Friday morning a woman named Zhang gave us an introduction to Chinese tea culture unlike any lesson I’ve ever heard on tea. The setting was the teahouse near the trailhead leading to the peak of the mountain behind campus. The trailhead itself is quite a ways up the mountain, and the teahouse is surrounded by trees whose branches provide a canopy of shade for the outdoor sitting areas. There was no need for shade on this misty morning. We sat outside on rattan chairs, our teapots and cups set up in pairs on matching tables.
Most introductions I’ve heard to Chinese tea culture have focused on the details of the cultivation of the tea, the history of tea in China, the various categories of tea, and the implements used in the tea ceremony. But Zhang turned her attention to the meaning of the practice itself, answering a question that I know is often on the minds of Americans who may witness what seems to be a rather fussy way to consume a beverage: What’s the point of all this ritual?
Zhang never asked this question directly, but everything she taught us came back to one essential meaning: You can drink tea to become a better person. Like any ritual done purposefully, the tools and gestures that are a part of tea culture are an opportunity for practitioners to transcend the mundane. According to Zhang, if you bring awareness to your preparation and drinking of tea, you will experience yourself as being in greater harmony with nature and more connected to others.
Every detail of Zhang’s tea practice is steeped in meaning. The clothing she and her assistants wear when preparing and serving tea is traditional tea clothing (chafu 茶服) made of all natural fibers (cotton and hemp) so they can move and sit comfortably and without distraction. Practitioners wear no perfume or makeup that might interfere with the servers’ or drinkers’ experience of the aroma of the tea. The tablecloths and tea towels Zhang uses are also made of natural fibers, and she rests the bamboo utensils on a small hand-painted stone. Nearly everything that touched the tea table had been handmade by Zhang or one of her friends.
Zhang also pointed out that the teapots and cups she uses are part of the natural world, made of clay. The three-piece cup set—lid, cup, and base—are representative of the harmony of heaven, man, and earth. Zhang had hung a scroll behind the tea table painted by a friend with a simple five character phrase capturing the essence of Zhang’s approach to tea: ren zai cao mu jian (人在草木间). Humans sitting amongst grass and trees. These are the radicals that form the character for tea: cha (茶).
I don’t know enough about the history of tea ritual in China to know how closely this meaning of Zhang’s conforms with the significance this ceremony has held for past practitioners. But the meaning Zhang conveyed to us that morning was imbued, for me, with modern and personal significance. My morning getting to the teahouse bore many strains of the modern era. I had missed breakfast—a rarity for me—as I had rushed to answer emails and download photos and student blogs in preparation for our departure for a weekend jaunt to Chengdu later in the day. Technicians had swarmed the suite of our door room as they tried to fix my roommate’s problem connecting to the Internet. I bounced from one task to the other, all the while annoyed that the presence of the techies was interfering with my ability to shower. Hungry and harried, I boarded the bus that carried us up the mountain, regretful my morning did not include time enough to hike the hill myself.
Zhang says that the aroma and taste of tea has the power to conjure up images if you imbibe these in a state of quietude. When she drinks white tea she is transported to her childhood: she thinks of her mother, a teacher, grading papers under a white lamp deep into the night. Fatigued by the pace and demands of my morning, I took Zhang up on her invitation to partake in transforming the moment. I brought my cup to my lips and breathed the earthy aroma of pu’er tea. Looking into my cup, I saw the limbs of the trees above me reflected in the amber liquid, their lush green arms reaching gently from a pale grey sky, guiding me into the loamy quietude of the present.