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.

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