A Tea Addict's Journal

On Tea and Friendship (II)

December 5, 2011 · 2 Comments


Continued from the last post

In such a congenial atmosphere, we are then ready to gratify our senses, the senses of color and smell and sound. It is then that one should smoke and one should drink. We then transform our bodies into a sensory apparatus for perceiving the wonderful symphony of colors and sounds and smells and tastes provided by Nature and by culture. We feel like good violins about to be played on by master violinists. And thus “we burn incense on a moonlight night and play three stanzas of music from an ancient instrument, and immediately the myriad worries of our breast are banished and all our foolish ambitions or desires are forgotten. We will then inquire, what is the fragrance of this incense, what is the color of the smoke, what is that shadow that comes through the white papered windows, what is this sound that arises from below my fingertips, what is this enjoyment which makes us so quietly happy and so forgetful of everything else, and what is the condition of the infinite universe?”

Thus chastened in spirit, quiet in mind and surrounded by proper company, one if fit to enjoy tea. For tea is invented for quiet company as wine is invented for a noisy party. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. It would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or a cloudy day. Picked at early dawn on a clear day, when the morning air on mountain top was clear and thin, and the fragrance of dews was still upon the leaves, tea is still associated with the fragrance and refinement of the magic dew in its enjoyment. With the Taoist insistence upon return to nature, and with its conception that the universe is kept alive by the interplay of the male and female forces, the dew actually stands for the “juice of heaven and earth” when the two principles are united at night, and the idea is current that the dew is a magic food, fine and clear and ethereal, and any man or beast who drinks enough of it stands a good chance of being immortal. De Quincey says quite correctly that tea “will always be the favorite beverage of the intellectual,” but the Chinese seem to go further and associated it with the highminded recluse.

Tea is then symbolic of earthly purity, requiring the most fastidious cleanliness in its preparation, from picking, frying and preserving to its final infusion and drinking, easily upset or spoiled by the slightest contamination of oily hands or oily cups. Consequently, its enjoyment is appropriate in an atmosphere where all ostentation or suggestion of luxury is banished from one’s eyes and one’s thoughts. After all, one enjoys sing-song girls with wine and not with tea, and when sing-song girls are fit to drink tea with, they are already in the class that Chinese poets and scholars favor. Su Tungp’o once compared tea to a sweet maiden, but a later critic, T’ien Yiheng, author of Chuch’üan Hsiaop’in (Essay On Boiling Spring Water) immediately qualified it by adding that tea could be compared, if it must be compared to women at all, only to the Fairy Maku, and that, “as for beauties with peach-colored faces and willow waists, they should be shut up in curtained beds, and not be allowed to contaminate the rocks and springs.” For the same author says, “One drinks tea to forget the world’s noise; it is not for those who eat rich food and dress in silk pyjamas.”

It must be remembered that, according to Ch’alu, “the essence of the enjoyment of tea lies in appreciation of its color, fragrance and flavor, and the principles of preparation are refinement, dryness and cleanliness.” An element of quiet is therefore necessary for the appreciation of these qualities, an appreciation that comes from a man who can “look at a hot world with a cool head.” Since the Sung Dynasty, connoisseurs have generally regarded a cup of pale tea as the best, and the delicate flavor of pale tea can easily pass unperceived by one occupied with busy thoughts, or when the neighborhood is noisy, or servants are quarreling, or when served by ugly maids. The company, too, must be small. For, “it is important in drinking tea that the guests be few. Many guests would make it noisy, and noisiness takes away from its cultured charm. To drink alone is called secluded; to drink between two is called comfortable; to drink with three or four is called charming; to drink with five or six is called common; and to drink with seven or eight is called [contemptuously] philanthropic.” As the author of Ch’asu said, “to pour tea around again and again from a big pot, and drink it up at a gulp, or to warm it up again after a while, or to ask for extremely strong taste would be like farmers or artisans who drink tea to fill their belly after hard work; it would then be impossible to speak of the distinction and appreciation of flavors.”

For this reason, and out of consideration for the utmost rightness and cleanliness in preparation, Chinese writers on tea have always insisted on personal attention in boiling tea, or since that is necessarily inconvenient, that two servants be specially trained to do the job. Tea is usually boiled on a separate small stove in the room or directly outside, away from the kitchen. The servant boys must be trained to make tea in the presence of their master and to observe a routine of cleanliness, washing the cups every morning (never wiping them with a towel), washing their hands often and keeping their fingernails clean. “When there are three guests, one stove will be enough, but when there are fix or six persons, two separate stoves and kettles will be required, one boy attending to each stove, for if one is required to attend to both, there may be delays or mix-ups.” True connoisseurs, however, regard the personal preparation of tea as a special pleasure. Without developing into a rigid system as in Japan, the preparation and drinking of tea is always a performance of loving pleasure, importance and distinction. In fact, the preparation is half the fun of the drinking, as cracking melon-seeks between one’s teeth is half the pleasure of eating them.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Stéphane Erler // December 7, 2011 at 7:31 am | Reply

    Thanks for posting this great material. The pleasure of drinking tea is meant to be shared. This is the start for many tea blogs, I guess. But even when drinking without guests, we don’t feel alone. There’s one friend always around: tea!

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