee, pickles, condiments, and a bowl of milk tea.

Leaving the apartments of the inner palace, the emperor spent the morning at court with his officials discussing policy and administration in meetings that were relieved periodically by rounds of milk tea. At two o’clock, the emperor posed for a daily charade, the procession of over a hundred dishes, porcelains nested in silver warming trays piled with perfectly seasoned delicacies cooked by a score of master chefs. The long parade of food passed his table, each dish presented by a bowing servant holding the platter aloft. Standing by, the chief eunuch ceremoniously waved aside each dish, returning it to the kitchens and back rooms to be consumed by the palace staff. Meanwhile, Qianlong quickly ate a simple, light lunch ordered in advance by his court physician and prepared by two of his favorite cooks: the emperor selected mere morsels of small but superbly cooked dishes of chicken, duck, and pork accompanied by a bowl of boiled white rice, a clear soup, and followed by a delicately steamed dumpling or two stuffed with tender bamboo shoots for dessert. On occasion, the empress and imperial consorts might send him a delicacy specially prepared in the harem kitchens. These particular dishes he considered carefully, always tasting them and immediately sending his thanks and appreciation. If he dared do otherwise, the consequences among his household could be unpleasant to say the least. Quaffing a bowl of milk tea to finish lunch, Qianlong never worried about his favorite drink. It was always at hand, made by the tea master, and supplied by the abundant tea tribute and milk from the imperial herd. The emperor had fifty head of cattle that produced one hundred thirty pounds of milk a day. According to palace regulation, Qianlong’s daily allowance of milk tea required the entire herd’s production, twelve pitchers of water from Jade Spring at the Summer Palace, one pound of butter, and seventy-five packets of tea at two ounces a pack. Although the emperor might never drink all of the milk tea allotted to him, he would never lack for it either. Retiring for the afternoon to his library and studio, the emperor read into the evening or examined his latest acquisition of artworks for the imperial collection. At dinner, Qianlong sat again in review of another march of another hundred dishes, but the evening meal was leisurely and his doctor might be cajoled or intimidated into consenting to his eating a forbidden but favorite dish. When the emperor drank his last bowl of milk tea for the day, the tea master was sent out of the palace, returning the following morning to repeat his single task.

There were times, however, when Qianlong ordered state banquets and the tea master was required to prepare for and serve many hundreds, even thousands of guests. Well before the imperial feast, the palace contacted the Court of Imperial Entertainments, an institution in charge of state banquets. The temple, in turn, ordered the necessary victuals from the capital market, from the imperial gardens, and from the palace stores that held enormous inventories stocked by the flow of tribute sent from the provinces. In advance of the event, tribute tea, milk, salt, and butter were requisitioned by the tea master and prepared by him and his staff the day before the feast. Assembling a score or two of large bronze kettles, the kitchen staff meticulously scrubbed and cleaned each pot to gleaming. Each kettle was filled with over four and one half pounds of milk, butter by the weight of two-tenths of a Chinese ounce, two ounces of yellow tea (huang cha), and an ounce of fine salt. Placed on the stove, the mixture was boiled until thoroughly blended. The milk tea was then strained and put into silver storage containers until needed. Just before the banquet, the milk tea was parceled out into hundreds of serving vessels, teapots of either polished bronze or silver mounted with dragon-headed handles and spouts. Teapots in hand, a battalion of attendants served the many guests milk tea poured steaming into ceramic bowls.

While the assembly drank from fine porcelain, the emperor’s milk tea was served from a carved jade teapot and drunk from a jade bowl. For his personal tea bowl, Qianlong was partial to nephrite jade, the rare and unctuous river stone of the fabled Silk Road. Jade tumbled down from the freezing peaks of the Kunlun mountains at the southwestern edge of the Tarim Basin to wash and grind down into boulders and pebbles in the swift running streams and rivers that eventually sank and disappeared into the sands of the Takla Makan Desert. Since ancient times, the jade traded at the market town of Khotan had been prized by emperors and used for ritual emblems and ceremonial vessels. Unlike brilliant green Burmese jadite, the palette of Khotanese nephrite had colors that were warm and soft, the finest likened to the look and feel of congealed fat. In the eighteenth century, jade from Khotan was traded to Chinese and Indian markets to be carved into vessels and objets d’art. But the trade was unstable, disturbed by Moslem uprisings and the Dzungar, the Western Mongols. In 1759, Qianlong sent the imperial army to quell the disturbances; his victory extending the western reaches of the empire through a great swath of Central Asia to the borders Russia, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Named Xinjiang, the new territory was made a province with imperial army garrisons securing the abundant trade that flowed east and west. At Yarkand and Khotan, the Moslem begs and Qing officials left in the wake of the conquering armies to administer the new territory sent jade stone and vessels as gifts to the emperor in Beijing.

To the delight of the emperor, the palace ateliers produced a remarkable number -- thought to be in the tens of thousands -- of jade objects for the imperial collection. Of the tribute jade, Qianlong was enthralled most of all by rare vessels of such refinement that they were as thin as fine porcelain, decorated in precious metals, and encrusted with jewels. The emperor learned that such fabulous jades were from Hindustan, traded along the Silk Road, cut from Khotanese stone, and inlayed with rubies and gold. He immediately sent for more.

In time, Qianlong received a covered bowl of light green jade flecked with milky inclusions resembling delicate flakes of cracked ice (Image 1). The exterior of the lid and vessel was decorated with floral inlays of white and dark green jade and ruby-red glass, all captured in cloisons of pure gold. Lightly engraved on the interior bottom of this bowl were four characters that read, “For the personal use of the Qianlong emperor” (Image 2). The bowl was housed in the Hall of Heavenly Purity.

Hindustani jades entered the palace collection in quantity and were among Qianlong’s prized possessions. He so admired the Indian jades that he wrote over seventy poems extolling their virtues, and often had the vessels engraved with his poetic verse. The emperor praised the Hindu lapidaries as a “supernatural craftsmen,” who were “devilishly skilled,” mistakenly believing that they worked jade stone with nothing but water, carving and polishing with no abrasives. He characterized the inner and outer surfaces of the vessels as “equally smooth and finished, the color and form blended together.” He likened the extreme thinness of the jades to “the wings of a cicada” that were as “lustrous and thin as paper.” Being so thin, the vessels were translucent and lightweight. Inspired by an extraordinary work of Hindustani jade, Qianlong wrote that holding it was “like holding nothing,” and that in his hands “there is really nothing there.” The emperor marveled at the carved decoration of acanthus and lotus patterns that covered the jades and the illusion of layers and depth that could be seen but not felt: “I see flowers and leaves, but feel no trace of them.”

The emperor reserved his greatest praise for the hue of the vessels, especially the pure white jades with the color of fresh snow. These white jades were so smooth and glossy that Qianlong described their color and texture as “trimmed fat” or “mutton fat,” the highest accolade bestowed on jade by the emperor. Qianlong’s jade vessels for milk tea were stored in the great halls arrayed throughout the Forbidden City. An elaborate, lobed teapot of white jade carved with a ram’s head spout and twisted handles (Image 3) was stored in the Hall of Everlasting Longevity.

A special milk-tea bowl of white jade was kept in the Hall for Nurturing the Heart. Unlike the huge, cavernous halls of the outer palace, the Hall for Nurturing the Heart was Qianlong’s private study, a very small, secluded apartment at the back of the inner palace, protected by many gates and walls, and near the emperor’s garden. The tiny sitting-room was just comfortable for but a single person to lounge or stand in. An extremely close and intimate space, it was the emperor’s sole place of refuge from family and court. Here, Qianlong read and wrote poetry, peacefully enclosed in a cocoon of favorite books and art, nodding to his eunuch now and then to order milk tea. The bowl that he kept by him and always used was made of a lovely white jade finely carved with very faint floral designs and handles of pendant flower buds (Image 4).

In 1781, he composed a poem to honor the vessel and had the inscription engraved around the body. Qianlong praised the fine color and look of the jade as “mutton fat,” but he struggled to describe the “fluttering and fleeting” quality of the carved design, ineptly comparing its ephemeral character to the fragility of mulberry paper. Finally, he surrendered and confessed to being positively abashed, unable to justly express the full and virtuous nature of the bowl. But in penance and in adoration of its singular beauty, Qianlong always kept the bowl in his little study and within his easy reach. Until the very end of his days, the white jade vessel remained the emperor’s favorite bowl, and from it Qianlong drank his fill of milk tea, his favorite drink.


  • Whereas tribute-grade huang cha -- yellow tea -- was evidently drunk on special occasions, it seems likely that Qianlong's daily milk tea was made with hei cha. But the Chinese records and commentary vacillate between describing the brick and compressed teas of this period as both hei and hong, i.e. "black" and "red" tea.

  • Each of Qianlong's jades was registered and tagged by Qing eunuch officials with a yellow slip that described and recorded the hall in which the object was stored. The registration records have survived and have been of inestimable help in indicating the palace storage locations for these antiquities. For example, because the green and white bowls as well as the white teapot illustrated have been in the imperial collection of the National Palace Museum (Taipei) -- i.e., not lost during the palace lootings of 1860 and 1900, and not pilfered during Puyi's short reign, 1909-1911, and his residence in the palace until 1924 -- the record of this jade and its former storage place in the Forbidden City is without question.

    Notes on the Illustrations

    Image 1. Qianlong's covered tea bowl for milk tea. Light green stone: round bowl with handles and cover with knob; inlayed with jade, gold and glass in floral designs. India.
    D: 12.9 cm. H: 9.7 cm. National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei. Tian 349/Qianqing kong

    Image 2. Detail of the preceding: interior engraved with hanzi stipulating "For the personal use of the Qianlong emperor."

    Image 3. Qianlong's teapot for milk tea. White nephrite jade: lobed body, ram’s head spout, and twisted handles. China.
    L: 17.8 cm. W: 12.7 cm. H: 15.4 cm. National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei. Chin 244.149/Yungshou kong

    Image 4. Qianlong's tea bowl for milk tea. White nephrite jade: round bowl with handles carved with floral designs and engraved inscription. India.
    D: 16.6 cm. H: 7.8 cm. National Palace Museum Collection, Taipei. Lü 640.7/Yangxin tian

    corax said...

    estimable geraldo,

    i asked mr owyoung to read and respond to your comment, and here is his reply [sent to me today via email]:

    "As for a recipe for milk tea, the one cited in the book, A la table de l'empereur de Chine and translated by corax in his review is correct; a very rich mixture that agrees with the description by Aeneas Anderson of the British embassy of 1793. Anderson noted that Qianlong's milk tea was infused with as much milk as with water.' However, the Uighur, Tibetan, and Mongol recipes and techniques required more tea leaves, 'a hand full,' producing a strong brew. The average ratio of milk to water in traditional recipes was about one to five, i.e., one-fifth milk to four-fifths water. Among the cultures drinking milk tea, the amount of milk in the recipe might be related to the type of milk used. For instance, mare's milk is described as leaner than cow's milk, containing fewer fats and proteins, but more lactose than cow's milk. The recipes and descriptions in Chinese sources tend to be rather imprecise, even though the making of milk tea was considered a skill, indeed an art, requiring the services of a tea master at the imperial palace. When the literature is precise, the weight of each ingredient is given in traditional Chinese dry weight measures: jin, liang, qian, fen, and etc., making precise conversion into Western measures, especially dry to liquid, a challenge and begging the question of what further difficulties the Uighur, Tibetan, Mongol, and Manchu measurements might present! In any case, making a proper milk tea is considered difficult, a problem of proportion for the various ingredients. When perfectly made, the host and guests are all rewarded by a delicious aroma issuing from the pot and a brew that was addicting."

    hope this helps! i just that know you are going to test the recipe now -- possibly several times, with huang as well as hei cha, and under various conditions -- so please let CHA DAO's readership know about your results.


    Anonymous said...

    Great article...and that green jade bowl!

    Sam@ blooming tea said...

    Thanks for this article and for educating us. I'm really glad to have found your post.