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Tang Dynasty - Highpoint of tea drinking

By Frank Yip

Tea drinking had come a long way when Tang Dynasty was established in China (618 - 907), one thousand years after the Eastern Han Dynasty.

It blossomed in the vast Middle Kingdom for several reasons: peace, prosperity, imperial encouragement, a leisure class and last but not least, the superman effort of one man, Lu Yu (733-804), who was named the Tea Saint by his emperor.

Peace and prosperity enabled the economy and industries to develop, grow and expand. Consequently, tea plantation proliforated and tea parties, a commonplace. People beagn to make tea (in cake form to be broken into piecesand further into powder before use) according to their personal tastes: plain, spiced or salted

Professional tea masters burst onto the scene, responsible for selecting the best tea, in addition to quality water (usually casted over great distances), expansive implements (many made of silver, some of gold) and high grade charcoal so as to give little or no obnoxious fumes.

But it was Lu Yu, an orphan and a monk at the age of ten, who had formalised and perfected the tea drinking habit of the time. After spending over 30 years planting tea, packing it and visiting countless tea plantations and water sources (streams, wells and lakes), the result is a 3 volume classic on tea with the do's and don't's on tea drinking and culture.

Lu Yu's tea drinking procedure is a three-step one involving the use of 24 relevant tea-related implements. First, he would advise: roast the tea to a goldenm colour to attainthe fragrant smell from small pieces broken from the tea cake, then roll them into a powder form before further sieving to arrive at the fine powder desired. Secondly, select the best quality water and charcoal. Thirdly, boil the water to a piping hot temperature before mixing the powder and the boiling water. The implements used, ranging from baskets, containers, fine tongs, ladles, pots and pans, cups and bowls, should meet the strictest requirements of quality, dryness (keep dry when not used) and cleanliness (after use).

According to him, the best teas grow on misty mountain tops, the best water from mountain streams (the Jade Stream Mountain near Beijing being one of the four he had graded) and the best taste comes from the first sip. He advised not to derink after the seventh cup, if one wishes to attain the status of an immortal.

Because of the superior tea culture of Tang, and one no less fine-tuned by monks whose business it was to dig into ancient Buddhist scriptures to find the Truth and, in the process, to keep them awake at night by drinking tea. Foreigners were more than impressed and began flocking to China to learn it and to bring it home for physical and spiritual upliftment.

Japan then was embarking on cultural re-construction and thought that she had a lot to learn from the Chinese. Hence, droves of government officials, students and monks were sent to Changan the capital to pick up tips on things Chinese. Many of the cultural relics brought home at that time have become priceless treasures.

In addition to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and countries in the Middle East and beyond also got their tea, the latter via camel caravans trekking the Silk Road.

As the epitome of Chinese culture and history, Tang Dynasty is remembered today by some Chinese, overseas Chinese included, who called themselves Tang-men and China, Tang-san (mountain, i.e. country).

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