Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Song-Dynasty Tea Poem: Zhu Xi's "Tea Stove"


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: One of the most important goals of CHA DAO is to emphasize and elucidate the connections between tea and the rest of Asian culture. Readers of CHA DAO are already aware of the intricate connections between tea and poetry in China. Today we are pleased to present a contribution by our distinguished colleague LaoChaGui, who offers us here the text of a tea poem by Zhu Xi, along with annotations and his own new English translation of the poem. To illustrate further the connections among the arts of China, LaoChaGui has also furnished us with his own original calligraphic version of the poem, which we include below (be sure to click on the image for a larger view of this beautiful document). LaoChaGui hails from Cambridge, Massachusetts; he currently teaches American Culture at Wenzhou University in southern Zhejiang Province. He holds the Bachelor's degree in Chinese Language and Literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chinese poetry and philosophy have been among his interests for over a decade. LaoChaGui's other interests include the Chinese 'scholar aesthetic' and recluse- or hermit-culture in general. Interested readers should also have a look at his excellent tea blog, AMATEURS DE THÉ CHINOIS.]]

Zhu Xi is regarded by many as the most influential Chinese philosopher of the past millennium. He belonged to the Lixue (理学) school of thought, most commonly known as 'Neo-Confucianism' in English. Zhu Xi codified the philosophy of Lixue with his commentaries on the four classics recognised by Lixue -- the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius or works of Mengzi, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning -- the latter two works being individual chapters from the Zhou Li, one of the classics of Confucianism. Zhu Xi’s work was considered unorthodox during the Southern Song Dynasty, but was adopted after his death by the Yuan Dynasty, and became official doctrine up until the early years of the Republican period, to the point that men espousing beliefs which ran contrary to Zhu Xi’s commentaries would be considered unfit for government service.(1) Zhu Xi was also a famous calligrapher; some of his original works are still extant.(2)

Zhu Xi was born not far from Fuzhou, where his father was a local official; however, he spent 40 years of his life in and around Chong’an county (today’s Wuyishan City.) He had learned to drink tea from his father, who loved tea to a fault. Later in life Zhu Xi used the pseudonym “Tea Immortal” (茶仙) to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to himself, as his writings were considered heterodox.(3)

The subject of Zhu Xi’s tea poetry was almost exclusively Wuyi Mountain’s tea gardens and environs, along with the tea they produced. The imperial tribute tea of the Song was green tea compressed into small cakes; it was the most celebrated tea of the age. Names such as "Moon Rounds" (月團茶) and "Dragon and Phoenix Rounds" (龍鳳團茶) are found in tea poetry through the ages, and refer to this Song-style tea cake, which was ground into powder and whisked into a foamy white or green liquid before drinking.

In the following poem, Zhu Xi is boating on the Nine Bends Creek, which winds its way among the famous Wuyi Cliffs. He discovers a round hole in a rock, and imagines it is a stone tea stove left behind by immortals.

茶灶 朱熹 CháZào -- Zhū Xī

仙翁遺石灶 xiānwēng yíshízào
宛在水中央 wǎnzài shuǐzhōngyāng
飲罷方舟去 yǐnbà fāngzhōuqù
茶煙裊細香 cháyān niǎoxìxiāng

'Tea Stove' by Zhu Xi

Stone stove left behind by immortals,
Lies crooked in the center of the stream.

Tea finished, two boats drift on abreast,
Tea smoke; wafting delicate fragrance.(4)


1. Hong, Qinfu. Confucianism In Cross-Cultural Dialogue (Shanghai: Shanghai Education Publishing House, 2004), page 69.

2. For an example, see the Wikipedia entry on Zhu Xi sub voc. "Achievements of Zhu Xi in the art of calligraphy."

3. (text in Chinese).

4. The fourth line is particularly difficult to render concisely while remaining at once true to the original meaning and the conventions of English. 'Tea smoke' is presumably the smoke from the charcoal fire that has been lit to boil water.


LaoChaGui said...

MarshalN made some comments on this poem which are very helpful to understand the poem.

"'wan' in this context should be rendered as "just like" "as if"...

"And for the third line, I'm not entirely sure whether or not there is the implication of more than one boat. Rather, I take fangzhou to just be a boat. 一片方舟, for example, is a pretty typical way to describe a small boat.

Also, I'm not sure if tea smoke is quite literal -- certainly, the smoke from the charcoal would indeed be lingering as well, but I wonder if he really meant the steam from the tea (and by implication, the aroma).

"Anyway, these are just thoughts/suggestions. Chinese verse is a pain to translate properly, as there are multiple meanings, sometimes intended..."

When I protested that I still didn't understand the meaning of the second line, MarshalN looked it up and found:

"...the line "wanzai shui zhongyang" is actually a quotation from the Shijing...and there the meaning is "as if". If we had the Shijing memorized (as we should) then we'd know the reference right away."

Here is the poem (The reeds) referred to with an English translation by Arthur Waley

After more discussion we concluded that 方舟 may mean two boats after all. Depending on the context, this word has about three different meanings, it shall be left up to the reader to imagine the scene to his or her own liking.

Anonymous said...


Thank you very much for your work on Zhu Xi and his tea poetry. Your choice of poem is quite wonderful for it reveals the sophistication of the man and his keen sensitivity to the fine aesthetics of tea.

As you have noted, translation of Chinese verse is difficult but quite an enjoyable challenge, especially when length is short and language, pithy. In the case of your selection, there is the added twist of the poet borrowing a complete line from the Book of Songs to punctuate his exact meaning as rightly pointed out. Moreover, Zhu Xi’s verse is idiomatic, particularly in the third line describing boats. His imagery is varied and complex, with intricate plays on fire and water, liquid and vapor, drifting and wafting.

Basically, Zhu Xi’s poem is on the joy of companionship and conviviality as well as tea. He offers the image of two friends in separate boats taking their leisure on a calm lake or slow river. On board, one boils water on a stone stove to make tea as they float upon the water, drifting along in tranquil harmony. Finishing their bowls, they sit contented and replete; the long taste of tea straying from their palates, their noses still seeming to catch the subtle aroma of tea in the air.

This particular poem acknowledges the Daoist roots of tea. Zhu Xi playfully adopts for the moment the name 仙翁 xianweng, Old Immortal, and refers to his brazier, a stone stove, 石灶 shizao. After the ninth century when Lu Tong 陸仝 wrote the Song of Tea and imagined that he had transformed from a man into an immortal, it was was common for poets to pose as spirits in their own tea poetry. In Zhu Xi’s poem, the philosopher is Old Immortal and, poetically speaking, he has in essence become the spirit of the stove, a deity with a rich lore in Daoism.

Zhu Xi alludes, of course, to Zaojün 灶君, Lord of the Stove, a minor Daoist deity popularly known as the Kitchen God, patron saint of cooks and alchemists. As tea master, Zhu Xi identifies himself with the Lord of the Stove and partakes of the deity’s mystical connections with alchemy and longevity. Beyond the common kitchen deity, there are more august figures of greater antiquity. In ancient times, the hearth was the province of a female spirit of the furnace, who appeared in the guise of a beautiful maiden in fiery red robes. The furnace spirit was identified with the even older divinity Da Siming 大司命, Director of Destinies, who regulated the length of human lives. In the Han dynasty, the Daoist prince Liu An 劉安 wrote in the Huainan zi 淮南子 that the hoary sage Yandi 炎帝, the Fire Emperor, died and became a stove. Yandi was the noble title of Shen Nong 神農, the discoverer of tea. Thus, tea and stove are inseparable in the mythic figure of Shen Nong the Divine Cultivator, and Zhu Xi refers obliquely to this archaism as well. Furthermore, philosophical Daoism is fully apparent in Zhu Xi’s philosophy, but in addition to his thinking and meditative practices, there is evidence that he incorporated Daoism in his personal and literary life. For instance, his many names and sobriquets have the word 晦 hui, a Daoist term meaning dark, obscure, or hidden.

Whatever the case, in appreciation of your effort and selection of the poem, I wish to offer the above interpretation and a slightly different translation.


Old Immortal unveils a stone stove
Right in the middle of the water.
Tea drunk, our skiffs drift together
The scent of tea, lingering delicate fragrance…

In companionship, from one cup to another,


MarshalN said...

Steve: I'd be a little weary of playing up the potential Daoist connections too much. I don't remember Zhu Xi as being particularly interested in Daoism and his philosophy is, if anything, a rejection of both Daoism and Buddhism.

ItsAboutTea said...

This is a lovely poem and I really enjoy the true translation. The photo of the handwritten poem is indeed lovely. So artful and a lovely possession to have.