Tea Drinking during Yuan and Ming Dynasties
This article is about tea drinking during Yuan and Ming Dynasties. As the Song Dynasty concentrated on perfecting the art of whipped tea and contemplated how to incorporate loose-leaf tea into their tea rituals, storm clouds gathered over their glorious court. Fierce Mongol hordes, long held at bay in their harsh lands outside of China’s borders, swept down into the more temperate and lush lands of the Chinese empire.
For the next eighty-eight years Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) controlled the Middle Kingdom. Tea drinking was reduced to a functional act and was no longer cultivated in court as an aesthetic pleasure. The Mongol rulers, reared on dark and pungent brick tea that was laced with fermented mare’s milk, found the Song’s loose-leaf tea somewhat satisfactory but had no liking for the frothy whipped tea.
Intrigued by the leaf tea, the Yuan Mongols developed a new technique for drying and roasting fresh tea leaves. Called chaoqing, this process resulted in leaves that were less parched and burned, perhaps taking a step closer to discovering the techniques for making green tea. But it would not be until the Ming dynasty (some 275 years later) that tea-leaf manufacture would advance beyond these first steps taken by the Mongols.
Thus the elaborate tea rituals of the Song dynasty came to a swift and unfortunate halt at the very moment when the accomplishments of China’s tea culture were cresting. Aesthetic tea pursuits were thus terminated under Mongol rule. Had the Song stayed in power, or had the coarse Mongols not been their predecessors, China most likely would have seen their evolving tea culture culminate into a glorious, formal, stylized tea ceremony.
Instead, the Japanese pursued the development of tea culture when the Chinese no longer could. By this time the Japanese had left behind their adoration and imitation of Chinese arts and culture, and they were able to imbue the rituals of the tea ceremony with purely Japanese aesthetics, Japanese utensils, and a precise, practiced formality based on Japanese principles.
In time the rise of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) ushered the Mongol rulers out and back to their harsh, barren lands to the north. Zhu Yuanzhang, a rebel leader who had protested Mongol rule, became the first Ming emperor, and adopted the name Hongwu, which meant Vast Military Power. He reestablished China’s former imperial customs and traditions to their former glory, including elaborate Han tea customs from the Song era.
Under Hongwu’s reign many topics and policies regarding tea cultivation, production, grading, storage, and transportation were established and codified, providing a framework for China’s tea industry that is still in use today. During this time the secrets of oxidation (the process by which fresh tea leaf is turned into black tea) were discovered. This was not a style of tea preferred by the Chinese, who perceived black tea as something only fit for the barbarian foreigners.
But they recognized the importance of the discovery and the potential value that oxidization had for improving the condition of tea that would be traveling long distances over land and sea. Now, brick tea exported to the border regions of Tibet and Mongolia could be sent as black tea, which would allow the tea to arrive at its final destination in better shape. Previously, crude green tea bricks suffered from overheating and near freezing in the changing weather conditions and often developed mold when exposed to rain and damp environments.
Ming emperors continued the tradition of commissioning fine tableware. The porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen switched from producing Qingbai wares and pure white Shufu wares to producing underglaze blue and white wares. Known as mei-ping, these blue and white wares gained the title of China’s porcelain. The Jingdezhen kilns became famous for creating sophisticated and delicate porcelain tableware items. European traders would later marvel at these splendid objects, which at the time had no equal in Europe.
Small, handle-less porcelain teacups acquired a lid and a deep saucer for the cup to fit down into. Called a gaiwan, this new design helped to prevent spills from this style of cup, which was too hot to hold, and provided the drinker with an easy way to push aside the tea leaves floating in the cup. Practical and elegantly designed gaiwan are still the cup of choice today in Chinese teahouses. The first porcelain teapots also appeared under Ming rule. Tea was still costly, so these teapots were intentionally made small.
This allowed the tea leaves in the teapot to be reinfused several times by successively adding more water, a method of tea brewing still followed in China for green and oolong tea. Small zisha clay teapots also began to appear at this time, and they became the favorites of the tea literati.
The Ming also developed an obsession for flowers and aromatic blossoms, and their love of richly perfumed fragrances resulted in their perfecting the art of scenting tea with fresh flower petals. The creation of flower-scented teas such as jasmine, osmanthus, and rose is considered to be the Song’s most significant contribution to China’s tea culture, even more important than their eventual switch from cake to powdered tea.
The Tang dynasty had added sweetness and aroma to tea with the addition of plum juice, fruits, and spices, but the development of splendid flower-scented teas was an achievement that would forever forward belong to China alone.
Chanoyu: Japan’s Way of Tea
While the Ming perfected their culture of the steeped tea leaf, Japanese priests and monks continued to embrace the whipped, powdered tea of the Song dynasty. Zen Buddhist monks incorporated powdered tea drinking into their rituals of prayer and meditation, and they entwined tea drinking with religious and philosophical ideals.
By the sixteenth century the ultimate artistic exercise in tea drinking was born in Chanoyu, or “the way of tea.” Chanoyu was distilled from all of the previous approaches to tea drinking, and it is an artful practice that embodies harmony, respect, tranquility, humility, purity, mystery, beauty, artful appreciation, symmetry, and total attention to the art of tea brewing.
Chanoyu is based on Zen qualities that are different from but not in opposition to the Song’s more temporal concepts of connoisseurship and tea appreciation. Tea master Sen Rikyu (1521–1591) revised the rules of Chanoyu, focusing more on the philosophical virtues of harmony, reverence, purity, and calm rather than on religious principles.
Sen Rikyu gravitated away from the smooth, shiny Tenmoku tea bowls that were made in eastern China and had become popular in Japan among tea drinkers. Sen Rikyu ushered in a new style of Japanese stoneware tea bowl that was based on the fifteenth-century Ido-style earthernwares of Korea.
These simple bowls introduced a natural, somewhat imperfect and humble appearance that reflected his preference for naturalistic, earth-toned teawares, imperfect in shape but pleasing in appearance and possessing a confident, tactile touch in the user’s hand.
If you want to read more about the history of tea check out “History of Tea: From Food to Medicine”