The history of green tea is the story of tea itself. We have countless variations to choose from these days but it all began with the Camellia Sinensis plant, first discovered over 3,000 years ago in southeast China. Did someone eat a leaf and decide to put it in water? Or did the leaf itself fall into a cup? These are two interpretations of history which are impossible to verify. What we do know is that for centuries green tea was the only kind of tea there was, and it was made by merely soaking Camellia Sinensis leaves in hot water. This all changed with a book.
When talking about tea it is important to mention the name Lu Yu. He has been called everything from ‘a sage’ to ‘the patron Saint of Tea’. Born during the peak of the Tang Dynasty – a high point in Chinese civilisation – he would eventually write the single most important book regarding tea and its cultivation, Cha Jing. Let’s take a look at his life.
Lu Yu was a 3-year-old orphan when he was found near a lake by the Buddhist Zen Master Zhiji. His interest in tea was evident from a young age. Learning the skill of tea making from Master Zhiji, Lu Yu also received further education in Buddhism and Confucianism at the Jingling Longgai Monastery. Their relationship turned sour though, when at the age of 9 Lu Yu’s emerging rebellious nature made Zhiji so furious he forced him to do endless hard labour. Over the years it just got worse. Lu Yu started reading non-Buddhist literature, and when Zhiji discovered this he imprisoned him in the Monastery under the watch of several senior monks. It wasn’t until Lu Yu was 12-years-old that he finally escaped from his oppressors, running off into the wilderness with his meagre possessions.
After leaving the Monastery, Lu Yu joined a travelling circus. Seriously, who hasn’t thought about doing this? He gained a reputation as a literate and intelligent comedian, and his tea-brewing skills were appreciated by prominent figures of the time. One of these was Li Qiwu, a member of the Tang royal family, who convinced Lu Yu to leave the circus and study under the scholar Zou Fuzi. For the next six years, Lu Yu lived with Fuzi and his other students. He continued to brew tea and even applied this knowledge to the treatment of others’ ill health. It was at this time that he made one of the most important discoveries in tea-making history: While out walking in the countryside, he found a spring that was extraordinarily clean and used its water to brew a cup. The taste was exceptional. He realised then that the quality of the tea depended on the quality of the water.
He was 21 when he decided to write the comprehensive book on tea. Setting off on his friend’s buffalo, he eventually gathered so many tea samples and notes that they started to weigh him down. There was no stopping him though – not even the eruption of civil war, which forced many like him south in search of a new home. Once there he met Monk Jiaoran. Jiaoran was skilled in the ways of tea cultivation, and at this time Lu Yu was exposed to tea farms and numerous areas of production. He worked hard to build on his talents. He even became the first man to initiate quality control. When he felt he had gathered enough research, he went into solitude and set about nailing his findings to the page. It took six years to complete the first manuscript. Something was missing though. He didn’t know what it was, but this thought was convincing enough to stop him from releasing his book.
We have Monk Jiaoran to thank for putting him on the right track again. A project was underway in the city of Huzhou to compile a literary and historical record for the imperial library. An old friend of Jiaoran’s invited him to come on board. Jiaoran, in turn, recommended Lu Yu. Working as a senior editor on the project, Lu Yu came into the possession of information he had never seen before – information on tea! What luck. He now had everything he needed to finish his book, and to illustrate how important this was to him above all things Lu Yu turned down an offer from the Emperor to join his imperial court. Instead, he spent a further five years perfecting his work.
In 780 A.D. it was finally finished. Ten chapters on tools, sources, harvesting, brewing and storage, history… Lu Yu compiled the various customs he’d chanced across on his travels and shared peoples’ tea poems and stories. He wrote about when tea leaves should be plucked, how to dry and store collected tea, and he graded and compared the quality of tea from different regions. We could go on. Basically, everything that could have been said about tea at the time was written down in Cha Jing (or Tea Classic). It went on to become a highly regarded work and elevated the subject of tea forever. Even today, when the methods of processing and cultivation have changed so much, people in the Chinese tea industry look to Lu Yu and his work for guidance and inspiration. He’d certainly have a lot to say about tea in our time. Lu Yu believed that it should always be drunk pure, without any additional ingredients masking its personal taste and smell. Of course there are plenty of places you can go where this philosophy is still the norm – not just in China, but in tea shops around the world.
So is Lu Yu one of the most influential people of all time? A ‘Tea Saint’ who many people still haven’t heard of? Both, it seems, are completely true.