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Tea in Chinese History: Interview with Professor Shen Dongmei

Every office should be equipped with a functional tea station, in my humble opinion.

Every office should be equipped with a functional tea station, in my humble opinion.

Several months have elapsed since my last post. Avid readers of this blog have been wondering if I finally retreated to that hermit cave I’m always talking about. Alas no, I’m still firmly in samsara enjoying the worldly delights and suffering from the quotidian pitfalls of being human. The last few months have been extremely hectic. One of the main preoccupations has of course been teaching. But I have also been very active on the research front, most notably with the holding of the inaugural ‘Australia-China and the Great Outdoors Forum’ at the end of September. This is part of my ongoing collaborative research on China’s emerging outdoor tourism and lifestyle sector, and my first real foray as an activist to hopefully leave behind a legacy of not only words but also interventions that will positively shape the appreciation and preservation of China’s own ‘great outdoors’. A full report on the workshop and our plans for the future will be forthcoming in a few weeks. Very exciting indeed.

As I write this post I’m in Auckland, New Zealand, where I have just attended a special event hosted by the Confucius Institute at The University of Auckland. The event was the inaugural ‘Oceania Forum: China in Change’. I gave a presentation exploring the role of tea in Chinese culture and the potential tea culture itself contains in terms of forging understanding and connections between China and the rest of the world. It was a very valuable opportunity to put my thoughts on this subject matter into more explicit shape and share them with a responsive audience. Many thanks to the team in Auckland.

In today’s post I’m delighted to share with you extracts from an interview with Professor Shen Dongmei (沈冬梅教授). Professor Shen is a researcher in the Center for Historical Research at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社科院). Her area of expertise is the history of tea in China, and in particular the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) dynasties. Professor Shen was responsible for providing the interpretive content of the China National Tea Museum nestled in the World Heritage listed tea fields of Hangzhou. Professor Shen hails from the historic city of Yangzhou (a once busy Jiangsu port on the Grand Canal and major centre for the distribution of tea). She completed her undergraduate studies on ancient Chinese history at Shandong University and her doctoral studies at Hangzhou University (now part of Zhejiang University) under the supervision of the eminent tea historian Professor Liang Taiji (梁太济教授). The interview was conducted in Beijing on the 25th of July 2013. The interview was in Chinese Mandarin and has been translated by yours truly (I take full responsibility for any errors).

Tea buds in Hangzhou that make the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.

Tea buds in Hangzhou that make the famous Longjing (Dragon Well) tea.

Q: Professor Shen thank you very much for accepting this interview. Some of the questions are of a more technical nature and relate to my own interests in the history of tea. But most of the questions have been devised with a few to satisfying the curiosity of the general tea enthusiast. To get us started when did the character for ‘tea’ (cha 茶) first appear in the Chinese historical record?

A: This is difficult to pinpoint accurately, but most experts agree that the first reference to tea can be found in the Classic of Poems (诗经) [a collection of over three hundred poems said to be compiled by Confucius (551–479 BC) from poems that predate his era by many centuries]. It was probably compiled by different persons between the 10th and 7th centuries BC. There is a character in the collection which is today pronounced ‘tu’ (荼). It looks like the character for ‘tea’ (茶) but with one additional horizontal stroke. This character can also be pronounced as ‘cha’ (tea). Some experts don’t agree, but in my view the evidence is quite strong in favour of ‘tu’ meaning ‘cha’. It was common in ancient China for one character to be used to indicate a number of different objects. Only later as the script became more sophisticated did more object specific characters emerge.

Tea Character

Q: During the time of Confucius, when many experts believe the Classic of Poems was compiled, was tea drinking already a popular past-time?

A: The current archaeological and historical evidence does not indicate that tea was popular at that time. It was not until a few hundred years later during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) that we find tea readily available for purchase in the market, thus giving some indication of its development as a commodity. In regards to the archaeological evidence there have been some discoveries in recent years that warrant mention. Most significantly is the 2004 discovery at the prehistoric site of Yuyao Tianluoshan (余姚田螺山) [near the historic tea port of Ningbo in present-day Zhejiang Province; you can see where Yuyao is located on Google Maps here]. At this prehistoric settlement the experts discovered remnants of plants belonging to the Theaceae family, which includes the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). The remnants, planted in obvious rows, have been dated to 6,000 years ago (4000 BC). The plants it seems were purposely being cultivated. We cannot yet say definitively that these are tea plants but it seems very likely. If so, it pushes the human cultivation of ‘tea’ back 4,000 years.

Q: Have the experts come to any conclusions as to where the original plants may have come from?

A: It is believed that they came from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. Palaeobotanists believe many plants in use in China came from this region, including tea. A vast number of the world’s Theaceae are found in this region.

A 'tea leaf fossil' from Jingu, Puer, Estimated at 30 millions years old.

A ‘tea leaf fossil’ from Jingu, Puer. Estimated at 30 million years old.

Q: In our contemporary times we often think of tea as associated with the ‘way of tea’ (茶道). In China when was the ‘way of tea’ first mentioned?

A: This is also difficult to pinpoint and somewhat controversial. ‘The way of tea’ was first mentioned in a poem by the Tang dynasty Buddhist poet Jiao Ran (皎然) (730-799 AD?) [who incidentally also hails from Zhejiang], a contemporary and friend of the famous ‘Patron Saint of Tea’ Lu Yu (陆羽). Jiao Ran, a famous ‘monk poet’ (诗僧), was a bit older than Lu Yu and appears to have had a very strong influence over him. But his use of ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) is different from the contemporary Chinese usage of the term which these days implies something closer to ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). This can cause some confusion because when in Japanese they talk about ‘the way of tea’ (茶道) they basically mean the same thing as ‘the art of tea’ (茶艺). When the Japanese refer to calligraphy [which in Chinese is shufa 书法] they say ‘shudao’ (书道); when they refer to ‘martial arts’ they say ‘wushidao’ (武士道) [which in Chinese is ‘wushu’ (武术)]. So we have to be careful not to impose our more contemporary notion of ‘chadao’ (茶道) [‘the way of tea’] – which in China nowadays has also become fashionable and is derivative of the Japanese meaning – onto the ‘茶道’ of Jiao Ran’s time of the Tang Dynasty. In my view Jiao Ran was talking about the benefits to the body of drinking tea and not the aesthetics of tea drinking itself [note that other Chinese historians disagree with Professor Shen’s position and regard Jiao Ran as the founder of ‘the way of tea’ itself].

So therefore we need to return to Lu Yu’s Tea Classic (茶经) which although doesn’t use the term ‘茶道’ nonetheless contains the essential elements of what we associate with that term, and of ‘茶艺’. The Tea Classic was written during the period 760 to 780 AD. Firstly, Lu Yu describes a complete collection of tea utensils and apparatus. Secondly, he provides detailed instructions on how to prepare, make and appreciate the tea, right from the selection of the tea, the use of quality water, the brewing of the tea, and so on. Thirdly, he also provides commentary on how to judge the aesthetic experience of tea consumption, including both its preparation and its consumption. And finally, he stresses that the consumption of tea also embodies certain mainstream social values of harmony and peace. So we could say that the notion of ‘the way of tea’ emerges at this time even though the Chinese characters ‘chadao’ (茶道) were not in vogue in the way they are in the present.

A statue of Kongming (also known as Zhu Geliang) (181–234). A famous general and strategist. He is an important figure in one of China's many tea dispersion myths.

A statue of Kongming (also known as Zhu Geliang) (181–234 AD). A famous general and strategist. He is an important figure in one of China’s many tea dispersion myths.

Q: In what ways is tea associated with some of the foundational theories and philosophies of Chinese culture, such as cosmology, medicine, and so on?

A: The most obvious is the relationship with Chinese medicine. Tea from the outset was classified as a herbal medicine [there are a number of ‘tea creation myths’ in both Han and non-Han cultures and I will return to examine these in a future posting]. Humans have been gathering plants for nourishment and medicine since time immemorial. In the prehistoric Hemudu (河姆渡) site [located in the vicinity of Yuyao mentioned above, but predating Yuyao by another 1,000 years, that is, about 5000 BC] they have discovered large piles of Chinese cassia leaves. These leaves are recorded in Chinese pharmacopeias’ as having the virtue of treating stomach ailments. One thousand years later in Yuyao we find a variety of the camellia – which we suspect to be tea – also long valued for its medicinal properties. To this day tea is still regarded by many Chinese people as having positive health effects and, as I mentioned above, modern science is beginning to support some of these notions.

Q: So at the time of the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism was flourishing, tea also was reaching new heights. What is the relationship, then, between Buddhism and tea?

A: During the Tang Dynasty Buddhism was undergoing a major process of indigenisation, best captured in the development of China’s unique form of Buddhism: the Chan School (禅道) [more popularly known in English by its Japanese rendition of ‘Zen’]. One of Chan Buddhism’s important roles was to assist in the spread of tea drinking and tea culture to areas it had not yet penetrated, especially in northern China. Tea drinking was already a major part of Chan Buddhism. We know that as a rule the monks cannot take meals after midday (过午不食). Hence in order to keep alert for the rest of the day – especially when meditating – they were permitted to drink tea. Of course it should be mentioned that the finishing of the Grand Canal [completed during the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) but which really came into full usage during the much more prosperous and long-lived Tang Dynasty which followed] dramatically reduced the costs of transport, and hence tea, which was mainly produced in the south, began to become much more affordable and therefore more widespread amongst different social classes.

This ancient tea tree (Camellia sinensis assamica) started its life during the Song Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago.

This ancient tea tree (Camellia sinensis assamica) started its life during the Song Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago.

Q: What about the development of tea culture in the Song Dynasty, the dynasty that followed the Tang?

A: The Song Dynasty was definitely one of the pinnacles of tea culture in human history, one that even in our days seems difficult to surpass. All of the basic foundations and ingredients were in place by the time of the Song. Firstly, in the time of Lu Yu [Tang Dynasty] for example, tea was still largely restricted to the social elites even though it was becoming more popular. Things were changing, but certainly by the time of the Song Dynasty tea had become a fashion across a broad spectrum of the society. The tea market had become quite mature and could cater for all tastes and budgets. Remember also that the Song Dynasty is often regarded as a peak of the Chinese economy generating wealth on a scale never seen before in human history. But of course the social elites still enjoyed the best tea and it is at this level that we have many records of the tea culture from the Song. The dynastic court also got quite involved in the tea industry by granting the status of ‘tribute teas’ [贡茶] also on an unprecedented scale. A special department was set up to supervise the production and distribution of tribute tea. At this time we thus also find an wealth of new writing about tea. It was also during this time that the Chinese dynasty began institutionalise the tea trade with the nomadic peoples of the steppe [referring to the vast grass lands of what we now refer to as Mongolia, Qinghai and Xinjiang]. It was at this point that the so-called ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ begins to emerge more prominently.

Q: There is so much more to discuss about the history of tea in China. However our time is limited and with your leave we can return to this in the future. For now I would like to redirect our attention back to the present. In the wake of the Opium War (1840-1842) China was forcibly opened to the outside world. The British and other foreign powers also acquired tea plants from China [in an act of nineteenth century industrial espionage supported by the British East India Company and carried out by the famous Scottish horticulturalist Robert Fortune] and the Chinese monopoly on tea production was broken. Since then the significance of Chinese tea in the world tea trade has diminished considerably. Some scholars and tea entrepreneurs in China are now considering how to ‘revive [China] through tea’ (茶叶复兴) in a new wave of what I call ‘tea nationalism’ [I will be interviewing the leading figures in this movement in the near future and sharing their vision on this blog]. We are in very exciting times, a new chapter in the history of tea is unfolding. In your expert opinion what role do you see for tea at a moment when China is once again regaining its place as a world economic, cultural and political power?

A: I think tea can, and will, have an important role in promoting China’s reemergence. Tea is an important part of Chinese culture. Tea has inspired and accompanied generations of Chinese artists, scholars and writers. Tea indeed is a window to Chinese culture and something that China has shared with the rest of the world. It forms a common ground upon which meaningful interaction can take place. Tea is both the crystallisation of a material substance that we drink everyday – and the science tells us it is a good thing for our health too – and, at the same time, tea is also a vessel for spiritual sustenance. I think tea has a very bright and exciting future.

There are well over 1,000 different varieties of Chinese tea (classified into at least six or more categories). How many have you tried?

There are well over 1,000 different varieties of Chinese tea (classified into at least six categories). How many have you tried?