The Original Book of Tea

By James Norwood Pratt

The effect of tea is cooling and as a beverage it is most suitable. It is especially fitting for persons of self-restraint and inner worth.
     - Lu Yu (715-803), Ch'a Ching

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin once said, "to see a thing and tell it in plain words is the greatest thing a soul can do" - and that's exactly what Lu Yu did. Lu Yu if his biographers are to be believed, was an orphan raised by Buddhist monks. As an adolescent, he rebelled (as who does not?) against the pieties and practices of his received religion. One imagines that the long periods of sitting meditation got to him. Whatever the case, he fled from holiness and the prospects of enlightenment to enter show business, so to speak, as a comic and clown. He was a success, it is said, but still dissatisfied - he yearned for an education.

At about this point, an influential fan became his patron and enabled Lu Yu to make a scholar of himself, only to find him fired with a further ambition: he wanted to make a lasting contribution of his own to learning (as, again, who wouldn't?). Somehow Lu Yu wangled a contract for a book on tea. The tea interests wanted their haphazard methods of cultivation and production codified, compared, and analyzed in a clearly understandable report. Like the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Lu Yu saw it as the chance of a lifetime. He went into five years of hermithood and came out with the Ch'a Ching - the world's first "book of tea." In its own field, the Ch'a Ching was right away ranked alongside the I Ching, the "cyclopedia," "scripture," or "classic" of changes, for ching means more than "book."

"The tea plant is a beautiful as well as beneficial tree of the southern regions," is how the Ch'a Ching begins. It is a work that only an author personally familiar with every aspect of tea growing and manufacture could have written, as witness its contents:

  • Origins of tea
  • Tools for plucking and processing tea
  • Methods of plucking and processing tea
  • The twenty-five utensils required for preparing and serving tea
  • Preparing tea by boiling
  • The art of appreciating tea
  • Famous tea drinkers and tea stories
  • Tea-producing districts
  • Preparing and serving tea in simplified manner
  • Directions for creating illustrations of tea procedures

Although full of the most practical detail, Lu Yu's work reads like more than just a technical manual. The manufacturing of tea bricks, which were steamed and then dried for storage, is summarized: "All there is to making tea is to pick it, steam it, pound it, shape it, dry it, tie it, and seal It." His language is literary throughout, even spiritual. In stressing tea's medicinal efficacy, he says, "Its liquor is like the sweetest dew of heaven" - a Buddhist term.

Plainly, he is not advocating tea simply for medical benefits ≠ to prepare he insists on the quasi-ceremonial use of twenty-four separate implements! He ranks existing tea districts and lists fa-mous tea drinkers along with the unlikeliest legends and obses-sively over-precise directions covering everything relating to tea.

His classical Chinese is condensed and hard to decipher. The fa-mous comment "Goodness is a decision for the mouth to make," may also be translated "Discrimination of good (and bad) tea is a matter for (secret) oral transmission." Lu Yu's intention in all this only gradually becomes clear: to draw the reader directly into the life that tea drinking can open to us. This simple beverage is not just to slake our thirst and delight our palate but to bear us away to a realm that transcends the senses.

The Cha Ching made Lu Yu a celebrity in his own lifetime. Tea merchants had porcelain statues made of him to which they prayed that the tea crops might be large and sell well. And when business was bad, they would sometimes pour a kettleful of boiling water over the unoffending image. Lu Yu was revered by the intelligentsia of his day and after, as the numerous poems and stories about him attest. One of these tells how Zhiji, the Chan (Zen) Buddhist priest who had raised Lu Yu would never drink tea made by anybody else's hand. Even at court, the priest declined the tea offered him. Thinking that Zhiji was just putting on airs and playing the connoisseur, the emperor finally arranged for Lu Yu to prepare tea for the unsuspecting priest. Saying, "Now this tastes like Lu Yu's tea!", the old man drank it with pleasure. In the end Lu Yu wound up withdrawing from this world and going off to drink tea and meditate the way the Buddhists always told him he should.