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Tribute Tea in the Song Dynasty

In the Tang Dynasty the habit of drinking tea spread from the imperial court to towns and the countryside; and it was the literati, hermits and Buddhists who played a leading role in the advocacy of tea culture. But things changed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the influence of intellectuals on the culture of tea weakened.Although many famous literati, such as Su Shi, the great writer of the Northern Song, and Li Qingzhao, the celebrated woman poet,and Lu You, a prolific poet of the Southern Song, were fond of tea and wrote some literary pieces on tea, they contributed little to the construction of tea culture. Tea culture at that time was expanded and publicized by two polar strengths - the imperial court and ordinary people. Song emperors had a special love of tea, and some of them were well up in the tea ceremony. Emperor Song Huizong even wrote a treatise on tea, entitled Grand View on Tea. Because of the supreme standing of the emperor, the natural and artistic qualities of the tea given as tribute to the imperial court were seriously taken by tea makers. It had been a tradition down the ages to compress tea leaves into cakes for storage. When the tea culture was in bloom, the Song people, in order to add to the beauty of tea, began to make such cakes in a more ingenious way and have the imperial dragon or phoenix paattern embossed on them. Such tribute tea was mainly produced in the Jianzhou Prefecture and designed by two famous officials, Ding Wei and Cai Xiang. Jianzhou, a prefecture originally called Jian'an, was located in present-day Fujian Province. A place with beautiful scenery and many Buddhist temples, it had flourishing tea cultivation, and had been designated to produce tea cakes for the court even before the Song Dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Song Taizong, DingWei was the superintendent of imperial tea production in Fujian. A talented man of many parts, Ding Wei was good at writing poems, painting,playing chess and music, and well versed in Buddhism and Taoism.To win the emperor' s favor, or a higher position and better salary,Ding Wei took a lot of trouble in creating new styles of tea cakes.During the Tang Dynasty, the cakes had a hole in the middle for a string to run through to hold them together and were roughly made.Ding Wei stopped the making of holes and designed many new patterns and dies for tea cakes. Cai Xiang, a man of letters, and also the best calligrapher of the time, had different rules of conduct from those of Ding Wei, who liked to humor the emperor. Cai Xiang often remonstrated with the emperor, suggesting he live a simple life and show more solicitude for the ordinary people. During his two tenures of the magistracy of Fuzhou, he had done the local people a lot of good, building up the seawalls, irrigating farms and planting pines for a distance of 700 li to protect roads. Noble and unsullied, he demonstrated the virtue of a true tea scholar. He once wrote a treatise on tea, the first part of which described the criteria for judging the quality of tea: the color, fragrance and taste. The latter part centered around tea sets, especially the harmony between the colors of the sets and the tea itself. Cai Xiang also made a contribution to the production of tea cakes in the shape of dragon, which were smaller and more exquisite than earlier ones. Differing from ordinary tea products, tea cakes in the shapes of dragons and phoenixes were full of artistry and Chinese cultural features. Besides the specially designed dragon and phoenix patterns, the dies, called kua, came in various shapes, such as squares, flowers, big and small dragons, and were delicately made.It was quite complicated to make such tribute tea, for the tea leaves had to be picked at dawn before the Grain Rain (6th solar term),and carefully selected, steamed, pressed, ground, caked, baked and packed before sent to the emperor. Some pattern dies, one inch in diameter, were used to make only 100 tea cakes each every year. It goes without saying such tea cakes were luxuriously packed, first in the leaves of a special kind of tree, then in layers of yellow silk,and then in red laquer ware caskets with gold padlocks and official red seals, and finally in special bamboo cases. Such tribute tea, called "Bird-Tongue Budlet," could have at most three budlets on each leaf. According to contemporary records, one cake of such tea had a value of 400,000 copper coins. These expensive teas could only be enjoyed by the emperor and his empress and concubines. The officials, if they happened to be awarded one cake by the emperor, would never enjoy it but make it a present to some noble, friend or worship it as a curio. Ouyang Xiu, a celebrated literatus and statesman of the Song Dynasty, was granted only one tea cake during his twenty years of tenure of office at the imperial court; and it was almost impossible for ordinary people to have even a look at it. Such luxurious practice deviated from the spirit of tea culture and the rule of simplicity advocated by Lu Yu. But on the other hand, it demonstrated the great in telilence of the laborers who made the tea cakes.