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Art and Tea: The Role of Aesthetics in the Tea Ceremony By A.D.Fisher

There you will find some, suggestions for how to better appreciate your teas. They are just recommendations. In the end, everyone must choose how to enjoy his or her own teas. There is no right or wrong way to drink tea. Some guidelines are important and drastically alter the tea; others are just personal preference. Using a pot well-seasoned for Puerh to brew a green tea,for example,would produce something unpleasant. But most aspects of making tea are very private, and even our worst efforts only serve to better teach us how to make our teas to suit our taste. Perhaps it is the journey that is important. Perhaps there is no destination, just the cup before us. And however sweet or bitter our cup is, it is present for us - perfect and complete as it is.

PROFILE
Mr. Fisher was born in the U.S. He studied philosophy and anthropology. Afterwards he traveled extensively, living in India, China, and Japan before finally settling in Taiwan. He was first introduced to tea by a Chinese friend in the 90 s and fell in love instantly. Since then he's developed a passion for the Leaf that motivated much of his travel and study over the last years. It is an infatuation he wishes to unreservedly share. Nowadays, he divides his time between the school he founded, writing, painting and drinking tea.

Most tea lovers find that as their experience, discrimination and understanding of tea grow, they invariably start leaning more towards simplicity and function. Teaware becomes a matter of which cup, pot, kettle, etc. can enhance the flavor, texture or aroma of their teas -which are also becoming more refined, rare and often expensive. Of course no amount of function can outshine the skill and focus of the person through which the ceremony flows. Tea brewed ever-so-simply by a master will still be more delicious than that brewed by a beginner with the best of teaware. The conduit through which the water is held, poured, steeped, poured again and served is the most important part of the ceremony in every possible way. After all, it isn't the cup experiencing the tea; the pot doesn't pour itself; and no amount of silver can gather and carry the mountain water that will be heated in its kettle. Understanding the human role in the art of tea is important if one is to progress, and in order to do so there must be a balance between the aesthetic and functional sophistication of the ceremony.

The role aesthetics play in the enhancement of tea, both in flavor and in the experience as a whole, should not be underestimated. Even if one's taste remains simple, one shouldn't ignore the influence beauty has on the most important element of the tea ceremony, which contrary to the obvious is not the Leaf, but the person. Arranging the tea sink, teaware, flowers, cushions and artwork of the tea space are all aspects of the expression that have ever made tea an art form. Not only do they allow for creativity and intuition, they create an environment of comfort and calm, relaxation. The best tea houses, tea rooms or even tea spaces in a house are the ones that immediately relax one as soon as he or she arrives. Before the tea is even served, one already feels outside of the busy flow of the ordinary world, comfortable and ready to enjoy. This will directly affect the experience of the tea itself. It is a well-known fact that different people are all bound to taste, smell and feel a variety of different sensations when drinking the same tea - as even a cursory survey of tea reviews in this and other magazines will demonstrate. Why then is the same book so much better when read on a vacation at the beach? Why do restaurants devote as much attention to ambience as they do to the menu?

Learning about the various roles that teaware plays in the creation of the best cup is exciting and adds to the passion of tea. Tasting the water heated in different kettles, for example, is so insightful and often improves the way tea is made thereafter. It is, nonetheless, important to maintain a balance between the teaware that will improve the ceremony functionally and that which will Inspire the one making the tea aesthetically. The process of creating the tea space and ceremony are very personal and the aesthetic design need not follow any other pattern than the one that will motivate the person who brews the tea - he or she is the master in that space and unless it is a tea house or other space with a steady stream of guests, then his or her feelings and intuitions are the only ones that really matter. A teapot with excellent function that doesn't at all inspire one may not be as good of a choice as one that functions a little bit worse, but is gorgeous. Again, balance is the ideal.

Even within the tea ceremony itself, so much is dependent upon the energy of the one doing the brewing. If they are cheap and focused on getting a lot for a little, if they are a businessman focused on selling tea, or if they are rich and trying to show off their Ming Dynasty teapot, all of these factors will show in the tea ceremony and make a different cup. There is no scientific objectivity in the world of art, only taste. There are those that write books on form and function, conduct experiments on water temperature and get busy recording notebooks full of tea reviews, but as such they will never progress to the level of artist or master - a level based not on the intellect but on intuition. Measuring, analysis and recording data play no part in experiential growth. One cannot record data and fully experience at the same time. And anyone who has experienced trying to review a tea, with written notes and all they incur, has already recognized the difference between these sessions and the more relaxing, personal ones. True enjoyment must be just that. This is why tea is made "gong fu", because it is a skill, an intuitive mastery. And there is much to be said about brewing with a clay kettle rather than a plastic one, a beautiful Qing Dynasty cup rather than a cheap one; and not just the ware itself, but also the fact that the one brewing isn't reading a digital temperature on his or her kettle, analyzing the ratio of leaves to pot size, etc. - he or she is intuitively dancing a flutter of leaves from the scoop to the pot, gauging the water temperature with a gentle touch, and steeping with all the relaxation of the tinner built in his or her heart. Does that sound corny? Perhaps it is, but after enough tea houses, shops, teachers and enough sessions, most people would agree that the best cups they ever had were poured by people such as this. In the hands of an artist, even the simplest lump of charcoal and torn cardboard can become a masterpiece; likewise, a cup of tea brewed by the hands of a master can hold worlds of flavor, aroma and even peace just over the cusp of its rim.

Over several years of tea drinking, I have found some simple places where the art and function of tea ware meet perfectly. Discussing them, of course, reflects my personal opinion. While much of the functional improvements are taught and verifiable, the aesthetic value or lack thereof is a very personal matter. Still, I have found that most other tea connoisseurs will agree that these kinds of teaware have the potential to improve the tea ceremony.

Tea Sinks (Cha Pan)

Tea sinks are an easy way to improve the overall atmosphere of your tea ceremony. They are for the most part superfluous anyway. In fact, many tea masters brew tea using only a small bowl or an embroidered cloth. If the bowl is an antique, that style can be especially pleasing. That requires a bit more attention to water splashing, though. If one enjoys a looser style of brewing, with water sloshing and pouring, then a tea sink is required, There are tea sinks for every kind of taste and budget. Of course the handmade variety lends a bit more to the tea ceremony. One can choose from all kinds of bamboo, wood or even stone. Tea sinks with a drain and hose are better, as the ones that have trays that need to be emptied interrupt tea sessions and often are much more difficult to clean. They are also bulkier. The sinks with drains tend to be flatter, smoother and more elegant. I personally prefer stone. The smooth stone, cut from the living rock of a mountain, is grainy and natural, adding a kind of outdoor ambience to my tea room.

Strainers

Many tea masters argue that metal should not be used in the tea making process. Traditionally, the Qi of metal was thought to pollute the water used to make tea. Even in ancient times, though, certain metals like silver and gold were often used by tea lovers who could afford them. Lu Yu himself mentions using silver or gold kettles in his book Cho Ching. This has led other modern teachers to suggest that the proscriptions against metal were made at a time before the invention of metals like stainless steal or aluminum. However, I personally feel that metal strainers are not pleasing to the eye. To me, they spoil the natural feeling of my tea room. They get/stay dirty easily, and are more difficult to clean. There are many alternatives to using metal strainers and none are that much more expensive. The Koreans manufacture the now-famous gourd strainers by halving gourds, drying them and sewing fishing net into a cut hole. Also, many craftsmen in Taiwan and China are making beautiful strainers out of bamboo and fishing net. These natural strainers get darker and darker with use and take on a nice brown patina, especially if one is drinking Puerh tea. They add a lot to the ambience of a tea ceremony and do so inexpensively. An alternative is to use no strainer at all, reducing loss and heat resistance while offering the occasional, and sometimes quaint, bits of leaves floating in the cup.

Antique Yixing and Porcelain

There really is something to the old saying "they don't make em' like they used to." Not only is the clay used to make modern Yixing and Porcelain often different, so is the whole process. Most modern porcelain isn't made from white paste of the same formula anymore; a lot of it is synthetic, rather than from natural minerals. And a lot of the pottery being manufactured in Yixing these days is done so with clay from other regions - clay that doesn't have as much of the porous sand -like quality that Yixing has become famous for. It is that very ultra-porousness which absorbs tea oils, resulting in the seasoning that improves tea over time. Also, long ago all pottery, even that which was made for everyday people in factories, was hand made; and all the workers in the factories were skilled. Some of the greatest names in the Yixing world were working in those factories even as little as twenty years ago. Furthermore, all the pottery was fired in wood kilns, using a special kind of oily pine tree (the oil facilitates full-combustion and little ash formation). Some say the oil affects the firing, others say the temperature of wood kilns is different (using a longer time period too heat up increases pressure. Also carbon monoxide from the wood affects reduction). It is difficult to assess which factors make antique Yixing and porcelain better, but it's not that hard to notice the difference they afford one's tea. Beyond that, there is an elegance and sophistication that comes with sipping one's tea from a Qing or Ming Dynasty cup; brewing some old Puerh in one's favorite Ming Guo or Qing Dynasty Yixing, or even just using a Ming bowl as a tea sink. And believe it or not, lower quality pottery that was made in lesser-known factories - not for the rich or royal of the day but for commoners - isn't really that expensive. Of course, one needs to have assistance so that they don't purchase fakes, but as long as one isn't interested in Museum-quality pieces, there are plenty of authentic pieces of teaware floating around Asia for very reasonable prices. One of my favorite teapots is a small Qing Dynasty pot that I got for very cheap, simply because the inside of the lid has a small chip broken off.

Silver

There really is something almost magical about the way silver interacts with the water used to brew tea. Whether one buys an antique, hand-crafted Japanese silver kettle, or a modern little silver pot to put the actual leaves in, one won't be disappointed by the results. We have done several tests, including serving plain water to people who don't even drink tea, and have found conclusively that the water is sweeter, softer, smoother and always enhances tea. Also, we have found that water brewed in silver kettles, or tea steeped in a silver pot, are always more patient. If one normally gets 4 steepings from a tea, he or she will get 7. If that wasn't enough, silver kettles - especially the antique ones that were handmade in Japan - are very gorgeous and bring so much ambience to the tea experience. My Japanese kettle was made by a master in the 1930's. It is one of my greatest and most beloved treasures.

These are just some of the ways that I have used teaware to enhance the way that I enjoy my tea. There are several others. And this overall idea extends beyond teaware to the tea space itself. One may wish to build or buy a cabinet to display his or her teaware, hang calligraphy on the wall of the tearoom, learn Ikebana and bring flower arrangements into the space; the list goes on and on, Of course, some people won't want to invest in the more expensive ways of improving their tea ceremony, like antiques or silver. Others will find it is worth saving the money. The creation of a tea space need not be expensive in order to be appealing. Some of the best cups of tea I've ever had were in incredibly simple surroundings. The point being made here is not which part of one's tea room or tea ceremony should be changed; the suggestion is that one continue or begin participating in the creative inspiration of tea and see enjoyment in the creation of the space, and ambience, where one enjoys tea. Just by bringing artistic energy into one's tea, and life, one will find their tea so much more enjoyable, so much more delicious. It isn't really about what one buys - even an unappreciated silver kettle would be useless - it's about the attitude one conveys to the ceremony. Instead of brewing tea ultra-casually on the kitchen counter, carry the tea sink to a coffee table and arrange some flowers there. This motivation itself will open all kinds of doors; and that creative energy will make one's tea into an art rather than a beverage.