What to drink in autumn

About 2300 years ago, a clever chap (or more likely a collection of clever chaps) wrote down some brilliant healthy living advice in a Chinese medical treatise that you can still find in almost every acupuncture clinic around the world today. It is called the Huangdi Neijing. (That’s The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine in English. We’ll call it the Neijing for short.)

One nifty piece of advice is about looking after yourself in autumn. The Neijing says that we should “gather and collect the spirit and the qi” and “make that which is of the heart-mind peaceful and tranquil in order to weaken the punishment of autumn”. How I wish my other medical textbooks were written as poetically!

Tea was growing up around the time that the Yellow Emperor got going on his famous book, which happened to be when Daoist philosophy was defining the Five Elements. The Five Elements (Water, Wood, Fire, Metal and Earth) are labels for five groups of associated aspects of life, including seasons, smells, flavours, emotions, personality traits, and so on. Autumn is the season for the Metal Element, and Metal is associated with refinement. So, it is no surprise that the most refined, nuanced and subtle tea of all – white tea – is recommended in autumn.

Although white tea is drunk in autumn, it is picked in spring just as the first buds appear. Only the top two pairs of leaves (or even just the closed buds) are carefully harvested by gloved hands with small scissors over a season lasting about two weeks. The finest of the white teas is called ‘silver needles’.

This is what the Yellow Emperor and his high ranking mates would have enjoyed, meditatively sipping their tea from fine porcelain cups while they gathered and collected their spirit and their qi, and made their heart-mind peaceful and tranquil. As I sit quietly, staring into the middle distance and sipping my silver needles, I certainly feel the punishment of autumn growing weaker.


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