Tea is the beverage we choose when we want to unwind and feel rejuvenated at the same time. Coffee may be the energy drink that gets us going in the morning and powers us when working through the night. Tea is more than just a calming brew, whether black, green, white, herbal, hot, or icy cold. It could be a ritual, a social or cultural event, or even spiritual practice.
Exploring the tea ritual around the world
Many civilizations have ceremonies for respecting tea. Tea rituals are for celebration and relationship strengthening. They range from the daily practice of Gong Fu Cha tea ritual in China through the spirituality of Chanoyu, the Japanese philosophy of making and serving tea, to the sharing of Maté in Latin America. Among them, China is the cradle of this beloved ritual’s birth. Many wedding traditions there include a tea ritual when the bride and groom serve their senior relatives tea as a sign of respect and thanks. Poetry and music have drawn inspiration from the Chinese tea-drinking and serving culture.
On the other hand, the Russian tradition of “чаепитие” (chaepitie) has inspired an entire range of teapots, caddies, teacups, and cozies into distinctive styles and shapes. The самовар (samovar), a unique brewing device, has evolved into both a representation of the Russian tea ceremonial and a work of art of itself.
Iced tea is a modern ritual that provides cold relief on a hot summer day and is popular both in the United States and other parts of the world.
The tea customs in different countries give us a unique insight into the cultural landscape of their peoples. They highlight the dominating social values and their evolution over time. Let’s embark on a colorful journey across the continents, sharing a cup of tea with the world!
Tea ritual in China
Apparently, this is where it all began for tea. Scientists believe today’s tea plants are inheritors of the gigantic wild tea trees that have existed even before the age of the glaciers. A popular legend says that 5000 years ago, Shen Nong – a mythical ruler and demi-god – discovered tea and passed it down to humans as a drink with medicinal properties. In ancient times, people inhabiting the regions of today’s China first used tea leaves as food. They ate the tea leaves raw or combined them with fruits and edible roots. Later, people also started producing medicinal drink from the leaves by crushing and soaking them in water. At that time, there was no dedicated vessel for tea. People consumed it using the same bowls they would use for food and drink. It wasn’t until the Han dynasty that tea became a commodity. The first written proof of a dedicated teaware also dates back to the Han dynasty.
The Golden age of tea drinking in China
It was the Tang dynasty period that cemented tea as the national drink of the Chinese empire. The drink found its place in all aspects of life. The Tang dynasty was a period of religious tolerance and diversity. Monks from all denominations used it to maintain their spirits and keep their bodies awake during the long hours of fasting and prayers. At the same time, the concept of tea and tea drinking was infused with the spiritual aesthetic and connotations of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Lu Yu created the first tractate in tea, the Cha Jing (茶经). It comprised all information on growing, processing, serving, and tasting tea, available at that moment. Lu Yu was an avid tea lover himself. He saw the act of preparing, serving, and tasting tea as a representation of the universal harmony that organized and moved the world. However, he also spoke about tea drinking as a form of a journey inwards, a return to a man’s true nature.
At the same time, the imperial court quickly adopted the habit of drinking tea. The nobles organized lavish banquets and feasts that featured tea tasting. The Song dynasty continued this tradition, enriching it with poetic and artistic references. It was the age when some of the most beautiful tea paintings and poetry came to be. Poets, painters and literati sought inspiration in the art of preparing and tasting tea. The tea itself became even more widespread. It was now reaching the minorities along the imperial borders, thanks to the Cha Ma Gu Dao - The tea and horse trading road. “Dou cha”, the tea contests invited tea producers to compete for the title of the best tea. A cherished prize, as the winner was often appointed as a tea supplier for the imperial court. With time, those contests evolved, leading to new art forms, such as drawing with tea. While preparing the tea, the contestant should whisk the tea powder in a way that forms a painting, letters, or even a verse. As was the air of times, these ceremonies were rich and exuberant. The preferred material for teaware was gold and silver. Naturally, the art of tea was mainly for the rich and noble.
Return to simplicity
By the Ming dynasty, the tea ritual underwent great changes in culture and drinking habits. Loose-leaf tea became the preferred form of tea, replacing the laborious, overly processed tea bricks of ancient times. The expensive golden and silver teaware was exchanged for more natural, rugged tea vessels made of clay, stone, and wood. The clay teapots and porcelain “lidded cups” (gaiwan 盖碗) came into favor. The aesthetics also changed – it called for a more natural, simplistic, one with nature approach. Preparing and drinking tea was not a part of noisy celebrations. Instead, it called for a more contemplative, introverted approach. The ceremonial aspect acquired a more intimate character. Rather than an affluent demonstration, tea became a journey inwards in the search for self.
The journey of tea to Japan
It wasn’t long before tea’s growing popularity crossed the borders of the Chinese empire. Some records suggest tea entered Japan as early as the Sui dynasty. However, it was during the Tang dynasty – a time of unprecedented economic surge and cultural exchange – that tea officially entered Japan. Two monks – Zuicheng (最澄) and Konghai (空海), also known by the names of Saicho and Kukai, first brought back tea seeds and teaware on one of their travels between China and Japan. 300 years later, the monk Rongxi (荣西), or Eisai, planted tea seeds around the then-capital Kyoto. That marked the start of tea cultivation in what would become a symbol of quality tea in Japan.
In the footsteps of its glory in China, tea quickly became prominent in the Japanese empire. Similarly, it became a drink of choice first for the emperor, then for the warriors class. Culture and religion also adopted it for its medicinal properties and spiritual and artistic meaning.
Japanese tea ceremony – between formality and simplicity
The Japanese tea ceremony became known as the custom of preparing, serving, and tasting tea in Japan. By that time, it was heavily influenced by dominating social rites and religion. Buddhism quickly adopted tea. It kept the monks’ bodies and minds alert during days and nights of fasting and meditation. The Imperial palace also favored it. The tea ritual became an important tool of diplomacy and communication in feudal society. The Japanese tea ceremony was loaded with meanings and subtle connotations. Every movement, gesture, and object served a purpose and had to take place at the right time and in the right way. A tea ceremony could last for hours, and the actual tea drinking was only a tiny part of it. Part of this formality remains to this day. It reflects the idea of Ichigo ichie, the uniqueness of every meeting and moment.
The rule breakers
The tea ceremony also underwent big changes with time, along with culture and aesthetics. Similar to the ongoing shift in values and attitudes in China, the tide was also turning in Japan. A more simplistic, minimalistic approach replaced the lavishness and formality of the tea ceremony from ancient times. The new approach valued essence over form. At that time, a monk named Sen no Rikyu introduced the Buddhist values of imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion to the art of tea, creating the wabi-sabi – a concept stating that all things are transient and the beauty hidden in the imperfection.
Tea ceremonies started to take place in simple huts. The invitees were surrounded by simplistic décor and natural objects – stones, wood, a simple ikebana, a scroll of paper. The lack of visual distraction helped the participants to remain conscious and experience the moment – and tea – to the fullest in a meditative yet active, down-to-earth way. Accepting the “here and now” in its impermanence and imperfection became a central notion in the tea ritual. Today, Sen no Rikyu is credited as the father of the Japanese tea ceremony.
A century later, another person started yet another change in tea drinking. A monk named Baisao introduced a new way to prepare tea – by simply boiling loose leaves in a pot of hot water. While loose-leaf tea was already an imperially established standard in China, Japan was still drinking mostly matcha – a tea in powdered form. It was expensive and harder to prepare. Baisao would take loose-leaf tea around Kyoto and boil it right there in a much more casual, freestyle way. He thus introduced a new form of making tea, along with an even more simplistic atmosphere, similar to the Chinese Gongfu Cha, which served as the foundation for Senchado – The Way of Sencha. Hence the tea world in Japan has transformed once again.