Archive for the ‘Imperial China and the Yangtze’ Category

In Search of First Growth Green Tea

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Lee,-Rose140Rose Lee is an art historian, curator and editor of Asian art whose focus is on the material cultures and societies of North Asia.  With a working knowledge of Chinese, Korean and Japanese, she has lived and worked in Asia for over twenty years.  Formerly a curator of Chinese art at the Denver Art Museum and the National Palace Museum of Taipei, Rose has also taught Chinese art history at Colorado College and Soochow University. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. and edits exhibition catalogs and journal articles on Asian art.


Most of us had stayed up almost to midnight aboard the Victoria Anna to experience the thrill of passing the first of five locks that would take us through the Three Gorges Dam, the largest water control project in the world. This morning, under a mimi (“light mist”) rain, we were at the dam itself to admire its awesome twenty-six hydropower generators and scenic beauty. But first I had to hunt down something more important, a supply of the newly harvested green tea from the verdant mountains framing both sides of the upper reaches of the mighty Yangzi River. Known by Chinese tea connoisseurs as Ming Qian or “pre-Qingming” tea that is harvested before the Qingming Festival that usually falls sometime around the fifth of April, this first-growth tea has grown on me ever since I first sampled it at the Yichang Airport enroute to Shanghai three years ago. Green tea picked after Qingming is considered by tea people as less desirable because its essence gets washed out by the rains that come with the start of the monsoon season in the Yangtze region.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Like all Chinese green teas, Three Gorges green tea is processed by lightly tossing or steaming in a wok over hot flames shortly after picking to stop the natural oxidation process.  This ensures that the tea will retain a high concentration of vitamin C, amino acids, and catechins—the antioxidant that gobbles up free radicals that damage body cells and contribute to cancer, blood clots, and blocked arteries.  When seeped (at 80 to 85 degrees centigrade, please!), the tea reveals a beautiful yellow-green color and has a grassy taste with overtones of freshly roasted ginkgo nuts. I drink coffee to jump-start my system and get going in the morning.  When I need to calm or clear my mind for serious thinking or writing, I always turn to leaf green tea.  This is something known to Chan (Zen in Japanese) monks who regularly undergo long bouts of meditation.

Along with a fellow Smithsonian traveler, a retired mid-wife who proclaimed green tea one of the most potent antioxidants around, I was very happy to find Three Gorges green tea that was harvested just a few weeks ago in a shop close to the dam.


To learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour click here.

The First Emperor’s Army of Life-Sized Terracotta Soldiers

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Ingrid Larsen is an art historian and specialist in Chinese arts and antiquities. Her current research is focused on the formation of Chinese art collections in American museums and private collections during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ingrid has been traveling to China for three decades and has spent five years living in Beijing––most recently in 2009–2010.

This Fall Ingrid led a group of Smithsonian travelers on a trip to Imperial China and the Yangtze.


The Chinese like to call Xian’s famous terracotta army the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The terracotta warriors created over two thousand years ago by the First Emperor of China hold many wonders. Each time I visit Xian, I’m reminded about how unprecedented the Qin emperor’s army is in the history of Chinese tomb sculpture. It baffles me that there are no life-sized naturalistic human figures in Chinese tomb art before the First Emperor and no life-sized soldiers in the archaeological record following his reign.

Terracotta Horse and Chariot.

Terracotta horses and chariot shown here add to an estimated 130 chariots with 520 horses, plus 150 additional cavalry horses. Photo courtesy of Julian Mason.

Who was this extraordinary emperor? The basic facts of his biography are well known. The First Emperor, or Qin Shihuang, was not only a brilliant military tactician who overwhelmed six rival kingdoms and unified China under a centralized authoritarian bureaucracy, he built a network of roads and canals strengthening communications throughout the empire; he standardized the coins, weights and measures, the writing system, and the legal code; he also engineered grand scale architectural projects, built gigantic palaces in his new capital and extended the Great Wall. And — as if that wasn’t enough — shortly after taking the throne, he commenced work on a grand underground palace replete with the luxuries he enjoyed at court and an army of roughly 8,000 life-sized terracotta soldiers, 670 horses, and 130 chariots to protect him in the afterlife.

Terracotta Soldier

Each Terracotta Soldier has their own individual features and details, making each of the 8,000 soldiers seemingly unique. Photo courtesy of Julian Mason.

The scale of these projects is unfathomable — as is the beauty and quality of his terracotta army. Each soldier is the work of a master craftsman who fashioned individual features, postures, and uniform details to indicate age, attitude, and ethnicity, as well as the rank of high officials, generals, cavalrymen, and infantry. Each face has a slightly different shape. Some with high cheek bones and a square jaw; others with broad foreheads and a flat nose. Each figure conveys a unique personality.  Some appear stern and stoic while others seem humble and sympathetic. Despite concentrated efforts and many return visits, I have never found two alike. To my eye, the diversity in facial features and physical attributes imbue the clay figures with humanity. Some scholars speculate that each sculpture was indeed modeled after a living soldier in Qin Shihuang’s vast army. If true, the terracotta warriors are as much a tribute to those 8,000 men as they are to their supreme ruler. Still, there is no tradition of life-sized naturalistic sculpture in China before the Qin emperor. Where did the idea come from and why didn’t subsequent Chinese emperors follow Qin Shihuang’s lead? It truly is a wonder.

Terracotta Soldiers - Smithsonian Journeys

Terracotta sculptures depicting the soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor to rule over a unified China. Photo courtesy of Julian Mason.


Learn more about our Imperial China and the Yangtze tour here.