Wang Ling has arrived giving me only a couple of hours warning, and she is no conventional guest. She is a tea master with a personality that frequently ranges from the absurdly giggly to the mute tones of a spiritual master, but it is tea that she must have and she is on her way. I’ve thrown my tea table into a more central role from its little selfish nook ‘for one’ so that she and her boyfriend can be accommodated comfortably. I’m not entirely certain why I’m frantic but some little part of the mind does in fact know…this isn’t a woman who will be patient.
Fresh from the tea world of Menghai where I last saw Wang Ling, I have an hour to prepare my home in Shangri-La and (more crucially) my tea table and teas for her inevitable arrival. She is bringing her boyfriend who I’m curious to meet. This tyro of tea knowledge, I’ve always imagined, would be something potentially difficult to control given her propensity for intensity in the extreme. You do not welcome in a tea master without a slight worry she has done the same for me…which is why I ‘must’ have everything just so.
Arriving for the ‘night-time’ tea at close to 9:30 pm, she is all that I remember. At once fine boned and elegant, while retaining this disarmingly childlike ability to simply giggle…and explode into borderline frenzied monologues upon all things tea. Alan, her man, is powerfully built and utterly calm and in that first feeling of calm I realize that his ability to maintain a kind of order amidst the flurry of Wang Ling, is one of the main reasons he is – and can – be with her. It actually calms me knowing that his energy will be present to ‘keep the peace’. Crucial to their ability to be with one another, or shall I say an absolute necessity, is his own more than healthy appetite for tea.
It is fair to say that nothing could work if tea’s binding power wasn’t present between the two of them. Wang Ling runs a tea shop, makes her own teas and is invited to attend and serve at tea events throughout Yunnan and has mastered not only the ‘knowledge’ element of what a tea is and what it should be, she is also able to claim a mastery over the esthetics of tea serving. Languid wrists, quick precise sniffs, and a posture that hints at another time of formality all find a willing expression in the being that is Wang Ling. She is one of tea’s great forces – which inevitably come in all shapes and sizes, moods and temperaments.
It is not unusual to find passion in the world of tea; indeed it is a kind of prerequisite for ‘admission’ into the green-veiled world. With Wang Ling though, there is a kind of explosiveness to her that can take the breath. My first encounter with her had been instructive. She had strolled into a tea house of a friend of mine in Menghai, and within five minutes had taken over the conversation and almost forcefully taken over the role of tea server. This isn’t common and all of us drinkers had sensed that we were in for a kind of powerful serenade. It was so. She poured with a dexterity and confidence that took the eye and almost took over from the leaves themselves. The tea was good. It was a Mengzhi tea off of old tea trees, but what was remembered about this ‘event’ was this force of tea nature whose name is Wang Ling.
And now she arrives in loose fitting clothing and three scarves wrapped around here in deference to the cold here. Her intensity seems – momentarily at least – stymied by the cold. Her boyfriend Alan is a soft presence similarly wrapped for the wind. I decide the best strategy to keeping her calm is to offer her the seat of server. Not only do I enjoy watching this fuel-injected woman crank out tea in a near manic manner, I also know that serving will keep her relatively under control. Now, if only the tea’s match her standards.
I’ve got a couple of classics lined up for her and am prepared for her outbursts of “this isn’t what you say it is”…I’ve heard such proclamations before. Sometimes she is simply bluffing and watches the ‘host’ or tea server to see what sort of reaction will occur, prodding for a bluff. Sometimes she is right and sometimes she isn’t, but what she definitely is, is provocative and intense.
It doesn’t take long before we’re into a fresh Jingmai out of a bag I’d just sourced two months earlier. The preparation has us hovering over the tea table in a far less relaxed fashion than one would expect. I’m hoping she stays calm and almost irritated that I must wish this, while Alan is simply excited to drink some of the coveted Jingmai spring leaves from ancient trees. Wang is simply looking really intense. She does intensity well. She pours the first infusion and somehow makes even this look intense. Her first infusion is only seconds and then it is discarded and only ‘then’ does she get her delicate nose into the wet leaves, prying them apart and studying and smelling them. Not a sound is made and she is dangerously close to looking far too clinical about it all…not to mention I am getting more apprehensive by the second. All this fussing about regarding a tea I have hand sourced has me almost daring her to question its authenticity (almost daring mind you, not quite there).
Alan in his frumpy black clothes is nodding and chirping about the tea and for this reason alone, I almost hug him, given that there is some demonstration of the beautiful green leaves in front of him. Meanwhile at infusion number 3 Wang finally nods and then in typical Wang fashion begins a long and roller-coaster monologue about Jingmai’s in general and how they are mild but long in the mouth. Her point, which isn’t directly stated – because that is not her way – is that the present tea is as good a tea as she has likely had. I swell ever so briefly in pride that ‘my’ Jingmai held its own.
But as expected, once Wang has managed to drain every last germ of taste from the leaves, her clear eyes are searching for another tea and I decide to pick out one of my true and very rare pleasures: a 2006 Bang Ma cake which has nicely fermented on its own. It is a tea that for me comes close to being a love that is almost frenzied. It is also a very rare gem in the tea world, nicely nestled amidst a few other teas of ‘royalty’.
When this stunner of a tea is finally prepared it is already getting close to 11 pm but the tempo of serving, the pulses, and the intensity have only risen but on this occasion I’ve got a smug feeling of fearlessness. This tea is devastating and holds a kind of mystical power. Even hinting that one has it in the inventory can move tea veterans to pant and there is that ever-so-slight mania that is common among the devoted of tea in Wang’s eyes.
When it is served – and with this tea there is no need to worry about which infusion we’re talking about here – it stops all things external while it gently infuses its liquor between the molars and massages sensation out of the very tongue. It leaves like a tea should: a gently friction feeling followed by a sweet tang.
Wang is silent with a half-smile occupying her face, while her eyes have the warm lit glow of the sated addict. In those few moments all is quiet and I know the Tea Boss has been ‘hit’ by a rare pleasure, an intense pleasure that might even relax those formidable eye muscles. She looks at her man Alan with a look of love…and then gently slumps back in her chair.