Silk Roads Series: Art of Tea

Silk Roads: Art of Tea by Jewel K. Goode

Although intercultural exchanges involving tea developed between European ports, such as those in Portugal, and the Far East from 16th century onwards, tea-drinking is believed to have it origins rooted in southern Asia, dating to the Han period.  It was first used as a medicinal elixir concocted from untreated green leaves. However, by the T’ang period, tea was enjoyed as a refreshing beverage, prepared from leaves that had been moistened and formed into a dense mold.  Anecdotes dating to the 8th century reveal how the city of Chang-an had a flourishing number of tea shops, and many touted the health benefits of tea rather than wine.

These intercultural exchanges were the direct result of the expansive network of maritime and land routes that explorers, missionaries, physicians actively travelled across. By embarking on such journeys, they were also able to transmit elements of Western culture to the Far East, which were later transformed and reconceptualized by those regions, according to their specific aesthetic preferences.   As a result of this transnational fluidity between diverse regions and populations along the Silk Roads, significant sociocultural imprints and innovative developments related to tea consumption eventually appeared in the West.  Such activity permitted the free flow of ideas, goods, and concepts – the effects of which are still experienced internationally throughout contemporary society.

Dynamic exchanges and sociocultural developments concerning tea were often closely associated with everyday life, daily rituals, spirituality, and community.   In some cases, consuming tea was even associated with the Taoist notions involving extraordinary psychic-spiritual and physical effects.  Therefore, tea soon made an entrance into creative spheres, including poetry and literature.   As a result, its popularity quickly rose throughout the Far East, with poets and artists writing about the pleasures of tea, tea customs, and traditions.

Thus, an aesthetic culture developed around tea-drinking, and achieved a considerable amount of notoriety, especially in medieval Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries.  Artists such as Murata Shuko, Takeno Joo, and Sen Rikyu developed a particular approach that was characterized by the term “wabi”, or frugality.  The art of the “wabi” tea ceremony, or “chado” (“the way of tea”), was borne out of a synthesis of various Japanese aesthetic and religious traditions.  Over time, it continued to exert its influence on intercultural dialogue and exchanges.  The art of tea was not only passed down through generations, but it was diffused to the West and across various continents.  The powerful sociocultural elements embedded in tea were due to its ability to develop and solidify community bonds.

Tea was first exported from Macau through Malacca.  It then passed from Manila to the Indian sub-continent before reaching the West.  Cultures and regions around the world have continued to adapt the ubiquitous product according to their own societal norms.  Similar to that of the Chinese culture, tea is often associated with pre-engagement rituals between a future bride and groom.  The British and Dutch also incorporated the beverage into their lifestyles, where it developed connotations linked to hospitality, mutual understanding, local tradition, and community.  Bento de Gois, Italian missionary, Sabatino de Ursis, and Italian cartographer, Matteo Ricci are examples of individuals during the 16th and 17th centuries who actively explored unknown regions in the Far East in order to gather knowledge, understanding, and appreciation.  Their experiences abroad were later transmitted and incorporated into elements of western society and traditions.

Moreover, in the Portuguese language, “cha” is derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the word, while “tha” and “tea” are derivatives of the Fukinese dialect. The transcendent power of tea as a beverage and renowned universal concept, is visibly translated in old teas salons on Rua Nova de El-Rei (also known as Avenida do Cinco de Outubro), as well as houses typical to Macau. These tea salons referenced Mediterranean urban structures, built around squares and cobblestoned streets, and were reminiscent of European cities. Thus, the transmission of tea to other regions of the world was possible due to the cultural significance it carried, both as a product and a concept.  Positive connotations associated with tea and its benefits still exist in contemporary society, due to the active exchange of ideas, concepts, and goods along the Silk Roads, and beyond.

Author: Jewel K. Goode.  Global Communications Specialist, Writer, Art Curator, and Photographer

Image © Rain of Joy.  Sources provided upon request.

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