If comes as little surprise that the residents of a country that launched a revolution by dumping tea into a harbor and can claim responsibility for the invention of the tea bag and instant tea, could stand to learn about the ancient history and rituals surrounding the venerable tea plant.
So it was appropriate and fortunate that thanks to the William & Mary Confucius Institute (WMCI), members of the Williamsburg community spent an afternoon learning that there’s much more to the harvesting, preparation, serving and appreciation of tea than many Americans know.
The history of tea in the U.S. goes back only to the 1700s, when it is believed to have been brought to South Carolina by a French botanist. Iced tea is drunk more often than hot tea in the U.S. In spite of its international nature, Williamsburg is still a southern town, and in the south, if you order iced tea in a restaurant, it’s likely to be “sweet tea” – sweetened with large amounts of sugar.
By contrast, China is the number one producer of tea in the world, and the history of tea in China is rich and steeped (pardon the pun) in tradition. The tea plant evolved at least 60-70 million years ago and originated in southwest China. There are 23 genera and over 380 varieties of camellia plants in the world, of which, 15 genera and over 260 varieties are found in China.
More than two dozen residents came to learn about the Chinese Tea Ceremony as part of the Williamsburg Regional Library’s Wellbeing Series. Their instructor and guide was Xu Han, a graduate student at Beijing Normal University, volunteer teacher at WMCI and tutor for the Chinese House. Although the talk was informative and scholarly, thanks to Han’s skill and engaging personality, the information was interspersed with laughter, warmth and conviviality. The enthusiasm in the room even attracted several library staff in the hallway sneaking a look even though they were supposed to be working elsewhere.
The Book of Tea
Han took his audience back to the early uses of tea. Tea originally was noted for its medicinal uses. It then became more “recreational” in the Tang Dynasty (760 AD-762 AD). The definitive reference book – then and now –The Book of Tea -- was written in the Tang Dynasty by Lu Yu, an orphan brought up and educated in a monastery. In The Book of Tea, Lu Yu recorded a detailed account of ways to cultivate and prepare tea, tea drinking customs, the best water for tea brewing and different classifications of tea. The book was the turning point in the uses of tea, and tea spread throughout East Asia, to Japan, Vietnam and India.
Han explained the impact of Lu Yu’s work and used it as an outline for his own presentation and demonstration of the tea ceremony today. Han began with the features of the tea ceremony that combine for the fullest effect: the tea, the water, utensils, movement, the environment and the person serving.
“Tea tempers the spirit and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness. - Lu Yu
Han explained there are four tea producing areas in China and six types of tea: Green, Black, Oolong, White, Dark and Yellow. The differences in color come from the differences in fermentation. Green tea is the lightest and Black tea the darkest. To appreciate the tea, one most consider its shape, color, smell and taste.
Tea can be medicine: protecting teeth, neutralizing bad breath, aiding digestion, slowing the aging process. Jasmine tea is for internal heat; rose tea aids blood circulation.
For a proper tea ceremony as important as the tea itself are the instruments used to serve it: tea pot, tea cups (clay and porcelain), and the Six Gentlemen of the Tea Ceremony (Tea Spoon, Tea Clip, Tea Needle, Tea Screener, Tea Holder and Tea Caddy).
The water and movement
Water is also essential – both in its quality and purity and in the pouring. “Pouring water from a high position adds energy to the tea leaves,” Han demonstrated. Apologizing that he was a bit nervous, as he was not used to conducting a tea ceremony for an audience, Han lightly scolded himself: “The ceremony requires 100% concentration… no shaking hands.”
The environment and the person
Tea brings harmony, quiet, pleasure and authenticity, Han explained, “But it also brings friends and family together.”
Han stressed the convivial nature of tea drinking. Part of the ritual is to talk and share. “Talk with friends! Tea is also for talk,” he said. “But don’t talk too much.”
He stressed that friendship is an element that contributes to the complete experience. But to the delight of his audience, he explained with a laugh: “You can also think about other things besides tea! This is your time!”
Han quoted the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
To help the guests understand, Han also referred to the popular film Kung Fu Panda. “As the character Master Shifu said: ‘Every master must find his path to inner peace.’”
Drinking the tea
Of course reason for the lecture was not just to talk about the tea ceremony but to participate in one. Han demonstrated how to prepare and serve tea and shared green tea with the participants, amid much happy conversation. One woman in the audience was originally from Russia and delighted in making comparisons with the tradition of making tea in a samovar.
And it was as the audience drank tea together and asked Han questions and compared their reactions to the different teas they sampled that one of the most memorable lessons from the afternoon became clear: the importance of the person who serves. The success of the day was determined by Han, the person who set the tone, created a welcoming environment, and prepared the tea with care, expertise, joy and – yes -- inner peace.