Throughout history, tea has been deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. Be it that of an emperor or a peasant, a scholar or an amateur, every household had room for a cup of tea. A well-known phrase that relates to the seven essentials, namely firewood, rice, oil, salt, condiments, vinegar, and tea (柴米油盐酱醋茶), illustrates the indispensable nature of tea. Another lesser-known phrase speaks of the corresponding seven treasures, namely musical instruments, chess, books, paintings, poetry, wine, and tea (琴器书画诗酒茶); this points to tea’s sophistication.
Indeed, tea can be a daily necessity, as well as a luxury. It can be largely functional – thirst quencher or stomach settler – but also inspirational, being the muse for many a poet or scholar. Taoist monks have claimed that tea helps one on the path to enlightenment, not that I would know, but I can see why one would make that assertion.
Ever since the Tang Dynasty, certain types of teas have been earmarked as tribute teas for royalty, and numerous rulers have well-publicized passions for tea. But perhaps few emperors throughout history can match Emperor Song Hui Zong for his obsession with tea. In 1107, the besotted emperor wrote an entire book on tea titled Da Guan Cha Lun, or An Overview of Tea, which by all accounts was a pretty impressive and comprehensive treatise. Emperor Song Hui Zong is probably best remembered for abdicating his throne to his son when the Jin invaders were nearing his capital, being demoted to a commoner, and dying a lonely death during his exile to a foreign land. His somewhat ill-advised obsession with tea led him to spend time writing a treatise on tea rather than tending to important affairs of state.
The Song Dynasty was also famous for its scholarly tea fanatics, one of whom was Su Dong Po, or Su Shi, among the foremost talents and tea enthusiasts of his era. It was chronicled that Su Dong Po loved both Chinese calligraphy and tea with equal passion. Once, his contemporary and occasional rival Sima Guang mocked him saying: “You are an expert in both tea and calligraphy; surely you are aware that tea and calligraphy have three distinct differences: firstly, the fairer the tea, the higher the quality, while the darker the ink, the better the quality; secondly, weight characterizes good tea, while lightness is representative of skilled calligraphy; lastly, the fresher the tea, the better it is, while ink improves with age. How can you simultaneously love these two items that are diametrically opposed to each other?”
Su Dong Po calmly replied, “Both good tea and good calligraphy have a fragrance that invigorates the inner being; this is a common ‘character.’ In addition, both have solid fundamentals; this a common ‘morality.’ Just like a gentlemen and a saint, one may be handsome, the other ugly; one may be fair and the other dark. But these do not represent their inner nature.” Su Dong Po’s writings on tea were often characterized by a penchant to anthropomorphize tea. His most famous statement was: “Since antiquity, good tea is like a gorgeous woman.”
Yet tea was never the sole privilege of the rich and learned. Tea has had an incalculable impact on the lives of common Chinese households. Many a disgruntled guest has been heard to remark: “He was a poor host; he didn’t even offer me a cup of tea.” To express one’s apologies, one was expected to “serve tea and repent.” And on their wedding day, a couple was expected to serve tea to their parents and elders as a show of respect, just as a disciple would on the day of commencing tutelage under a teacher. Such is the universal appeal of tea that it is never considered beneath royalty and above peasantry. Though different variants of tea may be served to different strata, tea is a common passion at all levels of society.
Today we can enjoy an inexpensive Breakfast Tea or an exquisite Big Red Robe, sip on a Sou Mei or savor a Silver Needle. Regardless of our budget or preference, there is a cup of tea for everyone. Such is the universal appeal of tea, as it has been for centuries.