Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea is a sixty-five-page classic which is as much about Eastern patterns of thought as it is about the history and traditions of tea drinking. We are introduced to Teaism (chado), the philosophy of life and tea-drinking that emerged in 15th century Japan as a hot-drink-focused variation on (or aspect of) Zen Buddhism, which itself came out of the mingling of Taoism with the teachings of Buddha in southern China. A particular outlook on life is expressed through the peaceful appreciation of a cup of tea, and the careful (ritualised) preparation of the tea and the environment in which it is consumed - both the surroundings themselves, and the atmosphere in which the tea is taken.

The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste. (p.1)

Having talked a little about the philosophy of tea and the history of its introduction to the West, Okakura goes on to give quite a detailed history of its evolution in China and Japan - how early teas were made pounded into cakes and then boiled with salt, ginger, garlic and orange peel as a kind of soup; how the Sung Dynasty saw this brick tea fall out of favour, to be replaced by powdered tea while China's tea culture flowered as never before - with dozens of new varieties springing up, many a poet singing the praises of the cuppa, and the first known religious use of tea by the Zen Buddhists. With the invasion of the Mongol hordes at the end of the Sung Dynasty, and then the turmoil of the Ming Dynasty, alas, the old ways of tea were forgotten in China; powdered tea gave way to steeped leaves, and the drink lost its religious significance. Japan, however, fought off the Mongols in 1281, and their traditions of tea drinking were allowed to carry on unhindered - powdered tea, matcha, had been imported in 1191 along with Zen Buddhism, and the Tea Ceremony around it had already started evolving. By the 15th century it had reached something very much like its present form, and stopped being seen as a specifically Buddhist thing, although its character and feeling remained more or less intact.

In the rest of the book the author talks some more about the relation between Taoism and Teaism, then goes on to discuss in engaging detail the history and significance of various integral aspects of the Tea Ceremony: we learn about the roles of the tea-room - which should have an air of refined poverty, and be impeccably clean and tidy but never too symmetrical; of art appreciation, which should be approached humbly and with an open mind; and of flowers - to whose honour we owe it to make the most of their beauty, lest their death be in vain. We learn how each of these came to play the part it does in both the ceremony and in Japanese culture. In the final chapter, we are told of the great Tea-Masters who helped to shape not just the Tea Ceremony but almost every aspect of Japanese cultural life - their art and architecture, gardens and cuisine, customs and clothing.

Throughout the text, Okakura's work is peppered with retold myths and historical anecdotes, and informative - if sometimes invective - asides on European and Asian culture. His style is precise and a little old-fashioned, but informal and eminently readable.

Published in 1906, the book is well out of copyright, so I reproduce it here. I do recommend obtaining it in paper form though; it is a small book, and can be bought quite cheaply. My Dover edition (ISBN 0-486-20070-1) has an excellent foreword and notes by an E. F. Bleiler, and it corrects or updates various spellings - Okakura uses spelling conventions for Chinese and Japanese names which are now considered old-fashioned, and the text seems to have been proofread badly when it first came out. As I have gone through adding hardlinks, I have either changed the spelling in the text or pipelinked to more modern spellings when I know them, but I haven't been as thorough as the professionals.

The Book of Tea

    by Kakuzo Okakura
  1. The Cup of Humanity
  2. The Schools of Tea
  3. Taoism and Zennism
  4. The Tea-Room
  5. Art Appreciation
  6. Flowers
  7. Tea-Masters
The Book of Tea was published in 1906 and is now in the public domain.
The text as it appears here was originally taken from http://www.teatime.com/tea/TheBookOfTea/, but this has since disappeared.
The book can also be found at http://hjem.get2net.dk/bnielsen/teatbot.html among other places.
Hardlinks and corrections are Oolong's.

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