First published in 1906, The Book of Tea is a neat little book about the art of the Japanese tea ceremony, as well as the history and philosophies that have shaped it. The tea ceremony is a fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that also contains within it a microcosm of Japan’s religious and aesthetic ideologies. I’ve been interested in this book for some time, but the publication of it in the Penguin Little Black Classics range (no. 112) forced my hand and for the paltry fee of a mere £2 it found its way into my sticky palms. Book collecting is pretty much the antithesis of the ideology espoused in The Book of Tea, but overlooking all the downsides of book collecting is one of my special skills so that didn’t hold me back (nothing ever does).
The Book of Tea is a short book, measuring in at a lightweight 108 pages with reasonably large font and a fair number of blank pages. I managed to read it on a 2 hour train journey down to London with time to spare. Whilst lightweight in size, it is not lightweight in content. In a series of short chapters, Okakura sets out the framework for the Japanese tea ceremony. The following extract gives a flavour (ha) of the book:
“The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. The East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”
Beginning with the history of tea, Okakura explores the development of the tea ceremony and the differing ways in which tea has been served over the centuries. For those familiar with the Japanese approach, the tea ceremony seems unusual in that it uses matcha – ground tea leaves which are whipped with hot water to make the tea – as opposed to the steeping method which is more commonplace particularly in the West. This divergence is explained by the isolationist leanings of the Japanese which caused the Japanese to ‘fix’ in the matcha mode. In other words, at one time the only way to drink tea was the Japanese way. During their isolationist phase the Japanese developed a philosophical approach which combined simplicity with excellence and artistic sensibilities which shape the tea ceremony even today. Yet now, perhaps, it might be seen more as a cultural curiosity. I found it interesting that the book is that it was written around the time that Japan was emerging out into the world, before the disaster of the war which has shaped their development since, and it has both an outward looking and inward looking feel to it. Okakura makes a plea for greater understanding between East and West, pointing out the fruitlessness and error of racial and cultural stereotyping. Though written over 100 years ago, much of Okakura’s observations remain as valid today. It’s a slightly sobering thought.
The book then goes on to explore the components of the ceremony, including the tea room, the decoration – the kakemono – which formed the sole point of reference in the room other than, of course, the tea. Okakura talks of flowers and old tea masters, but his views on art I found particularly interesting as they, too, could be as true today:
“It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day had no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is considered to be the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism, would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago, ‘People criticise a picture by their ear.’”
It makes for an interesting contrast to the rabidly consumeristic societies we live in today – where the pressure is always to buy more, look better, possess more, spend more, do more, see more, consume more – to read about a quite different kind of social expectation, one which is built on refinement and aesthetics with a heavy degree of ritual. The tea ceremony is very much about experiencing the moment, and the ritual creates a framework in which the participants can concentrate upon the moment, because it is unique and will never again be experienced. It’s refreshing in a way which might not have seemed the case before the world became so interconnected and fast. Like the book of Hygge, The Book of Tea asks us to slow down, take our time, refine our individual sensibilities and express ourselves in a way which is both individual and yet social. As Okakura says ‘let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.’
Towards the end of the book Okakura shares a story of one of the great tea masters, Rikiu (or Rikyu), who was instrumental in developing the tea ceremony and training others in its art. Tied to a fickle master, Rikiu causes offence, or perhaps is plotted against, and is sentenced to die. He is given the right to die by his own hand, and before he does so he conducts a tea ceremony. The outcome of the ceremony is described here:
“According to established etiquette, the chief guest now asks permission to examine the tea-equipage. Rikiu places the various articles before them with the kakemono. After all have expressed admiration of their beauty, Rikiu presents one to each of the assembled company as a souvenir. The bowl alone he keeps. ‘Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.’ He speaks, and breaks the vessel into fragments.”
This small fragment delivered a shock of recognition as it is replicated in Cees Nooteboom’s wonderful book Rituals which astonishingly I have never reviewed (but I must). It is one of those books I can read again and again, being both funny and interesting and not a little bit strange. It made me realise that Nooteboom too must have read The Book of Tea and used its stories as inspiration, and of course it made me want to read Rituals again because unlike those that observe the beautiful ritual of the tea ceremony my mind is flighty and easily diverted.
The Book of Tea is a lovely little book, soothing as a mug of warm tea after a difficult day. One to read and read and read again.
The Book of Tea is published by Penguin Books.