The book of tea

Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, published in 1906 in New York, is still a book that many read when they are looking for something on tea consumption, especially with regards to Japanese tea.  It still floats around in the coffee/tea section of bookstores, and I’ve read it before, very quickly, without thinking much about it.  I just assigned my students that book and we discussed it today.  Having re-read it again, it struck me as not really being about tea at all.  Nor is it really about “zennism” or “daoism”.  It’s about Japan, East Asia, and how Japan is the rightful leader of that part of the world.

His ideas about tea, while not all wrong, are not all quite right either.  It’s too bad that this book probably still wields more influence in terms of common perception of the Japanese tea tradition than almost anything else written on the subject.  It’s amazing what starting earlier gets you.

Quick review: The True History of Tea

I don’t normally do book reviews, and I know that Corax of Chadao will be doing a much more thorough and thoughtful review of this book at some point or another, so here are just my quick thoughts on this nice, new, shiny book.

The book is by Victor Mair and Erhling Hoh.  I know nothing about Erling Hoh.  Victor Mair I do know by reputation — he’s a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, and is very prolific with both scholarly work on philology, literature, and also translations of classical texts.

The pedigree of the author matters, because I feel that the authors of many of the books currently on the market that talk about tea, especially ones that purport to discuss the history of tea, are not familiar with the country they’re discussing, nor well versed enough in the language to use primary sources that are reliable.  While this may be all right for a book that only makes gestures towards explaining the history of tea in East Asia, they inevitably have to rely on second hand evidence or anecdotes from other sources.  They also tend to over-rely on Lu Yu’s Chajing because it along among older texts on tea is translated, giving it a place that is well deserved but not entirely representative.

This book does indeed try to fill that very large hole, not only in talking about the history of tea pre-Lu Yu, but also that of the period that came after but before the Europeans arrived to bring tea to their own shores.  The authors really do try to cover the entire history of tea, from inception in China, its spread to Japan, the Islamic world, and then to Europe and the New World.  They do so with a better command of the sources and materials than I’ve seen in other works on the same subject, and organized into a logical and easy to follow sequence.  Great stuff for a quick, fun read, but also well suited for the course I’ll be teaching next semester on the history of tea.  I’m ordering this for a textbook.

There are some glaring holes, however.  There’s virtually no mention of Korea anywhere in this, and I think it’s always easy to forget that much of China’s cultural influences on Japan passed through Korea at one point or another.  I’m sure tea is no exception, although that part of the story is really quite murky as far as I know.  The other is that as someone who works on later imperial China, the history of tea in the last six hundred years of imperial rule was dealt with rather quickly in the space of one chapter.  I know the story is richer than that, and I do think there’s room for more, not least becuase what happened in those years had a direct impact on what we’re drinking now.  Maybe that’s for another work.

But either way — I’d highly recommend this book.

Knowledge is power

I’m not sure why I haven’t done this until now… but I have a world class library at my fingertips and I don’t use it for a lot of tea related things, such as looking at Yixing books. There are some, such as the MAI foundation book, that are more commonly found, and there are others that are rarer or harder to get unless you’re in China. So, I checked out a few and intend to flip through them — all in the name of procrastinating on my real work.

So, for example, I re-read the little bit about particle size in Yixing pots over time — how modern day clay have much finer particles than earlier ones, and that firing temperature has also gone up, resulting in denser products that will have a higher pitched sound when knocked and also a finer surface. Comparartively, the earlier pots will be duller and sound more hollow. Seems to jive with what I have seen in person.

Thoughts on the Classic of Tea

We all know about the Classic of Tea, written by Lu Yu in the mid to late 8th century. It is widely known as the first book on the subject of tea, and has therefore received much attention over the years as a pioneer study in tea drinking. While the book is widely accessible in Chinese in its original form, it seems that in English there has only been one translation, and it is long out of print. I heard that somebody’s working on a second translation of it, and I’m sure it’ll be nice to have it in print again for the general public who might be interested in this book — a used copy of Carpenter’s translation runs at about $100 on Amazon, which is certainly not cheap.

I think what is significant about this book in general is that it forms the basis of so many tea drinking traditions, and looking back there are a number of things that we still hold true today that date back to his theories on tea. When reading it (and it is in fact very short) you often get the “hmmm” and “aha” moments quite often — things that you might have already observed in your own tea drinking, and yet have not yet formulated into something like a theory. Lu Yu puts it very simply and elegantly.

At the same time though, I do feel that sometimes we can take it too literally, and miss the point entirely. After all, tea drinking in the Tang Dynasty is not anywhere close to tea drinking in the 21st century. Everything from production to consumption has changed, quite significantly so, so trying to cling onto minute details in a book written in the 8th century doesn’t always work. Take his advice about teaware, which forms the entire middle section of the Classic of Tea. The practical, concrete advice he gives are probably entirely irrelevant to today’s tea drinking — to start, we now use whole leaves, whereas his tea was not. What is useful, however, is the principle behind such advice, which can sometimes be gleaned from reading between the lines.

On the selection of bowls, for example, he tells us at the end that the porcelain from Yuezhou and Yuezhou are both blue-green in colour (celadon type colour, I think), and therefore enhances the tea’s liquor into a white-reddish tone. Whereas those from Xingzhou is white, which makes the tea red, those from Shouzhou is yellow, which makes the tea purple, and those from Hongzhou is brown, and makes the tea black — none of these are good for tea. First of all, it’s interesting to note that the liquor of the tea he’s talking about is reddish, not greenish, which I imagine is a product of the roasting that takes place. Moreover though, he doesn’t think that white, which gives you the original colour of the tea liquor, is necessarily good, but instead the red-over-green is perhaps superior. Why? I don’t know if I have an answer to that at this point, but welcome any thoughts on this matter.

Another example is about the water kettle, which is a topic I’ve been thinking much about these days. On it, his advice is fairly simple — use iron. Porcelain or earthenware are both too fragile and not long lasting. Silver is nice and clear, but he thinks it too extravagant. Keeping in mind that during the Tang Chan (Zen) Buddhism was very much in vogue, one can probably see why he thought so. The name of the water boiling vessel is also interesting — it is fu 鍑, which can also be written as 釜, which, if you read Japanese, you will know is the kanji for the word kama, i.e. the thing I showed a picture of a few days ago. Let’s not even try to get into how differently water boils in one of those things over a charcoal fire versus how water boils in a modern kettle — needless to say, they probably act a bit differently. What passes for a “third boil” in Lu Yu’s terms might not be quite the same as what we get these days with an electric kettle.

So in many ways, I think reading Lu Yu is like reading any religious text — you have to read for the principles and inspirations, and not necessarily for the practical details. Being a literalist while reading one of these older tea texts (and there are many) can lead to many contradictory and interesting, but not necessarily good, results. Tea drinking, just like any tradition, is constantly evolving and changes with the times. I’ve seen many writings on tea quoting Lu Yu as if he were the only credible source of tea knowledge, when in fact he was only the first among many. Keeping an open mind, but also keeping our perspective, is a useful thing even when it comes to enjoying our favourite beverage.

Reading old texts II

I was flipping through the collection of old tea texts again, and something caught my eye. This is stuff that I saw a few times today with some Ming dynasty (1368-1644) texts. It has to do with water.

Remember those lessons you’ve learned, on or offline, that you should use water that is at “shrimp eye” or “crab eye” meaning that the water hasn’t reached a full rolling boil yet because once you do, the water is “old” and isn’t good for tea anymore?

Well, it seems like people who wrote about tea in the Ming dynasty didn’t agree. In fact, they say that the only water that should be used for tea is stuff that reached a full boil. You shouldn’t brew tea using water that is anything less than a full boil, they say, because in those cases the water would still retain a “water qi” that interferes with the tea. If you boil it out with a rolling boil, then the water becomes fully cooked, and is suitable for making tea.

So who’s right? After all, Lu Yu, of all people, said water should not reach a full boil!

Well, one of the authors explained that there’s a reason for this discrepency. It has to do with, you guessed it, the way tea was brewed. Whereas in the Tang and the Song, tea was ground down and powdered, etc, and sometimes with added incense or other things to enhance the flavour of the tea, water that has reached a full boil will mess with the powdered tea’s texture and taste. That’s why it’s no good. Whereas with the switch to full-leaf tea in the early Ming dynasty, the whole bit about water not reaching a full boil no longer applies. If you leave it underboiled, what you end up is a mixture of water and tea that isn’t quite harmonious. Full boil, with a fire that is “open” (in this case meaning a live fire with charcoal, not a bunch of flameless charcoal that is just very hot) is the way to go. Anything less is not good.

Interesting food for thought. It is important to keep in mind that most of these later tea texts are generally ignored by current day “tea masters” who tend to go back to the few famous ones, such as Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the Daguan Chalun that I talked about last time, and a few others that tend to be more often quoted. However, the fact that there was this change in these rather short and relatively unknown treatises on tea means that there are other theories out there, and given that three or four different texts I read today all say the same thing about water needing a full boil means that this idea probably had wide currency among Ming tea drinkers — even if they were copying each other, the only reason they’ll commit it to paper is if they thought it was right.

Another thing to keep in mind — the teas they were drinking were green teas, maybe slightly roasted, but largely speaking, what we now call green teas. Full boil water anyway. Yup.

Reading old texts

I was reading, among other things, an old tea text by the Song Emperor Huizong called the Daguan Chalun (The Treatise on Tea in the Daguan Reign). That dates the text to 1107-1110. In it, he talks about making tea, processing tea, and brewing tea. Tea, of course, was not what we now know as tea. Back then, they were steamed, then pressed (to get juices out of the leaves…), roasted, and then eventually grounded and mixed with water to drink. Yet, it’s all very strange sounding. I was reading the text, and was having trouble figuring out exactly how the whole brewing process took place. It seems like you do have multiple infusions of the same tea, or, at least, add water multiple times during the process of brewing tea. I’m not exactly sure if before each additional water injection you drink the stuff you just made, or if you just keep making it until all the water’s added and drink in one go. That must be obvious to him, but not to me. Maybe I didn’t read the text carefully enough, I don’t know.

That would, I think, mean that it’s very different from how, say, Japanese matcha is made. So much is often made of how Japanese matcha is a direct descendent of Song period tea drinking, but the fact of the matter is that there’s almost nothing similar between Japanese matcha and Song tea, at least as described in the Daguan Chalun. While the tools used do sound more or less similar, with the use of a chawan, chasen, etc, the whole processing of the teas (they are steamed, pressed, and then roasted) and the way of making them (multiple infusions of water) don’t sound anything like what the Japanese would recognize as their matcha or tea ceremony. The steaming is ok, but roasted?

So perhaps next time somebody tell you that matcha is just like the way they made tea in the Song dynasty, you can tell them they’re wrong, because an Emperor of the Song said so (he was a very accomplished artist, poet, Daoist, painter…. but he did lose his country).