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An Homage to the Tea Sage

Creative writing centered in tea has a tradition spanning over a millennium. The earliest writing records of tea (茗 míng and 荼 tú) before it became 茶 chá were rooted in concoctions praised for their medicinal value. Many records of tea (Camellia sinensis) were recipes – some of which included soups for vitality or for reducing digestion issues that incorporated ingredients such as orange peel, garlic, ginger, millet, and various spices.

The first monograph on tea, “The Classic of Tea,” was published during the Tang Dynasty in the year 760 CE. Lu Yu wrote a compelling documentation of the shifting dialogue in elite, literati circles about tea as medicine into tea as culture and art.

Chinese iron tea pot - a creative writing prompt

Photo taken by author in Suzhou, China in summer 2016

Lu Yu, heralded as the Tea Sage, was an orphan of Hubei who grew up in a Buddhist monastery allotted the most menial of tasks. He then ran away in protest to join a circus, where he met a patron who sponsored his education. Lu Yu thus left his humorous post as a clown and instead began being cultivated as a refined character within the library of the governor and his patron. Through his studies and introduction to prominent poets, Lu Yu became renowned for his unparalleled wisdom and deep-rooted understanding of tea. Throughout his career, Lu Yu rejected many imperial rolls and commissioned work in favor of a hermit’s life.

Lu Yu’s magnum opus was originally handwritten over three scrolls that have later been condensed into a singular book. While the original copy is lost to time, “The Classic of Tea” details the comprehensive process of tea: Utensil placement, water selection, process of boiling, tea set aesthetics, and elements of connoisseurship. In a translation by Francis Ross Carpenter, the following excerpt details the description of how water should be boiled to prepare tea.

“When the water is boiling, it must look like fishes’ eyes and give off but the hint of a sound. When at the edges it chatters like a bubbling spring and looks like pearls innumerable strung together, it has reached the second stage. When it leaps like breakers majestic and resounds like a swelling wave, it is at its peak. … 

“Pour it into cups so that it will come out frothy. The frothy patches are the ornamentation to the decoction and are called mo if thin, po if thick. When they are fine and light, they are called flowers, for they resemble the flowers of the jujube tree tossing lightly on the surface of a circular pool. 

“They should suggest eddying pools, twisting islets or floating duckweed at the time of the world’s creation. They should be like scudding clouds in a clear blue sky and should occasionally overlap like scales on fish. They should be like copper cash, green with age, churned by the rapids of a river, or dispose themselves as chrysanthemum petals would, promiscuously cast on a goblet’s stand.

“To achieve the froth called po, heat the remaining water until it boils. Then the fine, light flower froth will gather and become as silvery and white as drifted snow. … 

“Moderation is the very essence of tea. Tea does not lend itself to extravagance. If a tea is insipid and bland, it will lose its flavor before even half a cup has disappeared. How much more so in the case of extravagance in its use. The vibrance will fade from the color and the perfection of its fragrance will melt away.”

The description of the most minute of details rooted in observational techniques is requisite for strong writing. By honoring the writing which serves as homage to the Tea Sage and his exquisite attention to detail, I humbly propose a creative writing prompt. This prompt incorporates the elements of modern technology which allows a vastly different opportunity to observe from the uneven fire procured over a millenia earlier. To brew a creative writing exercise whether alone, in a class, or over a virtual community:

  1. Prepare a space to write alongside an outlet or stove wherein water can be boiled.
  2. Prepare your writing materials (notebook and pen preferred) and sit close to the kettle. Observe the kettle as the water boils. Take observational notes rooted in all senses. If you find yourself struggling with what to write, instead focus on observing the kettle as a meditative practice. 
  3. Note-taking can occur in one of two ways: 1, as the boiling occurs or 2, after watching the kettle as a meditation. 
  4. Once the kettle has calmed, restructure your observations into a poem. 
  5. Then, prepare and enjoy a cup of tea.

Should you write a piece of work based on this prompt, please leave a comment below. We would love to read what you have written!

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