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Philosophy of life embedded in tea culture of Tang and Song dynasties

CHEN YU, DU XIAOQIN | 2018-05-31
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A painting by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) depicts that scholars make tea under pine trees by a stream. Enjoying the tea made by running water among the mountains and rivers manifests Chinese philosophy of the harmony between the humanity and the nature.


In addition to their efforts in studying the science of planting, producing, making and tasting tea as well as innovating tea sets, scholars in Tang and Song dynasties associated tea with their aesthetic attitudes, spiritual pursuits and ideal personality, endowing Chinese tea culture with splendid aesthetic values and profound philosophy of life.


Tea is honored as the junzi (gentleman) of all drinks in China. Tea culture emerged in the Tang Dynasty and prospered in the Song Dynasty. There is no doubt that the scholars contributed to the delicate and elegant tea culture through their studies of the science of planting, producing, making and tasting tea as well as their innovation of tea sets. More importantly, the scholars in the Tang and Song dynasties associated tea with their aesthetic attitudes, spiritual pursuits and ideal personality, endowing Chinese tea culture with splendid aesthetic values and profound philosophy of life.


Embracing nature
Before the Glorious Age of the Tang Dynasty which began with the year 713, activities relating to the tea industry focused more on its medical and economic value. Scholars gradually realized the natural beauty of tea trees and leaves as of the mid-Tang period that began in 766. In his masterpiece Classic of Tea, Lu Yu (733-804), Sage of Tea in Chinese culture, said “Tea trees are the fine ones native to the southern China.”

Most tea trees grow by the hillsides or the brooks in moist southern China, and these landscapes of appealed to scholars fond of drinking tea. These scholars found themselves in great joy when indulging themselves among the mountains and rivers, by visiting tea gardens.

The tea economy in the Song Dynasty became more advanced and the tea plantations spread to a vast territory. Literary works that described the tea gardens were common at that time. Some of these scholars even expressed their wishes of purchasing a house in the tea tree mountains and spending their life enjoying fabulous tea drinks.

Jian’an area in present-day Jian’ou City in Fujian Province gradually gained its reputation for the good tea-leaves it produced after the Southern Tang Kingdom was conquered  by the Song Dynasty. According to the Classic of Tea, water collected in the mountains is the best for making tea and water from the river is the second best. The water from the wells is the least favorable. The emphasis on the water used to make tea drove the scholars to enthusiastically visit the famous spring waters across the nation. The Account of Waters for Making Tea by Zhang Youxin recorded 27 waters that are favorable to make excellent tea, most of which were water from some prominent rivers, mountains or temples.

The scholars were fully aware of the fact that newly picked and processed tea leaves should be cooked with running water so that it would taste the best. Unsatisfied with simply finding a good water, they would sit down and making tea by the brook or spring. Enjoying the breath-taking natural scenery among the mountains and rivers while drinking the tea made with the running water was a great joy for scholars in the Tang and Song dynasties.

Tea trees and leaves are excellent products of nature. Water from the mountains and rivers in Chinese are believed to be able to clean off the worldly annoyance for the people who felt exhausted in social life. Official-scholars trapped in the political struggles in the royal courts would get excited when they received newly picked tea leaves and newly collected spring waters sent to them by their friends. The depressed desire to indulge themselves among the mountains and rivers would appeal to them once again. The tea gardens far away, to some extent, were the spiritual motherlands for these scholars.


Philosophy of life
The fact that tea culture prospered in the Song Dynasty was closely related to the transformation of attitudes toward life as well as cultural mentality between the Tang and the Song dynasties. People during the Song Dynasty loved drinking tea more than the people in the Tang Dynasty and this corresponded with their philosophy which emphasized silently appreciating the joy of life.

Japanese Sinologist Yoshigawa Kōziro argued that the poetry in Tang Dynasty was like wines while that of Song Dynasty was like tea. “Tea may not excite people as the wine does. However, tea provides people with peaceful joy,” he said.

The philosophy of life which stresses peaceful joy in poetry about tea in the Song Dynasty has three major sources—the Confucian doctrine of being willing to suffer poverty and finding joy in upholding one’s principles, the Taoist joy in viewing things in a equal way and being content with the way thing is as well as the Buddhist philosophy of being optimistic, peaceful and without desire.

Being willing to suffer poverty and finding joy in upholding one’s principles was a crucial virtue highlighted by Confucians in the pre-Qin Period. The Analects records a story of Yan Hui, one of the most well-known disciples of Confucius. Confucius praised Yan, saying “Incomparable indeed was Hui! A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, living in a mean street—others would have found it unendurably depressing, but to Hui’s cheerfulness it made no difference at all.” Finding contentment in poverty that is represented by coarse food, and joy in one’s principles, is considered one of the most precious virtues for Chinese people.

Scholars in the Song Dynasty generally considered the joy pursued by Yan as the ultimate and supreme joy that one could expect. Poverty that was represented by simple food and drinks including coarse tea was a symbol of one’s dedication to principles. Drinking coarse tea in leisure for scholars in the Song Dynasty was a manifestation of their integrity when they encountered setbacks or lived a reclusive life in the officialdom, or lived a simple life in the countryside.

Su Shi (1037-1101) loved tea more over wines all his life, especially when he faced setbacks in political life. When he was exiled, although he lived a poor life, he always found joy in drinking tea. More importantly, he did not care about the quality of the tea. In one of his poems, he said that although the tea leaves produced in Nanzhong were so precious that they were chosen as tributes to the emperor, they did not taste as good as the tea-leaves that were picked from the trees he planted in the mountain. Despite the shabby tea sets that he used to make and drink tea, he felt content and joyful.

Making tea with spring water, or drinking coarse tea when one was not offered the opportunity to serve their nation, or drinking tea while in poverty, were all themes that echoed Yan Hui’s joy in feeling content with a handful of rice to eat and a gourdful of water to drink. This is one of the most crucial cultural connotations of Chinese tea.

Taoism argues that things change continuously, so there is no definite distinguishing factor among them. Death is nothing different from longevity. Scholars, instead of military officers, dominated the political life in the Song Dynasty. This attributed to the pursuit of a peaceful and joyful life in that era. Preserving oneself by being content with the natural course of things and avoiding fierce conflicts that would increase the tension between individual existence and the world became influential in the Song Dynasty.

Living a reclusive life by serving in a position as an official was a general aspiration for scholars in the Song Dynasty. They would drink fresh tea in their home or office. Fresh tea, rather than coarse wine, became the major means for them to clean off the daily annoyance as well as find peace and joy in their lives as a government official.

Under such circumstances when a scholar was banished from the court and forced to live in the countryside, the Taoist philosophy of finding contentment in the way things are appealed more to these scholars. Living in the countryside or among the mountains or rivers, where they could enjoy a cup of fresh tea and peaceful life, became a popular activity and spiritual joy for scholars in the Song Dynasty.

Scholars after the mid-Tang Dynasty liked to associate with Buddhist monks and mediate when drinking tea. This provided them with an opportunity to peacefully pursue the inside purity and joy. In the late years of the Song Dynasty, it became more popular for the scholars to mediate among the mountains and forests. Not only trying to understand the mysteries of life during the drinking of tea, they also enjoyed the great freedom and supreme joy when they freed themselves from the worldly burdens.

Fragrant herbs are symbols of virtues in Chinese culture ever since Qu Yuan’s creative use of this symbolism 2,500 years before. As one common herb, tea trees and leaves also bear this tradition. Su Shi, on the one hand, compared tea leaves to a “beauty,” especially those newly picked and unprocessed with oil or cream. For him, the fresh tea leaves resemble beauties who did not put on makeup and maintained their natural beauty. On the other hand, Su also compared fine tea leaves to virtuous people who would not be easily corrupted by the bad environment, manifesting his need to uphold his principles and his unyielding will.


(edited by CHEN ALONG)