By the time Lu Yu wrote his classic treatise on tea, in the eighth century, tea was a popular drink in China. However, although little is known about the man himself, his book proved to be hugely influential in giving the drink its cultural importance. What we do know is that he was a scholar from Hupei Province, in Southern China, where tea cultivation was widespread, so this might be why he wrote his book.
The Ch’a Chung elevated tea to an almost religious experience. The tea drinker is exhorted to use specific implements, each of which is endowed with a particular significance. There are also guidelines on the state of mind to drink tea and the environment in which it should be done.
The Taoist faith was central to Chinese culture in eighth century China, with its emphasis on celebrating every aspect of life. It is hardly surprising therefore, that a book on the tranquility and calm engendered by the preparation and drinking of tea would find favour.
The Ch’a Chung opens with a description of the tea plant, its cultivation and processing and even when to pick it, on a clear day apparently! It continues with outlining the 24 implements required to make it and how each one should be used correctly. These implements number amongst others, the brazier for heating the water, the roller needed to break up the bricks of tea at that time, the receptacles from which to drink it, the pot in which it was contained. Lu Yu even went so far as to say that if any one of his listed implements were missing from tea-making, the whole experience of tea should be dispensed with because it just wouldn’t be as it should be.
He now expounds on the quality of different waters used to make the tea and declares water from slow-flowing rivers up in the mountains to be the most superior. He then describes the different stages if boiling it and finally how it should be drunk.
After listing painstakingly every stage in the preparation of tea, it is unsurprising that Lu Yu advocates sipping the tea very slowly in order to savour each drop and consuming just 3 cups, or at the most 5. He abhors the addition of many additives that we consider normal today, such as lemon or ginger, and approves of the addition of only one ingredient, salt, which we would consider abhorrent!
Lu Yu’s insistence on ritual and formality may be alien to us today, when we just squeeze in a quick cuppa to calm us in the midst if a busy day but in reality, the notions behind the drinking of tea are identical. Lu Yu wanted to convey the notion that the preparation and drinking of tea should be done in tranquility, and if done correctly, would lead to a greater sense of calm and well-being. This notion is not so many miles away from the advert, ‘Keep Calm, Drink Tea’.