Cha Wenhua

This morning I set out to write a blog post on tea cultures around the world. Tea is deeply symbolic and informs and reflects various aspects of life among many cultures - specifically those rare-to-modern-day slow and intentional aspects. But in my research (accompanied by a cup of tea - a fourth steeping of a sticky rice pu-erh, to be precise), I found myself taken in by the original story of tea, the boiling down to its birth. I found that a single man is credited with the discovery of the use of the tea plant, and a different single man (sometimes called Sage of Tea, sometimes called God of Tea) is credited with the elevation of its consumption to an art and spiritual practice. This morning I let myself get swept away by the origin story of tea, and took the path laid out before me. We’re going to take a longer stop here than planned (an entire blog post) to marinate in a single story, one that takes place thousands of years ago in China.

It is said that 4,000 years ago in southwest China, a man named Shen Nong (a medicinal and agricultural pioneer) discovered the medicinal uses of the tea plant, cammelia sinensis. Shen Nong was in the practice of sampling the leaves from various plants in his local landscape to learn about their potential nutritional and medicinal applications, which led him to discover the multi-dimensional wonder, the tea leaf. 

This is a particularly satisfying anecdote for me, as I often wonder, How did we figure out we could eat this? How did we know to boil it first? To roast it? To avoid the seeds or the skin? The obvious answer to all of these questions is: by experimentation over human history. But to learn the specific origin story of one of my most treasured rituals strikes a resonant chord. I can see Shen Nong walking along a path created by the worn soles of his own shoes, bending or stretching from plant to plant, gathering each specimen to ingest, observe, and gather notes on.

It is widely believed that the ancient Chinese first ate the leaves, rather than steeping them, this practice only made available to the wealthy. They often consumed tea leaves in a tea soup, offering a holy trinity health application of medicine, food, and drink. 

During the Tang dynasty (618-907), the world of tea bloomed in and throughout China. First, green-stemming emerged as part of tea leaf processing, making it more drinkable. Roasting and baking techniques were also introduced at this time, creating more distinct notes and tastes. And notably, the construction of the Grand Canal was completed, allowing a greater ease of transportation of goods through China. With the palatable and geographic spread of tea, its culture was set loose to flourish.

This blossoming is instilled in a piece of literature by Lu Yu (Sage, God of Tea…) called The Classic of Tea in which he analyzed all aspects of its consumption, tying it to philosophy, the arts, and spirituality. Cha Dao, or tea ceremony, consists of the following steps: preparation, serving, appreciation, taking in the aroma, savoring, and tasting. Imagine the polar opposite of a drive-thru coffee experience, and you’ve probably hit the nail on the head. In fact, tea was treasured for its medicinal applications long before it was appreciated for its effects of clarity and wakefulness.

In the Song dynasty (960-1279), the tea ceremony became widely embraced by Chinese culture. In the tea ceremony, several components are considered essential. First, one considers the quality of the tea leaves. They should embody the essence of nature and spirituality. Next, water quality is considered. Lu Yu delineated twenty levels of water quality, the highest being water collected from rain or snowfall. Finally, utmost importance is placed on an aesthetically-pleasing tea service that allows appreciation of the aromas. In this vein, it is taken into consideration where the tea is enjoyed - a calm place where soothing natural elements are felt, such as in the cradle of a misty valley, or under the glow of moonlight. The tea ceremony emphasizes harmony between humans and nature, insisting that tea must be taken in a tranquil setting, and not with too many people. To enjoy the philosophical, spiritual, and artistic elements of drinking tea, one must observe the practice alone or with just a few.

This has been a light skipping over the deep ocean that is tea culture at its origin point. If you’re moved to dive deeper, there are many rich resources online and in literature. Next week, we’ll ride the trade winds to Japan and beyond, tracing the tradition of tea that has spread throughout the world, informing the shape of so many distinct cultures.

Photo by 五玄土 ORIENTO on Unsplash