Beauty, wares, and GongFu

Update: 100 posts! This is an Okapi in celebration:

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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!

 

The implications for beauty in its application and utility for tea ceremony render a different understanding to the artisan and the artist; it is application that leads to beauty and utility that leads to application – a cracked bowl is not a bowl at all. The artist believes beauty is intrinsic, while the artisan sees beauty in creation; the artist believes beauty is preserved, while the artisan knows it is fleeting; the artist believes beauty is of the senses, while the artisan understands it is the experience. Tea is an art of the artisan – a momentary and fleeting experience for the creation of beauty.

To brew simply with what one likes is to ignore the wisdom and availability of further learning and finer wares. Tea does not give up its secrets readily, masking both the flaws and wonders of every brew behind brewer mistakes and ill-chosen wares. Each surface the tea touches and every technique the brewer applies extracts its toll on the applicability of knowledge, theory, and aesthetics on the ceremony; it may be impossible to determine what is best among what is available – It is beyond doubt impossible to determine what is perfect. Tea demands a lifetime to master, but makes no promises in return.

To bring something onto the tea table and into the tea ceremony, to thrust a tea upon the boundaries and forms confined by the ware, to set the subject of taste and expectation to rest through the chosen wares is to sing the glory of each piece and pronounce it fitting and best. To do otherwise is to deny the practice, your practice, of GongFu.

Do not lust. The pieces you don’t have won’t make you a better brewer, no more than better shoes will make you a faster runner. The most fitting pieces will find you, and find you after the price of time spent in study and practice has had time to shape you and define what you are looking for. There is a tuition free to be paid, not only in the exchange for the wares, but in the time and practice it takes to utilize each piece in its best and proper form.

If you have ever questioned what tea to brew from a yixing or why a cup was so small, you were not, or are not, ready for that ware. You will not understand the tea brewed from it or poured in it or consumed from it. It is not your tea, not your skill in GongFu, if the wares control the brew.

To be the master of your ceremony, to bring an experience to life, requires the GongFu wrought by failure. Drink your bad brews. Drink your over-seeped and imbalanced teas. Drink your bitterness deep and commune with your mistakes. Drink the tepid water of your weak infusions. Unless you face every failure in the cup as an opportunity for understanding, your mastery of the tea and tea ceremony will be not. Use the jade dew or ruby liquor as a window to your mind, and a salve for your burns; they will heal, but the knowledge will remain.

May each cup be an invitation; for yourself and those who’s cups run dry. Do not fear that any cup is wasted, for if your GongFu is great enough, even those who lack the knowledge of tea will understand that they are in the presence of something special. If your practice can draw in the world and give an understanding to all, only then do you have nothing left to learn.

Anthropology of Chinese Tea Ceremony – Part 1

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! 

Anthropology is the study of human culture throughout time, a large topic that can be studied through many vantage points and lenses. By focusing on the historical patterns of production and consumption of tea through the dynastic to modern period, we can shed light on the culture that gave rise to the tea ceremony that we practice today. 

 

Throughout history, the majority, the global underclass from the tip of Portugal to the Korean Peninsula could not expect to gain anything not produced by the toil of their own labor and the sweat from their brow. Life was oft short, difficult, and brutish (to quote Hobbs), in the cities and villages alike. This, I suspect, is in contacts to the usual portrait of idyllic life in an earlier time. Famine, disease, and death were never far from their minds; even as China became the pinnacle society of the pre-industrial age during the Tang Dynasty, the world at that time offered little in the comforts and inanities we take for granted today.

The vast regions of China are home to a diverse set of ethno-culturally distinct people. Life often changes drastically from village to village, valley to valley; culture, language, sustenance, and production were all dependent on the topography, resources, and skills of the city or village.

Tea is a product formed by that most natural of human agricultural experiments; improve on what is already working. As tea moved from its use as a spice and masticant, to become commonly consumed as a beverage, it went from ‘unprocessed’ to a processed good; that processing lead to value and specialization, such that the farming of tea became viable in a world of sustenance agriculture. All of the resulting teas of the past and the teas of today (green, oolong, pu’er) owe their existence to the experimentation of these farmers of yore.

Tea, as we think and write of it, was the domain of the rich. From the ceremonies’ earliest popularized formalization in LuYu’s ChaJing, tea required wealth to partake in its practice.

The first large farms were run by the monasteries. As holders of land and with accesses to the labor of the resident monks, monasteries became fabulously wealthy in the mid to late Tang Dynasty. The production of tea became a source of wealth both spiritual and monetary; it kept the monks awake during their hours of meditation, and the tea could be sold to the local populace and resting travelers.

Thus, even as tea ceremony became a practice of the rich and scholarly, with its collection of wares, implements, and rare samples of famous leaves, all of the production and the bulk of the consumption were dominated by that global underclass of farmers and villagers; a group rarely written about. Tea was traded, purchased, and drunk by the villagers, towns folk, and urban elites alike; but tea was only produced in the villages and tea ceremony was only practiced by the bourgeois class; tea ceremony was (and in many ways still is) the domain of the wealthy. This discrepancy in the written history skews our knowledge and perception of the production and consumption of tea; it’s the victorious, welthy, and educated who write the historical records, and it is their practice of tea we have passed down and continue to learn and practice today.