Tea and Wine -- dispersing a lifetime's troubles (text only)
Water is humankind’s favourite drink, and the universal drink of the animal world. This is hardly a surprise, living as we do on the blue planet, tracing our ancestry to sea life, and being composed chiefly of water ourselves. Tea comes next. There are no geographical and few cultural bars to its consumption; Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists happily sip tea together (only Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons spurn the offer). Tea is much more widely drunk than wine, not least because of Islam’s proscription of alcohol. In Britain, 40% of the human daily fluid intake is tea.
Both tea and wine are drug-laced water: tea contains the world’s most popular drug, caffeine, while wine contains the third-most popular, alcohol. (Nicotine for the time being divides the two.) Caffeine is far more toxic than alcohol: 5g would kill you, whereas anyone who drinks half a bottle of 12% abv wine for dinner will have consumed 36g of alcohol. The average cup of tea contains just 30 mg of caffeine, though, and the average cup of coffee 75 mg. Weight for weight, tea leaves actually contain more caffeine than coffee beans, but fewer are used in the drink’s preparation. The effects of small doses of caffeine (an increase in metabolic rate and neural activity) are less evident to both users and observers than the effects of larger doses of alcohol, which are too well-known to bear repetition here.
Both tea and wine, thus, are old friends to man. They punctuate our days and nights; they bring us refreshment and solace. Personally, I would find it hard to live without either, and if I had to chose between the two, I would chose tea. This essay is in part a justification of that decision: the case for tea, made to wine drinkers by a wine drinker.
The pair are Asian. Wine’s origins lie in Transcaucasia, where wild Vitis vinifera vines grow abundantly. Tea’s origins are Chinese. In southern China and northern Myanmar, wild Camellia sinensis plants continue to thrive in the remote terrain (one-third of China’s territory is mountain). It is easy enough to create a rough tea garden by simply clearing away other plants and leaving the tea bushes to flourish. Vitis vinifera needs extensive selection and breeding (as well as grafting onto American-vine rootstocks) to be usefully fruitful; not so Camellia sinensis. Even today, the finest Pu-Erh teas in Yunnan province are made from wild tea trees, many of them hundreds of years old. In 1961, a tea tree over 30 metres high with a trunk girth of a metre was found in Yunnan, thought to be over 1,700 years old.
Plants this important to humanity, of course, need the sustenance of myth. No sooner had Noah stepped from his ark “upon the mountains of Ararat” than he “began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard”. The exact means by which lofty, rampant wild vines were disciplined into the fruitfulness swiftly enjoyed by Noah (“And he drank of the wine, and was drunken”) will never be known, but traces of wine have been found in a Neolithic jar from Hajji Firuz Tepe, a 7,000-year-old archaeological site in Iran’s Zagros Mountains, so viticulture was underway by then. Wine, it would thus seem, is senior to tea. Even the mythical origins of tea stretch back a mere 4,700 years to the legendary Emperor Shennong (‘The Divine Farmer’) who sagely noted that boiled water was safer than lake or river water to drink. One day his servants allowed a few leaves to fall from a tea bush into the Imperial Kettle. The Emperor hazarded a sip or two of the infusion: delicious. A myth of greater graphic enchantment has Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk who brought Chán (Zen) Buddhism to China in the sixth century, cut off his own eyelids to avoid falling asleep during meditation. The eyelids rooted; tea bushes grew from the sleepy flesh.
The first tentative written reference to tea occurs in the earliest collection of Chinese poetry, the Shi Jing or Book of Songs, which dates from the fifth century BC; tentative, because the ancient ideogram thought to signify tea might also designate other plants. Even if accurate, this would post-date, by several centuries, the sophisticated Greek wine-making cultures implied by the many references to wine in Homer’s Odyssey. Most start the tea clock with the Chá Jing, the Tang Dynasty masterpiece known as the Tea Classic, written by former circus clown Lu Yu between 760 and 780. Lu Yu was a kind of Chinese Columella whose work included horticultural and manufacturing instructions, from which we can deduce that systematic tea cultivation and consumption were already well-established, and probably had been since the Three Kingdoms epoch (222 to 263).
After Lu Yu’s great book, more than eight centuries followed during which tea was principally a Chinese product (shared with Korea and Japan), and its cultivation and consumption became a matter of astonishing refinement. A substantial library of ‘Tea Classics’ was created during the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1358-1644) Dynasties of which perhaps the best known is the Dà Guān Chá Lùn or Treatise on Tea written by the Song-dynasty Emperor Huizong in 1107. Huizong was an aesthete and polymath who painted, wrote poetry and played the guqin; he invented the style of calligraphy known as ‘Slender Gold’. He also neglected the army, leading to invasion, collapse and the eventual demise of the Song Dynasty. Having led a life of luxury and sophistication unrivalled anywhere else in the world at that time, Huizong was eventually reduced to the rank of a commoner and died, a captive, in Manchuria. His Treatise included material on what we could properly call tea terroir (places of origin and climates) and tea processing, as well as laying down criteria for tea competitions involving a form of blind tasting, and describing the Song form of the Tea Ceremony in great detail.
The first European reference to tea occurs in Ramusio’s Navigationi e Viaggi, published in Venice in 1559. Tea was auctioned in Amsterdam in 1608; fifty years later, it became a trader’s treat in London. “That excellent and by all Physicions approved drink called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tea,” boasted proprietor Thomas Garway in 1658, “is sold at the Sultaness Head a cophee house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exchange London.” The civil servant Samuel Pepys drank his first cup two years later, in September 1660: “I did send for a cup of tea (a China drink) of which I had never drank before.” That was three years earlier than the diarist’s celebrated first taste of ‘Ho Bryan’, and six years before Arnaud de Pontac sent his son François-Auguste to open London’s first gastropub, the “Pontack’s Head”. Tea and fine claret, in other words, reached London simultaneously.
The tea trade continued to be Chinese-dominated for another century and a half. The Honourable East India Company maintained a monopoly on it which lasted until the 1830s, when the fact that the Company was dishonourably paying for the tea with profits from opium smuggling brought about, in part, the demise of the arrangement; the monopoly was beginning to grate with rival British merchants, too, and Parliament voted it down. The race was soon on to obtain seeds and plants from within Fortress China and plant them elsewhere – at which point it was discovered that tea was also indigenous to Upper Assam, “within the Honourable Company’s Territories”. (These indigenous plants may not have been true wild trees but were perhaps descendants of ancient tribal plantings.)
The progress of tea-growing outside China and its nearest neighbours was initially fitful. Eventually, however, India overtook China, and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and Kenya became major producers, with scores of other countries producing smaller amounts of tea. Over three million tonnes are now produced every year. India and China both produce about 800,000 tonnes; Kenya 330,000 tonnes, and Sri Lanka 310,000 tonnes. Camellia sinensis is, in principle, a sub-tropical plant (China’s wine is produced further north than its tea), but the plant is hardy and anywhere where a hot summer combines with ample rainfall and regular cloud cover offers the potential for tea cultivation. The long days of dry, sunny heat so enjoyed by Vitis vinifera is inappropriate for a plant whose crop is leaf rather than fruit.
Historically speaking, two technological innovations have marched hand-in-hand with the geographical expansion of tea-growing. The first was the sales initiative of a New York tea merchant called Thomas Sullivan in 1908, who decided to send out samples of his teas to customers in small silk bags. The second took place at Amgoorie tea estate in Assam in 1931, when Sir William McKercher and his assistant F.G.Johnson created what they called a CTC (‘crushing, tearing, curling’) machine. The tea bag and the CTC machine have, between them, sired a tea market which values convenience above aroma and flavour, strength above delicacy, and cheapness above quality. It is as if the world wine market was almost wholly dominated by table wine. In the process, tea drinkers around the world have grown unfamiliar with China’s extraordinary richness of tea types. It is as if wine drinkers had no idea that France existed.
All tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant, and the striking differences between teas are due to variety, cultivar, exact harvesting date and processing method. Most teas exist in a wide spectrum of ‘grades’, too, from the very finest whole leaf examples via broken grades to what are known as fannings and dust.
Camellia sinensis v. sinensis and Camellia sinensis v. assamica are the two fundamental varieties of the tea plant. The stronger, maltier v. assamica is used in Assam and in part in Sri Lanka and Kenya; the more delicate v. sinensis predominates in China, as well as being used in Darjeeling. The little-cultivated Camellia sinensis v. waldenae and the Cambodian Camellia sinensis v. parvifolia, thought to be a hybrid of sinensis and assamica, are other varieties.
Within these varieties, many different cultivars exist, and it is these cultivars which are the true equivalent of what the wine world calls grape varieties. Just as different wine appellations in France may share the same grape variety, so different tea types in China are based on certain common cultivars. Casually, China claims “10,000” tea types; there are certainly many hundreds in commercial production. (A contemporary Chinese Book of Famous Green Teas lists 135 types within this style alone.) Little of the Chinese literature concerning cultivars has yet been translated.
The tea types themselves fall into seven styles, and a grasp of these different styles is the simplest route to understanding Chinese tea. These styles are, in increasing order of strength of flavour, white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea and pu-erh tea. Teas infused with flower blossoms (usually based on green tea) constitute a further tea type, often called scented tea.
White tea (bai cha) is the easiest of all teas to make: it simply consists of sun-dried or warm-air-dried leaf. The leaf is processed, in other words, without undergoing any firing, steaming, bruising or oxidizing. The most celebrated of all white teas is the light, feathery Silver Needle (Yin Zhen) producing in the Fuding area of Fujian Province: this is based on the Da Bai or Da Hao cultivars, picked in earliest spring (before the sap has risen) as downy buds alone. Any tea in the world, though, can be processed in a ‘white’ style if wished.
Green tea (lu cha) is a vast family of teas based on a number of different cultivars – two celebrated examples would be the Long Jing 43 or Jiu Ken cultivars used to produce Dragon Well (Long Jing) tea. The leaves are picked at various points in the spring, with the most prized qualities being those picked before the Qing Ming spring festival. The picked leaves are withered for a few hours to allow the cell walls to weaken so that the moisture in the leaf can evaporate smoothly during the firing process. For the finest China green teas, the leaf is then fired in a dry, hot wok, by hand: the tea worker swirls and lifts the leaves to keep them moving and ensure they don’t burn. Chinese green teas of different types look notably different from one another, and much of the skill in firing consists of shaping the leaves in an appropriate way to the tea style. (Pellets of green tea are known as gunpowder in English, or as ‘pearl tea’, zhu cha, in Mandarin.) Green tea can also be kiln-fired, and Japanese green teas are fired by steaming. After firing, the tea is rolled, and a final drying period (over charcoal for the finest and rarest green teas) concludes the process. Great green tea is, quite literally, ‘garden fresh’: the weighty, vividly green leaves seem to smell of chlorophyll, and the flavour is as excitingly verdant as any Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The dusty, straw-like ‘green tea’ sold in most tea bags, by contrast, is derisory; a vast quality gulf divides the two.
Yellow tea (huang cha) is picked in spring and initially wok-fired in the same way as green tea. The aim with yellow tea, though, is to produce a tea with less of the grassy, chlorophyll flavours which characterise green tea. After this initial firing, the tea is then slow-dried at a very low temperature (traditionally having been first wrapped in yellow ‘cow skin paper’ or niu pi zhi). This process pales the naturally green tea, and the end result is a wan, silvery green with a smoother and less grassy flavour than classic green tea. Yellow tea is becoming increasingly rare, even in China, as green tea made from the same sources is easier to market.
Oolong, black and pu-erh teas differ from green tea in that they all undergo some element of oxidation during their processing; this is why the pristine green colour is lost. This oxidation is sometimes called ‘fermentation’ though, in contrast to wine, the transformation is accomplished by chemical and not biological means. No yeast is involved.
Oolong tea (wulong cha) is semi-oxidised. After picking, the leaves are withered as they are for green tea, though in this case they are tossed intermittently during the withering process. They are then placed in a drum and rotated to bruise the leaf and begin the oxidation process. Once a sufficient level of oxidation has been achieved (which varies greatly according to the type of tea produced), the leaves are then ‘stir-fired’ in a horizontal spinning drum. Tightly rolled varieties are twisted in muslin before being re-fired and re-rolled; they’re finally oven-baked. Open leaf varieties (such as oolongs from Wuyi or Baozhong from Taiwan) are machine-rolled and stir-fired in the spinning drum before being baked. Some oolong teas are almost green while others are dark brown or ash-grey; some, as indicated above, are relatively tightly rolled while others resemble long, dry, crinkly tongues or spears of leaf. No tea type, though, is capable of greater aromatic refinement than this one. Great oolong tea is easily crushed, and needs very careful packing (as do fine green teas).
Black tea (hong cha – which actually means ‘red tea’ in Chinese) is fully oxidised. After picking and withering, the leaves are bruised to the required degree by machines which roll the leaf to and fro. Once the oxidation is complete, the leaves are kiln-fired. There is a wide variation in black tea types within China, from the finest, needle-like ‘hair tip’ Keemun Maofeng to coarse, low-grade black tea.
Pu-erh tea (puerh cha or ‘dark tea’) is the only tea type whose processing involves maturation, analagous to the élevage of fine wine. Like fine wine, too, the greatest cakes of pu-erh can be aged for many years after sale, and fifty- or sixty-year-old examples command a high price (though there is little of the vintage differentiation which is such a hallmark of wine production). Authentic pu-erh is grown exclusively in Yunnan province, and often picked from wild trees. (Cheap ‘pu-erh’, by contrast, is produced in Fujian as well as Vietnam and Laos, from cultivated bushes.) The fundamental cultivar used is called Da Yeh (or ‘big leaf’), though it exists in many local and clonal variants in the province. After withering in the open air or in a well-ventilated space, the classical process of making pu-erh involves wok firing followed by sun-drying of the leaf. At this point, the strands which look almost like rough-rolled pipe tobacco leaf. The leaves may then be immediately steamed and pressed into cakes, or they may be aged loose for a while before being steamed and pressed into cakes. Loose pu-erh ages relatively swiftly; compressed cakes of pu-erh age slowly. In youth, the tea has a pungent, powerful and assertive flavour; with age, it grows darker, richer, more harmonious and more profound.
There is an alternative, speedier way of making pu-erh which involves storing the leaves in very warm, humid rooms for 20-40 days before the drying process. This type of pu-erh is known as ‘cooked’ or ‘ripened’, to differentiate it from the ‘raw’ pu-erh of the classical method (a wine analogy here would be between Madeira aged by estufagem compared to Madeira aged by canteiro). Some secrecy accompanies the making of cooked pu-erh. It’s less expensive than raw pu-erh, and has less long-term ageing potential, though it attains the classical rich, dark liquorousness associated with pu-erh relatively quickly.
Flower teas (hua cha), finally, are made by an elaborate process of layering green or black tea with the blossoms themselves. The petals or flowerheads (jasmine, rose or osmanthus) infuse the tea with their scent, and are later removed and discarded save for a few cosmetic strays. Essences are never used for high-quality flower tea. China has also developed an extraordinary art, a kind of vegetable origami, involving the creation of tea and flower blooms tied into the shapes of flowers themselves, of animals or of other shapes such as stars. One of these dried flower tea shapes is placed in a glass teapot or vessel where it unfolds in the hot water, often making an entirely new shape as it does so. The effect is like watching a slow underwater firework.
How does China tea production relate to that of the rest of the world? Green tea is dominant in China and Japan, whereas in almost all other producing countries, black tea dominates. Whole leaf black-tea production, as described above, is called ‘orthodox’ in opposition to tea processed by CTC machines, which delivers a chopped, granular leaf. Orthodox black tea from all sources is customarily divided into 18 different grades: five whole-leaf grades, of which the best was TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe), six broken grades, four grades of fannings and three of dust. CTC teas, by contrast, are graded into a mere two brokens, two fannings and three dusts.
India still has a lingering fine-tea tradition, most notably first- and second-flush orthodox teas from Darjeeling and Assam. Indeed most tea-producing countries (and certainly India, Sri Lanka and Kenya) produce superb black tea, but only as the best unbroken orthodox grades. CTC versions and orthodox fannings and dusts, by contrast, tend to dominate exports. The culprit is the tea bag. Almost all tea bags are filled with CTC tea or fannings and dusts more generally: ideal for cheapness and strength, but miserably inadequate for subtlety and quality.
Descriptions of China tea for those who have never experienced them can be bewildering, like details of how to find places in a town you have never visited. What I’ve tried to do in the section that follows is give a simple, wine taster’s impression of some of the teas which I have most enjoyed, putting the emphasis on the differences between them.
Silver Needle (Yin Zhen)
Type: White tea Cultivar: Da Bai Region: Fuding Province: Fujian
Light, feathery leaf tip covered in fine down. Very delicately scented, with notes of melon and peach. Soft, quenching flavours hinting at cucumber and melon; barely recognisable as ‘tea’ at all.
Hangzhou Dragon Well (Long Jing)
Type: Green tea Cultivar: Long Jing 43 Region: Hangzhou Province: Zhejiang
Weighty, pressed, flat green spears of leaf. Enticingly sappy, fresh scents of sweet chlorophyll with a creamy hazelnut edge. Vivid, rounded flavours, combining grassy vivacity with white-nut richness.
Huo Mountain Yellow (Huo Shan Huang Ya)
Type: Yellow tea Cultivar: Jiu Ken Region: Huo Mountain Province: Anhui
Silvered yellow-olive buds, many with marked downiness. Harmonious, almost hoppy scents. Vivid, fresh, perfumed flavours, combining an understated hoppy freshness with something delicately floral (violets, peach blossom). Creamy mid-palate textures. Discreet sappiness to finish
Phoenix Honey Orchid (Feng Huang Dang Cong)
Type: Oolong tea Cultivar: Dan Cong Region: Phoenix Mountain Province: Guangdong
Crisp, twisted spears of golden brown-black leaf. Almost improbably fragrant notes of peach and peach blossom with some grapefruit pith and an overall honeyed sweetness, too. Light-bodied and incisive, with a refreshingly bitter-edged aftertaste.
Iron Goddess of Mercy (Tieguanyin)
Type: Oolong tea Cultivar: Tieguanyin Region: Anxi County Province: Fujian
Curled rolls of dark green-black, large leaf. Almost soapy, wet-stone aromas, followed by richly mineral flavours with some grass and hay notes.
Great Red Robe (Da Hong Pao)
Type: Oolong tea Cultivar: Da Hong Pao Region: Wuyi Mountain Province: Fujian
Long, crisp twists of dark brown leaf. Musky, mellow, softly fruity aromas with an earthy, autumnal note. Intense, pure and complex, with great width of flavour.
Keemun Hair Peak (Keemun Mao Feng)
Type: Black tea Cultivar: Qi Men Zhong Region: Qi Men County Province: Anhui
Crisp, dark, seaweed-fine curls. Scents of orris root and plant extracts. Vivid, deep flavour full of balanced freshness; earthy, savoury base notes.
Bohea Lapsang Supreme (Wuyi Bohea)
Type: Black tea Cultivar: Bohea (Xiao Zong) Region: Wuyi Mountain Province: Fujian
Dark, thick twists of crow-black leaf. Rich, complex aromas with a log-cabin warmth and a chocolate edge. Lively yet soft-textured and full, with smoke, grain and spice warmth and a sweet, fresh-flavoured finish.
1998 Cooked Pu-Erh Mini Tuo, Menghai Factory (Meng Hai Pu Erh)
Type: Pu Erh tea Cultivar: Da Yeh Region: Meng Hai Province: Yunnan
Small compressed dome of leaf with concave hole in base, wrapped in Menghai stamped tissue. A combination of dark brown and black leaf strands. Invasive, powerful and characterful aromas: forcefully earthy scents with a smoky edge. Damp wood, autumn undergrowth, timber yard and bonfire, plus a touch of fur and calfskin. After the power and attack of the aromas, and given the depth of colour of the liquor, the gentleness and softness of the flavours come as a surprise. Mouthfilling, deep and comforting, this is pu-erh provides a rich, nourishing introduction to the taste of the Yunnan tea forests.
2000 Wild Raw Pu Erh, Yi Wu Mountain (Yi Wu Pu Erh)
Type: Pu Erh tea Cultivar: Da Yeh Region: Yi Wu Province: Yunnan
Neatly, evenly compressed cake with the rich colour divergence typical of raw Puerh: deep copper, walnut, humus and ebony strands, evenly mixed. Light, elegant, fragrant, almost nutty aromas, with the complexity of mixed-leaf woodland in summer. Thick, glycerous textures with flavours which hint at fern, dried orange peels and gentian root.
Tea is healthful. Indeed some studies suggest that tea is a healthier drink than water, especially for those whose diet is low in fresh fruit and vegetables. All tea brings health benefits, but green tea appears to be the most beneficial type of all. Adding milk (and sugar) to tea mitigates those benefits by inhibiting antioxidant absorbtion. Tea contains a number of useful compounds including fluoride, zinc, folic acid, manganese and vitamins B1, B2 and B6, but the principal ‘active ingredient’ as far as its health benefits are concerned is the one it shares with red wine: tannin. “Tannin” is perhaps best described as a family of compounds whose chemistry is close to that of gallic acid (GA); tannins are commonly measured as if they were gallic acid or GA-equivalent. These compounds occur naturally in the bark of trees, especially oak; they help protect the tree from fire, insects and bacteria. Those trained in the indelicate task of tanning animal skins (which, once the putrefying flesh had been excised, originally required human urine to help remove hair fibres and animal faeces mixed with water to soften the skin) use wood tannins to convert the skin into leather. The tannins do this by interacting with the proteins in the skin. The same process is at work when you eat food with red wine, or add milk to black tea. Tannins, in fact, are common in the plant world: as well as tea leaves and grape skins, most berries contain them, as do persimmons and pomegranates. Wine tannins are usually called proanthocyanidins; tea tannins are called catechins. Both are classified as flavonoids, and have antioxidant and other effects in the body which, many studies suggest, can help prevent cancer, heart disease, bowel disease and neurodegenerative diseases.
The philosophical flavour of tea is very different to that of wine, though the philosophical quest of the drinker is not dissimilar and the aesthetic dimensions of each drink have much in common. Wine, because of its alcoholic backbone, is elevating and stimulating, breaking down inhibitions and conveying to irredeemably separate beings the sense that they are not separate at all. Conversation, song, physical interaction, tribal sharing, the partaking of the divine common to both the Dionysiac mysteries and the Christian eucharist: all conspire to efface the pain of imprisonment within the ego.
Tea also provides an escape from the ego, though it does this by very different means. There is no alcohol; instead, there is only the scent and flavour of leaf, plant and earth, accompanied by a mild charge of caffeine and the reassurance of warm liquid nourishment. The effect is always calming (due to the presence in tea of theannine, theopholine and theobromine, inducing contemplation to those unpracticed in meditation techniques, and often acting as an aid to meditation for those trained in meditative traditions. In place of shadowy Orphism and the often terrifying Dionysiac rituals, in place of the elevation of Christian communion and the warm bonds of Jewish ritual, and in place of the passion, debate and action to which secular wine drinkers are roused, tea propels the drinker towards non-action (Wu wei), simplicity (P’u) and the doctrine of emptiness central to Taoism and shared by Buddhism.
What of the tea ceremony? For the Chinese, this usually means Gongfu cha or Gongfu tea service, first mentioned by Wu Lu in the eighth century. Gongfu means ‘great skill’, and the aim is very similar to that of a European host serving a series of fine wines in beautiful decanters and glasses for a dinner. It is not, in other words, primarily symbolic and intricately codified, as the Japanese tea ceremony is; instead, in the great tradition of Chinese pragmatism, it is quality-orientated and designed to show fine tea at its best. The principles of gongfu cha underlie all service in China’s tea houses, and are widely practiced in Chinese homes. The teapot and teacups, to western eyes, appear minute and the amount of tea used in the pot colossal, but the principle is that of repeated infusions (four or five for green teas, and up to 30 for an aged pu-erh); the skill lies in the tea server ensuring that temperature and strength of liquor remain ideal for the drinkers throughout the service. The purity and temperature of the water (below boiling for green tea, boiling for pu-erh) are important, and the elegance of the accompanying utensils and trays add to the pleasure of the experience, as do the hand-gestures of the tea server. The surroundings, too, should be both calming and beautiful.
Japan’s tea ceremony is perhaps tea’s philosophical pinnacle, though it is much misunderstood. Its Japanese name – chadō – means ‘the way of Tea’. There are many variants (some can last four hours); it implies a particular domestic architecture (guests and host arrive through different doors, and the room needs a scroll alcove and ideally a sunken hearth); tea practitioners need not only to master the intricacies of tea production, but costumes, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics and the use of incense are all important. The guests, like the host, have prescribed gestures and actions to follow. Where, one might wonder, is the simplicity in all this?
It lies in the overarching modesty of the undertaking, properly understood. I cannot do better at this point than quote from Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea: the ideal introduction to tea philosophy. “Teaism,” as he calls Chadō, “is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” Making a cup of tea is the most banal of actions, yet chadō seeks to endow this action with universal significance. According to Okakura, “it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.” The ritual prescriptions of the ceremony are a way of preserving the advances of others, but it is a ‘way’ among many other ways, a path among many other paths, and it is the act of embarking on the way which matters, rather than the following or linking the prescriptions (the signs, the waymarks, the cairns) themselves. ‘Tao’ means ‘path’, but (Okakura again) “The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path.” This is close to the fundamental engagement of the true philosopher as defined by one of the twentieth century’s greatest practitioners, Martin Heidegger: “Alles ist Weg” (‘all is way’). Heidegger’s Holzwege (translated by George Steiner as ‘fire-breaks’ or ‘lumberman’s trails’) are given, we might say, a literal form in the gestures of the tea ceremony; they lead us towards the Lichtung, the ‘clearing’ or emptiness where we can contemplate the quiddity of things, the being of being.
Teas in this article are available by mail order from www.jingtea.com.