The Book of Tea

The Book of Tea by Kazuko Okakura. Parts of it made tedious reading, because of the old style prose, almost condescending in places.

But some chapters shine, such as the history of tea. Okakura writes that there were three major epochs of tea making. The first had tea formed into bricks and boiled with salt and various ingredients including butter and onions. This method is still used in Tibet where they still boil up tea and churn it with butter and salt.

Even the famous Lu Wu, author of the Classic of Tea, who managed to eliminate most unnecessary ingredients still boiled his tea with salt.

The second epoch in the Sung Dynasty saw green tea ground into powder and whisked with hot water. At this time tea was adopted in Japan and they still retain this style of tea making in their formal tea ceremony. Okakura wrote that this style became lost in China during the Mongol invasion, such that later scholars were at a loss to describe the bamboo whisk used for whipping up the tea after adding hot water.

The third epoch was during the Ming Dynasty where loose leaf tea is steeped in hot water, which is the method most of the world is familiar with, although existing in a more refined form in China.

The Book of Tea also explains the aesthetic behind Japanese style interior decoration. Instead of cluttering up the place with numerous artefacts and repetitive decoration, it seems the idea is to have a single focus for the decoration, a work of art in a sparely furnished room. This single focus and the layout (such as it is) may be changed frequently. Simple materials with the signs of wear and use, but otherwise spotlessly clean are preferred. Clutter, repetitiveness and even simple symmetry is to be avoided. Don’t place a flower vase in the exact centre of the decorative niche or tokonoma, for example, but slightly off centre. Tasteful arrangement, focus on a few good works of art, and the contrast with plain surroundings is key.

You have to hack through the flowery affected language Okakura uses to distil these essentials, a language that to me seems to defy the essence of Teaism and Zennism Okakura seeks to extol. But I found the explication of the aesthetics of tea and decoration, when the author finally gets to it, very interesting. 


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