AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay is dedicated to Frank Hadley Murphy, author of The Spirit of Tea, for his kind introduction to the poet Li Bo for which I am most grateful. Murphy and his admiration for the poet informed and inspired my work on Preface and Poem, Li Bo’s inimitable verse on tea.
Li Bo 李白 (a.k.a. Li Bai, Li Taibo 李太白, 701-762 CE) was one of the greatest poets of the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), a golden age renowned for its literature and fine verse. Celebrated for his love of wine, he composed many rhymes about the moon and drinking. Such was his adoration of both, it was even said that he drowned reaching drunkenly for the orb’s shimmering reflection in the water. Though he wrote much about wine, only a single poem devoted to tea remains from his oeuvre. This is a story about how that tea poem came to be written and about the timbre of a poet who is still greatly admired to this day.
It was the rare occasion when Li Bo drank alone. As one of the most famous poets of his day, he was hardly ever by himself, especially when traveling. Yet on one deserted night, with none but the moon and his silhouette for company, he wrote in easy solitude of wine and reunion under a distant starry sky.
月下獨酌 Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon
花間一壺酒 Amidst flowers with a pot of wine,
獨酌無相親 I drink alone, companionless.
舉杯邀明月 Raising a cup, I invite the bright moon
對影成三人 To add my shadow, and we become three.
月既不解飲 But the moon does not drink
影徒隨我身 And the shadow simply follows me.
暫伴月將影 Moon and shadow are but fleeting partners,
行樂須及春 Yet one must find joy in life.
我歌月徘徊 As I sing, the moon lingers;
我舞影零亂 I dance, and the shadow stumbles after.
醒時同交歡 While sober, we shared our happiness;
醉後各分散 Now drunk, we go our separate ways.
永結無情遊 Forever bound, roaming without a care,
相期邈雲漢 We will meet again beyond the Milky Way.
For the poet, the moon was an inconstant companion, waxing and waning, and disappearing altogether, like a departed friend, only to reappear, long lost and warmly embraced. Looking at the moon was an expression of longing, a yearning for home, and the lonely search for faded memories. Li Bo was a master of simplicity, and in the poem "Pondering in the Quiet Night," the moon was the mirror to his soul:
床前明月光 Before the bed, bright moonlight
疑是地上霜 Like frost on the ground.
舉頭望明月 Raising my head, I gaze at the clear moon.
低頭思故鄉 Lying back, I think of home.
Li Bo was usually surrounded by friends and admirers who welcomed him everywhere, feasting him with sumptuous foods and rounds of fine wine. He was always encouraged to drink, to loosen his poet’s tongue and top the last verse sung. To him, imbibing and inebriation were familiar pastimes and among his favorite themes, for he wrote many poems dedicated to drink and all its muzzy pleasures. An excerpt from his famous "Bring in the Wine" describes one night as he caroused with Daoist friends and praised their gustatory excess in fervent words that turned from breathless yearning to certain destiny:
… Boil the mutton, butcher the ox, all for joy!
Muster a draught of three hundred cups.
Master Cen and Master Danqiu,
Bring in the wine, the ceaseless cups.
Just one more song for you,
Please just listen closely.
Bells and drums, delicacies and jade? All nothing!
I just want one long binge, not sobriety!
Old sages and worthies? All forgotten!
Only great drunks leave behind their names …
Li Bo was an exemplar in a long line of artists for whom wine was their muse. He was inspired by its fragrant scent, its soothing taste, its dizzy release from convention. Enlightened by wine, he chanted his songs, revealing truths in flashes of insight and scintillating verse, while holding communion with the heavens. For Li Bo, the aesthetic power of drink was a seduction. Siren wine was the path to freedom, the very way to unfettered creation.
As he was too famous to be ignored, officialdom sought his company, knowing his literary light reflected well on them. The palace too sought his presence, doting on his every word. But he cared nothing for high office or its company. His friend Du Fu wrote "Eight Immortals of Drink," a poem that illustrated Li Bo’s challenging response to one imperial command:
Drunks often love to run and hide,
Like Li Bo, who writes a hundred poems on just one pint.
Dozing in a wine shop in Chang’an;
The emperor summons him, but he won’t board the palace barge,
Declaring, “I am the Immortal of Wine!…”
When he deigned to appear at court, his drunken antics earned Li Bo enemies. Careless and irreverent, his poetry offended the emperor’s favorite, and the wayward poet was dismissed from imperial service. Freedom suited him, and he traveled far and wide. For Li Bo, traveling was a way to engage nature, to explore its phenomena and discover from within and without its transcendental forms. Natural landscapes of overwhelming majesty spurred him to delve beyond the material world, inspiring him to write the simple but profoundly moving words of "Shangyang Terrace":
山高水長 Towering mountains, great rivers;
物象千萬 The forms of things are myriad.
非有老筆 Compelled to wield my old, worn brush,
清壯可窮 I ponder their pure spirit.
His wanderlust was described as a Daoist desire “to return east to Penglai,” the eternal isles, and a wish to “ride with winged immortals to Cinnabar Hill,” the alchemical source of everlasting life.
Even when roving, Li Bo avoided officials. Journeying south, he met with friends in towns and cities along the way. Each day was the same. Returning nightly from drunken celebrations, hung over and drawn, he revived midday and headed out again for another round of carousing, carefully skirting the nighttime haunts of officials, seeking instead the discrete corners of the pleasure districts or the incognito of rustic inns. Away from urban centers, the rural tracks neatly covered him from overbearing bureaucrats and unwanted invitations.
Sometimes, he lived in temples and monasteries. Taking sanctuary among abbots and monks, he stayed in their guest quarters, coming and going as he pleased, returning in time to monastic calm and tranquility. Small temples provided shelter and spiritual respite along the way. The great monasteries, with their fine libraries and scholarly monks, offered intellectual discourse and mental challenge. To Li Bo, temple life was a retreat, a time of rejuvenation for mind and body, especially when ravaged by wine and rich fare.
Temple tea offered the means by which Li Bo repaired himself. In herbal form, tea was medicinal and a particularly effective panacea for the ills of drinking. Monasteries produced fine tea and some were renowned for the unusual properties of their leaf. When expressly prepared in strong prescriptive draughts by the temple master, tea all but guaranteed recovery. Longer cures – an austere regimen of tea and a vegetarian diet – more than justified, if not fortifying against, the next epicurean splurge on delicacies and casks of fine wine.
Yet, if he owed his health and preservation at all to tea, Li Bo did not acknowledge the debt. Unlike his many verses to wine, he wrote but a single poem dedicated to tea, and then only because he was obliged to do so. He composed the work -- known simply as "Immortal’s Palm Tea" -- while he was in the old capital of Nanjing in 752 CE. He was comfortably lodged at the Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds, a large monastery with famous tea gardens just northeast of the city, when he received an unexpected visit from his nephew Li Ying.
Li Ying, whose Buddhist name was Zhongfu, had traveled all the way from Jingzhou, a town in Hubei where he was Zen master of Jade Spring Temple. His journey was not purely by chance: Jade Spring and Refuge of Radiant Clouds were sister institutions, two of the greatest Buddhist monasteries of the Tang. The reason for his visit was not clear, though just months before in the previous year, the Venerable Yüqüan Huizhen, the highly respected Buddhist teacher at Jade Spring Temple, died at the age of seventy eight. The passing of so eminent a monk may well have prompted Zhongfu’s presence in Nanjing. But the Zen master likely came to consult with the clerics responsible for the monastery’s tea. Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds was well known for its tea production and gardens; even the eighth-century master and sage of tea Lu Yü picked tea there. In any case, when Zhongfu learned that Li Bo was in residence at the monastery, he arranged a reunion, carefully preparing gifts for his uncle. When they met, he presented the poet with tea and a poem. The monk’s verse was subsequently lost in time, but Li Bo’s composition was commemorated thereafter as a major contribution to the poetry of tea.
The tea given to Li Bo was a specialty of Jade Spring Temple. The tradition of tea there was begun by the late Venerable Yüqüan Huizhen who use to pick leaves from bushes that grew wild along the stream banks of a nearby spring. The old monk dried the leaves in the sun, stored them away for his personal use, and brewed the tea with the temple’s fine spring water. He drank the tea every day for the remainder of his long life; his health and youthful vigor and ageless complexion were attributes of his habit. It was believed not only that Huizhen’s regimen allowed him to live to the esteemed age of seventy-eight but also that his tea owed its herbal properties to the pure waters of the stream, the benign sun that shone upon the temple, and the reverent care with which it was made. Following in the late master’s footsteps, Zhongfu now oversaw the annual spring harvest and the curing of leaves.
The large-scale production of tea by Jade Spring Temple was something of a new venture; one with risks as well as benefits. For a large monastery like Jade Spring, tea was a significant expense but also an integral part of monastic life. Ritual offerings of fine tea were made daily to the deities, and ordinary tea was drunk throughout each day by thousands of monks and scores of priests and lay penitents and volunteers. In temple routine, tea was substituted for the mid day meal and its herbal brew was an essential aid to meditation. Moreover, the preparation and service of fine tea was an important part of temple ceremony, highlighting the welcome of distinguished nobles, reverend clerics, and high officials into its halls. The temple’s yearly consumption of tea was considerable and a drain on its treasury. While it was true that the harvest and processing required the seasonal help of nearly the entire clerical and lay community, the investment of time and labor amply provided the temple with its own tea for ritual, ceremony, and hospitality. Temple savings – even profits – were to be had by the production of its own leaf.
In the enterprise of tea, Jade Spring Temple was endowed with several advantages. Together with Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds in Nanjing, Guoqing Temple in Tiantai, and Lingyan Temple in Changqing, Jade Spring Temple in Jingzhou was one of four great Buddhist monasteries of the Tang dynasty. Such grand institutions functioned as religious universities, administrative and political centers, and focal points of faith. Like many holy places, Jade Spring Temple was set in a splendid panorama and possessed an impressive physical scale that swept beyond the vast monastic compound and into the surrounding countryside. Jingzhou was famous for its scenic mountains, fine forests, stalactite caves, and bubbling springs: the waters sprung from caverns deep within the mountain, the source known as Jade Spring, after which the temple was named.
As a prominent place of worship, learning, and patronage, Jade Spring temple was an important destination for pilgrims and tourists. During Buddhist festivals and holidays, the paths up the mountain were packed with people making their way to the monastery. Along the way, pavilions and towering pagodas dotted the hillside, providing the milling crowds with scenic views and a moment’s rest from the climb. Reaching the temple gates, visitors were met by a flock of vendors loudly hawking souvenirs, charms, and street food or just a bowl of tea to quench one’s thirst. Inside the temple grounds, throngs of pilgrims jostled beneath the dappled shade of ancient cedars and soaring gingko trees before stepping into the cool darkness of immense worship halls. Once inside, they marveled at the golden images and colorful silk trappings, their ears filled with the sound of bells and drums and rhythmic chants of scripture, all amidst flickering candlelight and swirling clouds of fragrant incense. Special guests of the abbot and wealthy patrons of the monastery were ushered through inner corridors to quiet reception rooms, there to admire garden and scenic views while sipping tea prepared by the temple tea master. As they took their leave, each was given a small gift of the temple’s own tea.
Under Zhongfu’s direction, Jade Spring Temple needed to increase production to ensure a surplus beyond the requirements of the monastery. A surfeit allowed for the presentation of the temple’s tea as tribute to the emperor and members of the imperial family, particularly the regional rulers of principalities surrounding Jingzhou. A surplus also permitted the sale of tea at the great markets of Chang’an and Luoyang. Such a thing as its own tea turned into a source of pride and income for the monastery and its extended community as well as the region as a whole.
In Nanjing, the Zen master Zhongfu explained all this to Li Bo as they sat drinking the temple’s tea. And though he was not a poet, Zhongfu did excel at expository composition, and skillfully provided all pertinent details about his tea in the verse he gave to Li Bo. In keeping with the literati tradition of exchanging poetry, Li Bo complied with Zhongfu’s request for verse in reply, writing not only a poem but also an important encomium:
仙人掌茶 Immortal's Palm Tea
Preface and Response to the Gift of Jade Spring Immortal’s Palm Tea from my nephew, the monk Zhongfu
I have heard of Jade Spring Temple near the clear streams and serried hills of Jingzhou, where all the mountain grottoes possess stalactite caves, where the many tributaries of Jade Stream mingle, where the white bats are as big as crows. According to the Book of Immortals, bats were known as celestial mice. After a thousand years, their bodies turned white as snow. When perched, they hung upside down. Drinking the stalactite waters, they were long-lived. Everywhere along the stream, there is tea with stems and leaves like blue-green jade. Only Master Zhen of the Jade Spring Temple used to pick the tea to drink. He was over eighty with a complexion like peaches and plums. This tea is pure in fragrance and mellow in taste, different from other teas. Thus, it restores youth and reverses decay, enhancing longevity. While in Jinling, I saw my nephew Zhongfu who showed me several tens of tea leaves, all curled and layered, shaped like hands, and bearing the name Immortal’s Palm tea. It is newly produced from the hills of Jade Spring Temple: nothing like it has ever been seen before. Since Zhongfu presented me with this tea and a poem, he wishes me to respond. Therefore, I have written this introduction. Hereafter, the eminent monks and great recluses will all know that Immortal’s Palm Tea began with the Zen master Zhongfu and the Buddhist layman Green Lotus, Li Bo.
常聞玉泉山 Ever have I heard of Mount Jade Spring,
山洞多乳窟 Of its mountain grottos filled with stalactite caves
仙鼠如白鴉 And immortal bats as big as white crows,
倒懸清溪月 All hanging down above the clear, moonlit stream.
茗生此中石 Tea grows among the rocks
玉泉流不歇 And along Jade Spring’s ceaseless flow.
根柯灑芳津 Root and stem exude a rich fragrance;
採服潤肌骨 One whiff nurtures flesh and bone.
叢老卷綠葉 Lush and voluminous, the green leaves;
枝枝相接連 Branch upon branch, row upon row.
曝成仙人掌 The sun dries Immortal’s Palm,
似拍洪崖肩 Coddling it like Hong Ya’s shoulder.
舉世未見之 The world has never seen the like,
其名定誰傳 But who will spread its name?
宗英乃禪伯 Nephew Ying, the Zen master
投贈有佳篇 Presents this tea and a beautiful poem;
清鏡燭無鹽 Both are bright mirrors embellishing ugly Wuyen,
顧慚西子妍 But I am shamed by the beauty Xizi.
朝坐有餘興 Even so, this morning I joyfully
長吟播諸天 Sing this song to the Heavens.
"Immortal’s Palm Tea" was noted as the first poem to incorporate the actual name of a tea in its verse. The poem was also one of the earliest accounts of dry, loose leaf tea, and Li Bo was the first poet to describe the sun dried finishing of the leaf and its peculiar shape and form. Tang tea masters like Lu Yü generally used a highly refined, solid dried paste of tea in the form of a small cake or wafer. Washed, steamed, pressed, pulped, and baked, caked tea was highly processed. Unlike cakes or wafers, the whole leaf of Immortal’s Palm tea was slowly dried by the sun and retained nearly all of its natural oils, nutrients, and potency.
Li Bo was magnanimous in his preface and poem, and Zhongfu must have been pleased by the poet’s high praise of the tea, especially its christening with so distinctive a name as Immortal’s Palm. As for Li Bo, he graciously fulfilled a family duty. It could not have been otherwise, and it would not do to turn duty into a dilemma. When asked by his nephew for the favor, he was bound by blood to honor the request, and Zhongfu's being a respected cleric from a major temple made it all the easier to grant the wish. No, it was the least he could do, a small but meaningful gesture to family and faith.
And besides, life was uncertain. He and his nephew might meet again. One could never really tell what the future held, especially when the poet was restless and always on the move. Li Bo just might find himself on Jade Spring Mountain sometime, wandering late and alone on a wine soaked night, waving a drunken farewell to the waning moon, stumbling towards the temple, and eager for a bittersweet sip of Immortal's Palm tea.
Immortal’s Palm : Although the name was invented by Li Bo centuries before, it is a curious fact that xianren zhang 仙人掌 later also came to mean "cactus" in Chinese. The flat leaves of the exotic prickly pear plant (Opuntia stricta) appeared like the hands or palms of an otherworldly being, thus giving the cactus its name "Immortal’s Palm" in China. Cacti were unknown in China being New World plants native to North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean. In 1540, European mariners returned to the Continent bearing a specimen of Melocactus (Melon cactus) from the West Indies. Cacti were introduced to Asia in the seventeenth century, entering Japan in 1669. The first medicinal use of cactus was noted by Zhao Xüemin 趙學敏 (1719-1805) in the Chinese pharmacology Bencao gangmu shiyi《本草綱目拾遺》, the 1765 revision of the Bencao gangmu《本草綱目》originally published in 1596 by Li Shizhen 李时珍 (1518-1593).
Xian 仙 means “an immortal” in Chinese. The character is composed of two pictographic elements: the radical ren 人 representing a man next to the element shan 山 for mountain. Lexicographic commentaries explain the character as representing a person ascending the highest places to live and to become immortal. The term xianren 仙人 means “an immortal being” but one who is not only endowed with eternal life but also spiritually powerful. Immortality was achieved by spiritual and physical practices as well as by alchemy. The alternate character for xian 仙 is xian 僊, which also means “immortal.” The character xian 僊 is composed of two elements: the radical ren 人 representing a man next to the element xian 䙴, a word meaning “to soar like a bird.” In early nativist and Daoist imagery, an immortal was a bird-like, feathered being that roamed and flitted about the Void. Immortals in religious Daoism were human beings and were divided into three kinds. Heavenly immortals were living persons who transcended earthly bonds in broad daylight. Earthly immortals lived in mountains and forests. Enlightened persons became immortal only after death.
Jade Spring Temple (Yüqüansi 玉泉寺) was located on Mount Jade Spring (Yüqüanshan 玉泉山), western Dangyang County, Hubei. The temple was one of the four great Buddhist monasteries in the empire, a sister institution to the Qixia si 棲霞寺 (Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds) in Nanjing were Li Bo resided.
Jingzhou 荊州 was a prefecture located in present Danyang County, Hubei, a place considered within the heartland of tea.
Zhongfu: It is interesting to note that Li Ying's Buddhist name "Zhongfu" 中孚 is also the name of the sixty-first hexagram in the Yijing 易經 (Book of Changes), wherein the term exemplifies the condition of being centered and calm and in accord with the inner and outer. Such an auspicious name for a Sinitic Buddhist monk resonated profoundly with his ancient Chinese culture, linking the Zen master Zhongfu metaphysically and philosophically with early nativist and Daoist traditions.
The Book of Immortals (Xianjing《仙經》) was a book of Daoist scripture (now lost) that most likely dated from the late Han through the Six Dynasties period.
Master Zhen (Zhengong 真公) was the Venerable Yüqüan Huizhen 玉泉惠真法師 (673-751 CE), a celebrated Buddhist monk and teacher at Jade Spring Temple who lived to be seventy-eight years old.
Jinling 金陵 was an old name for present Nanjing 南京.
Hong Ya 洪崖 was a servant in the palace apothecary of the fabled Yellow Emperor; alternatively, he was said to have been an immortal three thousand years old during the time of Emperor Yao and still living during the Han dynasty. To “pat” or “rub” Hong Ya’s shoulder was to bestow health, longevity, and immortality.
Wuyen 無鹽 was the nickname of Zhong Lichun 鐘離春 (a.k.a. Zhongli Chun 鐘離春), a famously ugly woman of the State of Qi during the Warring States period. Described as “ugly beyond compare,” she risked death to advise her prince. Moved by her loyalty, King Xüan of Qi 齊宣王 (reign 319-301 BCE) made her royal consort. Li Bo, who played the role of Wuyen in his poem, compared Zhongfu’s tea and poetry to “bright mirrors,” a generous and flattering image.
Xizi 西子 was the nickname of Xi Shi 西施 or Shi Yiguang 施夷光, one of four famous beauties in history. It was said that she was considered even more beautiful when she frowned. In a story of self-sacrifice and intrigue, Xi Shi and the beauty Zheng Dan 鄭旦 were sent in vengeance from the State of Yüe to beguile King Fuchai (Ji Fuchai 姬夫差, reign 495-473 BCE) of the State of Wu. Infatuated by their charms, King Fuchai neglected the duties of his throne, and the kingdom of Wu was defeated by Yüe forces in 473 BCE. Once again, Li Bo flattered Zhongfu, this time by comparing the monk to the famous beauty.
"Heavens" here refers to the zhutian 諸天 or the many realms of the Buddhist cosmology, i.e., the entire Universe. Despite his embarrassment, Li Bo graciously received Zhongfu’s gifts, promising to promote Immortal’s Palm by reciting his poem to his many friends as he traveled about the country.
1. Liang Kai 梁楷 (ca. 1140-1210)
Li Bo, 13th century
China: Southern Song dynasty
Hanging scroll: ink on paper
Tokyo National Museum
2. Ma Yüan 馬遠 (active ca. 1190–1225)
Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight, 13th century
China: Southern Song dynasty
Album leaf: ink and color on silk
Metropolitan Museum of Art
3. Li Bo 李白
Shanyangtai tie 上陽臺帖 (Shangyang Terrace), 8th century
China: Tang dynasty
Handscroll: ink on paper
Palace Museum, Beijing
4. Main Gate (Hall of Heavenly Kings)
Qixia si 棲霞寺 (Temple Refuge of Radiant Clouds)
5. Courtyard, Ponds, and Side Hall
Yüqüan si 玉泉寺 (Jade Spring Temple)
6. Pavilion and Bridge
Yüqüan si 玉泉寺 (Jade Spring Temple)