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The Diversity of East Asian Tea Culture

The drinking of tea carries profound meaning in East Asian cultures, as revealed in a small but refreshing Langson Library exhibit. Tea Culture in East Asia offers a glimpse of one significant topic featured in the East Asian Collection’s historical materials on cultural traditions such as food and drink, costume and fashion, and festivals and holidays. The collections have been developed in these directions in response to the growth of Cultural Studies across the humanistic disciplines.

Although millions of people around the world have poured tea for millenia, no one knows for sure who enjoyed the first cup. In East Asia, it was probably the Chinese. The oldest Chinese book devoted to tea is The Classic Book of Tea (Cha Jing) by Lu Yu, written during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). It affirms that tea existed in China as early as 3000 BCE, when the legendary Emperor Shennong used it as an herbal medicine. In Japan, tea was introduced by Buddhist priests who had studied in China during the early Heian period (782-1181 CE). The earliest account of a formal Japanese tea drinking ceremony was in 815, when priest Eichu invited Emperor Saga to visit his temple after returning from a trip to China. In Korea, diplomat Dae- Ryeom brought tea seeds back from China in 828 and planted them in the Jiri Mountains by royal decree.

The effects of tea on East Asian literature and philosophy have been far reaching. Traditionally, Chinese poets called tea the “froth of the liquid jade,” and Taoists considered it to be the elixir of life. Zen Buddhists eulogized tea for its medicinal properties and drank it to prolong meditation. When the Japanese and Koreans adopted Chinese customs and manners, they elevated the drinking of tea to a religious and aesthetic ritual. Sen no Rikyu (1522- 1591), one of the greatest of the Japanese tea masters, applied the four fundamental principles of Zen to the “way of tea” (chanoyu): harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku). In Korea, the tea ceremony (tado) focuses on only one word, “ respect”: respect for tradition, etiquette, science, living, and cleanliness.

For more information about the East Asian cultural collections, please contact Asian Studies Librarian Bill Wong (wswong@uci.edu or x48147).


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