Tea in Literature

By Diana Rosen

The venerable tea master, Lu Yu, wrote the first known book on tea, Cha Ching or The Classic of Tea, A.D. 780, in which he espoused on the proper utensils, the finest spring waters, and the ideal temperatures for brewing. Among the factual data is a fount of poetry:

"Tea can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds floating from behind a mountain peak. Its leaves can swell and leap as if they were lighting tossed on wind-disturbed water. Still others twist and turn like rivulets carved out be a violent rain in newly tilled fields..."

Ever since that 8th century epistle, men and women have put words on paper not only to sing the praises of tea as a beverage but to couch in poetic form, essays, short stories, and even novels what the mystique of tea means to them.

The drama of tea has found its way into such sleuthful writings as "tea cozy mysteries" where someone dies dreadfully after sipping a cup of Darjeeling or is robbed then bludgeoned after finishing off what must be the world's greatest scone. Frothy, fun, and light reading they almost inevitably lead the reader to the kitchen to set the water to boil.

No less a writer than Ibsen inspired Agnes Repplier's homage, "To Think of Tea." Henrik Ibsen wrote, in his play, "Love's Comedy,"

Hawk:Far in the dreamy East there grows a plant whose native home is the Sun's Cousin's garden.
The ladies:Oh, it is tea!
Hawk:It is.
The ladies:To think of tea!
Hawk:Its home lies in the Valley of Romance, a thousand miles beyond the wilderness. Fill up my cup. I thank you. Let us hold on tea and love a good tea-table talk.

Repplier's book is a delightful digression on those 17rh to 19th centuries British men, from Boswell to Pope to Smith who took the introduction of this leaf and water drunk in copious amounts in taverns and elevated it to the elixir of the educated or seemingly erudite: "The best tea in the world is made by the Oxford or Cambridge undergraduate, to whom it is as all-important as his tobacco. He presides over the teapot with the air of Roger Bacon in his laboratory." E.V. Lucas (What would the book have been like if she'd called it "The Valley of Romance"!)

While the mysteries and novels with tea themes eternally quotable charmers, they do not satisfy as does the most modest passage in great literature, just as a teabag of mediocre tea cannot satisfy as much as a fragrant rounded flavor of a premium Keemun or the delicate sweetness of a newly-made Sencha or the clear crispness of a single-estate organic Ceylon.

When essayist and playwright Vaclav Havel was imprisoned for his political views, he wrote to his wife constantly. In his remarkably personal and illuminating book, "Letters to Olga, June 1979-Septmber 1982," we learn the terrors, the boredom, the day-to-day rise and fall of the spirit of the man. What comforted him most, almost to the point of obsession, was the ritual he made in preparing tea. It was, as he wrote Olga, a pleasure, an extravagance of a sort, something he could control in a thoroughly uncontrollable situation.

"When I was outside, I didn't understand the cult of tea that exists in prison," he writes. "...I wasn't here long before grasping its significance and succumbing to it myself...Tea, it seems to me, becomes a kind of material symbol of freedom here: It is in effect the only fare that one can prepare oneself, and thus freely: When and how I make it is entirely up to me. In the preparation of it, I realize myself as a free being, as it were, capable of looking after myself." ...I schedule (tea) carefully, so it does not become a formless and random activity..."

No doubt we have all been in prisons of mind or heart; perhaps the singular purpose of tea preparation, and a respect for the time we can give it is a treasure to be acknowledged. It is, as Havel describes, a treasure among those blessed to live under freedom, a pleasure so many people cannot experience in many parts of the world. It was probably not the tea that led him, after leaving prison, to become the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, but his deepening awareness of the value of freedom.

Writers, no matter their nationality or genre, are so frequently universal in their quiet appreciation of the soliloquy of tea: Some of our favorite passages follow.

"The souks open. The dark alcoves of the boutiques slowly appear. Tea merchants line up tray after tray. The delicate, chiseled designs of these trays glint in the light above the shoulders of agile carriers who bring them, bowl-laden to the house...The owner oversees the huge copper kettles that boil and grumble. With a free hand, he wipes tiny glasses with a cloth... F. Balson, in De Kaboul au Golfe Persique, (The Kabul on the Gulf of Persia) (1949).

"On summer evenings, the chaikhana (Afghanistan teahouse) is packed with people. Customers are seated both inside and on the outdoor terrace, its walls adorned with Kirghiz decorations and its carved roof held up by little columns. Roses scent the air..." V. Vitkovich, Allons voir la Kirghizie (Let's See the Kirghizie)

"As dusk gave way to the first stars, the women arrived, bowing delightfully...Spice-pickled fruit was passed around on cleverly shaped trays. There then appeared transparent porcelain cups, the size of half an egg, from which the ladies drank a few drops of sugarless tea poured from doll-like kettles." Pierre Loti, in Madame Chrysantheme.

It is this quiet nature surrounding tea that has captivated so many yet others have reveled in the joy of sharing tea. Marcel Proust, forever associated with plump madeleines and tea (in bed, of course), wrote in Un amour de Swann, (Swann's Way or Swann's Love) that "Odette poured Swann 'his' tea and asked, 'Milk or lemon?' and since he answered, 'Milk,' she laughingly said, 'A drop!' and then, since he found it good, 'So you see that I know what you like.' That tea, in fact, seemed like a precious thing to Swann, and....during the entire trip back...he repeated to himself, 'It would be jolly pleasant to have a little lady at whose place one could find that ever so rare thing, a good tea."

Just as tea begins and ends in the Orient, we leave you with a comment from Soshitsu Sen XV, the 15th generation teamaster of Japan:

"What is the most wonderful thing for people like myself who follow the Way of Tea? My answer: the oneness of host and guest created through "meeting heart to heart" and sharing a bowl of tea...you feel one with nature, and there is peace... "
Soshitsu Sen XV, Tea Life, Tea Mind