If you could only name one book about Chinese tea, what book would it be? Probably The Classic of Tea. And who do you think is the most famous Chinese tea person in the world? I would vote for Lu Yu. Whether you’re deeply in love with tea or just getting started, you’ve probably heard of The Classic of Tea and Lu Yu somewhere in your travels. So What’s so special about this dude and his book?
Who is Lu Yu?
Lu Yu is known as a Tea Sage nowadays, but even during the Tang Dynasty, he was considered a tea god and people built memorials and temples to worship him. Born in Tianmen, Hubei Province, Lu Yu was an abandoned baby. He described himself as a type A person with some stubbornness and impatience. Though he stuttered, it didn’t detract from his great debating skills and his deep yearning for knowledge. Lu Yu is considered a tea expert because he and his groundbreaking work The Classic of Tea started a new age for tea, making it a truly national drink for China, and consequently influenced the world of tea hundreds of years later. His knowledge of tea history, tea cultivation, tea processing, and tasting is expansive and this is also reflected in his tea books. Besides the world-renowned ‘The Classic of Tea’, he also wrote 水品 (shui pin), exclusively focused on water for tea brewing, and 毁茶论 (hui cha lun), an expansion on The Classic of Tea. Sadly, only The Classic of Tea is preserved to this day. The others are lost to history, and we can only get a glimpse of them from ancient references. With a curious mind and keenness for learning, Lu Yu’s achievements go beyond just tea. He is a well-respected poet, a well recognized antique connoisseur, and a respected geographer with many dedicated books on these respective areas. Actually, he was more famous as a literati than a tea expert during his time, though when we talk about Lu Yu nowadays, we pretty much only think of tea.
What is The Classic of Tea?
The Classic of Tea, or Tea Clalssic, written by Lu Yu in the 60s and 70s of the 8th century (about 1200 years ago), includes 10 chapters explaining tea’s origin, tools, production, utensils, boiling, drinking, history, growing regions, and how to simplify and pictorialize. This was the first book, or treatise, dedicated to tea and inspired many more that followed his work. In the classic of tea, Lu Yu systematically summarized tea history, knowledge, and practices from before his time, making it a solid reference for us modern people to study the ancient history of tea. The success of the book at the time also promoted tea from a noble’s novelty drink to a popular sip that the common people would also enjoy. How did tea become the national drink of China? This was step one. Moreover, the value and spirit Lu Yu advocated in the Classic of Tea expanded the relationship between humans and tea from a basic physiological need, elevating tea from a simple beverage to intellectual pursuit, a cultural symbol, marking it as the beginning of Chinese tea culture. The influence of the book also reached beyond China and deeply impacted the tea culture in other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea.
The Classic of Tea is a book from 1200 years ago and we don’t even drink tea the way they did at that time at all. So why bother talking about this book? Well, we don’t talk like Shakespeare, why is Shakespeare in the school curriculum? Yes, I think The classic of tea transcends time and is totally worth us tea lovers giving it a read, not to mention it’s fun to look at the tea world at that time through Lu Yu’s lens. Besides, The Classic of Tea is THE most requested book for our Sunday Tea book series. Sunday Tea Book is a youtube live series where you and we read together books that have great content for Chinese tea lovers but are unavailable or very obscure in the west. We either translate them or if they are already translated, improve or elaborate on the existing translations. In season 1, we went through Jianli Wu’s book, China Tea, followed by Chen Chuan’s paper on tea classification. You can check those videos out on our channel. Next up, we’ll be reading The Classic of Tea together with you in the upcoming season 2 of Sunday Tea Book!
Zhen was hesitant to tackle The Classic of Tea in our Sunday Tea Book series because of the MANY barriers. Language, culture, and time to name just a few. The book itself has more than 37 versions in ancient Chinese. It’s written in ancient Chinese of the Tang Dynasty, meaning that some of the words have lost their meaning, and some have changed. Even now there are still some controversies regarding certain words among academics. But after much brainstorming, I think we figured out a way to present you an interesting, informative, and fun read of The Classic of Tea. It will be a little bit different than the format of season 1, but it will keep all the key elements. We are hoping to bring you a comprehensive read of the book rather than a simple translation, using our expertise in Chinese tea to bridge the gap between the western and Chinese culture, the gap between today’s tea world and the tea world of 1200 years ago. To achieve this goal and minimize misunderstanding, we’ll need your help, your input and feedback are what makes Sunday Tea Book so valuable to the tea community. Be sure to check out our Youtube channel so you will know when we start scheduling season 2 of Sunday Tea Book.
To help make it easier and less confusing for tea lovers to get into the “The Classic of tea” mode, we want to get some basics out of the way. First, in this article, we talked about Lu Yu, and the classic of tea, and its significance. Next, we’ll expand from Lu Yu to his time, the Tang Dynasty, giving you a little bit of cultural background and context. What was the Tang Dynasty like? Why is it such a special time in the Chinese heart? How did people enjoy tea during the Tang Dynasty? If you are thinking, they boiled tea. Think again.
To be continued…