Given the small turnout for opening day of the Steeped in History: The Art of Tea exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, my expectation for the turnout at the first of several lectures associated with the exhibit was low. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. When I entered the auditorium in the basement of the building housing the museum, I realized that finding two seats together for my friend and me might prove to be a challenge. The place was packed. LA’s tea enthusiasts were out in force.
This first lecture, by the exhibit’s curator, Beatrice Hohenegger, provided an introduction to the rich history and culture of tea as well as a glimpse at some of the pieces that – primarily for reasons of fragility or cost – did not make it into the exhibit.
Curator Hohenegger began, quite logically, at the beginning, with the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. “Two leaves and a bud” capture the essence of tea around the world, with the exception of white tea, which is made from the bud only. Although many of us think of tea-growing regions as mountainous, the largest tea-growing area in the world is Assam, which is very flat. Here, the tea plants are grown in rows and kept pruned at waist height for ease of plucking. Most plucking in Assam is women’s work, with cultivation and care of the plants left to the men. Understandably, plucking is arduous work. Women must meet established quotas, which require thousands of plucks each day. The freshly plucked leaves are tossed into large baskets carried on the head or back; chronic back problems abound. When her basket is full, the plucker carries her load to a collection point, where it is weighed.
The extent to which the leaves of the tea plant are processed determines its type. The black teas are the most oxidized, followed by the oolongs, and finally the green and white teas, which are not oxidized at all. This oxidation process and the creation of a variety of “tea types” from a single plant began in China over 3,000 years ago. Nearly all of the cultivation techniques, utensils, and cultural practices that pertain to tea originated in China.
Over the centuries, tea has gone through three phases in terms of its preparation. In the beginning, all tea was compressed into cakes, much as many Pu-erhs are today. When prepared, tea was shaved off the cake and into a large pot, where it was boiled like a soup, with other ingredients. In his seminal book on tea, The Classic of Tea, Lu Yu criticized this method of preparing tea, ushering in the second tea preparation method. In this second method – still practiced for Japanese Matcha – the tea leaf is ground into a fine powder and placed in a bowl. Hot (not boiling) water is then added and the mixture is stirred vigorously with a bamboo whisk. Finally, during China’s Ming dynasty, a third – and today the most common – preparation method was introduced – steeping tea. Because steeping tea required a steeping vessel, the first teapots appeared during the 1500s.
In both China and Japan, tea was initially consumed by Buddhist monks as an aid to stay awake during meditation. But before long, tea became a favorite beverage among the aristocracy and warrior classes. Until the Eighteenth Century, men were the exclusive handlers of tea preparation in Japan. But with the rise of the geisha and the courtesan during the Edo Period, the preparation of tea became the purview of women. In fact, learning about tea and its proper preparation was a means by which women were able to move up the social scale.
Although it is likely that the Portuguese were the first to bring tea to Western Europe, the first recorded instance of tea on western soil was thanks to the Dutch. In the 1600s, Europeans used tea primarily as a remedy and green tea – not black – was the predominant tea. As in Asia, Europe’s aristocrats were among the first consumers of this new beverage, which was considered a status symbol. But before long, tea made its way into working-class life. By then, tea was well on its way to establishing its position as second only to water as the most-consumed drink on the planet.