The spirit of tea art and the tea ceremony is the core of Chinese tea culture. Art refers to the techniques and artistic process of
making, cooking and tasting tea, while ceremony refers to the spirit with which the process is carried out. As tea art is visible, while the spirit is invisible, I would like to introduce tea art first.
However, before you start to learn tea art, you should first study some skills of meditation. First, close your eyes, and imagine that tea trees are growing quietly in a beautiful mountain forest under the bright sun, a soft breeze makes the branches sway, and the trees send up tender shoots. When I mention water, you will imagine vast rivers and lakes, and gurgling clear springs. The clear and sweet water will soon flow into your heart, watering your whole body, and clearing away your fatigue and worry.
Artistic tea means to regard the process of planting, picking, making and selecting tea as an artistic enjoyment as if reading a pure and fresh verse, or appreciating a piece of beautiful music. To Chinese, tea is a spirit in the world. When it enters your body as a drink, you will be filled with the nutrition of sunshine, the bright moon and the land, and the wonder of the whole universe.
Therefore, all the famous Chinese tea culture experts have had the experience of planting, picking and making tea by themselves, or learning the spirit of the labor from tea growers. Lu Yu, the founder of Chinese tea culture, traveled all over the areas along the Yangtze River and Taihu Lake, and clambered up tier upon tier of cliffs. He put up for the night at ancient Taoist temples or the homes of tea growers in the villages. Through such practice, he understood tea's characteristics more profoundly, and threw himself into picking and making tea.
Tea growers should first select the right places to plant tea trees.The best tea is grown on the sand and soil on mountains; the second-class, on humus soil; and the low-grade, on loess. Wild tea trees are better than planted ones. Purple tea-leaves are the best,while green ones are inferior; those curling like bamboo shoots are better than the pointed or unfolding ones. Tea trees usually grow on the northern slopes of hills with moderate rain and sunshine. Therefore, most of the growing areas of famous teas are very beautiful. Lu Yu evaluated the 31 tea-growing prefectures of the Tang Dynasty, of which eight were in Sichuan Province, according to this standard. The second largest tea growing area was around the Taihu Lake, which was most famous for Gu Zhu Purple Bamboo Shoots. The Taihu Lake, with its vast expanse of misty,rolling waters, clear springs, and surrounded by beautiful mountain forests, had suitable climate and soil for growing tea. Lu Yu wrote The Book of Tea on the Zhushan Mountain, south of the Taihu Lake. He also built a house in Shangrao, west of Taihu Lake. Tea produced in Sichuan, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces and the Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province, is still very famous. During the Song Dynasty, people thought highly of Jianzhou tea produced in Fujian Province, and many tea growers went deep into the mountains to look for famous tea. During the Ming Dynasty, people loved Wuyi tea. With its cavernous and serene mountain roads and magnificent scenery, Mount Wuyi attracted many tea growers to go into the mountain to look for tea each year, and some of them even persisted in doing so for 60 years. Some tea growers built villas in the Bright Moon Gorge of Mount Wuyi, and planted various tea to evaluate them. They studied tea from childhood to old age, and finally grasped its deepest principles. Zhuang Zi, one of the founders of Chinese Taoism, believed that only the things which agreed with natural laws were really excellent and beautiful. The whole process of Chinese tea art reflects this conception of nature.
The picking time of tea is very important. It was not very strict during the Tang Dynasty. It could be February, March and April by the lunar calendar. (The old Chinese calendar is lunisolar calendar,which not only paid attention to the waxing and waning of the moon, but also gave consideration to solar terms, and the length of years and months as determined by astronomical phenomena. The 24 solar terms are also called the lunar calendar, because they are significant for agricultural production. A lunar month will occur more than a month later than that of the Gregorian calendar.) The picking time became very strict in the Song Dynasty. The best time was usually between the Waking of Insects (one of the 24 solarterms, beginning from around March 6 by the Gregorian calendar,when the weather is becoming warmer, and the hibernating animals are about to come up out of the ground to move about) and Pure Brightness (one of the 24 solar terms, beginning around April 5 by the Gregorian calendar, when the cold weather and withered and yellow grass and trees are replaced by warm weather and luxuriant grass and trees). It is best to plant tea trees in the early hours of sunny days, when morning dews have not dispersed. After the sun rises, the cream of the tea will be exhausted, and its moisture content affected. Tea is picked with the nails instead of the fingers so that its quality is not affected by the hands' temperature. The hands' movements of the picking tea women are like beautiful dance movements. Tea's grade can be judged by the shapes and tenderness of tea buds. Generally speaking, the tenderer the better. A single bud looks like a lotus flower which has just come into bloom, so it is called "lotus stamen; " two buds,like the red tassels of ancient spears, "chess spears;" three buds,like a bird opening its mouth and sticking out its tongue, "sparrow's tongue." The beautiful names stimulate people's affection, so they have a beautiful and peaceful feeling before entering teahouses.
The process of making tea is also an artistic procedure. In the Tang Dynasty, there were four varieties of tea: weak tea, loose tea, tea dust and tea cakes. Weak tea was similar to modem brick tea, which could be restored and transported easily, but it was not of high quality. Loose tea, which was similar to the modem loose tea, would be collected right after being cured. Tea dust was ground into fine powder for the sake of convenience. Hie three above-mentioned varieties were used by people in their daily lives. while Lu Yu mainly introduced tea cakes, which reflected tea art. In the Song Dynasty, eight cakes of Great Dragon tea equaled one jin, which was rather heavy, while Little Dragon tea, twelve cakes for one jin, was exquisitely shaped: some were square, some looked like six-petal plum blossoms, and some like elongated pointed jade tablets which were held in the hands of ancient rulers on ceremonial occasions). They were also decorated with various designs such as dragons, phoenixes and auspicious clouds, and they reflected many human factors.