The values associated with tea today— that it is natural, health- giving, detoxifying, spiritual, stimulating, refreshing, and so on— are not new ideas, but ones shaped in Tang times, by poets. Only a handful of poems were written about tea prior to the Tang dynasty (618-907), but as tea drinking spread rapidly in the seventh and eighth centuries, there was a veritable flood of verse on the topic composed by poets both famous and obscure. In tea poetry we can catch a glimpse of the cultural synergy created by literati, poets, and Buddhist monks gathering to share and construct new standards of connoisseurship and creativity, as well as to develop new themes and imagery. Questions about how tea was to be drunk, how it was to be appreciated, and its range of symbolic meanings were often worked out or elaborated on in verse. Surviving poems describe the color, aroma, and taste of the beverage; methods for preparing tea; the shape of teaware; settings for drinking tea; appreciation of the various aesthetic, medicinal, and psychoactive qualities of the beverage; as well as— to a lesser extent— the world of tea growing, picking, and preparation. Poets, as the cultural engineers of Tang times, had to invent a new world for tea to inhabit. Rather than create just a single cultural space, they made many, all of them interconnected to some degree. In this lecture, I will introduce a few representative examples of Tang dynasty verse on tea and place them in conversation with surviving artworks and artifacts from the history of Chinese tea.
Professor James A. Benn was trained primarily as a scholar of medieval Chinese religions (Buddhism and Taoism). His current research is aimed at understanding the practices and world views of medieval men and women, both religious and lay, through the close reading of primary sources in literary Chinese—the lingua franca of East Asian religions.