Art and tea have a strong connection for Steve Owyoung who is an art historian and in the midst of working on an annotated translation of Lu Yu’s Chajing, the first book devoted to tea. A drinker of fine artisanal teas, he is happy to pay the dear prices for the handcrafted leaf he drinks.
Qn.: Could you describe the culture of tea. How was it growing up in your home?
Owyoung: My relationship with tea began when I was a child. There was always a pot kept warm all day in my grandfather’s home. My first experience was with black tea. A favorite on the new year was a small cup of pu’er poured over candied ginger or dragon eyes to soften the fruit. I was very fond of this. We always had pu’er, a very dark strong tea we drank with dimsum. Because the food was so very rich, pu’er cleansed the palate and helped digestion.
It was only when I went to Taiwan that I encountered tea as a social event. In our home tea was served when friends visited, of course, but in Taiwan it was taken to a higher level. The Taiwanese made tea fresh in tiny teapots. I learned this was the proper way to drink tea and realized brewing took a great deal more than just pouring hot water. As I began making tea, friends showed me that the leaf was in the arts, in literature, and in history. When I was a student of Chinese history, it became clear that tea was a form of art.
Qn.: Could you explain the relationship between tea, art and literature?
Owyoung: Very early on, objects used in the preparation and service of tea – pots, blue green stone ware, and porcelain – were works of art. As an aesthetic practice, tea was fully formed in the 3rd century: tea was created, classified, manufactured, and brewed with distinctive qualities. Because tea was an aesthetic, it influenced strongly the objects used in tea, all of which became more refined and reflected in poetry and art.
The influence of tea was not only in ceramics but in painting as well. In many pictures, a little boy is seen faning the brazier. Such a scene was a minor element in the entire landscape, but just this feature informed the viewer that the work was a picture of tea. Praised by the literati, such a painting was hung and shown for the enjoyment of guests.
Things that are seemingly unrelated are intimately related. For example, many tea paintings picture pine trees, but I never understood the connection. It was sound. When the wind blows through pines, there is a gentle sighing. In the tea tradition, the sound was likened to the whisper of the kettle heating on the brazier when brewing tea. Thus, the pine is a literary feature that alludes to tea. Songfeng or “pine wind” has been a metaphor for tea for many centuries.
Qn.: Do the arts, literature, and cuisine have different views of tea?
Owyoung: There are schools of tea that are very rigorous and precise in ceremony, but the literati practice of tea is very relaxed. Even in the strictest traditions, the casual making of tea is considered the highest achievement.
Since ancient times, the tradition of tea has always been a literary form rather than just a culinary form. Tea as an aesthetic attracted poets and the literati, who employed tea as an important artistic motif.
Qn.: Can you share your experience of translating the Chajing, the Book of Tea?
Owyoung: I enjoy the challenge of translating Chinese tea poetry into English. Translation is not just word for word, but instead it is the recreation in elegant form of the Chinese original. I also found inaccuracies in the English translations of the Chajing, and some translations were not as refined as they should be. After all, the author of the Book of Tea was a poet. Completing my translation, I saw that the translation itself needed to be explained or somehow introduced because over time the references – the historical circumstances and figures and their names – have all become rather obscure. Generally speaking, there is little known about tea history, and in the Chajing there is often a wonderful story behind a seemingly simple sentence or event.
For instance in the Book of Tea, the Chinese general Liu Kun wrote a letter to his nephew and asked him to bring tea. Well, just why did he have to write to his nephew for tea?
In another story, the émigré Ren Zhan asked whether the tea was hot or cold. Again, just why did he ask such an odd question? These queries and more require explanation.
Coming up next: The story of Liu Kun and his nephew and Steven Owyoung’s beautiful tea shelter.