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Teatime: An Introduction

Beatrice Hohengger

THE QUESTION "D0 YOU TAKE SALT IN YOUR TEA?" was not uttered, as one might guess, by an absentminded hostess in an Oscar Wilde play, but it certainly could have been posed in earnest about fifteen hundred years ago in China. At that time, adding salt to tea was a common practice. Inquiring as to whether one took onions in one's tea would have been equally plausible, as tea was boiled and consumed soup-like with the addition of ingredients that we in the West might consider quite extraneous, among them ginger, spices, and orange peel - some of which remain in use today. The lengthy story of tea is rife with similar details and replete with intriguing anecdotes.

For the Chinese, tea is recognized as one of the seven daily necessities of life, along with fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. For the Irish, the tea mug is also an essential element of quotidian existence, and good tea "should be served strong enough for a mouse to trot on." For the Japanese tea is a ritual element in the search for enlightenment, while for Americans it is a symbol of independence. Nomadic North African peoples use tea to welcome travelers to their tents, and in England afternoon tea has long been an established routine. Tibetans, maintaining the age-old tradition of tea soup, add tsampa (barley flour) and yak butter to their tea. In Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) tea can also be eaten: the leaves chewed or made into chips.

Some like tea hot, some like it iced, some with milk, some with lemon. Some prefer black tea, some green, and some oolong. Some seek out whole leaves, while others prefer a tea brick or tea bags. Whatever form it may take, enjoying a cup of this familiar beverage is an act performed at least three billion times a day all around our planet. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (fao 2008,5), world tea production has reached an all-time high of 3,64 million metric tons (one Metric ton being equal to 1,000 kg or 2,200 lbs). Indeed, with the exception of water, more people drink tea than any other beverage worldwide. Over the last few years, tea has experienced a powerful resurgence, not only in Europe and the United States but also in several Asian countries where ancient traditions are being brought back to life with renewed passion. In its latest incarnation, tea is being discovered in the West as a versatile and powerful health remedy, coming full circle from its beginnings in China, where it has long been recognized and appreciated as such.

It is truly remarkable that all of the fantastic varieties of tea and their related traditions and activities have their source in a single plant (figs, 3a,b). The Camellia sinensis, a shrubby or tree-like native of southeastern Asia, now supports a sixty-six billion dollar global industry and is responsible for the livelihood of several million workers in Asia (fig. 2), Africa, and, more recently, South America. Strictly speaking, the term "tea" refers only to the beverage produced with leaves from the Camellia sinensis, whether it is black, green, oolongs yellow, red, or white tea and whether it is loose-leaf, compressed, powdered, or ctc (cut-tear-curl). The differences in color and shape are due to the manufacturing process and the varying levels of oxidation to which the tea leaves are exposed—black teas are fully oxidized, oolongs are semioxidized, and green and white teas are nonoxidized. Chamomile! rooibos, mint, and the like, which are derived from other plants, are herbal infusions, not teas.

Today two main varieties of die tea plant are recognized. One is Camellia sinensis var. sinensis,, the Chinese multiple-stem shrub with small leaves, which is long-lived and can withstand cold weather. The other is Camellia sinensis var, assamica, the Indian single-stem plant with larger, softer leaves - more like a tree if left unpruned - which is more delicate, shorter-lived, and best grown in subtropical and rainy regions. Although the local populations have always recognized this distinction, the existence of the two varieties was not discovered by the British until the nineteenth century, a fact that would become enormously significant, as we will discover later in this volume.

In terms of the history of tea-drinking practices, we can distinguish three main phases: boiled, whisked, and steeped. The earliest form of tea drinking, still practiced today in Central Asia and Tibet, is boiled tea, usually made with compressed tea that is shaved off a brick or broken off a cake and allowed to boil with the water for a while, sometimes along with other ingredients. Indian chai is also made in this fashion, but not with compressed tea. By the tenth century - during the Song dynasty (960 - 1279) - whisked tea became popular in China. This is the tea that traveled to Japan and was incorporated into ceremonial practices. Tea leaves are ground into a fine powder and whipped with bamboo whisks and hot water in individual bowls. It was only during the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) that steeped tea - tea leaves allowed to steep in the Japanese tea pot - became common practice in China. This is the tea that maritime traders, the Portuguese and the Dutch, first brought to Europe during the seventeenth century. At this point in time, the Chinese had already been drinking tea for thousands of years.

While various teas have been prepared in an assortment of ways and have played parts in countless culinary practices, it is also important to note that tea is and nearly always has been a highly important commodity, As such, it has triggered major historical events, provoked international conflicts, and led to profound spiritual insights. Beginning in China (fig, 1), spreading to Japan, traveling over the centuries to Europe and America, and then returning to Asia - this time India - tea has played a variety of striking roles. It has been viewed as a promoter of longevity; incorporated in diverse cultural and religious practices; proven valuable and contentious in the context of history, labor, politics, and international trade; and appeared as a wide-ranging theme in fine and decorative arts. Tea thus represents a rich and truly interdisciplinary subject of observation and study, engaging historians, anthropologists, agricultural researchers, medical doctors, philosophers, poets, spiritual practitioners, museum curators, private collectors, and countless artists (figs. 4,5) - each one of these varied investigator, if I may use am oft-quoted metaphor, examining one part of the "elephant."

The Cbajing - the first book on tea - appealed in China in 780 CE, authored by the Daoist Lu Yu, and ever since that time, much has continued to be written about the ubiquitous beverage from many different perspectives. At various times, tea has been celebrated, damned, romanticized, and analyzed as a phenomenon in books, essays, treatises, instructional manuals, and poetry. In complementing this vast literature, it has been one of my main objectives to bring together, for the first time, disparate voices in a cross-cultural approach at the highest level of scholarship—to offer, so to speak, a view of "the whole elephant."

In selecting the topics to be addressed in Steeped m History: The Art of Tea - and in the exhibition that accompanies it_-I was also motivated to confront lesser-known themes surrounding tea, for example, the prerevolutionary tea-related activities that took place in colonial America in addition to the Boston Tea Party; to discuss issues that are too often for-gotten in history books but that involve the lives of millions of people, such as life and labor conditions on tea plantations; and, finally, to provide a forum for new scholarship in underresearched areas as the seemingly contrasting roles of women in Japanese tea culture, I wanted as well to celebrate the art of tea by illustrating and displaying works that attest to the richness and variety of the cultural practices associated with it both in Asia and the West. Numerous photographs as a phenomenon in books, essays, treatises, instructional manuals, and poetry. In complementing this vast literatures it has been one of my main objectives to bring together, for the first time, disparate voices in a cross-cultural approach at the highest level of scholarship - to offer, so to speak, a view of "the whole elephant."

In selecting the topics to be addressed in Steeped in History: The Art of Tea - and in the exhibition that accompanies it—I was also motivated to confront lesser-known themes surrounding tea, for example, the prerevolutionary tea-related activities that took place in colonial America in addition to the Boston Tea Party; to discuss issues that are too often forgotten in history books but that involve the lives of millions of people, such as life and labor conditions on tea plantations; and, finally, to provide a forum for new scholarship in underresearched arched areas, such as the seemingly contrasting roles of women in Japanese tea culture, I wanted as well to celebrate the art of tea by illustrating and displaying works that attest to the richness and variety of the cultural practices associated with it both in Asia and the West, Numerous photographs and other commentary materials have also been included in the book and the exhibition to serve as witnesses to the darker side of the history of tea.

With these objectives as the driving farces in its development, Steeoed in History: The Art of Tea Takes us on a journey of discovery beginning with the mythical origins of tea in the hills of South China and the subsequent development of the fine art of tea throughout the country, while also exploring the significance of tea to Daoist thought. From there we move to Japanese Buddhist monasteries, where tea had a place in meditative rituals that evolved over the centuries into the rich aesthetics and profound meanings of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, as well as the lesser-known, but not less significant, sencha tea practice with its strong links to Chinese culture. The evolving position of women in both spiritual and secular Japanese tea practices is also given close examination. The third part of the volume focuses on the encounter of Eastern cultures with early Western maritime traders and the tea craze in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries^ during which tea became an essential element of social rituals as well as a valuable commodity that was frequently smuggled and adulterated to increase profits, Americas colonial love affair with tea and the famous, and not so famous, historical events leading up to the American Revolution are investigated. In last section the clash of cultures and economic interests between East and West, which culminated in the Opium Wars, is examined as well as the development of tea in colonial India and Ceylon, which caused migrations of unskilled labor and profound socioeconomic inequities with results still visible today, We also explore the present-day world of tea, illustrating life on ten plantations and the emerging organic and fair trade movements in support of indigenous populations in the producing countries.

The story of tea provides an unusual but apt metaphor for the contradictions of human nature: capable of the most profound spirituality but triggering the excess of imperialism; regaling us with exquisite elegance and beauty in the arts and inflicting treachery for material advantage. Reading the essays in this book and marveling at Japanese folding screens, Victorian fans of satirical illustrations, paintings of American clipper ships, Chinese tea bowls, or Sevres porcelains, readers of this volume and visitors to the exhibition alike will discover adventure and conflict, beauty and humor, spirituality and greedy and also little-known facts and surprising connections. Steeped in History: The Art of Tea offers an experience that is at the same time pure aesthetic enjoyment and a learning opportunity, in an effort toward achieving a more balanced perspective in the dialogue between East and West.