Sunday, September 17, 2006

a milestone: CHA DAO celebrates its first anniversary

it's hard to believe how fast time flies, especially when you're drinking a lot of good tea. but the fact of the matter is, it was fully a year ago that CHA DAO was founded.

during that time we've seen a dramatic rise in the national and international awareness of tea, and of the special importance of china teas in particular. this has been manifested in at least three ways: [1] the time and space devoted by the 'mainstream media' [though that term has less and less meaning these days] to tea culture and tea commerce [from plantation to retail outlet]; [2] the increase in tea purveyors [tea houses and tea shops] in the USA, traditionally a hugely coffee-dominated culture; and [3] the proliferation of blogs, fora, and commercial sites devoted to tea on the internet.

in addition to all of this, we've remarked an increased interest on the part of purveyors in satisfying the demands of choosy american clients, both in terms of furnishing a broader selection of teas and teaware, and in terms of providing more detailed documentation on their offerings. potential purchasers, who may have some substantial money to spend on tea and teaware, want more and more to know what it is precisely that they would be purchasing.

this is itself likely a function of the increasing ease with which someone in the USA can do business with purveyors in china and other asian countries-- a distinct change from only a couple of years ago. it is also very likely to be directly related to the recently increased interest in pu'er tea in particular, and to the media coverage thereof. the notion of 'tea collecting' as hobby or investment was largely unimagined in america a decade ago, because relatively far fewer people had heard of pu'er [and most other teas do not similarly reward the practice of stockpiling over a period of years]. but as interest in this specific type of china tea continues to increase, in the USA as in france, taiwan, and hong kong, investors are investing. the 'buzz' is that a majority of the highest-quality pu'er never leaves asia, and that what little does trickle out is exorbitantly priced.

that may or may not be true, but the very perception is sure to contribute to the attention given pu'er cha [and china teas in general] by the media and by tea drinkers, both current and prospective. another factor that has played no little part in the growing occidental interest in tea over the past decade is the attention being given to claims about the dietary and medicinal values of tea -- above all to greens, wulong, and pu'er teas. whether this is all just part of the 'next big thing' effect, and the interest in china teas is a balloon that will pop, or is indeed a permanent cultural shift that we are just beginning to see happen, it is too soon to say.

one index that this rising interest in tea may not be just a flash in the pan: a marked increase in the publication of western-style scientific investigations of health claims related to tea. 'cha,' of course, has figured prominently in the annals of traditional chinese medicine [TCM] for literally thousands of years. this fascinating and ancient approach to enhancing the quality of human life has much to commend it, and interest in it is also rising in the west. but its authority system -- the way in which it propounds, and vouches for, its various prescribed types of treatment -- appears to be fundamentally different from the system underpinning western empirical science. [i say 'appears,' because the two systems may not be as disparate as they initially seem: whereas TCM depends on a body of lore, which receives veneration from devotees on the basis of its antiquity, that body of lore is itself largely underpinned by empirical observation too -- and empirical observation that has been going on for centuries longer than what underpins modern western medicine. the things that distinguish TCM's empiricism from that of western medical science are its methods of testing and its modes of reporting and judging data.]

what we're seeing, on a scale that frankly took me aback when i began to look into it, is a remarkable upswing in what we might call comparative medical science: the application of western-style pharmacological and medical research into dietary and medicinal claims for tea that quite recently received backing solely from TCM and related 'lore-based' approaches. this kind of fusion would probably never have happened without the burgeoning incursion of western commerce into other cultures around the world, combined with the meteoric rise of information technology. as non-westerners have been increasingly exposed to western cinema, western television, western print media, and of course the internet -- and as western industries have sought a foothold in new nations -- the non-western interest in western cultural phenomena has, naturally enough, continued to grow. think for example of the japanese interest in baseball, or in european classical and romantic symphonic music. so perhaps we should not be surprised to see asian scientists [1] devoting considerable energy to studying western science, and [2] bringing western-scientific scrutiny to bear upon their own cultural artefacts. to the extent that east and west are, culturally speaking, specular opposites, such interest might be considered the asian mirror-image of our western interest in asian teas, which has for the most part been commensurately unscientific.

in any case, the health-and-medicine angle is only one aspect of the current increasing focus on tea in europe and north america. it's a matter for the philosophers to decide whether and how the concern for health overlaps with the concern for pleasure; but, dietary and medicinal claims aside, what surely draws so many drinkers to china teas is the pure bodily pleasure of drinking them. *** note well, by 'bodily' i certainly do not mean to exclude the psychological and even spiritual effects that attend on the bodily experience. on the contrary: the kind of mind/body dualism propounded by thinkers like descartes is by no means always a helpful distinction, in my opinion. one of the lessons that cha dao can teach us [and by 'cha dao,' in lower-case letters, i mean to indicate the dao of cha in all its richest fullness, not specifically this blog] is how profoundly and pervasively the mind and the body are connected. when we sit and brew several infusions of a pu'er or a wulong, and feel its qi infuse us in turn, we tap in to that mysterious and ravishing connection.

this issue of time may be one reason why cha dao is gaining in its appeal to americans. we live in an instant culture, a society in which 'i want it yesterday!' makes, alas, cogent sense. but the very process of brewing even one infusion of tea requires at least a few minutes' time. in the words of the immortal joni mitchell, we humans are 'captive on the carousel of time'; the act of brewing tea legitimizes one's pausing to breathe amid and despite such a hectic existence. [and here we may recall that one traditional chinese way of timing the infusion of tea is, precisely, by counting breaths.] the experience of making and enjoying such infusions, moreover, is a reminder that we are in fact human. is there another animal that brews tea?

but we are spinning off here into the realm of the philosophical. not that that is not a perfectly appropriate pursuit of cha dao, above all on CHA DAO; but my main purpose in posting today was to mark and celebrate this first-year milestone, and to extend hearty thanks to all our contributors and readers who have given CHA DAO a way and a reason to exist. here's to many more cups of tea, and many more useful and interesting posts, for as long as this mode of communication continues to prove viable.

-- corax