Monday, May 07, 2007

READER'S CORNER: Corax on John Blofeld's The Chinese Art of Tea

John Blofeld. THE CHINESE ART OF TEA. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985. xxii + 169 pp. Reprinted in 1997 by Shambhala Publications (Boston). Their ISBN: 1570622795.

In the inaugural post to the CHA DAO 'Reader's Corner' series, I said that 'we expect to be delving into older works as well [as recent releases].' In mentioning 'older works' I had at least two specific books in mind: one, James Norwood Pratt's NEW TEA LOVER'S TREASURY (NTLT), has already been reviewed here. The other was Blofeld's Chinese Art of Tea. Two more venerable (or important) books on China teas it would be difficult to find, or even to imagine.

In my review of Pratt's book, I styled him 'the tea-lover's Marco Polo'; Blofeld deserves that title at least as much, as he indeed actually expatriated from England to China, living there for many years, learning its language and its religions, wandering its many regions, and eventually even marrying a Chinese woman. But truth to tell, the teas of China account for only one of his manifold interests in that ancient and vast country, as his publications show: rather than list them all here, I should simply refer you to the Wikipedia entry for John Eaton Calthorpe Blofeld (wonderful name, no?).

The Chinese Art of Tea (= TCAOT) appeared in 1985 -- which is to say, three years after the first edition of Pratt's Tea Lover's Treasury. B does not include any bibliography to his 1985 edition -- the one I am reviewing -- so it is not possible to say with certainty whether at that point he knew Pratt's book. But given the fact that he had by this point settled in Thailand, and probably wrote the book there, it is quite possible -- perhaps likely -- that he did not. (His dedication and acknowledgments, pp. v and xvii, mention books in Chinese, provided by friends in Hong Kong and Taiwan; it seems highly probable that the bulk of his data came from these, and from his own personal experiences in China.) Pratt's second edition, on the other hand, does notice TCAOT, terming it 'a must' (NTLT, p. 197).

That about sums it up. B adopts a mild, unprepossessing prose style in these pages, which serves to mask the massive learning underpinning the writing of them. In fact it would have been quite impossible to produce such a book without [a] an extended sojourn in China, [b] fluency in Chinese sufficient to equip one to read Chinese books on tea, and [c] a broad synthesizing awareness of the way in which tea is actually an epitome or summation of Chinese culture overall. Moreover, I think it is correct to say that the writing of such a book -- this particular approach to China teas -- would be quite impossible today, even if all three of these conditions were met. The reason for this is that B himself was born less than two years after the end of the Qing dynasty, and his wanderings through China took place in the years immediately preceding, during, and following the Second World War (1933-1949). His personal experience of Chinese culture, then, was of a culture as yet untouched by the Cultural Revolution. (The book itself is tinged with a somewhat elegiac tone, here and there, as B reminisces and grieves over what had been irrevocably lost by 1985.) Not even the greatest tea authority writing today could match the first-hand experience of the now-vanished China that was home to B for many years. (Quite apart from this -- or maybe not? -- it is hard to imagine a writer who would bring a more winning combination of congeniality, occasional whimsy, and affable cultural appreciation to his work. One very quickly finds oneself wishing heartily that one could brew some tea with this kind, wise man, and hear what he had to say about it. Alas, those days are already long vanished as well: B died 20 years ago this June.)

But lest we descend over-deep into elegy ourselves, let us celebrate the fact that B has left us this splendid, learned, and highly readable resource. Here is the table of contents:

List of Illustrations
1: Tea in History and Legend
2: The Emperor Hui Tsung's Treatise on Tea
3: A Ming Dynasty Tea Manual
4: Tea Gardens
5: Teahouses
6: Ten Thousand Teas
7: Tea and the Tao
8: Mountain Springs, the Friends of Tea
9: Poems and Songs of Tea
10: A Manual for Practising the Artless Art
11: Tea and Ceramics
12: Tea and Health
Old and new Chinese styles of romanisation
Names of some available teas
Names of cities and provinces mentioned in the text
Maps of China's main tea-producing provinces
Chinese sources referred to in the text

Literally every page has something interesting and important to offer. The illustrations are especially helpful, as B has gone to great lengths to gather images of traditional Chinese paintings that depict people preparing or drinking tea. Particularly precious are his own translations from the Chinese: the Da Guan Cha Lun of the Song Dynasty emperor Huizong, here in chapter 2; the Cha Shu or 'Tea Book' of Xu Zishu (Xu Ranming), in chapter 3; and the tea-poems and songs so evocative of Chinese culture over the centuries (chapter 9 et passim). The informal and sometimes resumptive way in which these versions were produced means that the most meticulous readers will want them all carefully redone, with annotations; but in the meantime, they are all conveniently gathered here, and not even the most chrysostomic translator is liable to surpass the beauty or elegance of B's English. Occasionally one wonders whether the common usage has actually undergone some changes in China since B's day -- for example he refers to green tea (p. 121) not as lu cha but as qing cha, which to me suggests rather some form of oolong -- but on the whole my inclination is to trust him wholly in matters of language. (He does use Wade-Giles transliteration, not the hanyu pinyin I have been using here; but in this regard too his age is showing; he tries to make adjustment on behalf of the by-then-expanding adoption of pinyin on the mainland, by including an Appendix on 'Old and New Chinese Styles of Romanisation' [pp. 164-165], one that correlates 'Names of Some Available Teas' in both systems [165-166], and one that correlates 'Names of Cities and Provinces Mentioned in the Text' in the same way [166-167].)

One particularly inimitable and irreplaceable chapter is that on 'Tea and the Tao' (pp. 91-192), in which B allows us a glimpse of the spiritual dimension that tea can have for Daoist thinkers and drinkers. Like his treatment of the Guanyin legend (found on pp. 71-72), this material comes from the hand of one who knows far more about his subject than he is letting on -- and from personal, lived experience, not just book-learning. (Or book-writing, for that matter: it is well to remember that B not only translated and edited the I Ching, but also composed a profound and reverent account of the worship of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, and a comprehensive study of Daoism, Taoism: The Road to Immortality.) This lived experience is also what makes his chapter 10, which is his own guide for the practice of gongfu cha, a rich resource -- potentially on a spiritual as well as on a historico-societal level. To this 'manual' he brings not only a long, affectionate familiarity with the culture of old China, but also the layered learning of a scholar steeped for decades in the primary and secondary written sources on tea -- in Chinese. All his modesty and unprepossessing style are not sufficient entirely to conceal the depth and breadth of his erudition here.

So I hope it is by now manifest that this is a book to be read, re-read, cherished, shared, given as a gift, and treasured. I am mystified as to why it is currently out of print. One can only hope that Shambhala Publications will bring it back into print as soon as possible.


speakfreely said...

I love this book. Another fine book by J. Blofeld, which you don't mention here is "City of Lingering Splendor", which recounts three years of the author's life as a young man in Beijing, in the 1930's. Here we find the author's appreciation for the remnants of imperial Chinese culture which hung on in Beijing for years after the emporer left the dragon throne.

Salsero said...

Just want to say "thank you" for this lovely series of book reviews you've given us.

corax said...

salsero, thanks for your kind
words! i'm glad you are
enjoying my reviews. i hope
to add more in the months [years?] to come.

speakfreely, thanks for this book recommendation too, which is listed on the wikipedia page i mentioned but which i have not [yet] myself read. it's definitely on my own list -- i love blofeld!

speakfreely said...

I have some reservations about Blofeld, (having read his autobiography, "The Wheel of life", and also "The Bodhisattva of Compassion" that you mention, and "The Zen teachings of Huang Po") but not to imply that I don't appreciate his work, especially "The Chinese Art of Tea". "City of Lingering Splendor" is a fascinating and highly nostalgic read; hard to put the book down once you get started. You won't be dissapointed if you've enjoyed his other works.

~ Phyll said...

Many thanks, Professor! I need to hunt this book down.

corax said...

phyll, you are more than
welcome. yes, i think you
are going to like this book.