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The Refined Pleasure of Tea-Drinking

by Tuong Minh

Tu Xuong, one of the best-liked Vietnamese poets of the late 19th century, once claimed to have a "Triple Weakness" for tea, for wine and for sex. He readily admitted defeat in his vain attempts to resist these three worldly pleasures, especially the irresistible charms of tea.

From early times, the Tea plant, a native of Southern China, has been known to Botany and Medicine in ancient China. Highly valued for its healing properties (such as relieving fatigue, delighting the soul and strengthening the will as well as the eye-sight of tea-lovers). Tea can also be used as a stimulant to help students or priests fighting drowsiness during their long hours of study or meditation. However, its high cost at the beginning made it a "regalia for high treatment and entertainment; and too choicy, too costly a beverage for the common people."

But in a relatively short time, tea drinking has spread with marvelous rapidity to make tea not only a popular beverage, a necessity of life, but a poetical pastime and one of the most distinguished methods of self- realization. Tea also represented the true spirit of Asian Democracy by making all tea-lovers aristocrats in taste and in the free communion of artistic spirits.

Tea has been warmly welcomed in the dwellings of the humblest of peasants as well as in the palaces of the haughtiest of princes and mandarins.

Furthermore, it has led people of different countries to gather around the tea-set in the highly refined delectation of its flavor.

Heartily accepted by the Western world (which so often has failed to pay due respect to Eastern culture) since the early 16th century, that brown beverage is still almost the only Asian product commanding universal respect.
However, tea in itself is a work of art that requires a master’s hand to bring out its noblest qualities. There is no single recipe for making the perfect brew, but there are many ways to prepare the tea-leaves; each one has its own individuality, and its own affinity with water and heat.

Some connoisseurs proclaim that the best formula for tea-preparation can be summed up in the 11 Sino-Vietnamese words "NhÃt thûy, nhì trà, tam bôi, tÙ bình, ngÛ quÀn anh " (Lit-water first, then the choice of tea, of tea-cups, of tea pots and the choice of companions). Nothing is possible without the right choice of water according to tea-master’s teachings; pure water taken from a mountain spring is always the best; next comes river-water, then water taken out of a deep well dug in a thinly populated area. Naturally there is no use for unclean water and water polluted with any kind of waste.

After that, the pure water must be boiled in the right way. Tea-lovers are particularly choosy in the choice of fuel to be used in boiling the water. Charcoal is preferred because it does not give an undesirable stink to the boiled water as other fuels might do. Never let the kettle boil dry over boiled water would be lacking in taste and flavor due to too great a loss of oxygen.

Water should be brought to the right boiling point, when the little bubbles in the tea-kettle, look like the eyes of crabs. When the water is boiled beyond this point these bubbles look like fish’s eyes. When the bubbles surge wildly in the kettle the water is already over-boiled and has lost too much oxygen to be used for tea-making.

As for the tea itself, there are so many varieties that even the cleverest among tea-connoisseurs would have trouble making a comprehensive list of them. Aristocrats in ancient China once prided themselves upon their specially prepared teas such as "Vu Di Son Tra" (tea plants grown on the famous mountain named Vu Di) or "Tram ma tra" (tea leaves taken out of beheaded horse’s stomach).

According to Lu Wu, a mid-8th century Chinese poet and the first apostle of tea in China, "the top quality tea-leaves must have creases like the leather boots of tartar horsemen; must curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock; must be able to unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine; must be gleaming like a lake surface under the caresses of a gentle breeze and must be wet and soft like a newly rain-swept earth" (Lu Wu - The Holy Scripture of tea/trà Kinh in Vietnamese).

Tea-enthusiasts in Vietnam as well as in many other countries in South East Asia have known themselves to be less exacting in their love of tea. Tea seeds were brought back from China (by many member, of the Buddhist Church or of the diplomatic services) to be planted in local tea plantations, giving great delight not only to the local aristocracy and priesthood but to the common people, sometimes later on.

As the caked-tea and powdered-tea (of the Tang and Sung dynasties in China) had sunk into oblivion centuries before, the only method of drinking tea which reached the South East Asian region was to steep tea-leaves (or dried and flower-perfumed tea-leaves) in boiling water.

According to old-time etiquette, drinkers were expected to pay much attention to the appreciation of tea-utensils (especially tea-cups, tea-spots, tea-trays). There were different sets of tea-utensils to serve just one drinker (Çc Äm), two drinkers (song Äm), four drinkers (tÙ Äm) or several drinkers at the same time (quÀn Äm/many people taking tea together), As for tea-cups, most popular in ancient China & Vietnam were the tiny ones -about the size of a jack fruit seed (chén mít) or a buffalo’s eye (chén m¡t trâu). Tea connoisseurs make a point savoring their tea in tiny cups because their main source of pleasure comes mostly from the amount of beverage consumed. Consequently the art of tea-drinking exerted a favorable influence on pottery and ceramics. The blue glaze was once considered by many tea-lovers as the ideal color for tea-cups because it lent additional greenness to the beverage years later, black and dark brown were preferred by some while many connoisseurs of steeped tea felt the greatest joy over a set of white-glaze porcelain.

Until the first half of the 20th century, the possession of a highly-valued tea-set (made of glazed pottery or porcelain with or without drawings of flowers, birds or landscapes) was a must for the average Vietnamese household.

Last but not least was the pleasure of keeping good company with close friends or other fellows in the appreciation of tea.

More often than not, tea-drinking parties became a kind of improvised drama, with the plot woven about tea, flowers, music, paintings, and poetry. For members of high society, tea grew to become an excuse for the worship purity and refinement.

According to the teachings of Senno Rikyu, the 16th century best-known, Japanese tea-master, it is on the host’s responsibility not only to prepare charcoal to heat the water, but to make his guest feel warm in winter and cool in summer, to be attentive towards all guests and to serve the tea with insight into their souls.

Such are the keys to a successful tea-drinking party, nowadays a rarity for many Asian tea-lovers as global industrialization makes true refinement more and more difficult. To be merely an idealized form of drinking but to some extent a kind of religion, at least for worshippers of the art of living.

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