Sunday, May 06, 2007

READER'S CORNER: Corax on James Norwood Pratt's New Tea Lover's Treasury

James Norwood Pratt. NEW TEA LOVER'S TREASURY. San Francisco: Tea Society, 1999. xiv + 210 pp. ISBN 0-9741486-0-1. Clothbound $24.95.

When it comes to reviewing a book that is already as famous, as widely appreciated, and as universally beloved as Norwood Pratt's (= JNP) New Tea Lover's Treasury, one finds oneself in a rather special situation. It's not the book that is on trial here; it's the reviewer. Many (perhaps most) of my readers will already be familiar with this volume, as 'treasured' as its name suggests. For many, it will have served as a first vademecum through the intricate world of tea. The book itself, published in 1999, was a revised, updated version of an earlier publication, The Tea Lover's Treasury, which first appeared as far back as 1982. Dust-jacket blurbs by Gary Snyder and the great M. F. K. Fisher underscore its foundational importance. It is hard to conceive, if you are new to tea -- and by 'new' I mean even as recent as a decade ago -- how dramatically the landscape of knowledge (and of commerce) has changed in the past few years. But this is in no small part due directly to the publication of JNP's book itself, in these two editions. It would be extremely ill-advised even to contemplate writing a book about China teas without looking carefully at JNP's work.

The book is divided into two major sections. The first, 'The Romance of Tea,' is in three chapters: [1] 'In the Beginning,' which gives a brief but lucid overview of the early history of tea in China and Japan; [2] 'East Meets West,' which is just what it says -- an account of how westerners began to interact (and eventually trade) with the Chinese; and [3] 'The Secret's Out,' which chronicles how the cultivation and export of tea spread to India and Ceylon, and entrepreneurs like Robert Fortune and Thomas Lipton got involved in the tea trade. In just over a hundred pages, a vivid and engaging history of tea is sketched out.

This is in preparation for the second major section of the book, 'The Treasury,' which includes [1] 'Teas of the World Today' and [2] 'Tea as Something to Do.' Many will (reasonably) see this as the heart of the book. In the first of these two chapters comes a discussion of several different kinds of tea, grouped under major headings. China teas are listed as being of six types: green tea, white tea, yellow tea, black tea, dark black tea, and 'scented, or flower tea' (p. 123). Naturally the experts might already be prepared to dispute these categories -- whether because of their names (by 'black' tea JNP means what the Chinese call hong cha, i.e. 'red tea,' and by 'dark black' he means hei cha, i.e. both pu'er and presumably also other post-fermented teas such as liu an) or because of the omission here of wulong cha or oolongs (he does in fact go on to discuss these, in some detail, on pp. 131-134). But to fault JNP's text for this wrinkle is like faulting Sigmund Freud for not wielding all the vocabulary and methods of modern psychological science: it disregards the courage required for him to undertake the organization and explication of such a massive body of material, virtually without predecessors (remember that the 1982 edition antedated even Blofeld's Chinese Art of Tea); and it disrespects the fact that basically every subsequent book in English on China teas has expanded its edifice on foundations originally laid by JNP himself.

Chapter 2 of this section must have taken its original readers rather by surprise -- particulary the section labeled 'The Oolong tea Ritual' (pp. 187-190). There can have been very few, if any, earlier descriptions, aimed at western readers, of gongfu cha procedures. In an era of Youtube demonstrations, websites hawking Yixing teaware, and the ever-burgeoning proliferation of Asian-style teahouses, it is not always easy to remember how much more difficult it would have been -- even a decade ago -- to put one's hands on such information or such utensils. As with so many other aspects of cha dao in the west, JNP was at the forefront of all this as well.

Another passage in this chapter (p. 182), 'How to Decaffeinate Tea,' records the oft-repeated shibboleth (now definitively disproved) that discarding a first, 30-to-60-second infusion will render the next infusion 'virtually caffeine-free' (the latest research shows that it actually takes about 15 minutes to achieve this). But this same page records an assertion much less discussed, and (to my knowledge) never disproven: that polyphenols released only in minutes 4 and 5 of a second infusion can actually have a calmative, even soporific effect on the human body. It would be interesting to see whether more recent clinical studies have corroborated or debunked this important assertion.

While some information about tea culture in Japan and the Subcontinent is included here, the book is nonetheless principally focused on the history and nature of China teas, and their reception in the western tea-drinking world. To that end, it admirably fulfils its role as a book about China teas for English-speaking readers. Moreover, it is composed in a style of ineffable grace and wit -- conversational without sounding too chatty, charming but not precious. It is eminently readable, and its genial style and user-friendly format draw the reader back to consult it again and again. It is not overly peppered with illustrations, but the color photographs that are included genuinely enhance the text. The dust-jacket itself is almost worthy of framing.

This is not the 'last word' on tea; not even on China tea. But it was never meant to be. On the contrary, this book was composed to be an inviting, even elegant first glimpse into a topic that was in those days a complete cipher to almost everyone in the west. Think of JNP as the tea-lover's Marco Polo, and you won't go far wrong. And if (even in 2007) you wanted to put together a very small bookshelf of essential English-language items on China teas, I would urge you strongly to include a copy of this delicious book.


小 約翰 said...

Thx for book review; I’ll get copy on order ASAP.
I picked up a copy of Liquid Jade, based on your review.

corax said...

john, you are most welcome.
and i am glad if my reviews
are proving helpful. -- corax