Tea Drinking during the Tang Dynasty
The celebrated and classic Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) brought a refinement and sophistication to tea drinking. This was a time of high art and culture, and luxurious materials were sought after in furnishings and objects. Tea drinking became an engaging, relaxing pursuit, and it was the Tang who first enjoyed formal tea gatherings that were designed to find delight in this pleasure beverage. Manners and social order were emphasized during the Tang era, and to ensure that rare and costly teas were prepared properly, the role of tea master was created to guarantee that every proper social convention was executed carefully and with great style.
Every family of social ranking employed a knowledgeable tea master, as did government officials and of course the emperor. As tea lost its popular association as a crude, bitter brew, the ritual of tea drinking became a cultured social rite during the Tang era. Tea was now regarded as a healthful tonic that would impart peace, harmony, and well-being. Spiritually, tea was believed to be an “elixir of immortality,” an exaggerated ideal that suggested its transcendent nature.
Many styles of teaware were created, which was subject to change with every successive emperor, who had his own idea of fashion, glaze color, style, and whether to use incised or applied designs. During this time Lu Yu—a scholar, recluse, and member of the literati who is often called China’s Father of Tea—codified the rituals that he deemed necessary for brewing a proper pot of tea. Besides the goal of yielding a pleasant-tasting tea, Lu Yu preached that inner harmony could be attained through the expression of careful, attentive tea preparation.
In his book The Classic of Tea, which is still highly regarded today, Lu Yu explained the mindful execution of the rituals of tea preparation. Underlying his practice are many of the philosophical beliefs that took hold in China during his lifetime. He utilized both Confucian and Daoist principles to synthesize the philosophical with the practical.
Tea drinkers were encouraged to develop a spiritual appreciation for the everyday moments in life as they performed the rituals of tea preparation. Lu Yu emphasized that all moments in life be attended by beauty—a concept that was to become central to the pleasure of tea drinking. Under Lu Yu’s guidance the Tang introduced utensils that were exclusively designed for preparing, serving, and drinking tea. Before this era no formal utensils existed for tea drinking.
As the methodology of tea drinking became more sophisticated, so did the selection of ceramic tea bowls, tea cups, teapots, and water-pouring ewers. With such concepts about tea as “Its liquor is like the sweetest dew of Heaven,” Lu Yu instilled in tea drinkers an appreciation for tea that included consideration of the materials used to make tea bowls. During his time low-sided ceramic bowls were favored for their ease in delicately sipping tea. As for the material of the bowls, he favored white Hsing Chou ware and greenish-hued Yueh ware, which was described as having the “verdure of a thousand mountain peaks” and which he found desirable for “enhancing the true color of the tea.”
The Tang preferred whole-leaf tea that was flavored with fruit pastes to counter the bitterness of the tea. As it was in the previous dynasty, tea was compressed into small decorative cakes that would keep indefinitely. The cakes were heated until they softened and became, in Lu Yu’s words, “as tender as a baby’s arm.” When cooled, the tea was scraped or broken off into bits and put into a pot and boiled. Tea was consumed differently by the various members of the social classes in the Tang dynasty. Many tea drinkers favored adding onion, ginger, orange peel, cloves, and peppermint to their tea. Mixing salt into the tea became a popular choice in the western provinces.
Ladies of the court sipped tea that was mixed with the delicate extracts of fruits and flowers. In contrast to the convention of his day, Lu Yu shunned these additions to tea—he believed that tea should be drunk plain. He addressed the topic thusly: “Sometimes such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries, or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches; still, alas, it is a common practice to make tea that way.”
Tibetans, Mongols and Tartars
The Tang established a vast government-controlled network of tea gardens in southern and western China, which would ultimately bring China to the pinnacle of tea production. The western border populations of Tibetans and the northern border populations of Mongols and Tartars also found tea a welcome and necessary addition to their meager diets. The Tang government set up a system of trading tea for horses with these border populations, and a method of taxation on tea that would be implemented for centuries.
Tibetans first learned of tea in 641 AD, when the Tang princess Wen Cheng married the Tibetan king Songtsan Gambo and brought tea from Sichuan with her to Tibet. An exchange of trading between Tibetans and the Tang court resulted in a trading relationship that lasted well into the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The Tang traded tea for strong, healthy horses, which they needed for their warriors.
For the Tibetans tea was indispensable for enhancing the nutrition of their spartan, vegetable-less diet. To expedite trading with groups far from China, horse caravan routes were developed for the long, difficult, round-trip trek across inhospitable terrain and through punishing weather conditions. This created the first of such routes known historically as the Tea Horse Routes, which stretched from Sichuan and Yunnan to Tibet over the rugged Himalaya.
For trading purposes, the Tang devised compressed bricks of dark, coarse, low-quality “border tea” (comprised mainly of tea twigs and leftover bits from the manufacture of the Tang’s more select and fine tea cakes) as a practical way to send as much tea as possible to Tibet on each caravan. Eventually, several distinct tea-trading routes developed from western China—the southern routes to Tibet and a western route from Sichuan across Central Asia to Mongolia and Siberia. At approximately this same time Japan was being introduced to tea through contact between Zen priests and Chinese Buddhist monks.
It is believed that the priest Saichō returned to Japan in 815 after living in China for many years and served boiled tea cake to Emperor Saga. Thereafter, Saichō planted tea seeds for the emperor, who served tea from his tea bushes to court officials and important personages. Interest in tea in Japan stayed centered around the emperor’s court and nearby temple gardens. But tea would not gain a strong foothold in Japan until several centuries later.