The essence of the enjoyment of tea lies in appreciation of its color, fragrance, and flavor, and the principles of preparation are refinement, dryness, and cleanliness.

-from the Chalu of Cai Xiang (1012-1067)

The custom of drinking tea, which had originated in the south of China, spread throughout the north and began to pen­etrate other countries also during China’s Golden Age, the Tang dynasty. Even then the colony of foreign merchants, seamen and bankers in Canton numbered some two hundred thousand and one of them wrote an “Account of Tea” in Arabic. Monks from Korea and Japan carried tea back home from their pilgrim­ages to Zhejiang’s famous Guoqingsi Monastery on Mt. Tientai, origin of Japan’s Tendai sect. Across China’s western borders Sichuan tea assumed a permanent place in the Tibetan diet. The Tang emperors imposed the first taxes on tea and required annual Tribute Teas, a unique Chinese institution which was to last a thousand years.

As the sun rose with dazzling brilliance in the Orient, Europe wallowed in her Dark Ages. Compare two poems written about the year 1000, one to wine and one to tea. First a drinking song in the Latin of the “Carmina Burana,” which the late Miss Helen Waddell of blessed memory translated:

Wine it is that gives life pleasure,
Yet tis naught in single measure,
Better is it thrice repeated,
And the fourth is rich conceited,
At the fifth, the mind’s labyrinthine,
At the sixth, the body’s supine.

Medieval wine was vile stuff, no doubt, but knocked you down and out, says the poet in its praise-yippee! His contemporary in China was being borne into higher realms of consciousness by tea. Here is the best-known ode to tea ever written, “Thanks to Impe­rial Censor Meng for His Gift of Freshly Picked Tea.” The poet was a proponent of “tea mind” in this Tang noonday of Chinese prosperity and culture, a Taoist recluse and poet from northern China named Lu Tong. “Master Jade Spring” this “tea-crazy” hermit called himself because he lived near a freshwater spring. I have somewhat reworked the late John Blofeld’s translation:

I was lying lost in slumber as the morning sun climbed high,
When a thunderous knocking at the door shattered my dreams:
An officer of the law delivering a letter from the Imperial Censor,
Its three great seals slanting across the white silk cover.
Opening it, the words I read bring him vividly to mind.
He says enclosed is three hundred catties of moon-shaped
cakes of tea….
For me.
The first drink sleekly moistened my lips and throat;
The second banished all my loneliness;
The third expelled the dullness from my mind,
Inducing inspirations born from all the books I’ve read;
The fourth broke me out in a light perspiration,
Disbursing a lifetime’s troubles through my pores.
The fifth drink bathed every atom of my being.
The sixth lifted me higher to kinship with Immortals.
This seventh is the utmost I can drink­-
A light breeze jets out from under my arms and
Master Jade Spring is who rides upon this breeze
To some place where Immortals come down to earth,
Guarded by their divinity, of course, from wind and rain.
But how can I bear the fate of those countless beings
Born to bitter toil amid the towering peaks?
I must ask Censor Meng if he can tell
Whether such human beings as they are ever to be allowed
any rest.

At the end of the poem, I’ve always thought, we are made to reflect on the very different lives of those who drink the tea and those others whose hard labors make it a tea worth drinking, much less a Tribute Tea capable of wafting poets (but mainly emperors’ favored officials) away from earthly realms altogether. If a civilization is defined by its preferred style of altering con­sciousness, no consciousness is more supremely refined than China’s, thanks to tea.