Book: The Book of Tea

Returning again to my inexperience in blogging, I think I’m going to spend a post describing in my no-doubt monotone writing style, one of my favourite books to date; Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea. It is certainly my favourite tea book, and I like to suggest it to a lot of my friends (at least the tea-savvy ones), although it’s really not a book everyone can get into. It reads as a long, sometimes rambling exposition (something I personally enjoy), and constantly goes off on seemingly unrelated tangents; it is famous for being not so much about tea, but rather using tea as an analogical lens to view culture (western versus eastern) and art. Kakuzo was, after all, (and foremost) a man of the arts.

I like to think that, on the surface the book reads as a rambling exposition on tea with a tendency for tangents, while deeper it is an anthology on life and culture in art, and deeper still, it is again a fundamental book on tea, and its place in culture; how it relates to all, and how everything, eventually, relates to it. It gives tea a deeper meaning, the deeper one reads into the book.

Without knowing it, one learns quite a lot about tea from this. Although it doesn’t present the information in a “fact”ual manner, there are a large number of them that you pick up (there is a whole chapter dedicated to the Tea Master’s skills in flower arrangement for his House, and even more on the maintenance of the tea-garden [or “roji”, which surrounds the tea house], and the difference in opinions between grand tea masters concerning the Mood it should impose on the guests; here he quotes two poems that influenced two masters [Rikiu and Enshiu respectively] on what the tea garden should mean:

I look beyond;
Flowers are not,
Nor tinted leaves.
On the sea beach
A solitary cottage stands
In the waning light
of an autumn eve.


A cluster of summer trees,
A bit of the sea,
A pale evening moon.

Both are apparently anonymous “ditties”), although more about the development of the culture than of the tea itself (chapter two focuses on the three Schools of tea–the boiled tea, the whipped tea, and the steeped tea, which correlate to the three evolutions of tea form–the cake tea, the powdered tea and the leaf tea; for those interested; it is an interesting delve into Japan’s estranged relationship with China, who loses its tea identity and culture in the Whipped Tea era, during the thirteenth century when it is conquered by the Mongol tribes [While Japan remains untouched], and thus rediscovers itself and moves into the “Steeped” school, leaving Japan behind with its matcha. It isn’t until much later when Japan moves on as well, however unlike China, it keeps its Whipped Tea roots. Both regions had since long moved on from the “primitive” School of Boiled Tea). It does get a bad rep from some people for not being as much about tea as they think it “should” be, for a name like The Book of Tea. I think it’s more about tea than people realize.

The Book of Tea is of a number of books that I would like to (and plan to) reread again in my lifetime (more than once, even). Perhaps I am being slightly dramatic in saying that I find it a bit inspirational; at the very least, I find it intensely quotable, and those quotes very memorable. As such, I have tried to fit more than just a few into this post, and in the epigraph–and you will notice one in the epigraph of my previous post. This may become a theme. But I am not the only one, as I find as many Book of Tea quotes strewn across the internet as Withnail and I quotes.

For the record, that would be my favourite movie. It is a bizarre and darkly humours comedy, and it’s set in a very specific era (the closing of the 60s), so that it remains timeless in its own way (as opposed to movies that are set in an ‘ambiguous present day’, and thus seem very outdated years from now).

Okakura is also, I think, the first person to mention the “Cha Ching” in an English publication. I figure this, because he chose to transliterate it as “Chaking”, to which you will find no search results for except those linking directly to the book. It’s a more classical way to transliterate the name–because in more modern transliterations of Chinese to English, people tend to separate each character by spaces. Thus “Chaking” becomes “Cha Ching”; Cha meaning tea, and Ching meaning scripture, or canon (except in examples like Tie Guanyin, where tie means iron, but because Guanyin is a name made up of two characters, there’s often no space; just observations on my part, of course, because I literally know nothing about Chinese past wikipedia. There are a few tea companies that type it “tie guan yin”, but I suppose they don’t realize Guanyin is a name). The Cha Ching It is literally considered The Holy Scripture of Tea. It’s a work I’d actually like to find a translation of, because it seems quite interesting–written by Lu Yu (or “Luwah”), who Kakuzo describes as a 8th century (the Tang dynasty) poet, and who is recognized as the Sage of Teas amongst Chinese tea merchants for his contribution.

The Cha Ching, or The Classic of Tea as it seems to be called in English, is literally a detailed guide to the proper growth, plucking, and preparation of tea; wikipedia recognizes it as the first monograph of tea, and it is apparently recognized among Chinese tea merchants as The Code of Tea (hence, The Holy Scripture of Tea), detailing the nature of the tea plant, the gathering of the leaves, and their proper selection. Although Lu Yu was a famous poet, and it certainly shows in the many quotes from him that Okakura includes, the book itself supposedly reads as a very detailed technical manual. Lu Yu describes,

The best quality tea must have creases like the leather boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like a fine earth newly swept by rain.

I took the liberty of looking up the full quote, as Kakuzo shortens the beginning somewhat to quote more easily. It is one of many, many quotes of Lu Yu strewn about The Book of Tea.

The Cha Ching apparently goes on to detail tea equipment in depth; again, here Kakuzo makes sure to note the taoist influence in tea. A running theme throughout Okakura’s work is the deep link and influence between taoism and teaism, often drawing in the connections to zen as well (and how they differ). He seems a very strong believer in this link. I would like to learn more about taoism, zen and Confucianism, so that I can reread this book and understand the links he draws a little better, and maybe have something to talk about on the subject. As such, I know very little.

I could go on, but this is a rather long post, and I can hope that maybe I’ve convinced a few people who where apprehensive, about picking up the book. Obviously it’s not a novel, but it doesn’t read like a textbook–it’s a beautifully poetic and descriptive exposition. It delves very strongly into art, and art critique (and fad-ism, as it affected grand Tea Masters and art appreciators), but Okakura was (again) a man of art. And tea is an art, I like to think. Everything that surrounds tea is an art, or regarded as an art; it doesn’t begin with the agony of the leaves, nor does it end with it.

1 Comment

  1. i think is a beautiful book :)

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