The Ancient Chinese summarize the way of drinking tea as follows: “Drinking alone gets the soul of the tea; drinking by two gets the delight; drinking by three gets the tastes; and drinking with seven or eight people together is only donating tea. (一人得神，二人得趣，三人得味，七八人则为施茶)”
In my case, I have to say this conclusion is totally right.
My tea life started with drinking tea by three. I have two great tea friends in Shanghai. We used to meet every week, tasting tea, appreciating the tea vessels, and most of the time, gossiping. We actually named our meeting SanBa (三八) meeting. (San means “three”; Ba means “eight”; but SanBa here means the gossip among women.) We did not feel shame, and always claimed there was no happiness if there was no gossip because it was true that we became more energetic and delighted after the SanBa meeting. Different than other girls’ gossip meetings, our meetings were at the tea table.
One of the ladies, Daisy, is actually a tea artist and tea evaluator at a very high level; the other, Sprite – although she has no such professional title – owns many precious old Puer teas and TieGuanYin. Sprite has a keen eye on the tea pot, tea vessels, and tea set arrangement. In fact, we consumed many old Puer teas from Sprite’s collection. Daisy is still enjoying the advantage of living in Shanghai, and continuing to consume Sprite’s old teas. Sprite is a great tea friend. She always said that good teas were meant to share with good friends. Thus, although we consumed so many of her great teas, she was never resentful, and her best friends – Daisy and I – do not feel apologetic. (That is why I refer to the three of us as tea friends. I believe I would feel uncomfortable if the person sharing so often was not Sprite.) But just in those years of consumption of the precious teas, and appreciating beautiful tea vessels, my taste for tea was gradually cultivated. Drinking tea by three is actually the best choice for cultivating the tea taste, and enjoying the pleasure of meeting friends.
Drinking tea by two actually has a higher requirement than drinking by three. The delight produced from the drinking is based on the connection between the host and guest. Every tea person has such an experience: the same tea will have a different taste when you share it with different people – even if you use the same technique and use the same water control. What makes the difference is the people. It is just like love, if you meet the right person at the right time, it is happiness and delight; if you meet the wrong person, there is no connection between the two of you. The taste of tea would be bland. In my personal experience, the best tea taste from drinking tea by two comes from drinking tea with tea Masters. Sometimes we even do not need to say a word, but the taste is still gorgeous. The delight of tea comes from the connection between two.
My tea master told me that the best taste of tea comes from drinking tea alone. I used to have a conservative attitude. I believed that the taste of tea in our SanBa meeting was great; something you would never understand if you were not old enough. Maybe just because I am now older, or maybe my tea drinking life entered into another stage, that now I am understanding better the words from my tea master. In my understanding, when you making tea alone and drinking tea alone, you are connecting with yourself. It is the time for you to see yourself, tasting yourself. That’s why our forefathers speak of “drinking tea alone get the soul of the tea.” In fact the soul of the tea is the soul of yours.
In this modern age, the notion of “drinking with seven or eight people together is only donating tea” would be strongly objected. I do not totally agree with it myself. I have had good experience drinking with seven or eight people. But those people are all tea people. We meet together to share some precious teas or to evaluate the quality of some teas, or evaluate the quality of the water, or complete the design of tea set arrangement. I believe that those tea meetings were also great. I think it is important to have a pure heart to enjoy a cup of tea in the tea meeting. If there is something lingering beyond the cup of tea, the tea would not be so pleasantly tasteful.
In my case, I recently gained a little understanding how “drinking with seven or eight people together is only donating tea,” because “drinking with seven or eight people together” actually has the purpose of socialization rather than on the tea itself. That’s why there is a rule that no more than five people participate in the Wabi tea ritual. In fact, there is no wrong socialization by the way of tea meeting, from the angle of the guests. But in these meetings, tea does not play an important role. Would the meeting be different if the beverage consumed was wine, or coffee?
From the angle of tea practitioner, the word is right that “drinking alone gets the soul of the tea; drinking by two gets the delight; drinking by three gets the tastes; and drinking with seven or eight people together is only donating tea. (一人得神，二人得趣，三人得味，七八人则为施茶).”