In China, long before tea became the beverage of choice and a way of life, it was considered a medicinal staple. Tea was not only a treatment for individual illnesses, but was also a general health tonic, said to promote long life and vitality. Even today, in traditional Chinese medicine, green teas and pu-erhs are prescribed for a variety of complaints, especially as modern research has come to support many of these claims. Tea was also used by those wishing to achieve better results while meditating, and became popular with Buddhist priests who later introduced it to the aristocratic circles. For some time, only people of high standing in the imperial courts and these select priests were able to drink tea on a regular basis. But later on, tea became more widely available to all people, and the lower classes were finally able to enjoy tea more frequently.
It was not long before tea was incorporated more and more into daily life, and began to be enjoyed solely for its own pleasures. Since the beginning of the Ming dynasty, teahouses sprung up all over the country, and people of all ages would come at all hours of the day to drink tea and enjoy each others’ company. In this way, tea was never confined to a strict time of the day, but could be taken at any time. The teahouses would usually serve nothing except tea, and became a part of most people’s daily ritual. Today in China, while the teahouses still retain popularity as gathering places, the importance of tea in daily life is usually evident at the table. Tea is one of the most important parts of every meal, whether it is breakfast, lunch or dinner. At home or in a restaurant, one will always find a cup of tea set in front of them. Besides mealtime, tea is served to welcome guests as a form of respect, and is a long-held tradition in all classes. In China, green tea is consumed the most, with oolong tea being a close second, followed by Pu-erh. White tea and black tea are drunk less frequently, but still deserve some recognition.
The Chinese practice a form of tea ceremony called Gong Fu, which has some similarities and many more differences to the possibly more well-known Japanese tea ceremony. In a Gong Fu style tea ceremony, the tea master preparing the tea for the group is considered an artist in his or her own right. Styles for pouring the water and tea vary individually, and many devote a lot of time practicing difficult and artistic maneuvers. Usually the equipage for this tea ceremony would be a clay Yi-Xing pot and several small teacups, a tea sink or shallow bowl for draining water into, and a few bamboo tools for handling the hot objects. The tea master will arrange the teapot and cups in a circular fashion over the tea sink or in the bowl, and pour hot water into each to rinse the objects and to warm them so that the temperature of the tea is more consistent. This rinse water is discarded, and then a generous helping of tea leaves, usually oolong, is measured into the pot. More hot water is then poured into the pot and the tea leaves will begin steeping. Every infusion in Gong Fu ceremony is very quick, about 30 seconds, though the method for timing is never exactly precise. In one tradition hot water is poured over the outside of the teapot, and when the water is seen to be fully evaporated, the tea is ready to be poured. In another, the tea master must count a full 4 deep breaths before beginning to pour. Either of these methods is roughly a 30 second steep, and remainsconsistent throughout the multiple following infusions. Then the tea master will begin pouring in a continuous flow around to each of the teacups, a little at a time, resulting in each person having the equal amount and strength of tea in his or her cup. After enjoying this first round of tea, the leaves may be resteeped for many more infusions.
Another tradition to mention is the curious yak butter tea from the mountains of Tibet. Strong black tea leaves, or often Pu-erh, are simmered overnight to create a very strong concentrate of tea. This concentrate is churned in a special vessel with yak or goat’s milk butter and salt for a thick and frothy concoction. This tea is drunk every day by most people and, because of its high caloric count, is an important nutrition source for the Tibetan people.
Although tea took some time to spread from China to Japan, many believe that Japan was where tea met perfection in the art of Cha-no-yu, or the Japanese tea ceremony. After arriving in Japan many schools of the tea ceremony began, with influences ranging from monks to samurai warriors. These separate schools existed until the 16th century, when Sen Rikyu, considered the highest tea master, brought together these differing principles and set forth the practice that is still followed many years later. Today the tea ceremony is still practiced by many in Japan and abroad, and survives as an honored and thriving tradition, rather than an antiquated relic. The essence of the tea ceremony has made it a poignant reflection on life, even in today’s world. Cha-no-yu’s fundamentals lie in the humility of the guests, appreciating the moment’s uniqueness in terms of time and place, season and those present, and the art of simplicity and balance in form, movement and objects. These three fundamentals have found their way outside of the tea room and into many aspects of Japanese life. Consider, for example, the simple architecture of houses and buildings in Japan, or the balance and harmony found in the shapes and textures of a garden or in ikebana style flower arrangements.
In the tea ceremony, humility and respect are expected of the guests and the host. The door to the sukiya, or tea house, is a low crawl space that requires all who enter to bow and humble themselves before entering the precious space. Once inside, the first thing he or she will see is a simple flower arrangement, and a scroll of artwork or poetic calligraphy. The guest must humble themselves again upon seeing the greatness of such a simple yet beautiful artwork, and also for the flowers that are considered to be great sacrifices, because they are cut from their roots and will soon die. The ephemeral nature of the flower also helps the guest to realize the ephemeral nature of this present time and the experience that he or she is about toshare with others.
The unique nature of each tea ceremony is something to be cherished. The ceremony is special because although a person may take part in many ceremonies over his or her lifetime, there will never be a chance to recreate the same experience, with the same group of people, the same setting and utensils, during the same time of day and the same season, or even at the very unique time of their own life and experience. Every detail is to be savored, because it cannot ever be the same. There is special emphasis placed on the seasons, which decides the type of food prepared for the ceremony, the type of utensils especially the chawan, or tea bowl, the flowers and artwork present, as well as the clothing of the tea master and guests. For example, on a hot day in July the tea master might choose a wide shallow chawan, which cools the tea quicker, and light sweets made in the shape of peaches. In November, the choice of chawan would be something with more weight, more substantial kaiseki style food would be prepared, and the colors of the objects in the room would be more somber, with the exception of a few frail boughs of bright red winter berries as the floral arrangement.
With regards to simplicity and balance, every aspect of the tea ceremony supports these ideals. Nothing in the tea room should be superfluous, loud or garish, in order to not distract from the moment. Simple colors and design in clothing, art and floral arrangements is ideal. The form of the chawan itself is a simple elegant shape. Every movement in the tea ceremony, whether performed by the host or the guests, is perfected to the most simple and minimal act possible. The tea used for the ceremony is matcha, made from ground green tea leaves, and whisked with hot water to create the purest form of tea: nothing is added, nothing is changed.
The ceremony itself can take hours to complete, and a lifetime to learn, so it would be best to discuss just the preparation of the matcha and the utensils used, as this can apply to every day enjoyment of the tea. The equipage needed for preparing matcha are the chawan (tea bowl), chasen (bamboo whisk), chashaku (bamboo tea scoop), furui (matcha powder sifter), hishaku (bamboo ladle), kama (large kettle), and an hearth or heat source. First the matcha powder is sifted in the furui, so that it is the perfect fine consistency; this is usually prepared beforehand in the tea ceremony. The kama is placed over the heat source and allowed to come to a simmering boil. Using the hishaku, one will dip into the kama to draw out water to use to warm the tea bowl. This water is discarded. Then, the matcha is measured into the chawan using 2 or 3 scoops of the chasaku. Another ladle of hot water (about 4 oz.) is drawn from the kama and poured into the bowl. Using the chasen, the tea is whipped into a thick and frothy substance. The tea can then be drunk directly from the bowl. While tea ceremony is an important aspect of Japanese life, there are many other ways that the Japanese people enjoy tea every day. Recently, Western-style black tea has become popular, especially for breakfasts that include bread or pastries. Chinese teas, especially oolongs are enjoyed at home and in restaurants. And for on-the-go lifestyles, bottled and canned teas are widely enjoyed.
Tea in India only gained popularity as a national beverage in the 19th century after the British began to create large scale tea plantations in order to ensure adequate supplies for their country’s growing thirst. India is one of the world’s largest suppliers of tea, and yet because of this very recent history, tea has not had time to appropriate any elaborate tea rituals like in Japan or China. Although not ritualized, tea is more a part of everyday life at home, work, on the streets and while traveling.
Cha-ya is the preferred style of tea sold on the streets, in train stations and in restaurants. Cha-ya is strong black tea, spiced with cardamom, fennel, cloves or other spices, sweetened with sugar and mixed with milk for a sweet and creamy beverage, that many Westerners would know as Chai tea. This tea can be drunk alone, but is often enjoyed with a savory snack like samosas. Usually street vendors or train stations will sell this tea in small clay cups that are only used once, and then smashed after use. Whether enjoyed on the street or at home, Cha-ya provides respite from the heat or weariness from travel or work.