An introduction and first approach to tea

This is a draft section of my upcoming book “An introduction to the art and Science of Chinese Tea Ceremony”. Please help improve it with your comments, suggestions, and hate mail! 

Tea, from its home in the southern reaches of China, began its involvement with humans as a spice, stimulant, and medicine. Collected by the wandering mendicants of Chinese village life, the shamans of the Far East, tea was part of a large assortment of known herbal remedies.  Tea was used as a culinary herb to add flavor, and perhaps its stimulating properties, to dishes that still exist today among the minority groups of Yunnan and Sichuan. Tea was used as a masticant, chewed fresh off the tree, for its stimulating and healing properties much like the denizens of the Andes chewed coca or perhaps less dutifully, like those who partake in chewing betel nut.

Teas popularity can be directly attributed to its stimulating properties, its Qi (Chinese for energy), if you will. This feeling, this turn of emotions, is chemically dictated by the presence of the psychoactive compounds caffeine, theobromine, and L-theanine. These three compounds are what have pushed tea to the forefront of our world’s consumption habits, vying with beer as the 2nd most popular drink. There is nearly nowhere in the world today where you can’t get a cup of tea; given, most of it is simply bad – low quality, broken leaves, in a bleached paper bag, yet there it is; tea, waiting to be drunk.

Readers of this book, I surely hope, have some idea or at least an interest in the qualities of good tea, of artisan Chinese tea. This book is on the modern practice of Chinese Tea Ceremony, of GongFu Cha; it aims to clarify the range of flavors, brewing wares and techniques, traditions, and styles that can be overwhelming to new and experienced practitioners alike.

It helps to step back and think about tea without its ceremony or history or additions. Tea is a beverage, something we drink for a myriad of reasons. No amount of special or old wares, or new brewing methods will change that. Nothing will change that. It helps to approach tea, at least in the beginning, as a simple beverage and recognize the inherent nuances of beauty in tea before you begin to practice the ceremony.

Start with a bowl. A simple bowl. One made by an actual ceramist is preferred; if possible with a round body, a low foot and an open lip. If not, any bowl will do. Don’t measure your tea yet (though I suggest using oolong or sheng pu’er for this), use just enough to cover, loosely, the bottom of the bowl. Brew with just off boiling water. Do this in silence. Watch as the steam rises off the steeping liquor of brewing tea, breath as the aroma fills the air. Drink when the bowl is cool enough.

This is tea at its simplest. This is tea as a medicine and as a solace. This is the heart of tea. Do not lose this practice; let it be your guide. There is no skill and no mind in bowl tea, there is no pretense and no ceremony. This is just a drink, and drink you should enjoy.

Bowl tea is a reminder that everything else that has built up around tea is for ceremony. The Tea Institute uses the working definition, an imperfect definition, “the anthropological ritualization of a goal” to define ‘Ceremony’. Anthropological means that this ritual is performed by a society or subset of society, in our case the Chinese Scholar society up until the modern era. Ritualization means to turn into sequence; rituals can be strict (Japanese Chanoyu) or loose (Chinese Tea Ceremony), but there must be a flow or pattern, which tea naturally lends itself to. Finally, there is the goal; the goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony is to brew good tea.

        It is in that goal that bowl tea, where the goal is simplistic consumption, and GongFu, the skillful way of tea, diverge. To brew GongFu, to brew the best possible tea, takes knowledge, skill, and practice. From GongFu’s early emergence among the “KungFu Temples” of dynastic China to its spread within the scholar culture, the ideal of tea as a skill worthy of study, joining the existing connoisseurship culture of the mandarin class, has been refined, re-written, and transformed with the times as a living art. The practice of tea is not stagnant, nor would the proper execution of its goals allow it to be so; for, to brew the best possible tea, change cannot be feared. Whether through the introduction of the modern (such as storage techniques) or culturally distinct (such as Japanese tetsubin), to practice GongFu means to practice, learn, and change.

Should this continue as an introduction, or should I jump back to the thoughts on bowl tea now? How can I best explain why the practice of bowl tea remains important alongside the practice of GongFu? 

What are you Tasting?

4 thoughts on “An introduction and first approach to tea

  1. As an introduction to tea, I would give some more basic knowledge about tea on its own and perhap keep the brewing in a bowl part for the starting chapter.

    I think the bowl brewing is so essential because as you have mentioned; it brings us back to tea and it doesn’t matter if it has been brewed by an experienced master or a novice, it will taste the same. That’s the essence of our tea making, it’s what drives us to make improvements and adjustments which seperates novice from master. Atleast, these are my beliefs.

    • Dear Rist,

      That sounds like a good idea, splitting the beginning into a discussion of tea, and the first chapter onto the practice of bowl tea.

      I had a interesting experience with a master brewing bowl tea; he took some tea I knew well into his hand, seeming to measure it, and brewed it. It was far better than when I had it as bowl tea in the past.
      It turns out that their can be GongFu in bowl tea, by choosing the right bowl (shape, thickness, material), using the right amount of tea, the right temperature of the water, and the right pouring method…
      but that is a topic for a different chapter!

      Happy new year!

      – Jason

  2. I think you have a good start here – it’s a casual introduction that doesn’t offend or frighten the reader. You introduce some heavier concepts as well that the reader can stir around as he or she reads while still keeping the topic light.

    You should expand more upon the importance if bowl tea and why even conneisseurs continue to consume it alongside traditionally brewed tea. For me, the reason behind this is to maintain a sense of balance – we often lose sight of why we drink tea at all: to enjoy it and feel connected to a community. Bowl tea is a constant that doesn’t stress any technique or practice, it is the simplest brew we use.

    • Dear John,

      Thanks for the comment!

      I will need to expand the practice of bowl tea into its own chapter,
      and then revisit it towards the end of the book!

      It should be the simplest,
      and done right it is the simplest,
      but the practice of GongFu should seep into everything you do,
      and that can make all the difference in the world.

      – Jason

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