More Than Just Tea

Tea is more than just tea. This is certainly so in China and Japan. And perhaps, it could even be said, in England too!

Legend has it that the mythical Chinese Emperor, Shennong, had a servant boil a pot of water for him, and into that pot, unbeknownst to either, a leaf of the camellia sinensis fell. The resultant brew was both intriguing and satisfying; and a tradition was born. Tea has now been enjoyed by people from all walks of life for over two thousand years. It was used in ch’an (Zen) Buddhism as a stimulant to keep practitioners awake for meditation. Amongst Chinese literati in the Ming and Qing dynasties it was used as an aide for scholarly discussion between friends, where the literati would engage in elegant pursuits together like painting, poetry construction, and appreciation of antiques. It was also used by nobility, and then more and more by merchant admirers as a focal point in lavish parties.

Methods of making tea have changed dramatically over the millennia. In China’s Tang Dynasty, the tea-leaves were boiled directly in water. In the Song Dynasty this method was discarded and unfermented green tea was ground into a powder and mixed with hot water to create a bright green tea drink. It was this style that travelled to Japan in the Kamakura period, along with Ch’an Buddhist teachings, and dark glazed Jianyao tea bowls from Fujian province, all three of which remain deeply influential on Japanese culture to this day. Then in the Ming Dynasty, a new tea drinking style came to prominence, that of adding hot water (below boiling temperature) to whole tea leaves. Along with this new style, new equipment was required, and the elegant unglazed purplish brown or red vessels from Yixing became the literatus’ teapot of choice. This new Ming Dynasty style also travelled to Japan, in the 16th century along with new Ch’an teachings. And thus, the tradition in Japan of sencha was born. At least some of these streams gradually became codified. And to the Japanese it reached its highest perfection in the tea ceremony during the Muromachi and Momoyama periods (14th to 16th centuries), culminating in a new style proposed by tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). For Rikyu, honesty, directness and simplicity were key in tea, and his style and the implements and locations for preparing tea that he favoured reflect this, and came to epitomise the wabi sabi ethos. Implements for tea came to represent the highest level of cultural importance and artistry. Some of the most noteworthy wares are the dark glazed tea bowls of the Song, the unglazed teapots of Yixing of the Ming and Qing, the earthenware Raku and other tea-bowls of the Momoyama, and the Japanese Sencha wares of the late Edo Period in Ming literati style. This year, I have begun to learn the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. Initially, this was so that I could better understand the implements used. But now, I am discovering a new way of interacting with the world. Involvement in tea deepens the understanding of high Asian culture and spirituality, and is calming to the mind. And it is allowing me to share tea taste and tea mind with friends. Let’s sit and drink tea together, and talk about life.

Carl Wantrup / Asian Art Consultant