We are sitting in Tian Shui’s Private Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant situated in a housing block on the Campus of the University of Guangzhou. The restaurant serves very fresh, unusual Southern food to only three tables. Huang Jian is about to finish his thesis in History. He is an expert in tea pots. The waiter of the restaurant, Jun, has joined or conversation. Since I don’t speak Chinese, my assistant and friend Xu Shuxian is translating.
Antje: Ok. So – can you tell them that I’m very happy that they take the time for me?
Huang Jian: I’m happy too, to have something like that, something in common to share.
Antje unpacks the tea pot.
A: I have this teapot, but – I just show it to you, no?
Huang Jian examines it from all sides.
HJ: This is a conceptual pot.
The orange lid falls inside. Huang Jian tries to get it out again.
A: It happens all the time. I can do it.
HJ: At the very beginning, the tea pot, it is made for use. The function is most important. So it’s usually like a sphere. After a few more years, it began in Ming dynasty, the people like to put more and more ideas in the teapot, they start to make something different.
A: So for me, I would be interested to know if you have any idea what time this tea pot could have been made in? But the more important thing for me is, if you know something about the ideas, or maybe have your own ideas about what idea can be in this teapot.
HJ: I think this is a new generation tea pot artist. Because it doesn’t belong to traditional artistic perspective. It not belongs to that. This is the new generation artist, who wants to make something new. If this is not a traditional tea pot, usually people will not use it. Because it’s the shape, the shape of this pot, it’s not adapted to peoples artistic perspective. Usually, the artist will use the form of others to make a teapot, for example the tree, or for example there is a very famous teapot, it’s called the Xi Shi teapot. Xi Shi is one of the four beauties of ancient China, and this pot, it’s actually the shape of a breast. But usually, even if people will use the form, the shape of others, they will make a very abstract shape, but not so clear as that [the teapot in the shape of a hand]. So I think that it’s the contemporary artist, for example now, that made this. – From 2008 to the Olympics at 2010, lots of this kind of conceptual teapots were born, and I think they were sold to the foreigners, I don’t know, but just lots of this kind of conceptual pots were born. It just looks creative, but they don’t have a deeper sense that is related to the traditional culture.
A: For me, you can say, it’s a teapot, but maybe it’s also just a sculpture, you know?
HJ: Yes, I agree. Now this teapot – it’s more a sculpture than a teapot, because it’s for looking and not to use.
A: Yes. Because I tried to use it as teapot, and you can use it as teapot, but just as you said, you feel uncomfortable. You don’t get a nice feeling using it. Well, there is something about the shape of the hand that I really like. So I have the feeling that the artist maybe tried to express something about drinking tea, you know?
HJ: People from different cultural backgrounds will see different meanings in it, but my own perspective is: if I go to the stores, for example the tea pot market, I will say: ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’, but I will just look at it for a while. I go to buy teapots with friends – because I usually choose teapots for friends, I know about some teapots – but if they don’t know well of Xi Shi teapot, they might choose it, because the shape looks very different from the traditional ones, and it’s kind of creative. But if I look at it, I will not buy it, because… I don’t know why, but…
A: No, I understand.
HJ: It’s not a good teapot!
HJ: It’s not a good teapot! – Usually the traditional paintings or whatever, the art pieces, they usually are kind of abstract, because for example they wouldn’t draw a hand, they will not really draw a hand, they will not draw all the details, they care more about the meanings behind the hand – but if you draw a hand, so it shows everything immediately…
A: This traditional teapot, is it more like this?
Antje puts the meteorite on the table.
A: What I mean is this feeling, that something is – you know, like: one color, and natural, and simple form. Could you describe what makes a beautiful teapot?
HJ: I agree, that the traditional Chinese like something that is natural, simple, maybe kind of not so new, maybe a little older.
Huang Jian puts a teapot that was sitting in the shelve of the restaurant on the table. It’s rather small and reddish in color.
HJ: This teapot is as well not really a good teapot, because…
A: Too much decoration…
HJ: Too perfect, and too detailed. I can see that it’s made by machine. There is a Chinese painter, Chen Man Sheng. His painting is not so perfect, and it looks not so smart, but from his painting we can still see that there are lots of movements inside. Look, for example… this is too perfect, there is no movement at all, but when the things are not so perfect, you’ll see so many movements, many changes.
The first teapot was born in a temple. The story is like that: the temple is called Jin Sha temple. And the old monk wants to drink water and he teaches his student to make a pot to boil water, and the first teapot was born.
Huang Jians mobile phone rings, he leaves the room. Jun starts to talk (translated by Xu Shuxian).
Jun: I think that this teapot means to me: Put down. Put down – it’s in the Buddha’s book. Put down means – I think, it is called: Let go. Let the things go.
A: It’s this gesture, yes?
Antje shows with her hand the gesture of the teapot in the shape of a human hand.
J: Let all your problems go. Let all your thoughts go. And the Buddha said: in our life we need to let many things go, then your life becomes better. The Guan Yin – have you seen Guan Yin’s hand?
Shuxian: It’s usually – something like that.
Shuxian holds one hand up, one down; the cook makes the same gestures.
A: Oh, really?
S: Yeah, one up, one down.
A: Oh, I see. So it could be like this.
S: Yes. That means: Let go. Let things go.
A: Aha. And the upper hand, what does it mean? The other hand?
S: I don’t know. But I think it’s a connection to the big intelligence. The things of all the cosmos, all the world, the big intelligence.
A: Maybe we come back for a moment to this question that I had before – he can also answer… if they could describe what makes a beautiful teapot beautiful.
S: The shape.
A: Yes, just not only the shape, but the question was: is there something – how can you describe this energy, this movement, this inner movement? And is this something that for them is connected to nature or… I don’t know, if they can describe it. If it’s possible.
S: Oh, that’s a big question.
A: I know, I know! I’m sorry!
S: I’m not ready to answer that.
HJ: Let’s take this teapot as an example: because it’s made of machines, it’s not man made… I can say what makes a teapot that is not beautiful. First: If people can’t see the makers thoughts inside, this is bad. Because first, it doesn’t follow the traditional culture, and second, it’s not creative. Two things that make it not beautiful.
HJ: Just take a word, a sentence from the bible: ‘Your good mind, your good heart needs to express itself by your good behavior.’ So, this pot, maybe it has a good idea, but just the technique is not good.
What makes a teapot beautiful? It’s the feeling that it can be too far away and it can also be very close to your heart. So I just give a simple example: it’s like when you’re doing nothing, and lying down in a beach, with the sunshine, it’s warm, and you’re relaxing… and later the sun is gone, and you wake up. And it’s also like when you go to the church and listen to the song, the beautiful song from the bible, the Holy song, then you’ll be in the environment, and it’s like you’re far away from the world, but somehow you’re closer to the God or to the nature or to your heart or whatever.
A: Yes. I was reading, before coming here, I was reading Lao Tzu, and it’s what he also says, that you should not put any resistance to anything, just…
S: Just doing nothing?
A: Just doing nothing, yes. (All laugh) Is that the same?
HJ: Lao Tzu’s ‘Doing nothing’ – we call it Wu Wei – Wu Wei, doing nothing, it also means doing everything. Everything. But this word by Lao Tzu has a specific background, society background. So at the time, he was the most intelligent person in that world. But now, look at the human being now. Take as an example this crisis in Japan, the nuclear power station. If there’s no nuclear power station, there won’t be any disasters as today. So the technology brings us lots of convenience, but also brings us lots of disasters.
A: Yes. – So, now I want to ask one more question: I mean, here, this little restaurant, it’s almost like in the traditional paintings. Sometimes you see people in the mountains – in former times, in the landscape paintings. So in former times, for example, you have China, there is a war, or there are problems with the mongols, or other problems, yes? And there are people, who are maybe poets, and they go to the mountains and they look for a little hut…
S: Look for a little hut?
A: Like a little house in the mountains, to live far away from the world, you know, just drink tea or drink wine, maybe, and do poesy – do you know about this tradition?
S: Yes. The intelligent people, the sages… if the world, the society, like because of a war or something like that [has become difficult], they will choose to live in the mountain and maybe to write poesy or to draw, to take tea with friends…
A: Yes! So, a little bit I had this feeling when I came to this restaurant. I just want to know if they…
S: …if they agree with you. Ok.
HJ: This place, it’s part of a balance, a balance with the society outside, the noisy world. We just talked about people who are hidden, who are hiding in the mountains – let’s call them ‘hiders’ – is it right? The biggest hiders, the best, they are hidden in the noisy world. The one who are not very good, they are hidden in the mountains.
HJ: Chinese people like to be in society. So, this is not a place that is far away from the world, but it’s a part of a balance. Part of a balance.
A: I understand.
Huan Jian wants to show me his own tea pots, and we go to his student room, where he keeps valuable tea pots, tea, ink paintings and ancient ink. He offers me one of his inks, decorated with a cloud pattern, as a gift. We return to the restaurant, have a very nice dinner and wait for the cook and the owner of the restaurant to join us for a visit to the Hang Jia tea house. When we arrive, about fifteen tea friends have gathered. The tea master, Qiu Sheng, is a rather young man. With slow, elegant gestures he pours the tea into the little cups. Each person has two cups: one longer one, into which the tea is only poured for a few moments, and which is used for smelling it; and a little tea cup for drinking it. There is calm, friendly chatter, and I’m allowed to ask questions, while the first rounds of tea are poured. When the older, more powerful teas are poured, gradually the chatter dies out.
HJ: To make a teapot better is to use it more. You need to use good tea.
A: And do they think that each teapot is like an individual?
HJ: Yes. Every teapot, we can say that it’s like a painting, and it’s a life form. It’s alive.
A: And so, if this teapot is from the Qing dynasty –
S: Before that.
A: Before that – does it also contain the history that it already had?
HJ: Yes. Exactly.
A: So, if it’s alive – if you drink the tea, is it like you talk with the teapot, a little bit? Like you share tea with the teapot, it comes from the teapot? What is happening? Between you and the teapot?
HJ: It’s like a communication between two lives.
S: That’s it.
A: Ok. – And this communication is without words, no?
HJ: It’s a communication between two lives, but it can be also between yourself and the other world. This afternoon we talked about the distance – sometimes you feel far away from the world now, but somehow you feel closer to the nature or to the God or something like that, so it’s a communication with the life that is not you.
A: So it’s a communication with the teapot, but the teapot also contains this bigger life?
S: You mean, does the teapot contain bigger life?
A: Yes. The Other – Otherness.
S: No, it’s just a carrier.
A: A carrier. Yes. And yourself, are you also a carrier?
HJ: The body himself is also a carrier. But if you’re intelligent enough, you don’t really need tea or something else, you only need yourself and then you can connect to the God or whatever that is, up. But when drinking tea – the tea sometimes can be a taste, a piece of meat, or sometimes it can be yourself. Yes.