Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lu T’ung and the “Song of Tea”: The Taoist Origins of the Seven Bowls [Part 1 of 2]


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: By now Steven Owyoung, one of the world's authorities on tea and a veteran contributor to CHA DAO, will need no introduction. His topic in this essay is the "Song of Tea," one of the most quoted (and perhaps least understood) pieces of ancient literature on tea. Few even of our most learned readers will know the details amassed in this fascinating essay, which expertly weaves together elements of biography, history, Daoist thought, human physiology and nutrition, numerology, and tea culture, in a virtuoso illumination of this famous poem. (Along the way, he also sheds some important light on the Cha Jing of Lu Yu.) Unless otherwise indicated, all translations (including that of the "Song of Tea" itself) are Owyoung's own. His new English version of the entire "Song of Tea" -- a text far more substantial than the excerpt usually cited -- first appeared in Beatrice Hohenegger's Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West (St Martin's Press 2007) pp. 20-21. The complete translation appears here, in very slightly revised form. Because of its substantial size, this essay will appear in two parts.]]

Seven Bowls of Tea

The “Song of Tea” is one of the most beloved tea poems known the world over. Its verses on “seven cups” of tea remain as famous today as when written in China over a thousand years ago during the T’ang dynasty (618-906 A.D.). The Song was composed by the Taoist recluse Lu T’ung (775-835 A.D.), a celebrated poet and connoisseur of tea. Lu T’ung was inspired by a gift of tea from an official high in the ranks of the imperial court. The tea was named Yang-hsien, after the gardens where it was grown for the exclusive use of the emperor. Surprised and delighted by the present, Lu T’ung brewed the tea and drank. Bowl after bowl, he felt the tea transform him until it seemed that he became immortal. The story of Lu T’ung – his life, poetry, and tea -- provides an understanding of the “Song of Tea” and the idyllic but fragile world of the T’ang literati.

Lu T’ung and Lu Yü

Lu T’ung hardly lived a dangerous life. He was, after all, a gentleman of leisure. Indeed, for all of his sixty years, he lived in retirement, realizing the literati dream of being free from the dusty world to write and pursue artistic pastimes. Erudite and cultured, he was a poet of considerable eccentricity and a noted connoisseur of fine tea. For a time, he lived as a hermit in the mountains near the eastern capital. His lofty, independent style was admired by the wealthy and the powerful. While ministers and officials might fret and toil for rank and fortune, they could always look to Lu T’ung as the ideal among them, unsullied and beyond the fray. Fame for Lu the recluse was unfortunate but rewarding. And in truth, his celebrity kept him in the highest company and in the rarest tea. Yet, the farther from solitude he strayed, the closer he came to the imperial court and its lethal intrigues. In a knotted twist of fate, Lu T’ung’s passion for tea proved to be his undoing. His perfect life ended abruptly and very badly.

As a connoisseur, Lu T’ung naturally drank tea. But in the late T’ang, nearly everyone did. Tea was everywhere: from the palace to the cottage, from the northernmost borders to beyond the eastern seas. There were tea shops and market stalls and itinerant tea sellers offering a bowl of tea on the streets and alleys of every city and town. Among the elite, tea was an aesthetic pursuit, an artistic and culinary endeavor codified by the Ch’a-ching, the Book of Tea. Published in 780 A.D., the Ch’a-ching was a canonical work written by the great saint of tea, Lu Yü.

Lu T’ung, who was no relation to the elder tea master, studied the Book and became expert as a connoisseur. He was thirty years old when Lu Yü died around 804 A.D., but there was no history of their meeting. Yet, Lu T’ung might well have shared tea with Lu Yü when the master was still alive; one or two apocryphal stories survive. Both men certainly held a good deal in common. They were deeply learned but disdained official life, devoting themselves instead to scholarship and poetry. And, despite their eremitic characters and eccentric personalities, they were admired and patronized by the high and mighty of the imperial bureaucracy. Late in life each faced personal tragedy. Lu Yü lost his teacher and foster sister. Lu T’ung lost his life. But the great bond that connected the men was tea, especially the use of tea in Taoist meditation and inspiration.

Saint of Tea

In life and lore, Lu Yü and Lu T’ung were intimately associated with Taoism. Lu Yü was particularly accomplished in cosmological and alchemical studies, interests that began when he was young. Lu Yü was orphaned at the age of two and abandoned “desolate and exposed” along the shores of the West Lake in Ching-ling, Hupeh. Discovering the child, the head priest Chi-kung took the foundling to the Lung-kai Temple, a Ch’an Buddhist monastery. Cloistered, the boy was raised as a little monk, or so the story was told. But there was another tale for the telling. According to legend, the toddler stayed at the monastery only briefly before he was sent to live with the Li family. Master Li was a Confucian from Huchou, an eastern town famous for its tea gardens on the southern rim of Lake T’ai. When he retired from office, Master Li “divined a dwelling place” in which the augury foretold the move south to Hupeh near the Lung-kai monastery. Master Li set out in anticipation of a peaceful, retired life; he was known by the Taoist name Ju-kung, Master Child. When the priest Chi-kung learned of the family’s arrival from Huchou, he asked them to care for the small orphan. Master Li fostered the child and raised him like a son with his own daughter, Li Yeh, a brilliant and precocious girl of five. The two grew up as sister and brother and were tutored together, learning Confucian belles-lettres and Taoist teachings. At the age of eight, Lu Yü returned to the monastery. But not for long. Desiring to study the classics and unhappy with the intellectual strictures imposed by his teacher Chi-kung, Lu Yü – aged just eleven – rebelled. Deserting the monk and monastic life, Lu Yü joined a traveling troupe of actors, trying his hand at playwriting and comedic skits. On discovering Lu Yü again, the old priest relented and granted the boy time to study non-Buddhist literature. As a young man, Lu Yü spent many years as an itinerant scholar and later roamed the wilds of Szechwan searching for tea when war and chaos forced him south of the Yangtze. Mixed with the mass of refugees fleeing the bloodshed, Lu Yü found himself in the tea town of Huchou, the home of the Li family, and reunited with Li Yeh.

After the death of her parents, Li Yeh returned to her hometown as a young, unmarried woman to become a Taoist priestess and one of the foremost poets of the age. She lived near Lake T’ai and cut a striking figure against its dark, broad waters in her Taoist robes of deep yellow and a many-pleated cape of shimmering, translucent silk. She carried a bamboo staff of nine knots, and as she walked, her lotus crown of gauzy petals trembled with each step. Her exoticism, beauty, and allure were all heightened by her exceptional talent as a poet. She was often found at the K’ai-yüan Temple surrounded by admirers. Finding Li Yeh in Huchou, Lu Yü settled there, building a small hut on the banks of the T’iao-hsi, a stream within walking distance of the large imperial tea estates near the lake where Li Yeh lived. The familial ties between Lu Yü and Li Yeh were renewed and close, their visits with one another recorded in exchanges like the bitter-sweet poem by Li Yeh entitled, "Lying Ill above the Lake, Happy for the Visit of Lu Yü":
Long ago, the night you left,
the moon shone harsh as frost.
Now you return at a time of bitter mists.
We meet again; but as before, I lie here ill.
Wishing to speak, tears first fall.
Urged to drink T’ao Ch’ien’s wine,
I respond, chanting a poem by Hsieh Ling-yün.
Now, all at once, we’re perfectly drunk ...
What else could we possibly do?
Li Yeh’s teasing, unrestrained love poems made her a favorite among the highest literary circles and she soon attracted the attention of the emperor. Answering the imperial summons, she traveled to the capital Ch’ang’an by boat and litter under escort, a watchful but arrogant company of palace eunuchs sent to fetch her. She entered the inner palace, entertaining the emperor, composing poetry in his praise, chanting her poems to him, and accompanying her songs for the sovereign’s ear on the soft-sounding zither. All seemed well until Li Yeh astonished everyone by abruptly leaving the palace after a single month. Her parting was amiable for she left with presents from the emperor, but her release from the inner chambers of the palace was still a source of comment. Her strong streak of independence was called “masculine” by her admiring male contemporaries, and for most of her unconventional life, she was held in awe as a courtesan of the most extraordinary order.

Lu Yü was nothing if not a fair match for his foster sister. In due time, he received his own invitation to the imperial palace, but not because of his looks or personality. Lu Yü described himself as “ugly” and “biased and irascible and often subjective.” He stuttered and was distant and aloof, ignoring company, preferring to wander about chanting poetry and Buddhist scripture, “wailing and weeping” until people thought him mad. He had a deep, reclusive bent and enjoyed solitary study. Even as a teenager, Lu Yü showed great literary promise. Escaping the monastery, he impressed and gained the support of several important officials who recognized his innate talent and sponsored his education with literary collections, teachers, and academic opportunities. Later in life, he rose on a literary tide that granted him several titles, ranks, and positions, swelling even to the use of the title Imperial Instructor and an honored seat on the editorial board of an imperial compilation on rhyme. Lu Yü was an eclectic scholar and wrote on a variety of subjects, including political and social theory, genealogy, famous people in history, officialdom, and local histories.

As a Taoist, Lu Yü was deeply committed to the T’ang imperial house, honoring its ancestral line to Lao-tzu. When rebels defied the throne, Lu Yü expressed his outrage and loyalty by composing a series of poems called the Four Lamentations and The Obscuring of Heaven. To honor the triumph of the imperial forces over the rebel armies of An Lu-shan and Shih Ssu-ming in 763 A.D., he dedicated the casting of his bronze brazier to the victory. Lu Yü’s faith in the throne was severely tested when his foster sister Li Yeh receive another imperial summons. Ascending the august dragon throne, the emperor Te-tsung called for her to ornament the inner palace where she was inducted into serving his personal court. When Ch’ang’an was attacked in 783 A.D., the emperor fled, leaving Li Yeh and other palace ladies behind and at the mercy of the rebel general. When Te-tsung returned to the capital the next year, Li Yeh was denounced by eunuchs and charged with crimes against the state. The emperor learned that while in the rebel’s hands, Li Yeh wrote a song in praise of the general. It was understood that her poem was coerced from her by her captor but there was no assuaging the emperor’s anger. Her art, Li Yeh’s own poetry and music were used in evidence against her. Li Yeh was humiliated, tortured, and executed. If a lament was written to mourn Li Yeh, none survived. Lu Yü was shocked and saddened by the unimaginable loss of his sister and friend.

In addition to the priestess Li Yeh, Lu Yü counted among his Taoist friends the noted recluse Chang Chih-ho, who, like Lu himself, also lived in a hermitage on T’iao-hsi Stream. It is unknown if Lu Yü was celibate, but he never married; that fact alone brought him close to a priestly life and stature. The popular notion of the man was revealed in an image of Lu Yü. In the late T’ang, tea merchants commissioned glazed porcelain statues of Lu Yü that showed him seated, wearing a Taoist miter – a tripartite, lotus-form headdress -- and reading a handscroll. Given out along with miniature tea sets by the merchants to their favored customers, the ceramic figure was revered as the “Saint of Tea.”

Lu Yü studied Taoist alchemy and was remarkably current on all of the theoretical developments of the eighth century A.D. in the esoteric field. In 759 A.D., he visited Mount Mao, the founding site of Shang-ch’ing Taoism and repository of its most sacred scriptures. The Ch’a-ching (Book of Tea) and a lost work known as The Interpretation of Dreams were among his most overtly Taoist writings. Lu Yü’s profound Taoist experiences provided great personal insight into the intimate connections between tea and Taoism, notably the prescriptive use of tea in the preparation and service of the drink. All were manifest in the Book of Tea.

Hermit of Mount Sung

In the mind of Lu T’ung, the elder tea master Lu Yü and the Ch’a-ching were models of the art of tea and eremitic Taoism. By a quirk of fate, Lu T’ung was born in one of the most sacred of Taoist places. His hometown of Chiyüan, Honan was famous for Mount Wangwu, “mountain of the King’s chamber,” where in hoary antiquity the Yellow Emperor received the Scripture of the Divine Elixirs of the Nine Tripods. The hundreds of medicinal plants that grew abundantly on the slopes attracted physicians and apothecaries like the early T’ang alchemist Sun Ssu-mo who roamed Wangwu in search of herbal remedies. Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen, the twelfth patriarch of the Shang-ch’ing Taoist sect, lived in tranquil seclusion on the sacred mountain in a palatial temple built for him in 724 A.D. by Emperor Hsüan-tsung. The sanctity of his surroundings imbued Lu T’ung with a deep sense of the spiritual, and Taoism was held by him all of his life -- his poetry and tea, reflections of its teachings.

Lu T’ung practiced the art of tea in Stone Village, a place near Mount Wangwu where he lived in a country villa with his wife and children. Originally from Fangyang, Loyang, he was a member of an aristocratic clan and belonged to landed gentry, his status and means allowed him a life devoted to family and the aesthetic ideal. He called himself "Master Jade Stream" (Yü-ch'uan tzu) after a local mountain spring, laying claim to the cosmic yin, the expressive Taoist force of water. While on pilgrimage to Mount Sung, one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism, he stayed to live in seclusion for years on Lesser Stone, a peak rising amidst the monastic sanctuaries that flourished on its slopes. There he pursued scholarship, poetry, and tea in a tranquility broken only by the visits of family and friends. It is a question as to what moved Lu T’ung to abandon his solitude. But he descended from his Taoist hermitage around 810 A.D. and entered the old city of Loyang.

Known as the Eastern Capital, Loyang was the official city and residence of the crown prince and a major market and entrepôt of the empire. Divided by the Lo River, Loyang boasted three great marketplaces strategically located in the city’s northern, eastern and western quadrants and accessible by an intricate network of canals and channels. In the seventh century A.D., “more than ten thousand boats from all over the country” crowded about the T’ung-chi Bridge near North Market. Just as the imperial capital Ch’ang’an in the west served as the trade terminus of the Silk Road, Loyang in the east funneled tribute grains, silk, and tea and all the exotic goods and materials of the abundant south to the western capital. Borne on the waters of the Grand Canal, the wealth of the empire streamed into bustling Loyang where the nobility, officials, and merchants shared in the riches, gathering in select neighborhoods near the southern gate and building great mansions and splendid gardens.

Lu T’ung arrived in Loyang a celebrity. He owed his fame in part to the lunar spectacle of 810 A.D. and to a long, intricate prose poem he entitled "Eclipse of the Moon" to commemorate a wintry scene of ice and cold when the midmonth moon and its radiant light were gradually dimmed:
... At first it seemed that a white lotus
Had floated up from the Dragon King’s palace.
But this night ... was not like other nights;
For now we saw a strange thing:
There was something eating its way inside the rim ...
Ring and disc crumbled away ...
Darkness smeared the whole sky like soot ...
The poet then told the ancient tale of “a demon frog that comes to eat the moon,” a monstrous creature lustful yet careless of evil, choosing only to devour luminous purity. Lu T’ung then addressed the horror directly:
With lips stretched wide and gaping jaws, you eat insatiably.
You have fed your disobedience by eating the eye of Heaven.
How long before the Lord on High ordains your execution?
[after A.C. Graham, trans.]
"Eclipse of the Moon" circulated widely, and Lu T’ung gained a reputation for fantastical images and literary bombast as well as derring-do. High officials at court were impressed, particularly those who believed the poem to be an attack on the eunuch clique clawing its way to power through the shadows of the imperial palace. Many thought that Heaven represented the emperor, and the bright moon symbolized the pure light of a loyal and incorruptible official who warned against the growing evil of the eunuchs and was utterly destroyed by the “demon frog.” The name Lu T’ung was on the lips of all the gossips. The famous writer of ancient-style prose, Han Yü, even wrote a poetic response to Lu T’ung, a move that earned both men the enmity of the eunuchs.

The power of the eunuchs was insidious and formidable. Only months before the eclipse saw the establishment of the Office of Privy Affairs, an inner palace department staffed by eunuchs who controlled the flow of documents from the bureaucrats of the outer palace to the emperor. The Office was headed by chief eunuchs who exercised the informal but nonetheless influential privilege of advising the throne. The might of the Office was reinforced by eunuch commanders of the palace armies stationed on alert just west of the capital. With their grip on the throne tightening, the eunuchs reveled in their success, becoming more abusive and voracious in their appetite for power, cowing all who opposed them.

No minister dared write what Lu T’ung had written. They had seen firsthand the vindictiveness of eunuchs who sent their enemies into exile or to death. The more timorous officials feared for Lu T’ung, but to the eunuchs Lu T’ung was no threat. Sipping tea in a hut on a faraway mountain, the hermit was beyond serious consideration or scrutiny. In the eunuchs’ eyes, he was merely an eccentric of means but of little consequence. Just let him step down from his mountain and come into the capital, however, and he would then answer for his sarcasm and their discomfort. Let him pray that day never comes. To harried courtiers, on the other hand, Lu T’ung’s boldness, his bravery, and untrammeled expression were heady stuff, particularly to scholars like Han Yü, officials anxious to relieve the trials of bureaucratic life with respites of poetry and tea, elegant pastimes at which Lu T’ung so effortlessly excelled.

Lu T’ung first met Han Yü when the official climbed Lesser Stone Peak where Lu lived in seclusion on Mount Sung. The sacred mountain lay just southeast of Loyang, and its sights and sanctuaries attracted the literati as a place of refuge from the hubbub of the city. In 807 A.D., Han Yü, who was originally from Loyang, had returned with his family to the secondary capital for a two-year appointment at the imperial university. He frequented Mount Sung, taking leave of light teaching duties to visit the famous hermits on the mountain. Finding Lu T’ung’s hut, Han stopped to pay his respects and stayed for tea. By 809 A.D., Han Yü and Lu T’ung were friends for some time. The two men also had a personal connection and were distantly related through Han Yü’s wife who came from an aristocratic family, the same prominent Lu clan of Fanyang to which Lu T’ung belonged. After the lunar event in late 810 A.D., Lu T’ung composed his poem on the “demon frog,” and Han Yü wrote a reply, “The Eclipse of the Moon: An Imitation of the Work by Lu T’ung.” Poetry was the mutual medium of expression for them, but their means were separate and particular: Lu T’ung the hermit critiqued palace politics from afar; Han Yü the official crossed superiors and eunuchs at close range. Han ran afoul of the throne and its eunuchs many times and was once exiled to the far south, a virtual sentence of death. The two men commiserated with one another over the state of affairs at court. From that time on, Lu T’ung was a member of Han Yü’s literary circle.

The Poet

Lu T’ung’s poetry was extreme, full of hyperbole and exaggeration, drawing on strange allusions and discordant prose. His baroque style, especially when directed at a target, was devastating or overwhelmingly flattering. He once met a poet named Ma Yi and afterwards sent the new friend a poem expressing his admiration:
There is only a single heart, spleen, and bones,
Peak-craggy, jag-jutting, sheer abyss-creviced
Knives and swords as the peaks and cliffs,
While flatlands let loose into heights like Mount K’un-lun.
No place for it in Heaven,
Earth cannot receive it,
Nor do sun and moon dare steal its splendor.
[after Stephen Owen, trans.]
Lu T’ung’s words and images were irrepressible -- ardently passionate, nearly inflammatory. When writing a poem, Lu visualized every detail, remembering and enhancing a scene with his vivid imagination. His memory was a sharp knife that he candidly confessed to wielding: “All my life I’ve made friends like a petty man, but I remember you right before my eyes as though actually seeing you.”

Reclusive in practice, effusive in company, Lu T’ung was an odd contradiction in personality that attracted admiration and made friends of fellow poets like Ma Yi and Han Yü. His affability was a useful thing, not only to himself but also to his friends. During his visits to the peak, Han Yü and Lu T’ung called on the famous recluse Li P’o, a man of great ability and integrity, who had been appointed to a government post but had refused to come out of retirement to assume official duties. Accompanied by Lu T’ung, Han Yü eventually convinced Li P’o to come down from the mountain and go into Loyang. Less certain was whether or not Han Yü might well have persuaded Lu T’ung to give up his life of seclusion. In any case, soon thereafter, Lu T’ung left Lesser Stone Peak for the eastern capital, but not before encountering a far more influential patron.

While still atop Mount Sung, Lu T’ung befriended Meng Chien, Advisor to the Heir Apparent. At the time, Meng Chien was in disgrace and in exile from court, sent to Loyang and demoted to the prince’s staff as punishment for victimizing some innocent in Ch’ang’an. But Meng Chien was a man of power and consequence. His usual duties at the imperial capital were as Vice Minister in the Ministry of Revenue and vice executive officer in the Censorate, no trifling offices by any means. Meng belonged to an influential family whose patriarch was the eminent physician Meng Shen of the early T’ang. The Meng clan boasted its own poet laureate, Meng Chiao, who was Meng Chien’s nephew and a major figure in Han Yü’s literary circle. Meng Chien was also Grand Master of Remonstrance, an imperial advisor whose duty was to correct and admonish the emperor on policy and matters of state. Because of Meng Chien’s position and closeness to the throne, the emperor Hsien-tsung dispensed his punishment with a light and lenient hand. From the imperial perspective, it was neither politic nor safe to let Meng Chien languish away far from Ch’ang’an: the throne sorely needed officials of caliber to give sound advice and carry out its reforms. Predictably, the exile was temporary and short. But while in Loyang, Meng Chien took his leisure, enjoying the pleasures of the city and lavishly entertaining local luminaries, including the eccentric poet Lu T’ung.

Lu T’ung’s literary prowess and unconventional manner impressed Meng Chien who, as everyone, cultivated relationships for political as well as personal reasons. Meng had read "Eclipse of the Moon" in copies that circulated throughout Loyang and Ch’ang’an and had rightly judged that friendship with its courageous author only enhanced his own stature among scholar officials and perhaps even with the emperor himself. Learning of Lu T’ung’s taste and connoisseurship, Meng Chien favored him with gifts of the most expensive and exclusive caked teas. As a man of wealth and resources, he could acquire any rare tea in the markets of the two capitals. But on one occasion, Meng Chien gave Lu T’ung a present of Yang-hsien, the Son of Heaven’s own tea. Made exclusively for the throne’s private use, no market carried it and no amount of gold or silver or copper cash could buy Yang-hsien tea. It could be acquired, however, but only direct from the hand of the emperor. Not a problem for the wily and savvy courtier. As imperial counselor, Meng Chien’s sage advice to his sovereign was often pried from him by gifts of rare imperial tea. More to the point, the emperor Hsien-tsung was not above bribing his own ministers to keep them happy and close at heel.

[[Part 2 of this essay can be read by clicking here.]]

Image Credits

FIGURES 1, 2: Taoist
Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322 A.D.), attrib.
Portrait of T’ao Hung-ching, 14th century A.D.
China: Yüan dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.)
Album leaf: ink and color on paper
36.7 x 30.4 cm.
National Palace Museum, Taipei
Taiwan, Republic of China

Artist unknown
Portrait of Lu Yü
Dynasty and date unknown
from a version of the Ch’a-ching
Woodblock printed book: ink on paper

FIGURE 4: Ch’a-ching, Book of Tea
Lu Yü, Ch’a-ching (Pai-ch’uan hsüeh-hai, ed., dated 1273 A.D.), 3 chuan
Sung dynasty
Woodblock printed book: ink on paper

FIGURE 5: Saint of Tea
Artist unknown
Saint of Tea, 10th century A.D.
Porcelain with pigments and glaze
H: 10 cm.
T’ang-hsien, Hopei


Anonymous said...

fascinating. many, many thanks for the lesson in literature & history & tea & poetry. loved it. can't wait to read what's next.


Anonymous said...

Nicely written-you have a gift.

Mondeduthe said...

Great and impressive work!!!