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Tea drinking becomes a ceremony

Lu Yu's influence was enormous. He was the first to suggest that the ritual of preparing and drinking tea represented a code of symbolic harmony and order reflecting the ideals of cosmos and society. In his Classic of Tea, (see previous page) Lu Yu lists no less than twenty-four implements that are essential for the correct preparation of a cup of tea. These include the equipment needed for roasting and grinding the cakes of tea, as well as the stove for boiling the water, and the cups for drinking. Rich noblemen at once began to rival one another in acquiring beautifully crafted sets for making tea, while tea plantations spread across the southern part of China. The bricks of tea were crushed to a powder which was tipped into boiling water in a cauldron, from where the tea was poured frothing into bowls.

By 850 people were also beginning to dry tea in the form of detatched leaves, not compressed into bricks. A great change came with the transition to the Sung dynasty (960-1279) when Chinese culture reached a new summit of refinement. Tea now began to be drunk in the form familiar to many from the Japanese tea ceremony, dried blocks of tea being ground to a fine powder. This was  mixed with hot water directly in the bowls,  whipped to a froth with a bamboo whisk. In Korea today this is known as malch'a. The finest tea of the Sung dynasty was produced in the imperial plantations in Fukien, moulded into blocks stamped with dragon designs, and sent to the capital as imperial tribute. Such tea was treated with great respect, it was wrapped in silk and bamboo leaves, and carried in precious caskets with golden locks. The tea in these blocks was normally perfumed with essences of camphor, musk, or other spices, although the people in the tea-producing regions usually drank unperfumed tea. One writer (Chou Mi) claimed that "one measure of tea requires 400,000 leaves. Yet, this is barely enough to make a few cups to sip."

Tea culture reached new heights under the emperor Hui-tsung (1101-1126), an aesthete who was untiring in his search for new varieties of tea and qualities of taste. He particularly liked an unperfumed "white tea" of great rarity and from his time the use of perfumes in tea was largely abandoned. Meanwhile, the appreciation of leaf tea had spread far and wide among the literati. It too was usually ground to a powder and whisked in the bowls, like the brick tea.

Then came the Mongols. Genghis Khan conquered Beijing in 1215, his grandson was Kublai Khan who overthrew the southern Sung in 1279. The Mongols liked to put cream in old- fashioned brick tea, which they treated as the soup in a meal. Kublai Khan founded the Yuan dynasty (1279-1367) and it was at this time that Marco Polo visited China, returned to Italy, and wrote Europe's first report about China, without ever mentioning tea! Yet the drinking of powdered tea continued to be popular through the Yuan and into the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

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