Luo Jialin’s The China Tea Book has a lot going for it. From a visual perspective, it is nearly flawless. A substantial book at three pounds, it captures the beauty and serenity that defines the birthplace of tea and, much like many of the rituals around tea, it serves up this introduction in a simple and elegant format. Each page invites you in with a balance of image, white space, and sparse textual passages, transporting you to a world few are privileged to experience.
Part 1 is focused on the tea itself – its origins, its production, its health benefits, and its storage. Frankly, including tea’s health benefits in Part 1 feels a bit out of place; this topic would have been better suited to Part 2, which is devoted to tea culture. However, that is a mere nit in the scheme of things. Following an overview, Part 1 moves on to a more in-depth discussion of China’s most distinguished teas, from its greens, such as the quintessential Dragon Well, to its oolongs, including Iron Mercy Goddess, to its blacks, most prominently Keemun and Lapsang Souchong, to its pu-erhs. Conspicuously missing from this list is white tea. For each tea, photographs of its dry leaves and liquor are provided, along with brewing instructions, tasting notes, and a short history.
The many ways in which tea has permeated the Chinese culture are at the heart of Part 2 of The China Tea Book. From the important elements of time and space to the choice of teaware, Part 2 tackles the more ethereal aspects of tea. Also covered is the story of how tea has provided the inspiration for some of the most beautiful scenes in Chinese art and poetry, such as the one depicted in Zhou Fang’s painting, “Playing the Zither and Drinking Tea.” In its final chapter, The China Tea Book looks into tea’s amazing dissemination across the globe, beginning with the importance of the Ancient Tea Route.
Despite its many assets, The China Tea Book is not perfect. Its text is its Achilles’ heel. Grammatical issues, missing articles, and awkward sentence constructions plague the book. An example is the following passage from Chapter 8 on principles:
“It is widely assumed that the surging interest in tea-related theories mirror the booming of tea culture. But we should take a critical view of this assumption. However, taking a closer look at this issue, we find that this superficial boom is ridden with problems.”
However, if I were to make just one change to this book, it would be to replace all instances of the word, “fermentation,” with “oxidation” – except perhaps in the chapter on pu-erhs. Years ago, when I attended the New Business Boot Camp for aspiring tea entrepreneurs at the World Tea Expo, one of the lessons I learned was that “fermentation” is not a synonym for “oxidation.” Earlier this month, T Ching Contributor Guy Munsch addressed this topic admirably in his post.
For the knowledge this book imparts in textual form only, I would look to other resources. But if you are of the firm belief that a picture is worth a thousand words, I highly recommend The China Tea Book. The book itself is a work of art, even if the language it contains may not be on par with its visual splendor.