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Steeped in History: The Art of Tea at UCLA

I depend on coffee for my morning caffeine, but I prefer the more delicate flavor of tea when I need an afternoon warmer or a mild pick-me-up. The various international rituals and accoutrements of tea I've encountered in my travels are also part of its appeal for me: I loved how, in Turkey, every ...

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I depend on coffee for my morning caffeine, but I prefer the more delicate flavor of tea when I need an afternoon warmer or a mild pick-me-up. The various international rituals and accoutrements of tea I've encountered in my travels are also part of its appeal for me: I loved how, in Turkey, every social or business transaction began with some steaming çai served in a graceful little glasses on a silver tray, and that I never entered a home in Ireland or Great Britain where a kettle wasn't immediately put on to boil for some milky tea.

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So, during a recent visit to my hometown Los Angeles, I was interested to catch an exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum called "Steeped in History: The Art of Tea". Aside from seeing some beautiful artifacts, including teapots, tea caddies and Japanese netsuke, I absorbed enough historical tidbits to ace a tea category if I ever make it onto Jeopardy.

For starters, I learned that steeping didn't become the preferred method of preparing tea until the Ming Dynasty in China, which began in the 14th century. The ancient Chinese compressed tea into cakes, then shaved off portions to boil in water. By the 10th century, during the Song Dynasty, powdered tea, which was whipped with hot water using a bamboo whisk, became popular.

According to Chinese legend, an emperor named Shen Nong discovered tea nearly 5,000 years ago, when the wind blew some leaves into his kettle of boiling water.

During the Ming era, Xü Cishu wrote a tea manual called Chashu, which listed appropriate times to drink tea. These included "When bored with poetry," "After tipsy guests have left," "When skies are overcast," and "In perfect weather." In other words, anytime.

Tea was introduced to Japan during the early Heian period (794–1185) by monks who returned after studying Zen Buddhism in China. The traditional Japanese tea ceremony was formalized in the 1500s, and was believed to offer a path to enlightenment through everyday gestures performed "in mindful awareness of the present moment." At first performed solely by men, the role eventually became associated with women.

An alternative, less formal ceremony called Senchado emerged later. It was based on the wu wei principle of "yielding to the stream of life rather than working against it."

Europeans didn't start drinking tea until the 17th century. It caught on first with the Dutch, who were the only traders allowed to enter Japan after it enacted a closed-door policy in 1639, and even they were only allowed as far as an island in Nagasaki harbor.

No place today is more associated with tea drinking than the United Kingdom, and the exhibition devotes some space to both English tea culture and to the political ramifications of the kingdom's former imperial practices in India, where most of its tea was grown, and in the American colonies—where, of course, tea-related taxes and restrictions eventually helped spark a revolution.

Steeped in Tradition: The Art of Tea continues at the Fowler through November 29.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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