Harmony and Humility


Harmony and Humility

The Chinese Philosophy of Tea


Starting in the 8th century, tea became a way of life for everyone in China, from the Emperor to the humblest peasant. Tea houses sprung up in the towns and cities. Men would gather there to gossip, and to take part in tea contests, where they would engage in "blind taste tests" of different kinds and qualities of leaves and water. They could also listen to music there, and admire works of art. For the aristocrats there were small private pavilions, some of them quite splendid. Within the moveable rice paper walls spaces were tastefully furnished and perfumed with rare incense and flowers, enlivened by music, story tellers, or games, all conspiring to provide a poetic mood suitable for the tasting of tea. One could also have tea served in the public baths, hotels, stores, etc., and vendors walked the streets offering infusions to those who desired them.

Only green or semifermented tea was consumed. The black tea produced in China was entirely for export. Some say that the Western taste for black tea is the result of an error. The story goes that Europeans received a cargo of tea that had fermented because of the long boat crossing. The recipients believed that they were emulating the Chinese, and developed a taste for this kind of tea.

There is a traditional method for serving semifermented teas. During the gongfu ceremony miniature bowls are used for serving several rounds of the same tea, infused for only a few seconds each time. The teapot and bowls are placed in a deep tray, as hot water must first be poured over them to heat and purify them. A teapot is filled with tea leaves, boiling water poured in, then the infusion poured into a second teapot. The tea is poured into a first bowl where it is simply inhaled, and then into a second from which it is drunk.

During the 8th century, trade spread the tea habit to the Mongols, Tartars, and Tibetan nomads. These peoples had existed entirely on meat and milk products, so tea quickly became an essential part of their diet, helping them fight diseases occasioned by the lack of fruits and vegetables. Horses and furs were traded to the Chinese in exchange for tea leaves. The journey by caravan was long and hard, lasting months, so the tea was dried, crushed, and formed into bricks before being placed on the backs of yaks for transport. Tea was prepared by grating some powder off the brick and putting it to boil with salt and yak butter, then churning it forcefully in order to produce a most invigorating drink, into which one dunked nuggets made from toasted barley.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Le Tao du thé en Chine, Taïwan 1983