Tea Ceremony as a living art

Chinese Tea Ceremony is a living art. It is an art that has been propagated through the culture and the skill of individuals. As you progress in your practice of tea ceremony, your approach will change; the wares you use, the settings you create, and the focus of each session will change.

The goal of Chinese tea ceremony is to brew good tea. As the teas available and produced changed with the years, the ebbs and flows of history, the changing of dynasties, imperial decrees, and climate, the practice of brewing good tea has changed.

Today, top practitioners use Japanese tetsubans or silver kettles to make water lighter and sweeter, we use wood-fired wares from Europe or Korea that match our tea’s brewing parameters and our ChaXi’s aesthetic, we use filtered spring water, machine made ceramics, and bring the (often) modern western ideals of beauty into the tea room. Today, our practices of tea ceremony have changed.

Since its inception Tea Ceremony has known nothing but change.

This constant state of change that we find tea and tea ceremony in is good. The practice of tea would not, could not, exist any other way. This constant state of change has allowed tea ceremony to become a living art, beholden to the wants and needs and desires of its practitioners. As we, members of our culture, change, we bring with us just so much of the past, and the rest is left to fade. Should tea ceremony have remained about scented tribute tea, or roasting wax tea, or boiling powdered tea, the practice would not have been carried into the future; the practice of tea, as tea ceremony, would not exist today.

At the Phenomenist level tea ceremony is not an art that can be viewed, or tasted, or felt; it must be experienced. To call tea ceremony a “living art” is to say more than it has survived the test of time; it is to say that tea ceremony is kept alive by the living. Tea ceremony is only a practice, and a practice must be practiced to be a practice. I hope this is less circular than it seems; many arts have lost their practitioners, and survive today in a petrified state. Consider Japanese Archery, originally an art of war that included Zen practice, it is today mealy a ‘sport’, and had had little development in practice, let alone practitioners, since the WWII. Consider the art of cartography, the making of maps, which has been overtaken by GPS and computerized graphics; there is no true artistic development to the modern practice of map making, and most hand painted maps are made to look old, in the style of cartography’s former glory

This is not to cast any shame on the current or past practitioners of these arts; it is that these arts are effectively dead. They are not living arts the way the practice of tea is a living art.

Tea Ceremony is not safe from this fate. A cursory overview of tea consumption in the western world, and most of Asia, shows tea to be an afterthought. Brewed with little skill, leaves of an unknown provenance, had ‘on the side’; tea may be fading into the recesses of history. We, the practitioners of modern Chinese Tea Ceremony, may be the death rattle for this dying art to be lost to history.

Or we can be the vanguard of this tradition, preserving, innovating, and most importantly appreciating the experience through the Phenomenist approach. It is though our practice and presentation that tea ceremony will continue to thrive, and tea ceremony will continue to change.

The experience of the practitioner is different from the experience of uninitiated; the practitioner can reason, while the uninitiated can only question; the practitioner can appreciate, while the uninitiated can only observe; the practitioner can feel, while the uninitiated can only think; and the practitioner can experience, while the uninitiated can only remember.

Without having experienced a proper tea ceremony, the spark that ignites the will to practice, it would be impossible for a new student of tea to begin their own practice. There is no impetus, no memory, and no experience. Recorded knowledge is not enough; if tea ceremony dies, it can never be revived. The experience will be impossible to re-create from writings, photographs, and video.

The path to become a practitioner includes seeking out experiences with tea, followed by study and practice. Your practice is what keeps tea ceremony alive. You are now the vanguard.

Migrated Comments

Billabongk Charlotte

Really, really interesting article. I feel very close to  what you develop here.

The perpetual movement of change is the essence of life, of tea, and tea practice. Tea ceremony makes the practitioner grow and change. It’s a very special form of art, expressing impermanence…

By the way, best wishes for 2013.

Urban T

“the practitioner can feel, while the uninitiated can only think”

I found this statement to ring somewhat true.  And to explain the feel of something is very much beyond words.

I bought a tea set a year ago and have been trying to improve upon my ceremony since then for tea.  I must say that for the western world, it is still viewed as a somewhat sanitized anthropological tour, rather than a living art.

I digress though, great article :)

Jason's Reply

Dear Urban,


It has been a long path for me to discover that,
and I’m not even half way there!

– Jason

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