Wednesday, April 23, 2008

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


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of two instalments in the publication of Steven Owyoung's essay on the famous "Song of Tea." The first part can be read here.]]

The "Song of Tea"

Lu T’ung wrote to Meng Chien, thanking him for the large package of exceptionally rare tea. The letter of verse provided a fascinating glimpse into the early world of the art of tea. Originally entitled "Writing Thanks to Imperial Grand Master of Remonstrance Meng for Sending New Tea," the poem became simply known as the "Song of Tea":














The sun is as high as a ten-foot measure and five; I am deep asleep.
The general bangs at the gate loud enough to scare the Duke of Chou!
He announces that the Grand Master sends a letter;
the white silk cover is triple-stamped.
Breaking the vermilion seals, I imagine the Grand Master himself
inspecting these three hundred moon-shaped tea cakes.
He heard that within the tea mountain a path was cut at the New Year,
sending insects rising excitedly on the spring wind.
As the emperor waits to taste Yang-hsien tea,
the one hundred plants dare not bloom.
Benevolent breezes intimately embrace pearly tea sprouts,
the early spring coaxing out buds of golden yellow.
Picked fresh, fired till fragrant, then packed and sealed:
tea’s essence and goodness is preserved.
Such venerable tea is meant for princes and nobles;
how did it reach the hut of this mountain hermit?
The brushwood gate is closed against vulgar visitors;
all alone, I don my gauze cap, brewing and tasting the tea.
Clouds of green yielding; unceasingly, the wind blows;
radiantly white, floating tea froth congeals against the bowl.
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
Where are the immortal isles of Mount P’englai?
I, Master Jade Stream, wish instead to ride this pure wind back
To the tea mountain where other immortals gather to oversee the land,
protecting the pure, high places from wind and rain.
Yet, how can I bear knowing the bitter fate of the myriad peasants
toiling beneath the tumbled tea cliffs!
I have but to ask Grand Master Meng about them;
whether they can ever regain some peace.

Lu T’ung began the Song with a bit of self-mockery, describing himself as rudely awakened from a deep sleep at nearly midday. Unlike officials who rose before dawn to attend court, Lu T’ung let everyone know that he slept in and slept late. Moreover, he dreamt of the Duke of Chou, the virtuous minister of antiquity who loomed as an auspicious premonition of Meng Chien and his gift. The crashing reports at his gate alerted Lu T’ung to the martial presence of no ordinary courier, but a general and armed escort with a parcel and message direct from the Grand Remonstrator. The value of the package was signaled by its wrapping of sealed silk and the cover letter providing the exact count of its contents -- all steps to foil pilfering. The precautions were warranted, for the gift was quite extraordinary: three hundred round cakes of imperial tribute tea.

Lu T’ung was so surprised that he wondered out loud: “Such venerable tea is meant for princes and nobles; how did it reach the hut of this mountain hermit?” How indeed, for no one but the emperor had Yang-hsien tea. Grown on the crown estates of Huchou and Ch’angchou near Lake T’ai, the tea was made from imperial reserves for the exclusive use of the throne. Yang-hsien tea was recognized as a rare tea since the first century A.D. in the Han dynasty. In the Book of Tea, Lu Yü distinguished the tea from Huchou as “superior” and that from Ch’angchou as “next” in order of quality, but in every case he considered Yang-hsien a fine tea “with a lovely fragrance.” in Huchou and Ch’angchou prefectures in Kiangsu, the tea was known by several names, including Ku-chu from the name of the mountain in Huchou where the tea was grown. The tea was also called “purple sprout” after the dark russet color of its new leaves. Tea came in the form of small wafers and cakes. The freshly picked leaves were steamed, ground into paste, and dried in moulds of different shapes: rounds, squares, and rectangles. It was recorded that in the T’ang a monk offered “a beautiful tea” to the Prefect of Ch’angchou, Li Hsi-yün, who sent it as tribute from Yang-hsien district to the throne. The tea was much admired by the emperor who ordered that Huchou be established as an imperial estate. Crown properties were administered by the Household Commissioner for Estates, a palace office staffed by high ranking eunuchs who ensured the annual shipment of Yang-hsien and other tribute teas to the throne. There were numerous imperial estates in the south that produced tea for the throne; at his discretion, the emperor distributed the cakes as gifts to the imperial family, the aristocracy, and meritorious officials.

Yang-hsien was among the most symbolic tributes of the year, and its arrival at the palace was anxiously awaited. Fresh and tender, the “pearly tea” appeared early, coaxed to sprout by gentle winds off the lake, the season nurturing “buds of golden yellow." The tea was, therefore, the harbinger of spring, for “the one hundred plants dare not bloom” until the emperor had the first taste of Yang-hsien tea. Yang-hsien also had great ritual and ceremonial importance to the emperor and the annual sacrifices to the imperial ancestors. Preparations for the event began immediately after the New Year when the prefect of Huchou ordered repairs to the road leading from the valley into the mountain to accommodate the laborers required for the harvest. Soon after, palace eunuchs arrived from the capital to direct the harvest as local officials planned the housing, provisioning, and care of the thousands of tea workers coming from the countryside. In the second lunar month, the tea was picked and quickly processed into cakes over just a few days followed by a week of special handling. The tea was carefully inspected and packaged, wrapped in fine white paper and bundled in soft silk satchels, then locked in lacquered cases. The shipment of the tribute tea was overseen by palace eunuchs whose logistical experts took command. Invested with broad administrative and military powers, the eunuchs allowed nothing to interfere with the safe and speedy passage of the tea.

The first batch of Yang-hsien tea was called “express tea” (chi-ch'eng ch'a) because it was dispatched in the second month to the palace in less than ten days by equestrian couriers riding their mounts over a thousand miles to the capital. The urgency of the eunuchs was driven by the calendar. The tea had to arrive at the palace before Ch’ing-ming, Festival of Purity and Brightness, the fifth day of the third lunar month, the date fixed by tradition when the emperor honored his T’ang ancestors. The eunuchs would not risk the wrath of the dragon throne by being late. Sent from Lake T’ai in the south to Ch’ang’an in the northwest, the bulk of the tea was conveyed up the Grand Canal to Loyang, overland through the Lan-t’ien Pass, and then again by boat to the capital. Once in the city, the tea was escorted to the inner palace. In the safety of the emperor’s private treasury, the tea was divided and a portion sent to the imperial family shrine to be offered in sacrifice to the ancestors of the dynasty. The rituals were performed by the emperor, who, on fulfilling his filial duties, returned to the palace where his tea master prepared Yang-hsien tea.

Ordinarily, the emperor’s tea was brewed by one of his ladies-in-waiting who was skilled in the art of tea. The Taoist priestess Li Yeh, taught the art by her father and tutored in its finer points by Lu Yü, was a model tea instructress for the imperial consorts and palace ladies. On ceremonial occasions such as the feast of Ch’ing-ming, however, the emperor called for his official tea master. The palace master made tea much as Lu Yü described in the Ch’a-ching. Preparation began with the toasting of the tea cake at the brazier, then grinding the tea, and sifting it into a powder as fine as “rice flour." In the cauldron, water was heated and a bit of salt thrown into the roiling boil that the master constantly stirred, creating a whirlpool down into which the tea powdered was poured. In an instant, “there is a surge in the water like flying billows and overflowing froth” whereupon a dipper of hot water was added to temper the brew. When the tea was ladled out into bowls, each serving was topped by an ample helping of froth that looked “splendid like the spring florescence." Lifting his bowl in salute, the emperor took the ceremonial “first taste” of Yang-hsien tea, a formal and auspicious gesture that declared Spring had officially begun.

Far from Ch’ang’an on Lesser Stone Peak, Lu T’ung also celebrated with Yang-hsien tea. His cottage was humble but his manner was as formal as the emperor’s. Seeking tranquility to enjoy himself in solitude, he barred his gate and shut his doors. Before preparing the tea, he made himself ready, donning his silk gauze cap, focusing on the task at hand, calmly concentrating on preparing and brewing the imperial tea. He listened for the first boil of the water and sighted bubbles the size of “fish eyes,” followed by the second boil and its bubbly “string of pearls." The surge of the third boil erupted with the measure of tea powder, then there ensued a quiet simmering as the tea brewed. Looking into the cauldron, Lu T’ung imagined the convecting tea to be billowing “clouds of green yielding, unceasingly” blown by the spring “wind." Ladling out a serving, Lu T’ung admired the fine, “radiantly white” froth floating lightly on the tea, the foam thickening as it cooled and clung against the bowl.

Froth was the essence of the tea. As described in the fourth century poem "Ode to Tea," froth was “lustrous like piling snow." Four hundred years later in the T’ang, froth was still appreciated as tea’s most important aesthetic feature. On seeing it, Lu Yü was moved to wax poetic over froth:
Froth is the floreate essence of the brew. Froth that is thin is called mo; thick froth is call po; that which is fine and light is called hua, floreate essence .... Mo froth resembles date blossoms floating lightly upon a circular jade pool or green blooming duckweed whirling along the winding bank or layered clouds floating in a fine clear sky. Froth resembles moss floating in tidal sands or chrysanthemum flowers fallen into an ancient ritual bronze.
Lu Yü also wrote that the first cauldron’s brew was “ambrosial and lingering." The taste of tea was long regarded as its most interesting feature. In the Materia Medica, tea was described in these words, “Ming is bitter tea. Its taste is sweet and bitter." The phenomenon of tea tasting both bitter and sweet rests in sipping tea. On the tongue, the bitter taste of tea stimulates the flow of saliva that then mixes with the tea and alters its taste from bitter to sweet. Human saliva contains salivary amylase, an enzyme that converts carbohydrates into sugars. Bitter tea, especially green tea, is thus sweet tea. Tea of great quality was often called “sweet dew” (kan-lu), a poetic name for celestial libations of infinite purity, lightness, and sweetness. In Taoism, sweet dew was an essence that came from Heaven. Celestial descent of sweet dew sanctioned virtuous rule as intoned by the Tao-te ching (Scripture of the Way and Power) in chapter 32:
The Tao is constant, but nameless.
Although the Primal Simplicity is small,
All under Heaven submit to it.
If lords and princes would but embrace it,
The myriad creatures would do homage to them;
Heaven and Earth would harmonize to send sweet dew.
Emperors of the Han dynasty, mindful of Heaven’s mandate and the power of the Tao, built storied pavilions in the palace suburbs to catch the sweet dew, the sign of Heaven’s sanction of their rule. Condensed in golden dishes and upon silvery mirrors atop high masts rising to the sky, sweet dew was collected and then imbibed to promote longevity and attain immortality. In the Ch’a-ching, Lu Yü followed imperial precedent:
It is recorded in the Records of the Former Song that, ‘Prince Luan of Hsin’an and Prince Shang of Yüchang visited the Buddhist monk Tan-chi on Mount Pakung. The monk prepared tea for them. Prince Shang tasted it and said, ‘This is truly sweet dew of the immortals! How can it be called tea?’
To the prince, the taste of the old monk’s tea was so delicious that it begged comparison to the saccharine flavor of sacred nectar, sweet dew. Moreover, Lu Yü considered the herbal properties of tea to be superior in kind and noted that “In efficacy, tea rivals ... sweet dew” thereby linking tea with the spirit realm and the ancient notion that tea endowed immortality.

Lu Yü was exact in his instruction that “for tea of superb flavor and fragrance, the bowls number just three ....” Three was the perfect number in tea and Taoism. As a prime, three was especially potent in the Taoist naming of fundamental things: Three Primordials, Three Primary Vitalities, Three Powers, Kinship of Three, and so on. Lu Yü favored the number in the Ch’a-ching by using three as a mystical constant. For instance, the bronze brazier he used as a tea stove was a tripod with three legs, three vents, three inscriptions, three trigrams, three elements, and three cardinal animals. By using the number three, Lu Yü adhered to Taoist practice and faith in numerological power.

Three bowls of tea was prescriptive and closely related to the Taoist belief in tea as a food and herbal drug. The Book of Tea was full of quotes on the physiological effects of tea. The herb’s stimulating qualities were long recognized and were used to treat mental depression. One suffering soul wrote candidly in a heavy but hopeful confession: “My body is confused and melancholy. I have always relied on true tea for relief.” In accordance with dietary writings, the Book of Food noted that “tea, when taken over a long period of time, gives a person strength, contentment, and purpose.” Likewise, the Discourse on Food recorded that “bitter tea drunk habitually over a long time benefits the power of thought.” Tea was used in strict dietary regimens among monks and laity. Taoists believed that long and sustained drinking of tea endowed longevity and eventual immortality. In Foods to Avoid, a physician prescribed, “bitter tea drunk habitually over a long time bestows immortality." Taken in an ascetic, vegetarian diet that allowed no meat nor grain nor allium, Taoists said that tea “lightens the body and transforms the bones” but “if taken with leeks, will make the body heavy." In the monastery, tea was notably substituted for the evening meal and drunk as an aid to study and meditiation. Taoist adepts employed tea as a stimulant to clear and concentrate the mind during long and intense periods of meditation, especially focusing on the mind and body as an alchemical vessel in the creation of the elixir of never ending life. To enhance their powers of concentration, they relied on tea in consistent and effective doses, utilizing the physiological effects of the herb to alter mood and particularly to achieve heightened states of consciousness and enlightenment. Thus, by using three bowls of tea, Lu Yü addressed not only the aesthetic issue of achieving “superb flavor and fragrance” but also stressed the essentially pharmaceutical nature of the herb and its precise prescriptive use in mental health and Taoist meditation.

As a Taoist and tea connoisseur, Lu T’ung knew the gustatory delights of tea-drinking as well as tea’s herbal effects. In the "Song of Tea," Lu T’ung described the physical sensations produced by three bowls of tea as the herbal decoction worked on his body and mind.
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The stimulating and mood-changing effects of tea were already apparent to Lu T’ung after the second bowl, and with the third, his heart was plumbed. After a lifetime of ascetic practices, Lu T’ung’s body readily absorbed the caffeine and theine concentrate. His head lightened, his mind cleared and sharpened, his senses elevated, his thoughts cerebral and inspired, and his entire being flooded with his vast learning. With the prescribed three bowls of tea, Lu T’ung had reached the ultimate of the tea experience in both feeling and connoisseurship.

Yet remarkably, Lu T’ung continued drinking, taking several more bowls of tea, a thing against which Lu Yü strictly warned: “All of the best tasting tea is in the first and second bowls. The third bowl is next in quality. Fourth and fifth bowls of tea are excessive ... one must not drink more." But Lu T’ung raised the bowl again and experienced a further sequence of sensations that altered his body and spirit:
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
With the sixth bowl, Lu T’ung exceeded Lu Yü’s prescription of three bowls of tea and ignored the master’s proscription against any more. As a connoisseur, Lu T’ung thus greedily doubled his enjoyment of the imperial tea. But as a Taoist, he recalled the further words of Lu Yü: “In efficacy, tea rivals ... sweet dew." Tea was alchemical and effectively was equal to the benign celestial essence, the heavenly elixir of life. With tea’s potent herbal effects, Lu T’ung radically transformed his powers of concentration and perception, creating a transcendent state.

As Lu T’ung was about to drink an extraordinary seventh bowl, he felt a “pure wind” beneath wings that lofted and sent him flying. Airborne, he left the last bowl behind as he soared as a feathered spirit searching instinctively for the fabled mountain of P’englai, the Taoist isle of the immortals, a distant and mystical place somewhere in the Eastern Sea yet beyond the phenomenal world. Then literally remembering himself by his sobriquet, “Master Jade Stream,” he inclined instead for Huchou and the earthly tea mountain to join the “other immortals ... protecting the pure, high places from wind and rain” to nurture the imperial gardens of Yang-hsien tea. As he mused about the tea plants, he was suddenly struck by a great pang of conscience and Taoist charity. Crying aloud, he bemoaned “the bitter fate of the myriad peasants toiling beneath the tumbled tea cliffs!” Realizing the human cost of tea, his flight of fancy abruptly faded, displaced by a desire to know of any relief for the tea workers. In his letter of thanks to Meng Chien, Lu T’ung flattered the minister, obliquely comparing Meng to the righteous Duke of Chou of antiquity, hoping to stir the man’s moral senses and so gain some small assurance of the peasants and their fate.

Tea Czar

If Lu T’ung was ever given any comfort by his patron, it was not recorded. But the lot of the tea workers only got worse. Influential though he was, Meng Chien had no authority in determining state policy on tea. That power came to lay in the hands of Wang Ya, a chief minister at the imperial court in Ch’ang’an. In 835 A.D., Wang Ya was given the reins of the Tea Monopoly Commission (chüeh-ch'a shih), a revenue office that oversaw the collection of taxes on tea. Wang was de facto tea czar and played a decisive role in the taxation of tea in the late T’ang. When control of tea accrued to Wang Ya, Lu T’ung gravitated to him, introduced to the chief minister by Meng Chien and Han Yü. The officials all knew one another because of their close relations with the throne and their common political interests. Han Yü and Wang Ya had a long and special bond as classmates in the imperial examinations. Other than the emperor, there was no one with finer tea than Wang Ya. Other than the late saint of tea, Lu Yü, there was no more celebrated connoisseur than Lu T’ung. This being the case, Wang Ya and Lu T’ung fulfilled mutual interests. Lu was a frequent visitor to the minister’s mansion in the garden district near the southern gate of Ch’ang’an, spending time there as the Wang’s house guest, writing poetry and enjoying as much of the rarest tea as he could possibly drink. As described in the "Song of Tea," Lu’s capacity for tea was more than considerable, and in terms of the common practice of tea, his tolerance and use of its physiological effects was extraordinary. Lu T’ung did not stir long nor far from the Wang mansion.

When Wang Ya took control of the Commission, the T’ang tea market was well established and thriving. In the eighth century, when Yang-hsien tea was first presented to the throne, Lu Yü noted that the inaugural tribute sent ten thousand ounces of caked tea. Production was labor intensive, the leaves handpicked during the early morning hours of a few absolutely clear, cloudless days. Each tea cake weighed less than an ounce but hundreds of thousands of leaf buds were required to make every cake. The tea was much admired by the emperor, who ordered regular tribute from Mount Ku-chu in 770 A.D. An imperial estate was then established in Huchou to produce Yang-hsien for the throne. Not only was the tea of excellent quality but high in production as well. By 781 A.D., the annual tea tribute was over one thousand pounds; the amount grew exponentially as each year passed. In the ninth century A.D., thirty thousand peasants harvested the annual Yang-hsien crop; the leaves were processed by a thousand more. Multiplied by the other imperial estates plus private and corporate tea production, the work force devoted to tea throughout the empire was as great as any other product and mitigated only by the harvest seasons. In 817 A.D., nearly one million pounds of tea were stored in the emperor’s two private treasuries alone. The open market for tea was even more vast and supplied a great demand within the country and abroad. In terms of consumption, market and production, tea was so ubiquitous that it was treated as a veritable commodity. Tea became a common thing -- a necessity of life -- and as a necessity, it was, of course, taxed.

The first duty on tea was state imposed in 782 A.D. at ten percent of the average market price, the same rate as lacquer, bamboo, and timber. In addition to the imperial tea gardens, fine teas were produced without regulation by private and cooperative operations comprised of independent farmers, monasteries, and landowners. Such teas were routinely recommended by local officials for the annual tribute to the throne. In 793 A.D., the tea tax took the form of a ten percent trade duty paid in cash by tea merchants. Annual revenues from tea were minor, amounting to one twelfth of the cash brought in by the state salt monopoly. However, the tea revenues were considerable enough to incite bureaucratic wrangling and misuse of funds, becoming an object of political and finanacial import and institutional graft. Moreover, the market continued to expand along with high profits, and tea thus became an attractive target for bandits, dishonest merchants, and corrupt provincial officials. Yet, despite its problems, the tea market and the system to tax it worked relatively well for over fifty years up until the disastrous policies of Wang Ya.

The political fall of Wang Ya began with his paradoxical rise to the empire’s highest honor. In the fifth month of 835 A.D. when the emperor appointed him Area Commander Unequaled in Honor (k'ai-fu i-t'ung san-ssu), a high honorific title equal in prestige to the Three Dukes of antiquity, the paramount aides to the ruler and the highest possible rank in officialdom. The title permitted Wang Ya to staff a private office in the outer palace, a privilege that greatly extended his already formidable power and one that gave him a distinct advantage over his political enemies among the court officials and palace eunuchs. With the blatant favoritism of the throne for Wang confirmed, the enmity of his opponents grew and hardened. But much to their chagrin, Wang Ya became even more powerful.

In the tenth month, the emperor ordered the establishment of a new regulatory commission, the Tea Monopoly, and Wang Ya was created a commissioner by imperial appointment. The move was in response to internal stresses on tea production and uncertainties in the market that had grown over several years. In 829 A.D., Ch’engtu, the capital of Szechwan, was sacked and large areas of the tea growing region laid waste. Seasonal disruptions in tea harvests in other parts of the south finally forced the state takeover of tea production. The emperor was advised to create the Tea Monopoly by Wang Ya who stood to gain enormous wealth and power as its chief commissioner.

As planned, Wang Ya acted swiftly and ruthlessly, enacting draconian measures to utterly change the tea market. He ordered all production transferred and confined to state plantations; private manufacture was illegal and prohibited. Even harsher rules were imposed. All tea plants were ordered transplanted to government estates, and furthermore, private stocks of processed tea were ordered destroyed. The reaction was immediate and predictable. The tea market fluctuated wildly on rumors of the impending monopoly, petty officials made small fortunes trading in secret information, merchant and connoisseurs hoarded stocks and hid inventories, shortages occurred and prices rose, the market collapsed and a lucrative black market thrived, and displaced tea farmers and merchants joined criminal gangs to deal in the business they knew best. Peasant and merchant opposition to the policies was so overwhelmingly violent that the throne and court were advised that to enforce the orders on tea the government would have to “exterminate the population, or force them into resistance in the hills." Wang Ya hesitated but did not rescind his orders. Unknown to him, certain events were already in play to bring down the Tea Monopoly and ensure Wang Ya’s sudden fall from grace and mark his terrible end.

Sweet Dew

Ironically, it was the emperor who made certain that his favorite minister was destroyed. Emperor Wen-tsung twice attempted to rid himself of the powerful eunuch clique that controlled the throne, and twice he failed. The first plans were discovered when word was leaked. On his second try, Wen-tsung engaged two high courtiers to assassinate the chief eunuchs. The three agreed to absolute secrecy. Distracted and tormented by his palace eunuchs and fearful of the secret scheme being discovered, Emperor Wen-tsung gave little thought to warning Wang Ya about the plan. The plot involved the report of an omen, the investigation of the event, and the ambush of the eunuchs and their henchmen. The attack would take place in the early hours of the morning within the palace precincts just outside the gates of the inner palace. The outer palaces held the court and administrative offices of the bureaucracy. The inner palace was comprised of the emperor’s private offices, halls, and residences, including the courtyards of his empress, consorts, and ladies. Wen-tsung’s personal secretaries, a few Han-lin scholars, were restricted to their offices and accompanying the emperor. Staffed by eunuchs, the palace servants were the only other males allowed within the inner palace. Under strong emperors, the eunuchs served the imperial household; under weak emperors, the eunuchs served themselves and bullied and abused their masters. Wen-tsung was weak, but he wanted desperately to rid himself of his eunuch handlers. The plan was to play on the superstitions of the eunuchs and lure them from the inner to the outer palace and kill them before the purge was stopped by the eunuch-controlled palace army.

In the early hours of the twenty-first day of the twelfth month, 835 A.D., a report of an auspicious omen was brought to the emperor. Sweet dew had descended from Heaven and formed on a pomegranate tree growing in the court of the Chin-wu Guard in the outer palace. Sweet dew was Heaven’s blessing on a sovereign and his good and moral rule. The celestial sign was doubly auspicious because the Guard was named after the fabulous Chin-wu, a mythical bird that warded off pestilence and misfortune. Wen-tsung sent the chief eunuch to investigate the matter. Leaving the inner palace through a gate into the outer palace, the eunuch and his assistants walked quickly in anticipation of seeing the miracle. Believing that sweet dew endowed longevity and even immortality to those who drank it, the more audacious among them imagined licking a drop or two from the leaves of the tree. As they arrived, they were suddenly shocked to hear the clank of weapons and glimpse armed men hiding behind curtains. They fled back through the gates of the inner palace, raising an alarm. The chief eunuch ordered Wen-tsung hustled off deep within the inner palace, isolating him from the conspirators. Then the palace army was summoned. Garrisoned on ready alert just west of the capital, the palace army of fifteen thousand troops was directed by eunuch commanders. A vanguard of five hundred was dispatched. As the soldiers entered the outer palace, the officials within were unaware of the danger.

That morning, Wang Ya left the Secretariat for a meeting and then returned to attend a banquet. Although Wang Ya had nothing to do with the coup against the eunuchs, he knew that something was awfully wrong when the feast was suddenly interrupted: “Before anyone had set down their chopsticks,” soldiers entered the gates, killing everyone they came across. Escaping by luck, Wang Ya and others fearfully made their way to the tea market in the Yung-ch’ang ward where they were surrounded and captured. More than a thousand died within the outer palace as the slaughter continued throughout the day. Thousands more died in the following weeks as officials, their families, friends, and servants were hunted down by the eunuchs, imprisoned and killed. Any reason was enough to earn suspects slow torture and death. The massacre eliminated the clans of eleven high officials. History remembered the attempted coup to oust the eunuchs as the Sweet Dew Incident.

In the garden district, troops streamed through the city’s south gate and broke into the mansions of three chief ministers. At the time, Lu T’ung was visiting Wang Ya and staying with the minister as an honored guest. At the Wang residence, a dragnet was formed to catch anyone in the house. Put up in a guest room, Lu T’ung was among the last to be found. It was easy to imagine Lu as usual abed and sound asleep. For the last time in his life, Lu T’ung was rudely awakened by a soldier. Angry and indignant, Lu dared the armed man to touch him and promised the harshest retribution from the chief minister. The soldier gruffly ignored his sputtering and manhandled him into a room already filled with servants and family. Everyone was put in chains and dragged away. In prison, Lu was abused, tortured, and put on trial. Falsely accused of conspiracy, Lu T’ung was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Although as innocent of the crime as Lu T’ung, Wang Ya suffered great pain and humiliation during the Sweet Dew Incident. The eunuchs tortured him, extracting false confessions that condemned his entire clan. After trial, Wang was paraded through Ch’ang’an by three hundred cavalry. Past the shrines, round the merchant and trade quarters, the cavalcade wended its way through the capital and headed for the Western Market where it halted at the execution ground. The place was known as Lone Willow, named for the solitary, forlorn tree that grew there. By the time Wang Ya was dragged beneath its drooping limbs, the tree was besieged by an angry mob that rushed from the mean streets of the city to taunt and glare at the hated head of the Tea Monopoly. Wang Ya stood dazed and unaware as the soldiers quickly stepped away from him, leaving him standing alone as the first rock hit him. With each stone thrown, the crowd’s murderous rage grew. When at last the man fell and died, it drained away, soundless and exhausted.

It was not recorded how Lu T’ung died, but it was quite certain that he was executed under the bare branches of Lone Willow. The wrath of the eunuchs was terrible. When they discovered they held the author of "Eclipse of the Moon," they were without pity. When they finished with him, Lu T’ung was a hollow wreck of a man. The only mercy accorded him was when they finally killed him. Whoever took his body for burial observed the barest ceremony; what was done was hasty and scant. The paucity of Lu’s grave dismayed the few friends who ventured there to pay their last respects. The poet Chia Tao set to verse a remembrance titled "Lamenting Lu T’ung":
A worthy man, albeit no official, is dead.
Even those unrelated to him are sad.
The Void causes ancient spirits to weep
On getting yet another new neighbor.
For the forty years of his adult life,
He wore only clothes of plain cloth.
The Son of Heaven never summoned him,
So who in Hell pursued him?
His friends in Ch’ang’an, entrusted with his orphaned children,
Suddenly deserted them.
The small stone marker beside his tomb is wanting,
The inscribed lines, uneven and confused.
There is no money to buy the pine to plant at his grave
But shoots of artemisia grow there naturally ...
Chia Tao described the aftermath of Lu T’ung’s death in the starkest terms. Lu’s children, fatherless and motherless, were abandoned on the hard streets of the capital, forsakened by the very people meant to protect them. As an accomplished and admired man, Lu T’ung deserved a stone stele inscribed with belles-lettres and lavish praise, but the marker at his grave was small, its inscription inadequate; the few columns crooked, the meager words jumbled. The tree traditionally planted at a new tomb was missing. The only thing passing for the pine sapling that should have honored him was the artemisia growing wild on his grave. The presence of the little plant seemed a comfort. Like an ancient recluse, the hearty herb survived the cold of winter, its buds potent and sprouting from old, dried stems in spring. The bleak and paltry scene of the grave completed the destruction of Lu Tung’s life and art, a thought so unbearable that Chia Tao turned away to speak to the poet’s spirit, crying out promises to remember him by cherishing his literary remains.

For centuries, the Sweet Dew Incident served as a stern warning to all emperors and ministers against the power of eunuchs. The caveat extended to everyone, even to poets and tea connoisseurs whose innocuous, cultural pastimes might nonetheless get them killed. In the case of Lu T’ung, his fondness for tea did indeed lead in unexpected ways to his complete and utter demise. It was no small cruelty that “sweet dew” -- Heaven’s blessing or beautiful tea -- had such devastating cause and effect. Time was also brutal to Lu T’ung. His poetry was all but forgotten, notwithstanding the poet Chia Tao’s vow before Lu T’ung’s grave to remember him:
The poems you sent me while alive,
I hold and read, tears flowing.
From now on, I will revere them all the more,
Treasuring them deeply, afraid to lose them.
For the poetry of Lu T’ung, the long-term consequences of the Sweet Dew Incident were unintended but nevertheless severe. Despite the faith of Chia Tao, the vividly beautiful and grotesque images conjured up in Lu T’ung’s verses nearly disappeared. The hapless poet was again condemned. Considered by critics a “minor” poet, his work was ignored or denigrated for his strange and fantastic “flights of fancy." Through the ages, all that was left in the anthologies were a few prose poems, most notably "Eclipse of the Moon" and the "Song of Tea." It is perhaps fitting that these two works endure as his most famous. With each passing century, the despised and long forgotten “demon frogs” are overshadowed, defeated again and again; the lunar poem and its defiant, sarcastic words delighting generations of readers just as it lifted the brows of officials in times past. Revenge, like tea, is bitter and sweet. In some consolation to his spirit, Lu T’ung’s brilliant verse on seven wondrous bowls -- the Song of Tea -- continues to be sung in the minds of tea-drinkers to this day. And at each silent singing, Master Jade Stream remains immortal, soaring above the tea lands, winging away to the far and mystic Isles of P’englai.

Image Credits

FIGURE 6: Tea Master
Yen Li-pen (ca. 600-674 A.D.), attrib.
Tea Master and Servant, 10th century A.D.
Detail from Hsiao I Stealing the Orchid Pavilion Preface
Handscroll: ink on silk
Location unknown

FIGURE 7: Immortals
Artist unknown
Nine Taoist Saints, 13th century A.D.
China: Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.)
Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk
112.5 x 54.1 cm.
Hôngonji Temple, Shiga

FIGURE 8: Mount P’englai, Isle of Immortals
Wang Yün (1652-1735 A.D. or later)
The Fanghu Isle of Immortals, 1699 A.D.
China: Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.)
Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk
142 x 60.3 cm.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Fortieth Anniversary Memorial Acquisition Fund (F75-43)

[[This is the second of two instalments in the publication of Steven Owyoung's essay on the famous "Song of Tea." The first part can be read here.]]


Lew Perin said...

Thanks so much for this fascinating essay.

I believe the Pinyin for Yang-hsien would be Yangxian, which is to say, the old name for a place that's once again important to tea lovers: Yixing.

Anonymous said...


Thank you very much for your words of appreciation. The history of tea is filled with such wonderful stories.

Yes, Yangxian is indeed the Pinyin for the Wade-Giles romanization of Yang-hsien. And, yes, Yangxian is the ancient place name for Yixing, the production site of the famous tea ceramic.

In terms of the history of tea, Yixing was quite quite important as a source of fine tea early on and then later for tea implements in the Ming dynasty. It is a fascinating story, particularly the evolution of the Yixing teapot and the tales of all the great early artists.

I hope I can share it with you and other tea lovers in the near future.


Lew Perin said...

Sorry, but there's something in your article that puzzled me.

You write that Tang tea cakes were compressed from leaves that had already been ground up. (Of course, one would grind the cake again later just before whipping up a bowl of tea.)

This seems odd to me. Why grind the leaves twice? And, perhaps more importantly, wouldn't this have exacerbated problems with freshness?

I wonder if you've seen any text from the Tang in which an author explains why they did it this way.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your query regarding the "grinding" of tea. Please find the following explanation for your good reference.

Freshness in tea as an ideal was prized, but that ideal was superseded by centuries of literary and aesthetic traditions as well as connoisseurship and taste.

In Neolithic China, tea was harvested whenever the leaf was needed as herbal medicine, vegetable, or beverage. Early on, it was learned that the best tea, that is to say, the most flavorful, tenderest, and potent leaf, was picked in the late winter and early spring during tea's flush, a time when the tea plant sent forth shoots, sprouts, buds, and tender leaves. The season when tea leaves were tenderest was short and lasted only several weeks, traditionally from the second and third lunar months. Afterwards, only older, tougher leaves were available until the next year's spring harvest. Because of the desire and market for the superior flavor of spring tea leaves, there were devised several means by which tea leaves were preserved, including pastes, gels, liquid concentrates, dry leaves loose, dry compressed, and so on. The pre-T’ang and T’ang writers were, however, silent on the reasons for the various processes of preserving tea and contented themselves with just description.

By the T'ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), the finest tea was preserved as caked tea, small wafers, bricks, or cakes formed into rounds, squares, or rectangles about the size of a large coin and about as thick. Tea cakes were made by pounding steamed tea leaves into a smooth paste. The paste was put into cast iron moulds of various shapes and sizes and allowed to set. The semi-dry cakes were then taken from the moulds and pierced with an awl and then skewered on long bamboo splints. The skewered cakes were then dried over long trenches lined with slow-burning coals. When thoroughly dried, the cakes were removed from the skewers and strung on cords. These cords of cakes were made according to weight. Among connoisseurs, every effort was made to keep the cakes dry as a way to further preserve and store fine tea.

To make a bowl or cauldron of tea, the tea master selected a tea cake and toasted it at the brazier, a small, portable stove. Using tea tongs, preferably made of fresh, green bamboo, the master heated the cake, bending and unbending the hot pliable wafer until it was toasted and cooked. The cake was then placed in a clean bag of fine, white paper to cool slightly. At the right time, the master than took the cake from the paper bag and placed it in a mill to grind the cake into a very, very fine powder that was then sifted until it was the consistency of "rice flour," extremely fine powder. The cauldron was filled with about a pint of spring water and carefully watched through three boils: “fish eyes,” “strung pearls,” and “mounting and swelling wave.” At the second boil, a dipper of water was taken from the cauldron and held in reserve. At the third boil, a measure of tea powder was placed in the cauldron which on the tea's introduction erupted and roiled until the reserve dipper of water was poured in to stop the boil and temper the brewing tea. The finely powdered tea was suspended in the water as particulate matter and floating as foam and froth - the "floreate essence" of the brew. The tea was ladled into bowls along with as much froth as possible and then drunk.

The look of a T'ang powdered tea cake appeared like matcha, Japanese green tea powder. And the look of a T'ang bowl of tea appeared much as a bowl of whisked powdered green tea made by a Japanese tea master. However, the foam of T'ang tea was described by T'ang poets, including Lu Yü in the Ch'a-ching, Book of Tea, as "white on white like drifting snow." It was the height of sophistication to observe and note the residue of fine, light foam “cooling and congealing” against the side of the celadon bowl.

Nowadays, caked tea of the T’ang is often confused with compressed tea. The modern age has experienced preserved tea in a few forms: powdered tea (matcha), tea dust (tea bags), dried tea leaves, and compressed dried tea leaves (bricked P'u-erh). Caked tea was a much more complex and labor-intensive process, so time consuming and expensive that in 1391, the first Ming emperor, who considered caked tea a burdensome tax on the tea industry and its peasant workers, forbade the making of caked tea and ushered in the popular use of dried leaf tea and teapots.

It is hard to imagine T'ang tea, especially because the tea was so very highly processed and the definition of fine tea and its particular criteria were not explained but were considered secrets to be transmitted from tea master to adept. Lu Yü was himself dismissive of connoisseurship that "ruminated on taste and fragrance" and only acknowledged two kinds of tea: good tea and bad tea. Unfortunately, he quite haughtily neglected to describe just what good tea was.


Lew Perin said...

Wow, this is getting more interesting all the time!

For me, the most tantalizing thing in your informative response is this:

Tea cakes were made by pounding steamed tea leaves into a smooth paste. The paste was put into cast iron moulds of various shapes and sizes and allowed to set.

Depending on how long the leaves withered before the steaming, as well as how thoroughly the leaves were steamed, the resulting cakes might have been fairly well oxidized and far from the green tea I'd always thought the Tang drank. In fact, the result could be something like oolong, or even CTC.

But I suppose we'll never know unless some archeologist actually finds a Tang tea cake!

MarshalN said...

Hi there,

Very interesting discussion. Would it be possible for you to reveal some of the sources from which such detailed information came? I'd very much like to re-read some of these texts in a new light, or perhaps find interpretations that I didn't see before.

Anonymous said...


Regarding T'ang tea and the question of oxidation, there was no clear description in the Ch'a-ching on the subject. From my reading of the text, it seems that tea was generally picked and processed in a single day, but there is a reference to leaves processed over night as being "dark in color So it appears from the Book of Tea that tea was processed within a day of harvesting in varying degrees of oxidation. As far as I have learned, Lu Yü did not make any comment that connected oxidation with quality in the Book.

I hope the above information is some interest and help to you. I appreciate your careful and thoughtful reading of the essay.


Anonymous said...


The information on tea of the T’ang dynasty is based on my reading of the Ch’a-ching, Book of Tea, by the poet Lu Yü (733-804/805 A.D.). Most of the information on tea in the essay comes from “Processing Tea,” part three of the first chuan or scroll of the Ch’a-ching; additional details come from “Brewing Tea,” part five of the third scroll of the Book.

I follow the earliest known version of the Book that was included in the the Pai-ch’uan hsüeh-hai (A Sea of Knowledge Formed by Hundreds of Streams, 1273 A.D. ), a collectanea compiled and printed by Tso Kuei (active ca. 1265-1274 A.D.) in the late Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.). Note that the version of the Book in the Sea of Knowledge was corrupt but it has been emended and punctuated by recent scholarship. Working from the Sung dynasty woodblock printed version of the Book allows for a slightly different but often more rewarding reading of the Ch’a-ching, especially when punctuation is critical in interpreting a passage or when a corrupted character or line is at issue.

If you are interested, I can provide you with a list of books that I use as references and aids to reading the Ch’a-ching.


MarshalN said...


I'm sorry if I didn't make myself clear -- I was actually referring to the historical narrative that you've written, about the court, imperial gifts, and all. Being a dabbler in history myself, I'm rather curious where this sort of information came from. It's fascinating that you've been able to weave a very detailed narrative.

Anonymous said...


Regarding the historical information used to construct the narrative in the essay on the Song of Tea, the sources are many and varied, and include standard Chinese literary anthologies, official and unofficial histories, private writings, compendia on the history of tea, biographical dictionaries, and so on. There are also many studies in English on Chinese history that deal with the emperor and court, the roles of officials and eunuchs, taxation, and the major events of a given period. In historical studies, particularly in sinology, nothing is ever in a single source, so scholarship entails the gleaning of details from wherever they can be found and putting them together and giving them structure.

The research and writing of the essay on the Song of Tea involved looking at the poem and Lu T’ung the poet, his biography and literary works in both Chinese and English sources. These sources revealed the historical figures to whom Lu T’ung was related and the events and places with which the poet was involved. This took about six months of investigative work, following the historical clues, and writing preliminary reports on each of the primary figures and events of the narrative: Lu T’ung, the poet; Han Yü, the poet and court official; Meng Chien, the imperial censor; Wang Ya, the imperial minister, and the Sweet Dew Incident as well as mounts Wangwu and Sung. Other details about tea, the Grand Canal, the western and eastern capitals, eunuchs, and Taoism came from similar studies and reports made over several decades.

The minister Wang Ya (ca. 760-835 A.D.) serves as an example of just how varied the sources employed in the essay can be: Chung-kuo li-tai jen-ming ta-tzu-tien (Biographical Dictionary of Historical China), Chang Wei-chih et al, eds. (Shanghai: Shanghai ku-chi ch’u-pan-she, 1999), vol. 1, p. 134; Ch’en Tsung-mou, ed., Chung-kuo ch’a-ching (The Tea Classic of China, a compendium of essays on all aspects of tea)(Shanghai: Shanghai wen-hua ch’u-pan she, 1997), p. 630; Chung-kuo ch’a wen-hua ching-tien (Dictionary of Chinese Tea Culture), Ch’en Pin-fan, ed. (Peking: Kuang-ming jih-pao ch’u-pan she, 1999), pp. 33-34, 56-58. In turn, these sources cite the T’ang tsai-tzu ch’uan (Biographies of T’ang Talents), 5; Ch’üan T’ang wen (Complete Literary Works of the T’ang Dynasty), 1/734; and the Chiu T’ang shu (Old Record of the T’ang Dynasty) and Hsin T’ang shu (New Record of the T’ang Dynasty), respectively.

The above works were augmented by information in Chung-kuo ch’a-shih ta-tien (The Dictionary of Chinese Tea History) Hsü Hai-jung, ed. (Peking: Hua-hsia ch’u-pan she, 2000), p. 60; Denis C.Twitchett, Financial Administration under the T’ang Dynasty ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), pp. 64 and 276, n. 126; Paul J. Smith, Taxing Heaven’s Storehouse: Horses, Bureaucrats, and the Destruction of the Sichuan Tea Industry, 1074-1224 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 56 and 359, n. 30; Li Chi-fu, Yüan-ho chun-hsien t’u-chih, ch. 25, p. 338 cited in Chung-kuo ch’a wen-hua ching-tien. Ch’en Pin-fan, ed. (Peking: Kuang-ming jih-pao ch’u-pan she, 1999), p. 49; Charles O. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), p. 399; Chung-kuo ch’a wen-hua ching-tien, Dictionary of Chinese Tea Culture, Ch’en Pin-fan, ed. (Peking: Kuang-ming jih-pao ch’u-pan she, 1999), pp. 56-57; Denis Twitchett, and John K. Fairbank, The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 2. Part I: Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 693; Heng Chye Kiang, Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats: The Development of Medieval Chinese Cityscapes (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999), pp. 29-33; and James J.Y. Liu, The Poetry of Li Shang-yin: Ninth-Century Baroque Chinese Poet (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 168-170.

Each of the figures and events in the essay have similar if not more extensive sources from which to draw. I hope this explanation gives you a better sense of the kinds of material used in the research and writing. If there is a particular figure, poem, issue, or event that you are interested in, please let me know. I will be happy to do what I can to assist.


anne said...

Dear Steven, your writing is brilliant. Thank you.
I am wondering about the word Yang-hsien which Lewis pointed out is yáng xiàn chá 陽羨茶 in pinyin.
I am not a Chinese scholar, but do read some Japanese, so my understanding of Chinese is very poor. You mentioned that yáng xiàn is the old place name for Yí xīng 宜興. When did they change the characters for the name?
And one more question. Is the tea which one reads about in 19th century English literature "Young Hyson" based on the same name also? Or am I totally off the track?

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your compliment and interest in my writing. I am very glad you enjoyed the story. As for your questions regarding the names of tea, please find below a bit of information on Yangxian and Hyson.

The modern city of Yixing 宜興 is situated just west of the northeastern shore of Lake Tai 太湖 at the southern tip of Jiangsu province 江蘇省. Throughout most of its history, Yixing was known for its production of bamboo, tea, and stoneware pottery.

In ancient times, Yixing was comprised of hamlets and villages. As the area grew in population and industry, Yixing acquired different names and administrative designations.

During the Qin dynasty 秦代, the Yixing area was established as a district 縣 and named Yangxian 陽羨. In the Jin dynasty 晉代, Yangxian 陽羨 was changed to Yixing 義興 and established as a commandary 郡. In the Sui dynasty 隋代, Yixing 義興 commandary was abolished and created as Yangxian district 義興縣. The Tang dynasty 唐代 divided the land around Yixing 義興 and established the district of Yangxian 陽羨縣. The name Yangxian 陽羨 was abolished at the beginning of the Song dynasty 宋代 and changed to Yixing 宜興, the name that has endured ever since.

As the names of the Yixing area changed throughout history, it was quite common to refer to Yixing as Yangxian, especially among the literati who favored old names as a literary devise. So, in poetry, literature, and history, importance is attached to knowing the many names of a place.

Yixing is unrelated to the tea known as Hyson. Hyson is a name of tea, the origin of which has a number of stories. In China, Hyson said to be a name that comes from Xichun 熙春, meaning “splendid spring” or “flourishing spring,” a rolled green tea resembling small pearls that was sent as tribute to the Kangxi emperor 康熙帝, second ruler of the Qing dynasty 清代. In Britain, Philip Hyson was said to be an 18th century importer with the East India Company who first brought the green tea to England and sold it in his shop.

In history, Hyson tea was said to be related to Singlo tea, a likely corruption of Songluo tea 松蘿茶. Songluo was a green tea from Huizhou 徽州, Anhui province 安徽省 that was popular during the Ming dynasty 明代. Songluo tea was created by itinerant Buddhist monks who used processing techniques borrowed from the monastic tea gardens on Tiger Hill 虎丘 in Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu province 江蘇省. In the Ming, the preparation of the tea was painstaking. Before firing, the tip and stem of each leaf was cut off, leaving only the middle part of the leaf. So, the finished tea had a pleasing, uniform size and color but also a very dear price. When prepared, Sungluo was easy to brew and aromatic. Sungluo tea was described as white “like the pear flower, its fragrance like bean flower buds, its drink like swallowing a bit of snow.”

Nowadays, Hyson tea is a green tea that is long in leaf and twined; thinly rolled it has the appearance of tightly twisted threads. It is grown and processed in Sri Lanka and China and comes in a number of grades: Young Hyson, Hyson, and Hyson Skin. Young Hyson is made of young, tender leaves picked before the “grain rains,” that is to say, before April 20th. Young Hyson, the finest of the Hyson teas, is divided into three grades commonly known as Chun Mee, Foong Mee, and Sow Mee. Chun Mee or Zhenmei cha 珍眉茶 is the famous "precious eyebrow tea," and its leaves resemble the fine, arched brows of a beautiful woman. The brewed tea is described as golden yellow in color with a smooth but robust, full-bodied, pungent yet delicate flavor inclining towards bitter. Hyson is made from older, coarser leaves. Hyson Skin is made of the largest, oldest, and coarsest leaves. The primary market for Young Hyson is North and West Africa where it is extremely popular.

I hope the above comments are of interest and help to you.


Anonymous said...

Steve, you are the historically most thorough tea researcher I have come across. I have been researching all I can get my hands on for two and a half years, as I am writing a book. But you are clearly capable of writing an encyclopedia.
I am also setting up a website dedicated to furthering knowledge about tea. I will certainly be placing a link to your blogs with your permission.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us all.

Anonymous said...

I am still learning how to blog. That last comment was from Anne

Anonymous said...

Correction: The history of the names of Yixing should read "In the Sui dynasty 隋代, Yixing 義興 commandary was abolished and created as the Yixing district 義興縣.