Why we brew – Constructs for understanding, Part 1

Finally, back to tea and academia!
This next series of posts are my writings on why we brew tea, and how we can understand the practice of ourselves and others.
I hope this can be a conversation, and I would greatly appreciate your comments, suggestions  questions, and clarifications.
– Jason

Individuals each come to and practice tea with their own wants, needs, and desires. No one is forced to practice tea; this Ceremony is a tradition and art propagated by free will. In previous writing I have broken Chinese Tea Ceremony down into its component parts, a reductionist approach, and described each aspect in what I hope has been less than excruciating detail. The problem then is that no one practices components of tea ceremony for its own sake; it is the composite whole, the brewing of tea itself, which they wish to perfect. By all means improve your pour by practicing with cold water, but don’t perform that for your friends and family.

It is now my goal to fit those various component parts into a set of frameworks for understanding. Putting things back together often turns out to be harder than taking them apart (think particle physics or that alarm clock) and tea ceremony is no exception. Chinese Tea Ceremony is an interdisciplinary subject and in my attempt to piece it together I have borrowed heavily from Cultural Anthropology and Architecture; I have taken some liberty in my interpretive applications of the original theories as they apply to Chinese Tea Ceremony.

The goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony is to brew good tea; yet what could be said to be the point?

Surely it must be enjoyment. We drink tea to enjoy ourselves. Are we enjoying the flavor? Are we enjoying the company of our guests (or perhaps we are the guest)? Are we enjoying the moment of silence between brews or the beauty of the wares used? Let us continue with the a priori assumption that the point is some kind of appreciation and walk through the range of possibilities.

The practice of brewers can be categorized by their approach. Individuals differ in the importance and attention to detail they give to aspects of tea ceremony; aging pu’er and tasting the difference over time is the drive for some, while the use of old and rare tea pots is the raison d’être of others. None of these approaches are more right than another. Broadly these forms of practice fall into 3 archetypes: Utilitarian, Structural-Functionalist, and Phenomenology.

Consider the statement “the point of tea is appreciation through consumption”. This is a bold claim and one not easy to parse. This statement would have us believe that to appreciate tea we need to consume it. Consumption is a form of communion; there are few things as intimate with the inanimate as consumption. What you eat becomes part of you, “you are what you eat”. The consumption of tea gives rise to feelings and emotions, perhaps through beauty to some, but through physical response to the psychoactive compounds in everyone. Tea, before anything else, is a stimulating and calming beverage; used in the past and present for study and meditation. Could the real goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony be to brew good tea ‘that one will want to consume’? This is not hard to agree with as I don’t think any of my readers brew tea to smile at a hot gaiwan or to have fun pre-heating cups.

Yet is this reducto ad absurdum? This theory is utilitarian; it only accounts for the derivation of hedonistic pleasure without room for the phenomenology of taste or aesthetic enjoyment. It puts all brewing skill, style, and implements into a singular utilitarian framework that draws no distinction in form, such that the modernist mantra of ‘form follow function’ becomes the form unto itself.  It leaves no room for a tasters swish-and-spit, or the appreciation of an aging pu’ers darkening color (to say nothing of its flavors evolution), or the appreciation of the small QingHua cups I empty my YiXing into. How can we build on this basic construct to include the way in which our setting and external environment effects the perception of experience? What other constructs exist?

Structural-Functionalism, like Utilitarianism and most experiential frameworks, began in architecture. Whereas Utilitarianism discounts the value of ornamentation, to the point of banning it, Functionalism construes value for each entity within the structure.  How is this relevant to Tea Ceremony? Consider a gaiwan; you have a choice among minimalist white, blue and white from Zhingdezhen, or even a gaudy pink and gold from Chinatown. Utilitarianism sees these all as equal, or even the same. Do you? Perhaps some of you are happy to brew in anything in reach, but I am willing to wager that the majority of you will have a clear preference for one of the gaiwans. That preference is functionalism; each function is unique and we can have a preference for a specific form of function. Just as a gaiwan and a teapot can achieve the same ends (brewed tea), you may prefer to use one or the other consistently, or decide based on the tea you are to brew. An individual can have a preference for one over the other because they differ both aesthetically and functionally. That preference need not be rational; it only needs to be present to be valued in the functionalist framework.

If the function and aesthetic value are accounted for by functionalism, where is the structure? In assembling your tea set, do you consider matching the wares? Do you consider matching the size and scale of your wares? The structure is found by creating a working whole, giving equal weight to the interplay of the wares you chose to use. A beautiful bowl’s aesthetic value may be highlighted or masked by the other wares around it; Structural-Functionalism would have you aim for enhancement. A cup’s function needs to match the rest of the set; some are too small or large for the type of tea being served or the amount held in the brewing vessel. The addition of multiple wares of multiple functions being used together to reach a goal adds the structure to structural-functionalism. What is this construct lacking?

Answered in Part 2.
(or by you in the comments!)

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