T ea and tea culture have been an intrinsic part of Chinese history and society for centuries. Tea, teawares, and drinking vessels are an important and unique window into the evolution of Chinese culture.
Two Sotheby’s auctions this month, Tea Treasures – Rare Vintage and Premium Puerh | The Inaugural Tea Sale and Echoes of Fragrance – Evolution of Tea Culture from The Tang to the Qing Dynasties track this one constant feature throughout Chinese history.
By all accounts, China’s omnipresent tea culture can be traced as far back to before 2000 BC and the Qin dynasty. The mythical Shennong Emperor discovered tea when a leaf fell into boiled water he was drinking, beginning a tradition that exists to this day.
Tea culture spread throughout China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), particularly after the completion of The Classic of Tea (Cha Jing) by Lu Yu in the 8th century. Lu Yu, a monk who later earned fame as the ‘Sage of Tea’, had an enormous impact on the spread of tea drinking and linked it to Buddhist ideas, including the harmony and mysteries of the universe. The Classic of Tea, written in ten chapters on three scrolls, is the oldest known guide to tea drinking and culture. It covers all aspects of tea culture, from growing to harvesting, crafting and brewing as well as techniques for farmers and craftsmen to produce the finest teas. Scholars and monks were quick to adopt Lu Yu’s approach to tea. Throughout the Tang dynasty, the culture of tea drinking spread quickly. Inspired by Lu Yu’s ideas, the literati attributed medicinal qualities to tea, praised for sharpening the mind. At the same time, wine and alcoholic beverages were falling out of favour for their intoxicating properties, paving a path for tea to spread throughout society and to be used in religious rituals and offerings.
Utensils specifically made for the preparation of tea appeared during the Tang dynasty. The teawares from the period facilitated a complex process of tea making that was clearly described in The Classic of Tea. Following the process described by Lu Yu, tea leaves were first steamed in a steamer. The leaves were then ground using a mortar and shaped into cake before being dried and strung with reed or bamboo. Eventually, the tea was ground and cooked in a brazier before drinking in a tea bowl. The Classic of Tea describes 28 utensils used to brew and drink tea, including teapots and bowls.
Teaware also reflected the ceramic innovations of the period. Yue ware, for example, emerged as the most used type of ceramic tea implements in the form of celadon-glazed pottery wares marked by the traditional greenish colour. White porcelain Xing ware also emerged during this time. Fine examples are offered in this auction, which include an array of tea bowls in silver, Yue ware with celadon glaze, and a Xingyao white-glazed bowl with a stand.
The auction also features implements used to grind the teacakes into powder and subsequent cooking of the tea. These implements include a ceramic tea mortar, a tea brazier, a silver spoon, and a silver tea caddy.
Teawares continued to evolve during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), a period during which the tea culture reached its peak. Yingqing ware made with blue-and-white Qingbai porcelain and black-glazed Jian ware emerged. Jian ware would eventually replace most white ceramic wares. These dark brown or black bowls, bear understated and elegant glaze effects, were regarded as ideal vessels for drinking tea, because the dark glaze would best show off the colour of the whipped tea.
The preparation of tea also evolved during the Song. The whisking method became popular during this dynasty. The method combines pouring and dripping, a complex and detailed process said to help soothe the mind. Tea was ground into a powder and hot water was added and then whisked in a bowl using a brush to make the tea and create a foam. The method eventually spread to Japan, where it became part of the country’s meticulous tea ceremony – and the basis of the matcha tea popular today.
The Song and Yuan offerings in this auction include a comprehensive array of tea bowls of varying glazes, sizes and shapes, including a russet-streaked versus a silver-streaked Jian temmoku bowl, a lacquer cupstand, Jian black-glazed tea bowls of three different sizes (lots 5028, 5029, and 5030), a russet-splashed tea bowl, a marbled clay tea bowl, a Yuan tixi lacquer tea bowl, and two qingbai cups and cupstands. Also, on offer are a selection of Japanese tea ceremony wares in the kinrande style, in which gold is applied on Japanese porcelain.
Throughout this dynasty, tea emerged as a common subject of poetry, calligraphy and painting. This underscores the idea of tea connoisseurship as a complete sensory and literary experience. Further evidence of this are objects that were likely used as accompaniment to tea drinking ceremonies, such as a Jizhou vase and longquan censer. Censers are containers used to burn incense.
The appreciation for tea grew over the centuries. Tea making continued to evolve during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when steeping became the primary way of preparing tea. The Ming period was marked by a population boom and general economic prosperity, both of which helped spread the popularity of tea.
Steeping became the dominant style of preparation after the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming dynasty, decreed that any tributes of tea cakes had to be replaced by loose-leaf tea. He believed that the loose-leaf infusion better brought out the qualities and flavour of the tea. From the Ming dynasty onwards, steeping became the most popular method of making tea and teapots, bowls and cups the most important teawares.
In 1440, Zhu Quan, the Prince of Ning and the 17th son of the Hongwu Emperor, wrote the Tea Manual (Cha Pu). The short sixteen-chapter work covered different ways to prepare tea, as well as teawares and approaches to the consumption of tea. The Cha Pu is generally considered to have kicked off a new era in China’s tea culture, as it advocated for a simpler method of steeping loose tea.
During the Qing dynasty, the use of loose-leaf teas continued to evolve and become the norm that continues to this day.
Through the curated selected in Echoes of Fragrance, we can observe the history of tea from Tang dynasty tea mortars and braziers to the Qing dynasty teawares, including Yixing teapots, a Kangxi porcelain teapot, a Daoguang tea bowl with cover, and tea caddy. The auction also features a baragon tume tea bowl commonly used in imperial wedding, and playful gadgets on the tea table including a boxwood tea spoon and a pair of walnuts.
Centuries of rich culture, heritage and history from China and its tea culture are visible in the wares found in the upcoming auctions, unique events that provide a large window into a unique part of Chinese culture.