I found this one poking around a used bookstore (in about… 2017? 2016? I’m behind). It’s a slim, unassuming volume, and I picked it up with a few others after flipping through it. I was struck by the Table of Contents, the quick glance I took through it, and the inclusion of book plates at the beginning; several colourful photos of historic tea pots, bowls, and paintings.
I started reading it a while ago–put it down thinking I’d finished it, and then when I picked it up again to review, realized I still had a bookmark at about the halfway mark. So I ended up rereading it anyhow (it’s 154 pages, and pretty engrossing). Before I even finished it, I’d recommended it to at least one person who was looking for information on the history of Chinese tea culture, specifically the time-period that would have influenced the development into chanoyu in Japan.
The book opens with creation myths in chapter one, but distinguishes itself well by focusing on dates, and how these myths played into Chinese culture. It immediately moves into early descriptions and mentions of tea in literature, its roll in early dynasties, and who wrote about it.
The first half of the book moves through tea’s history in China, from the Han Dynasty, all the way into the Ming and Qing. It describes how tea and tea culture evolved, how tea’s roll in day to day activities changed, how people wrote about it, and how it went from medicinal to recreational, from royalty to everyday beverage.
Chapter three moves into ‘tea art’, the term used to describe Chinese tea ceremony, specifically techniques and atmosphere. The book traces part of the history here, delving into Lu Yu’s treatises on water and utensils (complete with hand-drawn art outside of the book plates). There’s a brief few-page guide on technique, brewing, and tasting.
Chapter four delves back into the history with a different approach: specifically each area of China’s culture, it’s minorities, as it relates to tea, and then in tea’s roll in different cultural activities. Births, marriages, and funeral rites.
Five delves into the style and culture of teahouses in different provinces, and six on how tea was depicted in art, poetry and calligraphy through the years. Seven and eight focus on social rights and customs (marriage, death, gifting), with nine summarizing tea’s role in ethnic minorities, to be rounded out in chapter ten: how Chinese tea culture spread outside of China, and eventually to the west.
The book is fairly well edited, except for a few spelling mistakes towards the end, and the occasional English fluff. It rarely detracts from the story. It is a good read, even if there is a lot of overlap between what chapters cover (culture versus ‘social rights’ versus customs, customs by province versus by ethnic minorities…).