Monday, June 23, 2008

Perspectives on Storing and Aging Pu'er Teas (i)

by CORAX & Co.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Recently I read a provocative article by Jinghong Zhang on storing pu'er tea (with a link to an earlier piece by the same author). Zhang brings up a number of interesting points about the nature of pu'er tea, and the thorny question of how best to store and age it.

Because there is so much controversy on the subject -- and because the purchase and collecting of pu'er tea can often represent a sizeable investment of both time and money -- I thought it would be well worth our while to consult some knowledgeable figures in the global tea-drinking community, and to assemble their thoughts on the matter. Opinions differ across the world, of course, about what happens to pu'er teas as they age, and about how to protect one's stash and optimize the aging results; and I knew that the opinions even of these tea mavens would not be identical. But indeed that was one reason why I thought it important that we take note of a broad spectrum of ideas.

So here for your information and delectation, gentle reader, is a collection of observations (listed alphabetically by contributor) on various aspects of storing and aging pu'er teas: the first in what I hope will be a series of CHA DAO posts on the topic. (I should mention that none of these contributors has seen the comments of the others, prior to the publication of the entire composite post here.) Your own comments and queries are, as always, welcomed to further the conversation.

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» Stéphane ERLER, resident of Taiwan and master of the well-known TEAMASTERS blog, writes the following:

By now, I think that most people are aware that puerh ages faster in an environment with a rather high humidity level and high temperature. I can clearly smell this, as summer approaches in Taiwan, from my own puerh stash. It feels much more active than during winter.

I would like to offer a few new perspectives on the subject:

1. Why store puerh or what kind of puerh is worth storing by individuals in the West?

There is a myth that almost any bitter and astringent raw puerh will turn into a wonderfully mellow and fragrant tea if you give it enough time (and proper conditions) to age. This myth has helped fuel the interest and speculation in puerh in recent years, as it promises big returns on small investments. The myth also helps a lot of buyers to feel less bad about their purchases: if it's not good now, there's a good chance that it will be better in a few years. However, these low-grade puerhs are probably those that need the most transformation, the most humid and hot environment possible, in order to become drinkable. In that regard, hot and humid Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia offer better conditions for this than most places in the US or in Europe. So I don't see much justification for tea drinkers in the west to age such puerhs by themselves.

High-grade puerhs, on the other hand, don't offer a perspective just to become drinkable (they already are very good), but to become exceptional. I see some parallels to red wines here: when a collector purchases wine for the long term (for the birth of a baby, with the intention to give or drink it when the baby is adult), then he would choose a grand cru classé, a top grade. A medium grade wouldn't do and certainly not a low grade. A slower maturation isn't a problem if you already enjoy the puerh as it is today!

For a fast maturation, critical mass (a big quantity) is another advantage that merchants have. But for slow and careful maturation, a smaller quantity can become an advantage (see below) for individuals.

Storing is ultimately a question of what will stand the test of time. There are two kinds of items worth collecting: very personal or top-quality items. And even if, as a parent, you collect your kids' drawings, you will focus on the nicest ones. Or, for your photo album, you will only select the best shots. As a tea drinker, the aim of storing is to remember the best about your tea discoveries. It shouldn't be about remembering the bitter experiences you underwent 20 years ago.

2. How to judge what young puerh is worth keeping?

There should be some sweetness, purity in the mouth, and a throat that doesn't shrink when the tea flows throw. Then, the yun, the aftertaste, should be very long. The whole experience should already be a pleasure. (A lot has been written on that subject already).

3. Storage advice.

Not all puerh warehouses are very clean. Many merchants simply store their puerh in an old, damp basement. The risk of mold is quite high, and the fragrance of puerh stored this way is not always nice. This is where home storage has the potential to be better than mass storage. Keep you puerh away from bad smells, in a clean environment. That also means that raw and cooked puerh should be kept separately. You don't want your puerh to be contaminated by other smells, but to keep its original purity.

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» GERALDO, a stalwart among CHA DAO contributors, provides these observations:

Neither I nor any of my friends has stored a teacake for twenty years. I’ve met one or two older Chinese gentlemen who have stored pu’er for decades, but I’m not in communication with them. My knowledge of storing pu’er, therefore, results from the too-often contradictory mandates gleaned from Internet sources -- blogs and forums. And I doubt those authors have held onto a cake from manufacture to maturity. I suspect that some rules for storing pu’er are rather like urban legends: We repeat what we’ve heard, regardless of the absence of empirical data. This is the great pu’er conundrum, the conshengdrum.

Sad irony: Unless we begin collecting pu’er in our twenties, we cannot actually use what experience teaches us. Before my first sheng teacakes age, more then twenty-five percent of my life will have elapsed.

When vendors refer to five-year-old teacakes as “aged,” who can we trust? Sheng ages at glacial rates. Buying nascent sheng is an expression of optimism.

* * *

Words change. My hero Samuel Johnson wrote of this in his preface to his great Dictionary. New words spring to birth and their definitions morph at light-speed. In the context of pu’er, a prime and apropos example is “wet.” Just four years ago here in the West, “wet” referred to young pu’er that had been speed-aged so it could be foisted upon the unwary in the guise of aged pu’er. Unscrupulous antique dealers hang new chairs from ropes and dangle them in the surf for a week or two, and then sell the “antique” chairs for huge profit. Wet-stored pu’er was an all-or-nothing construct, like a light switch, on or off, wet or dry.

Today, “wet” has a far different meaning. In current usage, all aged pu’er is to some extent wet-stored. According to today’s parlance, if it were truly dry-stored, it would be desiccated, mummified. Now “wet” is any point along a big defining continuum, and we consider it in terms of the relative humidity at far-flung storage locations. We think about degrees of "wet" based upon prevailing weather in cities like Guangzhou, Kunming, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco, Paris, Houston, and New York. We also consider it in terms of airflow in storage locations, 1988 Ching Beeng being a famous example of airflow in the aging process.

When I first drank aged sheng, "dry-stored pu’er" was any pu’er that had not been nefariously speed-aged. By today’s definition, that wonderful sheng was more or less wet-stored--depending upon the relative humidity and airflow in the storage location. Much is written now about westerners’ strange aversion to perfectly good wet-stored pu’er, but that perception of western taste stems from semantic change rather than aesthetics. Let us put this subject to rest. Westerners have an aversion to wet-stored pu’er under the old definition, not the new. No one likes pu’er that has been ruined for the sake of profit through fraud. Words change faster than sheng matures.

* * *

In ten or fifteen years, we will see, I’m certain, a rather large amount of home-stored sheng appear. This will be an exciting time! I am very curious to know how pu’er aged in air-conditioned homes will have matured. Remember that regional humidity will not really apply to the extent some might suppose. Given how most of us live, humidity (or lack of it) outside is not reflected by conditions inside. My part of the world is quite humid in the winter, but my windows are closed because it’s cold. My part of the world is somewhat drier in the summer, but my windows are closed because it’s hot. I grew up in Iowa where the summertime relative humidity outside would often approach one-hundred percent. I’d wager that most pu’er collectors living in Iowa today have air conditioners. Even when heaters and air conditioners are not switched on, interior and exterior relative humidity do not really coincide. Nevertheless, places in the tropics will be more humid inside. My pu’er-collecting friend in Singapore worries about removing water from the air. I worry about adding water to the air. I humidify; he dehumidifies. But we both have air conditioning, and that ameliorates the biggest effects.

* * *

At my age (and I’m far younger than ancient Corax), I’d be crazy to spend much money collecting nascent sheng. Further, I’m an impoverished teacher, so I ride a Yamaha rather than a Harley. I can no longer afford to buy good sheng from the seventies. I now and again will split an eighties cake with a friend or friends. For the most part, I roll the dice and buy nineties cakes, and those arrive in various states of wetnitude. Sometimes I am a lucky little pu’er-head, and mildly wet-stored pu’er emerges from the SAL parcel. More often, though, the nineties pu’er arrives rather wetter than I prefer.

My tea-teacher has long advised that I expose newly-arrived pu’er to the air for at least two weeks prior to tasting it. I have learned that shu is incredibly better when aired. I flake some of it into a bowl and cover it with a paper towel. Then I tap my foot for fourteen days. When nineties sheng arrived with the leaves somewhat the worse for wetnitude, I used to despair. I’d consider my money ill-spent. But I have learned now not to judge nineties pu’er until it has aired for two months. I flake some of it up and leave it in a bowl as I do with shu, but for sixty days rather than fourteen. I’ve witnessed some truly tremendous evolutions. I cannot overstate this recommendation. There is but one problem: Too often a vendor’s supply sells out before I can judge it. C'est la vie.

In A Glossary of Chinese Puerh Tea, Chan Kam Pong (a.k.a. “Cloud”) classifies pu’er into three categories: “mildy wet storage,” “medium wet storage,” and “seriously wet storage.” I’ve learned from correspondents that Cloud has formulated a procedure for revivifying seriously wet-stored pu’er, and I’d like to learn the exact specifics of his procedure. But lacking that knowledge, I am happy my short-term solution has salubrious results, albeit that it requires the breaking-up of a cake or portion thereof. Not only does the sixty-days-flake-up-and-exposure procedure improve the taste, but it improves the appearance as well.

Even some good adolescent pu’ers will improve from airing. As a case in point, I purchased a number of Xia Guan Nan Zhao Brand Fu Lu Shou Xi fang cha cakes, vintaged 1999 and 2004. Some I purchased personally in Guangzhou’s teashops under the tutelage of my Guangzhou friends, and some over the Internet from Jing Tea Shop. Seb and Jing’s tea maestro sent word that I should break up one of the 1999 bricks and expose it to air for two months. The brick emerged from its box a dark olive-green, looking nominally aged and tasting pretty good. Two months later it had miraculously metamorphosed. The leaves were dark reddish-brown. The tea tasted fabulous.

To err is human, but to air divine.

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» TOKI, one of the original contributors to CHA DAO, and master of the classic blog The Mandarin’s Tea, offers us the following notes, links, and images (including a wonderful brief movie on stored Yiwu pu'er):

There are 2 purposes of aging in my opinion: 1. Aging for storage, or 2. Aging to refine taste and development of character. Storage aging comes simply because of: A. Overstock, B. Investment, or C. Unintentional.

For tea lovers, except perhaps tea vendors, overstock leads to storage. Dry storage and wet storage really depend on which climate zone you are living in. Let me use puerh as our topic of discussion, thinking of normal tea lovers:

Wet storage occurs if you are in the tropics with high humidity year round, e.g. Hong Kong, Malaysia, or Florida. Dry storage occurs in drier climates, e.g. Texas, Nevada or Kunming. Added to these is Seasonal storage, which includes places that have pronounced seasonal differences, e.g. New York, Beijing, or Korea.

I can only suggest areas I am most familiar with, since I've been living in NY for over 18 years. New York City is a very unusual area to age tea, not because of its location, but because of the popularity of drinking puerh. Weather here is extreme in every season: super-dry winters with the added factor of central heating; 80-95% humidity in springtime with spring showers like those in London; 100°F (and higher) summer heat, with high and low mixed humidity; and Kunming-like autumns, mild temperature and pleasant 60% humidity. These clear seasonal changes contribute to well-mixed changes in short periods.

Storage aging without refinement can prolong the aging process. Raw-cake storage in NY can take up 3 to 4 times longer than aging in Hong Kong. The main hazard period for tea here is wintertime. The humidity can drop to 20-30% if you have a heater. This critical four-month period is always my concern. Being too dry will certainly hurt your tea, if not "kill" them. If this period of dryness continues more than 6 months, the tea will be in serious hibernation: a long sleep, from which they might never wake.

I have previously discussed the topic of tea aging, dividing it up into three major maturation periods:

First Maturation: around 5 years
Second Maturation: 15-25 years
Third Maturation: 50 years and up

If it is a newly-harvested puerh, the first five years is fine, even if it's stored in a prolonged (5 months) dry climate. But the effect might be a less lively brew, or the taste might not be as promising as the aroma.

If this is prolonged to the second period of 5 to 10 years of continuous dryness, lower than 50% humidity, the tea will be permanently affected.

If tea is in its second period of aging, and was kept in a pretty fine first period, it will continue to develop excellent characteristics which might not be detected in the first period. But if the storage condition deteriorates, then all the work will be spoiled. I have tasted good mature tea in its second stage which was stored badly; the taste came to a standstill as of a 10 to 15 years aged tea, but without life or youth. Many vendors try other ways to make badly-stored tea alive by introducing wet/dry storage depending where the tea stands, for a short period of time, and then to resell them. That could be a desperate attempt which will add only the first few brews with a better soup, but after the couple of brews, the falsity cannot be hidden.

No matter how the tea is stored, there is always something to learn from it -- especially the ones we have stored ourselves. Bad judgment only leads to better techniques and knowledge. Learning from yourself will be a good benefit to judge what you are buying from vendors.

Storage in bulk is the best way: (click on the image for a larger view)

I have seen a warehouse with over 30 years’ aged mao cha storage. Stacks piled up to the ceiling, in a space thousands of square meters in size. This was the best way of storage, I was told. The microclimate that these tons of tea leaves have created will manage the temperature and humidity, and will improve the aging process of the tea. But who, beside the factories, can achieve this? My suggestion is to buy at least a tong if you plan on storage. The more of the same kind of tea to age you have, the better the result will be.

[[Click on the circle in the center of the image, then click the 'play' button on the viewer. Note: the sound-track is not subtitled! :) ]]

I also have an entry on my blog about refining storage; it's a bit of a labor of love. But I do believe it is the ideal way to a better system.

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» Scott Wilson, proprietor of Yunnan Sourcing LLC, brings a Kunming-based pu'er vendor's perspective to the topic:

1. 'How was this tea stored?' as a criterion for buying

Most of the time I am buying teas in whole-case quantities as they are released into the market. Occasionally, I do buy teas that have been aged by others, and this is one of the first questions that I ask. Of course, looking at the tea and already knowing its age can often tell me that it was not aged in Kunming. After brewing teas stored in places like Guangdong or Fujian, it is often quite obvious to me that the tea was stored there due to the unique smell and slightly moldy taste that it has. I also tend to notice a dry or scratchy throat after a drinking session of wet-stored raw Pu-erh.

A few months ago I bought some 1998 Xiaguan tuos that had been stored in Lanzhou (Gansu) since that time. Visually there was very little change to the tuo, and even the brewed leaves were still quite green after ten years of storage. The taste of the tea itself was aged, but the intense cha qi was still present. Lanzhou is drier and colder than Kunming, so after my experience with this Xiaguan tuo stored there I knew that there are places even slower than Kunming for aging Pu-erh.

I would always prefer even a very dry storage condition over teas stored in wetter conditions like Guangzhou, Taiwan and Fujian. This is just my own bias, but I don't like the taste and feeling of most the teas stored in these areas.

2. Wet storage: Different meanings of the term

Wet storage typically refers to teas stored in more humid conditions. These are natural conditions that cause a speedier post-fermentation of the tea. The traditional Guangzhou and Taiwan storage of Pu-erh was not designed to speed up post fermentation; it is just due to the climate in those areas. People from these areas tend to "be OK" with the wetter taste, and will often complain when served dry-stored Pu-erh from the same factory/vintage.

However, in recent years -- as aged Pu-erh has become more sought-after -- the creation of intentionally wet-stored Pu-erh intended to simulate aged pu-erh has become a problem. This method of creating an aged pu-erh is typically done by spraying water on "mao cha" and then drying it out, making it wet again and then drying it out (sometimes with ovens or electric heat). This mao cha is then compressed into cakes or bricks that look aged, but when it is brewed, it will give off strange odors and taste that would fool only those who had never drunk properly aged pu-erh. Cakes are also stored in intentionally wet conditions and sprayed with water, until they mold through and through. Then to remove the visual evidence of mold, they are baked in oven rooms at very high temperatures to break down the mold. As you can imagine, this kind of tea is bad for health.

3. Wet storage: Good or bad?

Until there are medical studies that can prove that the molds present in traditional wetter stored Pu-erh are harmful, I think this will be a question of personal preference.

On the other hand, intentional wet storage to simulate aged Pu-erh is definitely bad for health! I have met scores of people sickened by this type of tea. While anecdotal, I do strongly believe that simulated aged Pu-erh is dangerous to drink!

4. The interplay of time and climate as storage

The interplay of time and climate as the catalyst for aging Pu-erh is practically unlimited! I think the question on everyone's mind is: Where is the best place to store Pu-erh? I don't think there is really a single answer. If you are like me, and revel in young raw Pu-erhs that deliver a punch in the gut and an energetic high, you won't be worried about getting your Pu-erhs on the fast-track to old age. But if you did want find a place where your raw Pu-erh would mellow faster, where would that be?

I have long considered the idea of regional Pu-erh banks situated in ideal locations for storage. The one located in Yuanjiang (Yunnan) takes advantage of consistently warm weather and a higher humidity level. It seems that these two conditions are the biggest factors in aging Pu-erh. Too much humidity is not good, as you want to preserve the natural qualities of the tea without introducing molds or spores. You want it change, but not too fast. Too fast, and you lose the natural qualities of the tea!

Making a decision about what the ideal climate would be for aging Pu-erh might be decided after getting Pu-erh stored for 5 to 10 years in different areas. Ideally if you could get the same factory/vintage/recipe tea that was stored in Kunming, Shanghai, Guangdong, Xishuangbanna, and Malaysia, you could see how each areas unique climates have aged the tea.

It will be exciting to taste North American and European stored aged Pu-erh in the years to come. We will all learn a lot as Pu-erh becomes a long-term resident in places all over the world!

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tea Thesaurus - Part 2


This is a continuation of the tea thesaurus. Are there any more categories to be added? I can't think of any more right now. Again, your input is welcome.

Tea Affair
(Words Synonymous with Tea Functions)
Tea function
Tea affair
Tea party
Tea meeting
Tea engagement
Tea ritual
Tea ceremony
Tea gathering
Tea do
Tea event
Tea break
Tea quest
Tea sojourn
Tea moment
Tea time
Pause for tea

Tea Drinker
(Words Synonymous with a person who drinks tea)
Tea drinker
Tea consumer
Tea taster
Tea person (people)
Tea master
Tea host/hostess
Tea guest
Tea lover
Tea companion
Tea friend
Tea family
Tea novice
Tea newbie
Tea initiate
Tea student
Tea teacher
Tea professor
Tea passionate
Tea enthusiast
Tea professional
Tea enraptured
Tea cultured
Tea masses
Tea populace
Tea community
Tea society
Tea-drinking public
Tea group
Tea crowd
Tea throng
Tea hordes
Tea multitude
Tea faithful
Tea friendly
Tea pal
Tea gang
Tea cohort
Tea associate
Tea comrade
Tea boy/girl
Tea partner
Tea amigo
Tea accomplice
Chaist [Cha’ist or cha-ist?]
Tea player
Tea guy
Tea garçon
Tea underling
Tea afflicted [some people are – they spend all their wealth on tea.]
Tea affected
Tea addict
Tea convert

Non-tea Drinker
(Words Synonymous with people who don’t drink/like tea)
[Some of these labels may be un-flattering]
Non-tea drinker
Non-tea person
Tea hater
Ateaist [without tea]
Un-tea cultured [can that be said? Or tea uncultured?]
Tea avoider
Non-tea believer
Non-tea friendly
Tea un-enjoyed
Tea un-cool
Tea deprived
Tea poor
Tea dispossessed
Tea fringe [or fringe teaist?]
Tea uncivilized
Tea uninitiated
Tea unfaithful [or non-tea faithful]
Tea virgin
Tea less-fortunate
Tea traitor
Tea betrayer
Tea procrastinator
Tea stranger
Tea unappreciated
Tea disaffected
Tea disavowed
Tea neglected

Tea Professionals

(People who work with tea)
Tea god
Tea saint
Tea sage
Tea master
Tea host/hostess
Tea picker
Tea farmer
Tea blender
Tea manufacturer
Tea sommelier
Tea waiter/waitress
Tea entrepreneur
Tea lecturer
Tea writer
Tea marketer
Tea executive
Tea buyer
Tea processor
Tea packer

Tea Places
(Places where people go to drink tea)
Tea place
Tea room
Tea bar
Tea restaurant
Tea café
Tea shop
Tea stall
Tea bistro
Tea hut
Tea shack
Tea pavilion
Tea mall
Tea city
Tea town
Tea spot
Tea capital
Tea school

The following is just a list for information purposes only. Use at your own risk. Author will not be held responsible financially or otherwise, for any unintended consequences or un-benign results (such as, but not limited to, gagging, barfing, hurling, embarrassment, shattered utensils, etc.) from use of such material. But what the heck, live dangerously; put a little milk in your tea! (Yes, I know you’re all cringing right now.)

Tea Mates
(Stuff that people put in tea)
sugar cubes [one lump or two?]
rock sugar
brown sugar
sugar syrup
maple syrup
milk (cow’s milk)
evaporated milk
sweetened condensed milk
water [to dilute]
preserved plum [dried prunes]
preserved orange peel
tapioca pearls
ice cubes
lemon juice
lemon slices
chrysanthemum flowers
jujube (dried fruit)
wolfberry (dried fruit)
grass jelly
coconut meat
soya milk
fruit juices
foamed milk
coffee [but why?]
liquor [utterly wicked]

Tea Additives
(General Synonyms for tea mates)
Flavor enhancers

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tea Thesaurus


How many words in English can we use to describe tea? Here are a few I have come up with – the most obvious, of course. Feel free to contribute to this list.

Make Tea
Words Synonymous with Make Tea
cook tea
boil tea
brew tea
simmer tea
steep tea
infuse tea
prepare tea
stew tea
whisk tea
make tea
do tea
zap (microwave) tea [not recommended though]
nuke tea
percolate tea
filter-drip tea [yuck]
plunge tea [using tea plunger]
decoct tea
mash tea
fix tea

Drink Tea
Words Synonymous with Drink Tea
Glug down
Take tea
Eat tea
Consume tea
Partake of tea
Swallow tea
Suck tea [through straw]
Lap tea
Indulge in tea
Delight in tea [my personal favorite]
(Take) pleasure in tea
Have tea
(Take a) dose of tea
Swish tea
(Get a) fix of tea [addictive substance]
Enjoy tea
(Take) comfort in tea
Warm up with tea
Cool down with tea
Engage in tea

Tea Leaf
Words Synonymous with Tea (Leaf)
Puer (pu-er, pu-erh)
Black tea
White tea
Red tea
Yellow tea
Green tea
Earl Grey
Scented tea
Brick tea
Bing cha (Beeng cha)
Powdered tea
Loose-leaf tea
Whole-leaf tea
CTC tea
Tea fannings
Tea dust
Le thé
Thea [latin word for tea]
Rare tea
Fine tea
Camellia sinensis (C. sinensis)
Camellia assamica (C. assamica)

Tea Waste
Words Synonymous with Tea Waste
Tea fines
Tea dregs
Tea dross
Tea particles
Tea residue
Tea remains
Tea sediment
Tea deposits
Tea scum
Tea cast-offs

Tea Infusion
Words Synonymous with Tea (Infusion)
Weak Tea
Strong Tea
Agony of the leaves
Unfurling of the leaves
Dance of the leaf
Leaf juice [I made that up]
Leaf elixir [maybe?]
Tea essence
Tea Soup
Tea preparation

Tea Beverage
Words Synonymous with Tea (Beverage)
Milk tea
Lemon tea
Sweet tea
Honey tea
Bubble tea
Hot tea
Iced tea
Sun tea
Bottled tea
Canned tea
Boxed tea
Powdered tea
Instant tea
Tea bag tea
Loose-leaf tea
Ready-to-drink (RTD) tea
Premium tea
Cheap tea
Restaurant tea
Supermarket tea
Rare tea
Fine tea
Tea dose [more like hourly dose]

Tea Measures
Tea Measure Words
a cup of tea
a pot of tea
a glass of tea
a mug of tea
a bowl of tea
a pitcher of tea
a spot of tea
a drop of tea
a teaspoon (of tea leaf)
a can of tea
a bottle of tea
a bag of tea
a packet of tea
a sachet of tea
a cache of tea
a package of tea
a box of tea
a brick of tea
a cake of tea
a ton of tea
a pinch of tea
an ounce of tea
a gram of tea
a pound/kilo of tea
a gallon/liter of tea
a scoop of tea
a cupboard full of tea
a tong of tea [can we say that in English?]
all the tea in China [kind of cliché]
a caddy of tea
a natsume of tea
a cha-he of tea
a mouthful of tea
a draught of tea
a dose of tea
a demitasse of tea
a shot of tea

Tea Storage
(Places for storing tea)
tea cupboard
tea cave
tea chest
tea library
tea urn [some people actually store puer in large earthenware urns with a wooden lid.]
tea fridge
tea freezer
tea shelf
tea pantry

Tea Utensil
(Words associated with utensil)
tea utensils
tea ware
tea things
tea implements
tea tools
tea équipage
tea equipment
tea treasures
tea toys

Monday, June 02, 2008

Internet Ethics and Intellectual Property


CHA DAO is the work of many hands. One of my great pleasures, as blog owner and editor, is to facilitate the dissemination of that work, and to celebrate the contribution of each author. This celebratory work manifests itself in a variety of ways -- not just in the publication of each post on this blog, but also in the clickable links to other web pages that I try to add whenever I think these might be useful or interesting to our readers. I am also continually updating the list (in the right-hand column, below) of relevant blogs and other websites that I think our readers might find worth consulting.

CHA DAO casts its nets fairly widely. With the constant burgeoning of the Internet -- it's estimated that about 175,000 new blogs are begun every day -- that is no easy task, even if one restricts one's attention to a single topic, such as 'tea.' But we do our best. Naturally, in the course of such research, I see some extraordinary things. Sometimes they delight me. But not always.

It was with no small chagrin that I recently discovered that a blog known as 'Cha Bei' -- written by someone identifying himself as '謏約翰, A Scot living in California, working in China' -- has plagiarized an entire post from CHA DAO -- right down to the formatting. The 'Cha Bei' post was published on 3 May 2008; my own post, from which he has lifted the text, was last emended in July 2007.

He has changed a few words here and there -- my 'Miscellanea,' an unusual (Latin) term to be sure, has become 'Various Phrases,' and so forth; and of course he has taken out the paragraphs at the end where I thanked those who have helped me in the long task of compiling that list. Not surprisingly, he has also carefully snipped out the passage where I say: 'All suggestions for additions or corrections are most welcome; please send these to me [off-blog] at emailcorax {at} gmail {dot} com,' as well as my explicit signature of 'corax' at the end of the post -- these would have been all-too-clear attributions of authorship, which 謏約翰 was clearly not willing to accord me. But basically every single word of what was published in the 'Cha Bei' post of 3 May 2008 is -- virtually in its entirety -- my intellectual property. Indeed my cyber-fingerprints are all over the text: even my odd typographic quirks, such as using three hyphens (---) as a long dash to nest some entries under another entry, have been reproduced, keystroke by keystroke.

Now I want to be clear about a couple of things at the outset. First of all, this blogger does say that the material is taken 'from various sources' (in a parenthesis at the beginning), and that it is 'info I have in various Word/Excel files, compiled over the years' (in a comment at the end). But I submit that phrases like 'taken from various sources' and 'compiled over the years' much more naturally suggest that the work of conceiving and constructing the list was his, rather than mine.

This is made worse by the conversation he pursues in his 'comments' section. When one commenter refers to 'your effort' (emphasis added), 謏約翰 does nothing in his reply to clarify that the effort was not in fact his. And when another commenter thanks him for 'taking the time to put these up,' he replies, 'My pleasure!' -- again with no indication that it was someone else who actually 'took the time' over that list. All of this only contributes to the heavy implication that the work was done by 謏約翰 himself.

Certainly no reader who had not seen the original post at CHA DAO would ever, in a thousand years, have guessed that this material was copied and pasted, basically verbatim, from my original work (apparently from the source code of the CHA DAO page itself). There is no citation or attribution anywhere in 謏約翰's post. And it is not as if the text in question were a small snippet: the material pirated by 'Cha Bei' weighs in at 2673 words. In 11-point type, that would require a Microsoft Word document of seven pages. Moreover -- let us be clear about this too -- my original post was by no means a casual squib, the sort of thing that one dashes off in a few moments, or even a few hours: the list itself cost me many weeks of meticulous research, writing, fact-checking, and revision.

Another thing that needs clarifying: I made this list to be used by my readers. Indeed I say explicitly in the post that 'You are invited to copy and paste these terms into your own list or set of cards; the Chinese characters here are in a scalable font, so in a good word-processing program you should be able to enlarge or shrink them, as you please, for printing out. If your shopping plans are less ambitious, you can simply choose the words you're fairly sure you will need.' So it is not as if I had posted the list along with some version of 'Keep your hands off my text.' On the contrary. But it should not require a law degree, or a philosophical genius, to see that inviting a reader to make a copy of my list, in order to take it shopping with him or her, is not even in the same realm as inviting a blogger to pirate the whole thing, without acknowledgment or citation, and to post it in his own blog. If this is not intuitively obvious from the start, I invite my readers (and 謏約翰) to consider how they would feel if they found themselves subjected to such treatment.

The offense is made nastier, in my opinion, because 謏約翰 demonstrates elsewhere on his blog that he is fully cognizant of the importance of copyright and intellectual property: in his post of 14 May 2008, citing two passages from Roy Moxham's book Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, he is careful to locate his citations by title, author, and page number. And he is willing to do this for the sake of two brief snippets of 62 and 86 words respectively -- not even a single page of text, all told. Is this because 謏約翰 thinks something is more 'officially published' if it exists in hard copy? Or simply because he is more afraid of legal prosecution by Moxham or his publisher, because the book must be purchased with money? It is fruitless to speculate on motives; the copyright and intellectual-property issues are identical, whether one is citing from a blog or from a print-format book. (Actually, they are not quite identical in comparing those brief Moxham citations with the theft of a huge chunk of text from CHA DAO: citing passages of less than 100 words -- with appropriate attribution -- might be defended as fair use, with the evident intention of illustrating what another author has written; the wholesale piracy of almost 2700 words, with no attribution whatsoever, is just plain stealing. And that would be so, whether the text in question were in print format, like Moxham's, or in digital format, like CHA DAO's.)

Over the years there has been endless discussion online about 'Netiquette,' i.e. Internet etiquette. One reason it has been endless is that people are constantly stepping on one another's toes, on the Internet as in physical life. Another reason, of course, is that not everyone shares identical notions of what is polite or kind.

But above and beyond questions of etiquette, I am here concerned with matters of ethics (and even legality) where intellectual property is concerned. In connection with that, for everyone's clarity and peace of mind, I would like to state CHA DAO's Official Policy on Intellectual Property. This is as follows:
The copyright for any material published by CHA DAO, be it verbal, visual, audial, or in any other format, belongs either to its author(s) or to CHA DAO itself. Citations from any material published by CHA DAO must be accompanied by explicit reference to the original post, either by a link to the blog's general URL ( plus a reference to the exact title and date of the post, or by a link to the specific URL of the individual post in question. (Any CHA DAO material that remains the intellectual property of its author[s] may of course be reprinted or reproduced in other formats at the will of its author[s]; more explicit instructions for this may be obtained upon request from the editor.)
For easy reference henceforth, this is also posted now in the sidebar to the right, directly under the list of regular contributors.

A couple of other things, in closing: when 謏約翰 reads this new post -- and he has demonstrated very clearly that he reads CHA DAO -- I submit that the ethical thing for him to do would be, first, to write me a letter of apology, and second, to take down his piratic post immediately. (If and when this happens, I will add a happy postscript to this entry.)

And finally: although my original post has always been explicitly signed 'corax' at the end, and was already clearly stamped (by the software) on the original date of posting with the attribution 'POSTED BY CORAX AT 3:06 P.M.,' I have now added the attribution 'by CORAX' at the head of the post (as also at the head of this one). I hope this will remove any possible doubt as to my feelings on the matter.