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hinese tea culture possesses a language of appreciation rooted in the natural sciences, which include the arts of medicine and life cultivation. The manner in which this language is shared around the tea table extends beyond mere connoisseurship. It offers access to a vast cultural repertoire, the unfolding of the subtle mind of the Chinese people. More than a means of conversational inquiry, this language is tacit, experiential, situated within the body. It yields to inner landscapes, vistas of the spirit, that constitute the intangible cultural heritage of tea.

茶修

TEA PRACTICE

SHENNONG 神農, the Spirit Cultivator, is China’s mythological discoverer of tea. He is also the father of agriculture and inventor of the plow, attributed with establishing markets and authorship of the earliest Chinese pharmacopeia – The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. This canonical work classifies the effective natures of 365 foundational medicinal substances.

Shennong’s herbal insight is based on a penetrating interior gaze and mirror-like stomach that allow him to observe the energetic signatures of plants with great discernment. In establishing his early taxonomy, it merits reflection that tea was set apart from the other materia medica, ascribed its own special status.

茶修

TEA PRACTICE

SHENNONG, the Spirit Cultivator, is China’s mythological discoverer of tea. He is also the father of agriculture and inventor of the plow, and attributed with authorship of the earliest Chinese pharmacopeia – The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. This canonical work classifies the effective natures of 365 foundational medicinal substances.

Shennong’s herbal insight is based on a penetrating interior gaze and mirror-like stomach that allow him to observe the energetic signatures of plants with great discernment. In establishing his early taxonomy, it merits reflection that tea was set apart from the other materia medica, ascribed its own special status.

Tea is not medicine in the sense that it can cure disease. Yet, a regular tea practice can assist in disease prevention by promoting vitality. This places it within a category of practices known as yangsheng 養生, or Nurturing Life, which includes dietetics, breathwork, and movement. Life cultivation here is based on the body as a microcosmic expression of the natural world, including the cosmos, as depicted above in the imaginal landscape map known as the ‘Inner Channel Diagram’ (neijingtu 內經圖).

The efficacy of tea is attributed to its bitter nature. In the Chinese five phase (wuxing 五行) schema – a cyclical interaction of wood, fire, earth, metal, water – the bitter flavor corresponds to the fire element and the heart. Bitter reduces pathogenic heat and tonifies the heart, contributing to the dynamic equilibrium of the entire human. This association with bitter finds expression in the phrase ‘first bitter, then sweet’ (xian ku hou tian 先苦後甜), referring both to the flavor expression of tea and to the nature of suffering and release. Moments with tea allow us to delight in the senses while providing respite from daily affairs and the experience of human hardship.

The red clay brewing vessel mirrors

the chamber of the heart.

The red clay brewing vessel mirrors

the cinnabar chamber of the heart.

The red clay brewing

vessel mirrors the cinnabar

chamber of the heart.

Water, mother of tea. The Lancang River flows from Himalayan headwaters, transitioning into a broad, slow current before entering into Southeast Asia to become the Mekong, Mother of Waters. Along the way, it passes through the original homeland of tea. Tea travels from hills to valleys, remote climes to urban centers, elite connoisseurs to commoners, passing through borders to proliferate throughout the world. This vital flow constitutes an aspirational project, a ritual continuity extending throughout time and space. Along the way, tea proceeds from mild stimulant to medicinal substance, beverage to elixir. Tea and humanity coevolve.



神農本草經

上藥一百二十種 … 主養命以應天
中藥一百二十種 … 主養性以應人
下藥一百二十種 … 主治病以應地

The upper-level medicinals … nurturing Destiny … correspond to Heaven.
The mid-level medicinals … nurturing the Heavenly Nature … correspond to Humanity.
The lower-level medicinals … treating illness … correspond to Earth.

Shen Nong Bencao Jing
The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica
Translated by Sabine Wilms


神農本草經

上藥一百二十種 … 主養命以應天
中藥一百二十種 … 主養性以應人
下藥一百二十種 … 主治病以應地

The upper-level medicinals
… nurturing Destiny …
correspond to Heaven.

The mid-level medicinals
… treating illness …
correspond to Earth.

The lower-level medicinals
… nurturing the Heavenly Nature …
correspond to Humanity.

The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica
Shen Nong Bencao Jing

Translated by Sabine Wilms

Indigenous Perspectivism

As ancestors of today’s Bulang people migrated through the primary forests of China’s southwest frontier, tea is said to have sprung up in their footsteps. Today, in those places we find old-growth tea gardens tended by other ethnicities, local people acknowledge that these gardens were already well-established upon the arrival of their own ancestors several generations ago. They attribute this to an even earlier Bulang presence. According to Mangjing Village elder Su Guowen:

One can no more speak to the origins of tea
without mentioning the Bulang as to the identity
of the Bulang people without mention of tea.

Originally, the Bulang people were a tea-eating ethnicity. Prior to infusing the leaf, they chewed or ate it fresh or fermented as a source of energy while trekking through mountains and forests; antidote to tropical disease; to refresh and enliven the spirit. Tea was indispensable in preserving health, providing mobility, and enhancing quality of life. For these reasons, it has come to be considered as the lifeblood of the Bulang people. This animate force residing within ancient tea forests, contained within floral nectar and preserved within the leaf, enables the circulation of tea within individual bodies as well as its mobilization along global trade routes. It is known by the Bulang as a’bai’la, to the Chinese as chahun 茶魂, or Tea Spirit.

Indigenous Perspectivism

As ancestors of today’s Bulang people migrated through the primary forests of China’s southwest frontier, tea is said to have sprung up in their footsteps. Today, in those places we find old-growth tea gardens tended by other ethnicities, local people acknowledge that these gardens were already well-established upon the arrival of their own ancestors several generations ago. They attribute this to an earlier Bulang presence. According to Mangjing Village elder Su Guowen:

One can no more speak to the origins of tea

without mentioning the Bulang as to the identity
of the Bulang people without mention of tea.

 

Originally, the Bulang people were a tea-eating ethnicity. Prior to infusing the leaf, they chewed or ate it fresh or fermented as an energy source for trekking through mountains and forests; antidote to tropical disease; to refresh and enliven the spirit. Tea was indispensable in preserving and enhancing quality of life, thus becoming the lifeblood of the Bulang people.

Indigenous Perspectivism

As ancestors of today’s Bulang people migrated through the primary forests of China’s southwest frontier, tea is said to have sprung up in their footsteps. Today, in those places we find old-growth tea gardens tended by other ethnicities, local people acknowledge that these gardens were already well-established upon the arrival of their own ancestors several generations ago. They attribute this to an earlier Bulang presence. According to Mangjing Village elder Su Guowen:

One can no more speak to the origins of tea
without mentioning the Bulang as to the identity
of the Bulang people without mention of tea.

 

Originally, the Bulang people were a tea-eating ethnicity. Prior to infusing the leaf, they chewed or ate it fresh or fermented as an energy source for trekking through mountains and forests; antidote to tropical disease; to refresh and enliven the spirit. Tea was indispensable in preserving and enhancing quality of life, thus becoming the lifeblood of the Bulang people.

Indigenous Perspectivism

As ancestors of today’s Bulang people migrated through the primary forests of China’s southwest frontier, tea is said to have sprung up in their footsteps. Today, in those places we find old-growth tea gardens tended by other ethnicities, local people acknowledge that these gardens were already well-established upon the arrival of their own ancestors several generations ago. They attribute this to an earlier Bulang presence. According to Mangjing Village elder Su Guowen:

One can no more speak to the origins
of tea
without mentioning the Bulang
as to the identity
of the Bulang people
without mention of tea.

Originally, the Bulang people were a tea-eating ethnicity. Prior to infusing the leaf, they chewed or ate it fresh or fermented as a source of energy while trekking through mountains and forests; antidote to tropical disease; to refresh and enliven the spirit. Tea was indispensable in preserving health, providing mobility, and enhancing quality of life. For these reasons, it has come to be considered as the lifeblood of the Bulang people. This animate force, residing within ancient tea forests, contained within floral nectar and preserved within the leaf, enables the circulation of tea within individual bodies as well as its mobilization along trade routes for distribution throughout the world. It is known by the Bulang as a’bai’la and to the Chinese as the chahun 茶魂, or Tea Spirit.

Jingmai Mountain healer Su Wenxin recounts how in the past he treated upwards of 60% of his patients with tea. He would adjust the thermodynamic nature of each preparation through a knowledge of materials and processing, sometimes including other plant substances. Treating patients was much easier in the past, he insists, when acute conditions were more common, before modern life introduced novel illnesses.

Exploring perennial questions
of the vital body & its place
in the cosmos

Exploring perennial
questions of the vital body
& its place in the cosmos

Doctor Su’s medical prowess relies upon a combination of capable diagnosis, herbal knowledge, and internal sensitivity. He often prepares, ingests, and adjusts a remedy before passing it along to his patients. His medicine is syncretic, a combination of indigenous Bulang healing arts imparted by his grandfather and training in China’s barefoot doctor (chijiao yisheng 赤脚医生) program. However, he says it was his mother who initiated him into this sentient connection to the tea plant. As he passes on this inherited wisdom to his daughter, it goes through another intergenerational transformation. Yimu cultivates her tea craft not through any medical proficiency, but as a form of aesthetic appreciation. Also, as a vehicle for preserving the cultural legacy of her family, an affective connection to the spirit of her ancestors and to her living community, preserved and transmitted through the tea leaf.

The Bulang language and worldview evolved in the forest. Such nature-based perspectivism, or interiority, as encoded within the languages of indigenous peoples, has been described by ethnobotanist Wade Davis as an old-growth forest of the mind. This way of being in the world is implicit to, and attainable through tea practice. Perhaps this is what accounts for its popularity while also explaining why indigenous knowledge is receiving increasing attention as an antidote to modernity, sought in our efforts towards a continued coevolution of life on the planet. Theasophie situates tea practice within this indigenous or animist body, a phenomenal awareness at the center of concentric spheres of relationality radiating outward from our lived environments, nurtured in community, and extending into the cosmos.