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!
How to practice tea ceremony is a difficult question, as it depends on what you consider to be the Chinese Tea Ceremony. There are many different paths down this road, and readers here should note that I specifically promote the path of a scholar verses a spiritual or other path.
Edits: Thank you to Bethany and Courtney for your comments and edits – they have yielded a great improvement on the spelling, grammar and content of this draft!
Diligence in your practice of tea ceremony is the only path towards developing GongFu. No one is born with an innate skill at brewing tea – it must be learned.
As you start, your tea will be imbalanced, your cup may be dry and bitter, and your guests will be unamused. The teas that tasted great from someone else’s hand will turn astringent from your unskilled pours. You will burn yourself on the gaiwan, come close to dropping your tea pot, and unfairly distribute precious tea from the gongdaobei. This is the path everyone must walk as they begin their practice.
Your road forks here. While anyone can become proficient in the utilitarian practice of brewing tea, only with a guide can you build skill in your practice and raise above the mechanical machinations of pouring water on leaves – and only with a teacher can you raise your practice to the structural-functionalist approach.
This book aims to be your guide, but it cannot be your teacher. This book is written as an introduction to the art and science of Chinese tea ceremony, and includes the information you must know to guide your practice and build your skill.
This book is a reference but it is not the reference. This book is not tea, it is not teaware, and it is not a teacher. There is no replacement for direct experience with references. You will never be able to identify real wild MengKu pu’er without having tasted other wild pu’er and other MengKu pu’er. You will never be able to identify a Qing Dynasty DeHua cup without having held a similar reference in your hand. This book cannot do that for you.
What this book can do is guide your reading, imbue you with knowledge, and inform your practice. Your knowledge is only useful in so much as it helps you understand tea ceremony and the related arts like tea or teaware identification. I promote an empirical and experiential approach to tea ceremony – those who can cite LuYu but can’t brew tea are not the true practitioners.
Diligent and pointed practice builds specific skill. That means you must choose what you will practice before you begin. There is no such thing as “general” practice – that is the route to mediocrity and mistakes.
Your practice is not meditation. Meditation with tea is a state of flow; it is when you are preforming at the limits of your ability, and it comes from practice not during practice. When you are presented with the best tea, with guests who can appreciate it, it is not the time to practice – it is a time to perform, and you should push yourself to brew as well as you can. When you are alone and drinking for enjoyment, you may do as you wish. It is when you practice that you must be cogent, present, and focused on what you wish to learn and improve.
Practice can take place alone or in groups, and with or without a teacher. There are no rituals associated with practice in Chinese tea ceremony. You simply brew, taste, touch, and use the teaware you are studying.
What to practice
There are many skills that a practitioner of Chinese Tea Ceremony must learn in order to elevate their practice out of the utilitarian realm. Each of the practices described below are discussed in greater depth in later chapters. These high level descriptions merely serve as context for what one can learn from this book.
Broadly, the skills to practice are:
Learning to brew starts with the utilitarian methodology of moving water from the kettle, to the brewing vessel, to the cups. As your burns heal and the mechanical nature of this skill becomes routine, the practice of brewing evolves into a test of ability to create the desired flavor profile from a tea. With skill, you can highlight certain aspects of a tea by varying the tea-to-water ratio, changing the height or strength of the pour, and selecting different balance points during its steeping.
Your practice of brewing should be the practice of control. Know what flavor profile you wish to produce before the start of each brew, and judge yourself on the difference between the resulting flavor and the flavor you tried to create. With each experience, attempt to attribute a reason that the flavor is the same or different than what you aimed for.
- Tea identification
The ability to identify teas is one of the most important skills in gongfu. Although not part of the ceremony itself, the ability of the practitioner to identify a tea before or during a brew is indicative of their understanding of the tea itself. Brewing an oolong like a red tea or a shou pu’er like a sheng pu’er will not only yield sub-par results, it will foster bad habits, create false references, and indicate to those who do understand the tea that you lack the skills and experiences to brew or appreciate the teas you are presented with.
To combat this, you must seek out trustworthy sources of verifiable standards to use as your references, and you must study them. Know that your references are only a small sampling of the range of flavor profiles across age, cultivar, processing, and terroir that tea can take on. You must increase your range of samples and experiences over time, and codify those new experiences in your knowledge.
In your practice, you should aim to identify not just the broad category of tea, such as green or oolong, but specific attributes of the tea that make it unique. Is the consistent in its leaf composition? Are the leaves bruised, or bitten by jassids? Has tea been in certain storage materials, have a smoky flavor, or does the flavor not match the aroma? The answer to all of these questions are indicative of origin, process, or quality and should be noted.
There is no zen in tasting. To learn from what you taste, you cannot allow the experience to wash over you, to carry you to the calm or alert meditation that tea can provide. You must taste, think, and learn to build skill in identification.
- Tea ware use
Learn to use your wares. Know the sequence for water to flow.
Different wares will have different characteristics. Some will be hard to grip, some will be heavy, some will be hot. Practice with your wares before attempting to brew your best tea. Thinking about how to hold the gaiwan is a distraction from focusing on producing the most balanced cup and best expression of a tea – your use of wares must be effortless. This is the utilitarian level of practice.
In your practice, developing elegance and control of the wares moves you past the utilitarian and into the structural-functionalist approach. Your ability to control the wares has a direct impact on your ability to produce the flavors you want from the tea. Better control will allow you to better understand the effects and outcomes of your practice as you attempt to create new flavor profiles from tea you know well or from tea you are attempting to identify or study.
- Tea ware identification
Identification is one of the many related arts that are not formally part of the Chinese tea ceremony – yet it is something that all great practitioners develop their skills in. One must learn how to identify a real yixing pot, how to date a piece of ceramic, and how to determine the origin of a ware.
To do so you must seek out references. Observe pieces in museums. Study the history of ceramics, the origins of their materials, and the culture that gave rise to their attributes. This is one of the hardest things to learn and practice as forgeries are rife, authentic references are rare, and the attributes are subtle.
The “tuition” is expensive. You will make mistakes in your purchases, and those mistakes should remain part of your collection. They will serve to remind you about your education and will act as a reference to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
- Tea ware selection
Not all wares are appropriate for all teas.
Tea is highly influenced by the size, shape, and material of the vessel in which it is brewed. Tea from a bowl will taste different from a gaiwan or a teapot. The selection of teaware is part of the tea ceremony as it allows you to produce the best cup of tea you can. Know their characteristics and how they affect the flow of water, and the flavor of the tea.
In your practice, experiment and derive your own empirical results, but resist being militant. Rather than a problem with the tea or wares themselves, it may be you does not yet have the skills to pair a specific tea with a specific ware. It is always worth repeating your experiments as your skills grow.
Perhaps nothing has a greater impact on the flavor of a tea than the water used to brew it. Taste the same tea with different waters. Taste the same tea with the same water boiled in different kettles or pots. Learn to identify when a tea tastes different due to the water source or due to the presence of chlorine and fluoride.
In your practice, you should choose a consistent high-quality water source. Only vary your water source or preparation when water is the topic of that practice. Note things like the mineral composition, the filtering, and the source. Taste the water of all of the teas you drink. Taste the water out of the vessels you are using to prepare the tea. Learn the effects on the storage, boiling, and materials on the water you are using to brew.
Many teas can age. As they do, the flavor and characteristics of the tea change. The ability to identify the age of a tea, and the its storage conditions will allow you to purchase old teas to drink today or young teas to age for the future.
It is not possible to vary the age of tea independently, so in this practice you must rely on references of different ages and storage conditions. This makes the development of an intuition for a tea’s age one of the hardest and most time consuming facets of tea to study. The effects of age differ for almost any reason, and the sizes of the samples and references you are able to procure are often minuscule. Develop a system to record your experiences and develop this intuition.
The theory of Chinese tea ceremony is what raises it from a simple practice to the stature of an art. The theory is the codification of the gongfu, of the skills, that each of us learn to build upon for our own practice. Each of us will develop our own theories as we continue to walk down the path of studying tea. That the theories are yours does not protect them from empirical experimentation and the knowledge of others. Develop your theories through testing and experimentation. Talk about them with your teachers and tea friends. Subject them to rigorous testing before promoting them or using them to make decisions in your practice.
Various traditions have developed around the practice of tea ceremony itself; while these traditions may be important or may add to the experience of a tea ceremony, they are not part of the tea ceremony. The Chinese tea ceremony is exclusively a methodology of preparing tea – there is nothing within tea ceremony that is spiritual, artistic, or performative. Historical and modern groups that have add these attributes to the tea ceremony have coopted the preparation of tea for their own purposes, and in some cases have added back to the skill of tea preparation through the dissemination of their teachings.
Few of these traditions rise to the level of meta-theory, an additional level of practice on top of the gongfu of tea ceremony. This book promotes ChaXi, tea performance, as the highest phenomenological approach to tea ceremony. ChaXi requires you to take into consideration the experience of your tea gathering by the guests, based on their level of knowledge and what they are capable of appreciating.
What you know
The epistemology of gongfu is in systemic crisis. The majority of the “rare” tea in the world is fraudulent. Much of the world’s best teaware is held behind glass in museums and unavailable to practice with. Antiques were forged even as their authentic references were being made – there were entire ceramic factories dedicated to forging Song Dynasty wares in the Ming Dynasty!
With so few reliable references, and so few resources, and so few teachers, you must ask yourself – “How do I know what I think I know?”
In this, you must let your experience be your guide. Recognize that some number of your experiences will be wrong. A pu’er won’t be ancient arbor, an oolong won’t be high-mountain, the yixing isn’t from the famous maker, as each was claimed to be.
Thus, when you have the real sample, it will be a revelation. You will have to remember and correct your past experiences in your memory, and allow that correction to update your practice.
When you have experiences that don’t match your expectations, make a note of it. Write it down. Experiences that don’t match may be a warning that some of the information presented to you is wrong, or it may be a learning experience that resets your standards and places your past experiences in better context. Always remember: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. There is always more to learn.
The path ahead
Ignorance is bliss. One who is content with what they know may choose to remain happy. I do not implore you to walk down the path that this book provides.
I find this path to be hard. The path to learning tea is treacherous – riddled with dead ends, expensive mistakes, and years of realizing that you’ve been wrong.
Yet, I love what I have found on this path. Tea is a way to understand culture, to practice a living art, and to enjoy some of the most subtle pleasures life has to offer.
I hope this book will be your guide, that it will head off some of the dead ends, and that it will act not as a map, but as a compass as you find your own path in the Dao of tea.