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Tranquility in a Teacup: The Beauty of Tea Ware and the Art of Tea

The “art of tea” and the “way of tea” are at the core of Chinese tea culture. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

The “art of tea” and the “way of tea” are at the core of Chinese tea culture. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

 

The “art of tea” and the “way of tea” are at the core of Chinese tea culture. The “art” of tea refers to the techniques for preparing, brewing, and drinking tea. The “way” of tea refers to the comprehension of the serene elegance of the art of tea that is gained through the concrete processes of preparing, brewing, and drinking tea, and to the internalization of this appreciation through a spiritual awakening that cultivates the character and is expressed in the rhythms of daily life.

 

Ceramic tea ware of low porosity that quickly dissipates heat is best for enjoying green tea or first flush oolong tea, which are clear, light, and richly aromatic.Ceramic tea ware of low porosity that quickly dissipates heat is best for enjoying green tea or first flush oolong tea, which are clear, light, and richly aromatic.

Tea and tea ware are complementary. Take for example the drinking of brick tea (compressed tea) in the Tang Dynasty: A piece broken from the tea brick was first toasted over a fire, then ground into powder and added to boiling water to brew a red-colored infusion that was especially pleasing to the eye when drunk from blue-green-glazed Yue ware. In the Song Dynasty, when “tea contests” flourished, people loved to use black teacups for the practice of diancha—preparing tea by adding drops of boiling water to tea powder to make a paste, then adding more water and using a whisk to stir it into liquid tea, which produced a milky white foam.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties and into the Republican era, people mainly drank loose tea, and switched from decocting tea and dian­cha to steeping the tea leaves, so they gave up black tea ware in favor of white porcelain. The covered tea bowl was developed in the Ming Dynasty, and thereafter there came the beloved Yi­xing ceramic teapots.

In Taiwan, from World War II up to the 1970s, a small number of leisured literati and artists used small pots to brew “gongfu” tea. Most people, however, brewed their tea in large pots, while virtuous households would place a tea barrel and teacups outside their doors to provide drink to the thirsty, so serving free tea became an important feature of tea-drinking in Taiwan.

Providing large pots of free tea has been the best way of extending human warmth in the popular culture of tea-drinking in Taiwan.Providing large pots of free tea has been the best way of extending human warmth in the popular culture of tea-drinking in Taiwan.

In 1983, the flourishing development of tea culture prompted Lin Jung-kuo, founder of Lin’s Ceramics Studio, to create classic small teapots and sell them through teahouses practicing the art of tea. From the start, he decided not to make purely artistic creations, but rather to apply his industrial design skills to enable ordinary people to use fine tea ware in daily life. Later he continued to improve and develop his firm’s technology, and taking inspiration from the structure of maifan stone, he developed his exclusive “Purion” tea ware, made from a mixture of Taiwanese clay and natural minerals that is fired repeatedly at high temperatures. The ware has excellent heat retention properties, and the tea steeped in it is especially smooth, so it has become widely used in Taiwan.

The perfect pot for the perfect tea

In 1983 Lin Jung-kuo abandoned making purely artistic ceramic creations and instead established Lin’s Ceramics Studio to make available to ordinary people tea ware that is both artistic and practical, with which to enjoy the pleasures of tea-drinking. (courtesy of Lin’s Ceramics Studio)In 1983 Lin Jung-kuo abandoned making purely artistic ceramic creations and instead established Lin’s Ceramics Studio to make available to ordinary people tea ware that is both artistic and practical, with which to enjoy the pleasures of tea-drinking. (courtesy of Lin’s Ceramics Studio)

How does one use tea utensils to make good tea? “Good pots make for good tea, and good tea is defined by the color of the liquid, the fragrance, and the form of the tealeaves.” Lin Jung-kuo says that different types of tealeaves call for different tea utensils. For example, for unfermented green teas like long­jing and bi­luo­chun, as well as lightly fermented teas like first-flush oo­long, it is best to choose transparent glass cups or the Ru ware series made by Lin’s Ceramics Studio (based on the ware produced at the Ru kiln in the Song Dynasty). Fired at a high temperature of 1,270 °C, with a dense, fine-grained structure and smooth, glossy texture, this type of tea ware can bring out the fragrance of the tea, is good for admiring the shape of the tealeaves as they slowly unfold, and can highlight the fresh green color of the liquid tea.

For heavily or fully fermented teas like black tea and Pu-er tea, it best to use zi­sha (purple clay) teapots or Purion ware, which are of lower-density material with pores that can absorb impurities. This is the best way to draw out the tea’s mellow and sweet flavor.

The spirituality of the “way of tea”

Lin Jung-kuo, head of Lin’s Ceramics Studio, says, “There’s no need to be overly dogmatic about what tea ware to use.”Lin Jung-kuo, head of Lin’s Ceramics Studio, says, “There’s no need to be overly dogmatic about what tea ware to use.”

In the Song Dynasty, the “four arts of living” were “diancha, painting appreciation, flower arranging, and burning incense,” which emphasized that there is beauty every­where in life that not only satisfies the physical senses, but also, through appreci­ation of the arts, arouses inner emotions that gradually raise the life consciousness of the individual. From the Song Dynasty onward, this kind of aesthetic experience became a fundamental attainment in the practice of self-cultivation by Chinese literati, and spread abroad to influence the aesthetic development of neighboring countries.

Over the past 500 years, since the time of the Ming Dynasty, tea culture has been simplified, and the complex tea decocting and dian­cha implements used in the Tang and Song dynasties have moved to the periphery of history’s stage. Tea contests had fallen out of popularity by the Ming, when the main form of tea-making was simply steeping loose tea. Drinking tea and admiring flowers became the symbols of good taste, and as the eleg­ant cultural elements of the educated class slowly spread into the common culture of ordinary people, serving tea and giving flowers grew to be part of the customs and etiquette of popular daily life.

The Huanhua Caotang Workshop is a private school set up by Jady Wang to teach floral arts and the “way of tea.” The first-floor entrance is modeled on traditional Chinese vases, and its meaning is to wish visitors peace and tranquility.The Huanhua Caotang Workshop is a private school set up by Jady Wang to teach floral arts and the “way of tea.” The first-floor entrance is modeled on traditional Chinese vases, and its meaning is to wish visitors peace and tranquility.

The Qing Dynasty carried on the simple and elegant style of the Ming. In this era, liter­ati participated in the design of tea ware, for example by engraving a seal, writing an inscription, or painting images on zisha teapots, thereby raising the cultural value of the objects. At this time, tea became one of the “seven necessities of starting the day” (firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea), indicating that drinking tea was already a common practice among ordinary people.

In the 1970s to the late 1980s, as Taiwan’s economy boomed, people got more free time and took up new pursuits in living and dining. Teahouses became important spaces for tea connoisseurship, socializing, and recreation.

Meanwhile, tea parties and tea ceremony gatherings have gradually developed from simple forms at first to mixed art events incorporating flower arranging, calligraphy, appreciation of incense fragrances, music, and even dance.

Dialogue of tea and flowers

The dialogue between tea art and floral art combines the material and the spiritual. If there is practice without philosophy, then there is only satisfaction on the material plane of the senses. If there is philosophy without practice, this can easily degenerate into ­vacuous metaphysical theories, and it is not the “authentic and complete” way of tea. Jady Wang, a floral art teacher with the Chinese Floral Arts Foundation, who has organized many tea ceremonies, has especially strong feelings about this. In January of 2010 she held a tea party to which she invited over 400 tea aficionados from all over Taiwan to sit and drink Tai­chung teas beneath the plum blossoms in the Shi family plum orchard in Nan­tou. “There were small tables for tea tasting, Ming-style furniture, and a Japanese tea ceremony using matcha [powdered green tea]. We even used drums as tea tables, as if we were going to perform the sounds of nature. It was tremendous fun.” Wang says that there was even a tea master who showed real ingenuity by bringing white salt to simulate plum blossoms. But the Creator was the best flower designer on that day, using the land as his vase and giving each plum tree a distinctive shape. “The fragrance of the plum blossoms coolly tickled the nostrils, and occasionally a flower petal drifted down into a teacup. To quietly drink hot tea is one of life’s great pleasures.”

With the combination of tea, flowers, people, and an elegant room, tea-drinking becomes a banquet for all the senses.With the combination of tea, flowers, people, and an elegant room, tea-drinking becomes a banquet for all the senses.

To successfully organize an elegant tea party like this one takes meticulous planning and execution. Where will the money come from? How can you bring together hundreds of tea experts to take part in the event? If you are going to drink tea outdoors in a plum orchard, is there a backup plan in case it rains? How do you arrange the program? Jady Wang even hired a photographer for the day to capture images of her event, and asked participating tea aficionados to write down their reactions. She then collected the photos and texts into a commemorative volume, to preserve the spiritual tenor of the tea party.

Dialogue of tea and people

The arrangement of the space for a tea ceremony is not only a dialogue between tea and flowers, but also between tea and people. Every­thing is done in pursuit of a harmonious ambiance, from the laying out of the tea ware to the configuration of the overall setting. Besides the material aspect of coordinating the tea ware and the flower arrangements, the event organizer must also grasp the different ambiences of indoor and outdoor spaces, and blend in the spiritual aspects, including the conceptual theme and cultural consciousness of the gathering. For example, for Jady Wang’s Sun Moon tea party, the theme was to experience the allure of Sun Moon Lake black tea. Sun Moon Lake is located in Nan­tou’s Yu­chi Township, and Wang elected to use tea ware made at Yu­chi’s Se Shui Kiln and the local Shui­sha­lian spring water, along with paper art from neighboring Puli Township, complementing the flavor of the tea by reflecting the landscape and culture of its terroir.

Lin’s Ceramics Studio fires “Purion” tea ware out of Taiwan clay and natural minerals. It is both beautiful and practical, and has won the praise of many tea lovers. (courtesy of Lin’s Ceramics Studio)Lin’s Ceramics Studio fires “Purion” tea ware out of Taiwan clay and natural minerals. It is both beautiful and practical, and has won the praise of many tea lovers. (courtesy of Lin’s Ceramics Studio)

Tea and flowers are both natural plant products. The dialogue between tea and flowers is the embodiment of a search for peace and simplicity in life, and emphasizes the appeal of uncontrived authenticity and tranquil seclusion. It requires the flower arranger to observe and respect the vital beauty of plants, while not stealing the leading role gracefully played by tea. This is why it is best if the vases used in flower arranging for tea ceremonies are small enough to hold in the palm of the hand; and if the blossoms are diverse and splendid in color, one should choose relatively small sprays. When combining tea and flowers one must tastefully choose flowers with attention to the creative concept and to the aesthetic content of the sprays (for example, plum flowers, orchids, and bamboo are metaphors for gentlemen). It is hoped that through the natural delight of tea and blossoms, in the limited space and time for appreciating a cup of tea or a bouquet of flowers, man’s limitless spiritual life can be enriched.