Chinese Tea Art

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Traditional Chinese tea set

The spirit of tea art and the tea ceremony is the core of Chinese tea culture. "Art" refers to the techniques and artistic process of making, cooking and tasting tea, while ceremony refers to the spirit with which the process is carried out.


According to freelance writer Philippines The relationship between water and tea is similar to that between wine and water. All wine experts understand that excellent water quality is essential for the best wine, while tea art is even stricter with water. It is impossible to make fragrant tea without good water. Therefore, famous tea experts are all proficient in distinguishing water. According to Xu Cishu, a tea expert of the Ming Dynasty, tea's finest qualities can be brought into play with the help of water; therefore, it is impossible to make excellent tea without good water. Zhang Dafu, a tea expert of the Qing Dynasty, even regarded water as more important than tea. He believed that a cup of excellent tea contained 20 percent tea and 80 percent water. If you could not taste the flavor of a good tea, probably it was because of the poor water quality.

Lu Yu discussed tea water exhaustively in Cha jing (Book of Tea). According to him, the water used to brew tea should be different from ordinary drinking water. Water from mountains was the best, river water was inferior, and well water was low grade. The water from mountain springs was better than that from waterfalls. The water from mountains would become undrinkable if it was stored in valleys for a long time, because there would be many insects and germs in the water. Therefore, tea water should be drawn from clear flowing water in sparsely populated areas. Dew drops from mountain stalactites, clear flowing springs and clear river streams were regarded as the sources of the best water for brewing tea. This principle is also reasonable from the modern scientific point of view. Zhang Youxin, a tea expert of the Tang Dynasty; wrote the Notes on Brewing Tea according to Lu Yu's experience. He listed nearly 20 famous varieties of water suitable for brewing tea, arranged in the order of their quality.

Later generations are doubtful about whether these varieties of water were evaluated by Lu Yu. For example, the 16th source on the list was a waterfall, while Lu Yu opposed the brewing of tea with waterfall water. Zhang Youxin attached great importance to water, which promoted the further study of water quality. However, it seems unnecessary to arrange the sources in order, because various waters are suitable for brewing various teas, and everyone has his own taste. However, water experts of past dynasties shared a lot in common in their evaluation of tea water, stressing sweet and light flowing water with clean sources.

Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1796) of the Qing Dynasty had not only a head for politics, but also deep love for Chinese traditional culture. He was keen on tea culture, and had original views on water quality because he had traveled extensively. He would weigh it with a special little silver dou whenever he found excellent water. Finally, he concluded that water from the Jade Spring Hill in Beijing's western suburbs and the Yixun River beyond the Great Wall was the lightest, while water from the Pearl Spring in Jinan and the Gold Hill Spring on the Yangtze River bank ranked second and third, respectively.

Tea experts of past dynasties had different understandings of water, and they arranged famous water in different orders. We cannot determine who is right, because the natural environment changes constantly, the quality of water in the same place can change over time. Lu Xing, a tea expert, put forward an important principle—tea art cannot do without high-quality water. Some experts believed that it was unnecessary to brew tea with famous water, and people could get qualified water in all places. They held that people should learn to "cultivate water" in the light of local conditions. For example, water from the Yangtze River should be taken at midnight from the upper or middle reaches with their excellent vegetation, and quiet and secluded environment. Some people take water from the first snow, morning dews and light drizzle. Drizzle water should be caught with utensils in the open before it falls to the ground, so it is called "rootless water."

In ancient times, when air pollution was not serious, water vapor rose from the ground to the air and became rain or snow after being purified naturally, so the water was clean. At the same time, this method of taking water also implied the linkage of tea with the universal spirit. As far back as the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu had a bronze statue of an "immortal catching dews." Today, there is still such a bronze statue in Beihai Park in Beijing—an immortal holding a plate high to catch rain and dew from heaven. The viewpoints of the Chinese tea culture experts fully reflected Daoist ideologies of absorbing the ultimate in nature in order to serve people, and seek natural beauty.

Tea Sets

As the old Chinese idiom goes, "it is necessary to have effective tools to do good work." It refers to ordinary labor and creations. As a material activity, tea art is also a spiritual and artistic creation; therefore tea sets should not only be convenient to use, but also show orderliness and aesthetic feeling in their arrangement, combination and operation. Lu Yu designed 24 vessels when he created Chinese tea art, which were recorded in Cha jing. The "24 vessels" included:

1. Wind stove: Used to make a fire to brew tea. It was designed in accordance with Taoist five-elements theory, and Confucian etiquette and spirit, and was usually cast in iron in ancient times, while later some were made of sintered mud.

2. Bamboo basket: A square basket woven in bamboo filigree used to pick tea. Ancient tea devotees attached great importance to actual practice, and usually picked, baked and processed tea by themselves before drinking.

3. Charcoal seizer: The ancients used charcoal to brew tea, and believed that tea's quality would vary with the type of fire. The Charcoal seizer was a one-chi-long ironware with six ridges used to break charcoal pieces.

4. Fire-clip: Used to grip charcoal pieces to put it into a stove.

5. Boiler: Used to brew tea. The boiler has been retained in Japanese tea ceremonies up to the present. It was made of iron or stone in the Tang Dynasty, but some rich families used silver boilers.

6. Wooden stand: To place a boiler with a stove underneath. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, mud stoves were wrapped with rattan and bamboo so wooden stands became unnecessary.

7. Paper bag: To keep brewed tea so that the fragrance would not be let out.

8. Tea roller and tea dust cleaner: The former was used to grind tea, and the latter, to clean tea dust off the roller. You may see the original shape of the tea roller among the tea sets unearthed in the Temple of Dharma Gate in Shaanxi Province. It was composed of a rectangular mill groove and a turbine with an axle.

9. Tea basket: To sift tea.

10. Ze: It was like a pancake-shaped soup spoon, and was used to measure tea.

11. Water container: To store unboiled water.

12. Filter: To filter tea water. It was made of copper, wood or bamboo.

13. Gourd ladle: To ladle out water. Sometimes it was replaced by a wooden dipper.

14. Bamboo clip: To stir tea water to give full play to tea's properties.

15. Salt stand: To hold salt powder. In the Tang Dynasty, people used salt as a seasoning while drinking tea.

16. Processed jar: To store hot water. People in the Tang Dynasty stressed three key points when brewing tea. When the water boils for the first time, put tea into the boiler to brew it directly; the second time, ladle out foams and put it into the processed jar; the third time, pour the boiled water from the jar into the boiler.

17. Bowls: Necessary implements for tasting tea.

18. Ben: To store bowls.

19. Zha: To wash the vessels. It was similar to a pot-scouring brush.

20. Water collector: To store water.

21. Dregs collector: To gather tea dregs.

22. Cloth: To clean the vessels.

23. Tea set stand: To display a tea set. It was similar to a modern tea table or wine stand.

24. Big basket: To store all the vessels after drinking tea.

It seems hard for modern people to understand that such complicated vessels had to be used to drink tea. However, they were necessities for the ancients to perform and perfect the ritual of drinking tea. A person could also change his mood and temper his practical ability through using the vessels. People who understand Chinese cooking culture all know that the system of meticulously designing, arranging and combining, and rationally using vessels was practiced on a grand scale, as we can see from the bronze wares of the Yin, Shang and Zhou dynasties. It was not only reflected in royal families, but also in the folk wine ritual in which a 70-year-old man/woman used more jues (an ancient wine vessel with three legs) and dous (an ancient stemmed cup or bowl, similar to a standing plate) than ordinary family members. Such customs showed the Chinese people's traditional virtue of respecting the old and taking good care of children. Of course, compared with ancient wine culture, tea culture is richer in natural flavor and the joy of life. However, they both stress order and rhythm.

In recent years, several tea sets were unearthed in the Temple of Dharma Gate in Shaanxi Province. They were given to the temple as a charitable donation by Tang Emperor Xizong (873-889); and they were so exquisite, ingenious, luxurious and splendid that they went beyond the descriptions in Lu Yu's Cha jing. The vessels included a tea roller, basket, ze, salt stand, chopsticks and bowls. Some of them were carved with Emperor Xizong's pet name, "The Fifth Brother", the vessels' weight, and manufacturer. Most of the tea sets were gilded with silverwares, and decorated with the Taoist patterns of an immortal riding a crane, auspicious clouds and swan geese, and the Buddhist patterns of Datura and the lotus design. The exquisite vessels won people's great admiration. One of them, an olive-green bowl made of "Porcelain of secret color," which was as bright as glass, is a rare ancient chinaware. Various beautiful colors would appear when it was filled with tea.

During the Song Dynasty, tea sets were similar to those of the Tang Dynasty. However, to meet the needs of contests, people paid special attention to the qualities and colors of bowls. Because white tea was popular and contestants had to beat white foams, special attention was paid to black and celadon wares to set off the tea to advantage. Special natural decorative patterns appeared on some black chinaware when it was glazed or fired in kilns. For example, the "Heaven-eye" bowl, whose decorative patterns were like eyes in a black sky and the small "rabbit-hair" cup, whose decorative patterns looked as if white hairs were growing out of the animal's black fur, are regarded as treasures among tea sets.

During the Ming Dynasty, vessels in groups were abandoned in order to simplify the sets, and attention was mainly focused on teapots and bowls. Many exquisite tea sets were produced in the Ming Dynasty, the peak period in the development of Chinese chinaware. The teapots were of high quality and novel style. There were many porcelain tea sets of a high order, including the ones made of "ruby red", and blue and white porcelain in Xuande, contrasting-colored ones and those made of blue and white porcelain in Chenghua. Teapots were very varied in style: long, flat, square or round, with loop or side handles. Most of the designs were flowers and birds, although figures and landscapes were also important subjects.

During the Qing Dynasty, tea sets were also made of other materials other than china; however, with developed technologies, chinaware was elaborately wrought in great quantity, and with the development of international trade, it was delivered to many countries.

Into this history of Chinese tea sets, the boccaro (purple clay pottery) pot should not be missed. As everyone knows, the brilliant achievements of Chinese ancient potteries occupied an important place in cooking culture. Later, bronze and iron wares appeared, and potteries were relegated to a secondary position although chinaware was still used because they had fine qualities, and could be washed easily. However, to meet the needs of tea culture, during the Ming Dynasty, the status of ancient potteries was improved. After tea sets in groups were abandoned, people made tea in teapots directly. It took a long time to make fermented and semi-fermented tea. China teapots were so impermeable that the tea would spoil if kept too long in them. The zi sha tao (purple clay pottery pot) was invented to solve this problem.

It was made of special clay from Yixing, Xianyang, Chaozhou and some other places. It became bronze in color after being sintered. In the Ming Dynasty, an excellent purple clay teapot was equal to the wealth of a middle-class family, so you can see that it was very valuable. At the time, some people were so fond of exquisite purple clay teapots that they tried all means to collect them, even, in some cases, dissipating their fortune. This common practice was continued until the Qing Dynasty. Purple clay teapots have always been treasured by collectors.

Why are they treasured so much? On one hand, they make tea, especially fermented tea, send forth its full fragrance. Pottery clay absorbs fragrance easily, so an excellent purple clay teapot is full of tea's essence after it has been used for a long time, and will send forth a refreshing fragrance immediately when people used it. On the other hand, the teapots accord with the requirements of tea culture. The Chinese people always advocate primitive simplicity and naturalness. Purple clay teapots impart a sense of natural beauty, and give people a feeling of moderation when they hold them in both hands. The effect is in concord with the restful charm required by tea culture in both vision and somesthesia.

The purple clay teapot is also treasured because of the artistic designs of the manufacturers. There were many experts in purple clay teapots. The teapot was first invented by an eminent monk of the Jinsha Si (Gold Sand Temple) who remained anonymous. However, for all practical purposes, its real originator was Gong Chun, and the teapot invented by him was called Gongchun Teapot. Gong Chun was a boy serving in a scholar's study, and was well-trained in accomplishments and practical spirituality. He was greatly influenced by Buddhism because he lived in the Jinsha Si at the time he tried to make the teapot. The formation of his unique artistic style may be attributed to many factors. His works were very simple and elegant in color and shape, and were lively and diverse in style: some looked like red melons full of the fragrance of earth; some were like tree stumps, which looked like old men telling the long history of tea; some were like fragrant buds, which naturally suited tea.

Shi Dabin, an expert succeeding Gong Chun, often visited the Songjiang River. He had close contact with Chen Jiru, a famous tea expert of the Ming Dynasty, and absorbed Chen's ideas on tea culture. The design of his works was ingeniously conceived. For example, a small teapot looked like a monk's cap, which naturally reminded one of a monk praying to Buddha in the ancient temple. The message was clear: you drink tea to purify your soul, and the teapot could bring you immediately to Buddhism's realm.

Brewing and Tasting Tea

The methods of drinking tea have changed several times since the Han and Tang dynasties. The general methods are described below.

1. Brewing tea:

The tea dust is brewed directly in teapots. This method was most popular before the Tang Dynasty. Lu Yu introduces the whole process in detail in Cha jing. First, grind the tea cakes into dust with a tea roller, then pour choice water into a teapot. Brew it on a charcoal fire, and add the tea dust when the water is almost boiling. The tea and water would blend with each other. Foam appears when the water boils for the second time; the foam is called bomo. Lu Yu regarded it as the cream of tea, which should be ladled out and kept in an inert jar. Tea and water further blend together, and waves appear when the water boils for the third time; bomo is then added to the teapot. The resulting liquid is called Jiufei or Yuhua. When the cream becomes even, the tea is ready to serve.

Different teas need to be poured into different teapots. For example, scented tea needs porcelain teapots to keep its fragrance; it is better to use china teapots or glasses, rather than clay pots, to hold weak green tea so as to keep the fragrance of the tea and observe the shape and color of the tea leaves. Red tea (black tea) or semi-fermented (oolong) tea needs clay tea pots, which give an impression of primitive simplicity and can easily send forth the fragrance of the tea. Before a new teapot is formally used, it must first be soaked in first-made tea water for over three months to keep the teapot fragrant all over.

2. Dripping tea:

This method came into being in the Tang Dynasty, and became popular in the Song Dynasty, when people did not brew tea in teapots. Grind teacakes into powder, and then make the tea in bowls with gently boiling water. The tea and water should also blend, so special attention should be paid to the teapot brush, the utensil for stirring tea. Most of the brushes are made of bamboo, although they can also be made of iron, silver and gold. The quality and quantity of foam is determined by the brush's shape and one's stirring skill. Pour the water into a tea bowl, and strike the bowl hard with the brush. Tea and water would blend, and bomo would appear gradually, looking like piles of white clouds or snow. The quality of tea should be judged by whether foam appears soon and water waves appear late. A tea with white foam, and its water waves appearing late without dispersing is regarded as the top-grade one, and tea devotees determine victory accordingly. It has been recorded that the tea foam stirred by a tea devotee of the Song Dynasty looked like white clouds or snow piling above the bowl.

Contemporary tea enthusiasts have been studying this method, and they can also make foam rise above the bowls, but the foam is not like clouds, and caves in the middle. This might due to the shape of the teapot brush and the method of stirring tea, which are different from those of the ancients. The present Japanese tea ceremony also adopts this method. However, the tea dust is fine enough, and the stirring force is not strong enough. As a result, green tea only looks like green flecks floating on the water.

3. Dripping flower tea:

This method was created by Zhu Quan in the Ming Dynasty. The tea made this way had special fragrance and artistic effect. Put the buds of plum blossoms, sweet-scented osmanthus and jasmine together with tea dust into a bowl, and speed the opening of the buds with steam. You may enjoy its color, fragrance and taste simultaneously, and it is also a feast for the eyes.

4. Semi-made tea:

Add walnuts, melon seeds, pine nuts and other dry fruits to the tea, and pour hot water. Tea enthusiasts used to enjoy themselves by picking, brewing and drinking semi-made tea on mountains and plains.

5. Made tea:

This well-known method has been used from the Ming and Qing dynasties to the present. Although it is simple and convenient, great differences exist between various regions and varieties of tea. It takes different times to make red tea (known as black tea in the West), green tea and scented tea, and their optimum water temperatures are also different. Green tea is delicate, so the water temperature should not be high. For example, longjing tea would become tasteless after pouring hot water on it two or three times. Red tea is hard, and the blades are thick, so it takes a longer time to make it. Scented tea requires moderate temperature and time.

People who really understand tea would not only make tea to drink; they would first appreciate the shape of the tea, and determine its variety and production area by appearance and smell. Various teas have different shapes. Longjing dried tea is elongated, pekoe is needle-shaped, and pearl tea looks like round peals. Their appearance in the water is also different. Some look like green vines hanging upside down, and some falls to the water bottom. For example, hirtellous clover-shrub root looks like a golden ring, while Huangjingui is orange, and looks like gold.

The made tea method requires one to pour skillfully. Tea makers with excellent skills can go the rounds, pouring the tea evenly from a teapot into a dozen cups on a plate without any spillage.

As an art, tea-drinking requires a special environment. In ancient times there were many participants in large tea parties and imperial tea feasts. Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty had held top-grade tea feasts in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, and there were thousands of participants at each feast.

However, according to the theory of traditional Chinese tea ceremony, it is unnecessary to have very many participants. The theory required one to drink tea in elegant environment, such as by clear springs or in bamboo groves on mountains, in ancient temples and small pavilions, or in one's own garden while appreciating flowers, snow or fish. Many artists of the Ming Dynasty painted such environments. For example, the painting Tasting Tea drawn by Tang Yin depicts some tea devotees drinking tea in a bright hay-thatched hall surrounded by ancient trees and a growth of green plants under bamboo fences on a lofty green mountain. In the Ming Dynasty, most tea enthusiasts built teahouses in their own courtyards and villas. They would burn incense to purify the air in the room, and wash all the tea sets before drinking, and then invite friends to drink tea while writing poems, painting or having a long talk under the moon. Generally speaking, the tea's quality, the drinkers' moral quality and the environment should harmonize. People could let nature take its course while a whole family or a couple drink tea at home.

Li Qingzhao, a female ci poet of the Song Dynasty, liked drinking tea. Most of her popular verses were miserable, sad and gloomy. However, she had a good and perfect family when she was young. The couple often drank tea while writing poems, and the verses written by her at that time were full of happiness. Her husband Zhao Mingcheng was an epigraphist, and was of great attainment in his appreciation of ancient utensils, but he could not compare with Li Qingzhao in drinking tea and writing poems. Li often burst with laughing, and even spilled the tea in her mouth onto her clothes, an action which did not agree with feudal custom. Tea devotees advocated drinking tea in a natural and harmonious environment.