At least 2,500 years ago, tea, as we know it, was born.
Back then, it was a medicinal concoction blended with herbs, seeds and forest leaves in the mountains of southwest China. Gradually, as manners of processing and drinking tea were refined, it became imbued with artistic, religious, and cultural notes. Under the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), the apogee of ancient Chinese prosperity, the drink involved ritual, etiquette and specific utensils. During this period of splendor, the first book dedicated solely to tea was written by Lu Yü.
Ch’a Ching, or The Classic of Tea, remains the definitive work on the origins and culture, cultivation, processing and ways of preparing and drinking tea in ancient Asia — an Aristotle’s Poetics of tea.
Tea had harmony and order, Lu Yü wrote. And he stressed the need to slow down when making and drinking it, to pay strict attention to each step and utensil in the process, and infuse the entire undertaking with beauty. It’s salient wisdom even — or especially — in the fast-moving world of today.
The author’s life story has a Moses-like beginning. Sometime around 733, in the mountains of Hubei in central China, the abbot of a Zen monastery, out for a morning stroll, found an abandoned infant in a basket beside the river. He brought the boy back and raised him as a novice, according to The Way of Tea by Aaron Fisher, an American writer living in Taiwan.
Lu Yü was a mischievous child. He rebelled against the monastic life and left before being ordained to join a theatrical troupe, becoming a popular circus clown and playwright. He later worked as a government official before settling into life as a scholar, poet, and expert in tea. Sometime between 760 and 780— over 800 years before the drink was even known in the west — he penned the The Classic of Tea.
Weeks into one of my visits to the Darjeeling hills in northern India, while researching my book on the region and its tea, I stayed in the planter’s bungalow on Goomtee Tea Estate. Inside a dozen glass-fronted barrister bookcases of the library, I found the written treasures of the tea world: works by mid-century British academics and Indian agronomists, 1970s Tea Board of India pamphlets with rusted staples, atlas-sized folios on camellias. Copies were well read, often annotated, and frequently inscribed to Goomtee’s owner.
Secreted inside one case was Francis Ross Carpenter’s magisterial but out-of-print translation of The Classic of Tea. As the first complete translation of the work into English, Goomtee’s copy, published in 1974, had coppery brown spots on the edges and foxing on the inside from four decades of monsoon dampness.
Containing just over 7,000 classic Chinese characters, the work is brief but comprehensive and detailed enough that the British drew upon it when they started producing tea themselves in the 19th century in India. It’s not a technical manual, but it’s thick with a poet’s imagery and inventive use of metaphor:
“Tea has a myriad of shapes. If I may speak vulgarly and rashly, tea may shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots. Or it may look like the dewlap of a wild ox, some sharp, some curling as the eaves of a house. It can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak. …”
Or this, on the frothiness of a well-poured cup:
“They should suggest eddying pools, twisting islets or floating duckweed at the time of the world’s creation. They should be like scudding clouds in a clear blue sky and should occasionally overlap like scales on fish. They should be like copper cash, green with age, churched by the rapids of a river, or dispose themselves as chrysanthemum petals would, promiscuously cast on a goblet’s stand.”
Throughout The Classic of Tea, Lu Yü instills the practical with the spiritual and emphasizes the ritualized details paid to each step from cultivation to drinking.
Sitting in one of the wicker chairs on the glassed-walled verandah of Goomtee with a cup of tea, as rain streamed off the gutters, I was able to read The Classic of Tea with the patience necessary to fully gather in its cadence and reflections.
At such moments, glancing up from the page to catch the quiet green hills covered with knitted rows of tea bushes through rain-streaked windows, I felt the proper tempo and authentic, unhurried spirit of the drink. For Lu Yü, tea must not only be treated with reverence, but, as his translator notes, “attended by beauty.”
While the book brought Lu Yü great fame, he withdrew from society to live as a hermit. Upon his death in 804, the sage of tea became its patron saint. Images of him appeared in tea establishments and tea merchants hoping for better sales worshipped statues of him, according to noted American tea authority James Norwood Pratt. And when their tea didn’t sell well? They would pour boiling water over the statues.
The goal of the merchants who commissioned the work was, as William Ukers wrote is his hefty All About Tea, “to emancipate tea from its crude commercialism and lead it to its final idealization.” Lu Yü succeeded in offering them a Code of Tea. His lessons on appreciating the drink should be required reading today. Especially for those getting a cinnamon chai tea latte in a to-go cup and drinking it on the rush hour commute to work.
Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.
Jeff Koehler’s Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea was recently published by Bloomsbury. Follow him at @koehlercooks.