The Universal Beverage


Ian Johnson muses on the history of tea in China. The article first appeared in SACU's China Eye magazine in 2007.

There is more than a little ritual associated with tea-drinking in Japan, where tea was reputedly introduced in 1191 AD. In that year Eisai, the founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism, returned home from a visit to China, bringing with him some seeds of the tea plant, which he planted on a hillside near Kyoto. In 1214 he wrote the Kissa yojo-ki ('Drink Tea to Improve Health and Prolong Life'), extolling tea's virtues as 'the cup that cheers but does not inebriate.' Eisai's advocacy of tea drinking was perhaps the most enduring of his contributions to Japanese life, and did much to make tea the national beverage.

It was some time, however, before tea drinking became fashionable. One of the emperors summoned a gathering of priests to his palace to read the learned tomes in his library, and ordered that they be given some light refreshment before taking their leave. The refreshment was tea, but because the emperor had demonstrated his approval of the relatively unknown drink the priests and their followers decided that it must be good, and consumption soared.

In later years Zen monks gradually transformed the simple preparation and imbibing of tea into one of the most refined of the household arts; the Tea Ceremony, a subject about which both Japanese and foreign authors have written much that is partial or exaggerated or merely foolish. Essentially, the ceremony is a gathering of friends who have artistic tastes in common, conducted according to prescribed etiquette in simple and quiet surroundings. It was during the Tokugawa shogunate (ad 1615-1868) that the ceremony came to be considered an effective means of training young Japanese women in home etiquette.

Tea itself was not the only ingredient in the ritual that developed. When the Zen priests introduced tea to Japan they also introduced special forms of pottery in which it was to be served, and the supplying of such pottery became a source of revenue. The next logical step (and an essential part of the ceremony in its original form) was the creation of a suitable setting in which to enjoy the new beverage. Thus the three elements of the Tea Ceremony were prescribed: the tea, the pottery, the setting. The special rooms or tea huts were generally small and simple, almost bare, and devoid of all colour. Typically, on entering, one would find the host seated by a small fire surrounded by all the necessary paraphernalia, among which he would be paying special attention to four items - the fire, the water, the spoon, and the bamboo whisk. Tea leaves, scrupulously measured, were put into the cup or cups, water was added, and the mixture was stirred with the whisk until exactly right. The host would then place a cup before each visitor, who in turn would raise his cup with both hands (this was the polite custom), thus feeling the warmth and texture of the porcelain. The tea was not gulped down, but sipped and savoured as though it were some precious elixir of life.

Tea gardens were also popular. W.S. Caine, a foreign visitor to Japan in the late 1880s, left this record of them:

As we came away from the castle, my daughter and I could not resist the temptation of entering one of the charming tea gardens to which Japanese families resort when they give festivities. The garden was at the back of a tea-house, and consisted of about twenty raised wooden platforms, some 10 or 12 feet square, each of which was completely surrounded and rendered private by flowering bushes like chrysanthemums in pots. On entering, the garden looked like a fine flower show. These compartments were filled with merry parties at dinner, and as we passed in front of each entrance the host would politely invite us to enter and partake of his hospitality.

Mr. Ito informed us that it would be considered polite if we accepted one of these invitations after we had walked round the gardens, and we did so, joining for a short time a family party of seven or eight, who were celebrating a birthday of one of the children. We declined the food, but took tea and sweets, chatting with them through our interpreter. No intoxicating liquor was being consumed on the premises: all were drinking tea with their little banquets.

In time, the cult of the Tea Ceremony lost its simple character and tended to become extravagant and elaborate, until it was little more than a costly aristocratic pastime. The rich competed madly for the best bowls, tea jars, teapots and other adjuncts of the tea-drinking ritual, and prices soared.

None of the rituals and customs associated with tea drinking in China and Japan would have arisen, or indeed been possible, without the little pots and bowls and other accoutrements that eventually became almost as important as the drinking and the ceremony. These developed over the years from crude pottery vessels to beautifully delicate egg-shell porcelain. The improvement in the quality of the cups (or bowls) in which it was served no doubt played a significant part in popularising tea as the 'universal beverage'. Thriving businesses in pottery and porcelain began to multiply in Japan, China, England and many European countries as the demand for tea rapidly increased. In China and England especially the world-wide fame of their finest porcelain was closely associated with the fortunes of the tea industry.

Picking tea
Picking tea. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

There were many qualities even in the china and porcelain, which varied according to the clay from which they were made and the standard of workmanship achieved. Lu Yu's book about tea contains, for example, a classification of teacups according to their quality, judged at least partly according to how well the colour of the tea was enhanced. The porcelain cups from Yueh-chou and You-chou are of a light blueish tinge and when they are filled with tea appear reddish-white. The Xing chou porcelain is white and gives the tea a red colour. That of Shou-chou is yellow and makes the tea purple, that of Hung-chou is brown and the tea looks blackish. None of them shows the tea to full advantage.

Hardness and lightness were, after colour, the qualities looked for in assessing the merits of porcelain wares; the 'ring' or sound made when the porcelain was tapped with a chopstick was also an important criterion. The quality of porcelain made for export was of less importance, and the fineness of export ware ranged from one extreme of quality to the other. The colourful Nonya ware exported to the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore) from sixty to a hundred years ago, and usually recognisable by its characteristic shield-shaped motifs, includes teapots and cups of mainly average to poor quality. Nearly all were hand-painted, but the workmanship was rather crude and unimaginative. Nonya ware is nevertheless bright and cheery, and still comparatively inexpensive, and can provide the nucleus of an interesting collection.

In Europe, cups and saucers were an integral part of all tea sets, and in the course of their evolution assumed a great variety of shapes and sizes. Early cups were scarcely much larger than a thimble, and today are dwarfed by the giant English 'breakfast cup'. Most cups had handles, though some made in the early 1800s did not- they were accompanied by deep saucers from which the tea could be drunk without burning the fingers.

Teapots also varied in size, shape and colour, and were generally larger than the traditional Chinese and Japanese pots. One popular fancy was a teapot with a tea-stem handle and a pattern incorporating sprays of leaves and blossoms of the tea plant.

Teaspoons, tea trays and caddies have also been associated with tea-drinking in various parts of the world. The Chinese and Japanese seldom use teaspoons, while most Europeans have discarded the tea caddy for a glass jar, instant tea, or the much-maligned tea bag (the first of which was made of cloth, and originated in New York City in 1908).

The tea caddy is a container for storing tea leaves, the word 'caddy' being a corruption of kati, a Chinese measure of weight equivalent to about one and a third pounds (six hundred grams). Chinese caddies were most commonly made of pewter with a high lead content, although caddies of lacquered wood or china, decorated with flowers, poetry and other motifs, can also be found. They varied in shape, some being round, some square, some rectangular, while others were six- or eight-sided. The earliest European versions were usually equipped with a lock and key to prevent pilfering of the precious leaves by domestic staff. Caddies continued to be provided with a lock long after tea had ceased to be a luxury that only the very wealthy could afford. They were made from a wide variety of materials - wood, metal, papier-máché, glass, porcelain - and were often divided into compartments or fitted out with matching sets of canisters in pewter or silver so that different blends of tea could be stored in the one caddy.

Other European accessories included the tea jar and the tea-poy. The name 'tea jar' was given by English silversmiths and potters, in the catalogues of the Great Exhibition of 1851, to vase-shaped tea canisters with tightly fitting stoppers. The tea-poy was a small tripod table on which stood a tea chest or, alternatively, an ornamental pedestal table, with a lifting top, in which tea was stored. It was regarded as an important part of the fashionable tea équipage in Britain during the nineteenth century.

Silver teapots became very fashionable in Europe and America. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) they tended to develop away from the once-popular wine-pot style and assumed the familiar squat pear shape, with a high-domed lid and curved spout, that set a lasting style.

No matter how tastes and styles have changed over the centuries, tea, the 'China drink', has remained the universal beverage. Enjoyed in many forms by millions of people, it also conjures up many different images. To some, it means trade, the opening up of continents, a demonstration of respect, a means to a livelihood; to others, it means comfort in old age, warmth on a cold day; again, to others, it is the most sociable of drinks, the conversation starter, the necessary start to every day.

Many of us, in our millions, would seem to answer to this description, written by the voluble and irascible Dr Samuel Johnson in 1757: 'A hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.'

And why not?

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2007 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 13, 2007

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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