I recently picked up an accordion-bound copy of Zhang Zeduan’s famous Song dynasty painting of a scene during the Qingming festival. The painting is so famous that a New York Times article described it this way: “Like the Mona Lisa, ‘Qingming Festival’ is to some extent famous for being famous.” It has been copied, reinterpreted, and converted into different media. (In fact, my earliest memory of it is recognizing the famous bridge as the same as the semi-3D wooden model hanging from the wall of a Chinese restaurant I used to go to.) The reproduction that I bought has some variations from the original, but from what I can tell those differences are only on the ends and in an additional top margin area. However, it’s possible that I’ve got a reproduction of a fairly, though not completely, faithful copy. As of this writing, the Wikipedia article on the painting is pretty interesting, including information about the city supposedly represented, various translations of the title into English, and so forth.
I bought it mainly because the Qingming festival is so important, at least traditionally, to the tea industry in China. This festival, occurring in the first week of April, represents something like the start of the “regular” spring season. Teas harvested before the Qingming festival (called “mingqian” teas) are considered to be exceptional. These teas are the ones that are expected to have the most concentrated flavor compounds because the tea plants have been building up their nutrient reserves over the winter. Teas made after Qingming traditionally decreased in value as the date of harvest got further and further from the festival, for much the same reason. Later-picked spring teas would be second, third, fourth pickings from the same bushes and would, therefore, be ever so slightly less full of the stuff needed for a truly amazing cup of tea.
This traditional picture of Chinese tea is changing, however, probably due to global climate change. Increasingly, more and more tea can be produced before Qingming because the growing season is lengthening. Thus, second or even third pluckings from a given bush are becoming possible before the festival, meaning that “mingqian” no longer virtually guarantees a first-pluck-of-the-year status to the teas. This doesn’t stop mingqian teas from being sought after, but it does suggest that the mingqian tea you may get today is not nearly as good as all the traditional stories might lead you to suppose.
My personal take-away, though, is that it’s another reason to do your part reducing climate change, like driving less, using sustainably produced products, eating smaller amounts of non-poultry meats, using energy efficient lighting and appliances, and so forth.
Also, Tea Geek Business Members can check out my reproduction of this famous painting through the Tea Geek Library Service.