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History | Tea Trade

Poetry, Tea and Tao

By Henrik Barth
October 23, 2009
The art of brewing tea –steeping loose whole leaves in a tea pot of boiling water –induced a meditative stillness, which was a powerful reinforcement of “tao” –distilling the experience into its elements... 
Lady in a Chinese Silk Jacket
Lady in a Chinese Silk Jacket -Bernhard Gutmann (1909)

In 1908, New York merchant Thomas Sullivan packaged tea samples into hand-sewn muslin bags, intending for his customers to empty the leaves into hot water. Some though, unsure what to do, submerged them in their tea pot and the tea bag was invented. Sullivan developed a machine to package tea fannings into gauze sachets, marketing and shipping them around the world, just in time for modern industrial progress.

But the real story of tea began 5,000 years ago. Shen-Nung, the “Divine Farmer”, was boiling water in his courtyard, when leaves from a Camellia tree fell into the pot. Shen-Nung drank it, and said “It quenches thirst. It lessens the desire for sleep. It gladdens and cheers the heart”.

In the course of centuries, Chinese tea culture developed formal rules for tea preparation and drinking. A complex ceremony required twenty-seven pieces of equipment, and this ritual element calmed the mind, brought an awareness of the moment, and heightened the perception of beauty and nature.

The culture emerged simultaneously with poetry genres, brush and ink painting, calligraphy, lapidary, alchemy, and metallurgy. During the Han Dynasty (200 BC), arts of cloisonné, silk painting, porcelain, lacquerware, and paper making, were gathered into the tea ceremony.

Poets and priests gathered in tea rooms, surrounded by gardens, rich furnishings, textiles, and paintings, to recite poems. The elaborate design of the tea pot, or the way one held the tea cup, expressed an awareness of the consistent and rhythmic harmony of nature

While dark oolong, delicate green and white teas were becoming a status symbol among the upper classes, tea was becoming one of the necessities of life for the Chinese people, along with rice, vinegar, and soy sauce.

In farms and villages the informal method of tea preparation was adding leaves to a pot of water that had been drawn from a well or river, heated on a wood fire, and steeped slowly to allow the fragrant oils to extract. The rural tradition of enjoying a pot of tea while writing poetry is clearly evident in references in classic Chinese poetry. 


Living water needs living fire to boil:
Lean over Fishing Rock, dip the clear deep current;
Store the spring moon in a big gourd, return it to the jar;
Divide the night stream with a little dipper, drain it into the kettle.
Frothy water, simmering, whirls bits of tea;
Pour it and hear the sound of wind in pines.
Hard to refuse three cups to a dried-up belly;
I sit and listen—from the old town, the striking of the hour.

Su Tung-p’o (tr. Burton Watson)

In 1168, My?an Eisai, a Japanese Buddhist priest, traveled to Tiantai mountain in Zhejiang, to study Zen. The slopes of the region provided an ideal habitat for growing tea. When Eisai returned to Kyoto he planted tea seeds. In his treatise “Kissa Y?j?ki”, he wrote “tea is the perfect mental and medical remedy to make one’s life more full and complete”.

Tea culture arrived in Europe as a rare and expensive luxury by way of Venetian traders in 1560. With an expanding silk and spice trade, Holland and France became the largest tea consuming countries, until tea came to England in 1650.

Shen-Nung noted tea’s piquant fragrance, brilliant color, and complex aftertaste, and in the Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Manuscript he gave instructions for drying tea leaves to preserve their potency. Tea aficionados believe loose teas make a superior tea, because the oils fade away when the leaves are broken up into fannings and packaged.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (517- 600 BC) regarded tea an elixir, which improved health and promoted longevity, and the tea ceremony as a distillation of the experience of y?nyáng, its contrasting and complementary energies and patterns, moving according to a principle, or “tao” –meaning “the way”.

The essence of “tao” was an understanding that every experience produces its opposite in an endless cycle of reversal. Tea drinking was symbolic of living in harmony with nature; it improved alertness, and kept the mind from getting in the way of “tao”.

The art of brewing tea –steeping loose whole leaves in a tea pot of boiling water –induced a meditative stillness, which was a powerful reinforcement of “tao” –distilling the experience into its elements: awareness of moment, beauty, and quietness.

The tea ceremony lent itself to all disciplines of art, but especially to the musical, patterned nature of Chinese lyric poetry. Wang Wei (701-761 AD), painter and poet of the Tang era, revealed “tao” of inner landscape in concise poems.                    


Deep in the mountain wilderness
Where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far off voice,
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.

Wang Wei (tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

In Wang’s poem, “tao” was rarely what it appeared to be. Images of landscape –trees, mountains, sunlight –probed the interconnection of nature and human life, but the poem’s “tao” becomes a voice within the poem, describing another landscape.

Four hundred years later, during the Southern Sung era, Lu Yu (1127-1209 AD), celebrated the quiet joys and experiences of everyday farm life.


Late blossoms left on the ground,
       shoots of bamboo poking up the mud;
the tea bowl, the poem bag—
       I took them wherever I went.
My dim dream just taking shape,
       who calls me back to waking?
By the window half in slanting sun
       a partridge cries.

Lu Yu (tr. Burton Watson)

Teapot, Wang Bing Rong -Zhi Guanxu Period
Teapot, Wang Bing Rong -Zhi Guanxu Period

The appeal to our poetic sensibilities is simple and alluring. Images of an autumn garden, blossoms on the ground, etc are simply the body where the “tao” is free to move around. Indefinable and nameless, “tao” does not move well in non-image.

“Tao” does not define or explain; it points beyond itself to a meaning that is darkly divined yet still beyond our grasp, and cannot be adequately expressed in words.

It takes time to make a good cup of tea, steeping loose leaves in a tea pot of boiling water, approaching the experience of the moment, the perfect moment to enjoy life.


My medicine’s crude, yet the old farmer
       swears it really works;
my poems are shallow, yet the mountain monk
       has immoderate praise for their skill.
Cakes in pockets, with packets of tea
       they come to pay me a visit.
What harm if in the midst of loneliness
       we have one little laugh?

Lu Yu (tr. Burton Watson)

The poem goes beyond its words  –the subject is common, nothing much happens, there is no desire to invest it with symbolic meaning, and yet, it speaks to all people and all times. Like a good cup of tea, it takes time to savor its essence.

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