Tea, Tea, Tea! (And Modernity)

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 6, 2002 | Destinations: China / Beijing

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Review of Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea

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Of tea-drinker and wit par excellence Samuel Johnson, his biographer James Boswell writes, "I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relish the infusion of that fragrant leaf than Johnson.... His nerves must have been uncommonly strong not to have been relaxed by such an intemperate use of it." We of course know now that the operative ingredient in tea is caffeine, which doesn't relax the nerves but stimulates them, and for this all creators owe a great debt. Johnson so loved the amber ambrosia that he published a review favoring it, and may have quaffed enough to support a small third-world tea plantation.

It is hard for us to imagine tea deserving such praise, and its being classed with liquors and elixirs: Johnson's review, after all, was a kind of apology for tea abuse, and was attacked by Puritanical dogs. The coffee generation is more liable to think of tea as a rather sickly second cousin to java. But there was a time when human beings were not sprinting to beat each other to various finish lines, a time when tea-time was all the time, and when people wrote not Killer Apps but poems about the moon.

For a relatively modern defense of tea, one need look no further than Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea, written sometime during Japan's rise to militancy between the Russo-Japanese War and World War II. But before we take a stroll through that lush Japanese garden of prose, please allow me to take a sip of my lowly Lipton-ginger-sugar concoction to bring those neurons to a low boil.

Now then. The Book of Tea is not just about tea and it is not what we would normally call a book. It is mostly about tea, but it is also about flowers, religion, architecture.... And it is less a book than a (sometimes political) pamphlet. Westernization, it suggests, is not all it's cracked up to be, and in any case the West made only a feeble effort to understand the East but a vigorous effort to misrepresent and destroy it. In the book's opening paragraphs, Okamura upbraids Westerners directly: "Why not amuse yourselves at our expense? Asia returns the compliment.... Our writers in the past - the wise men who knew - informed us that you had bushy tails somewhere hidden in your garments, and often dined on a fricassee of newborn babes!"

Thus does Okakura kick the chair out from under "Orientalism" and all its attendant myths of solemnity, passivity, inscrutability. He is intemperate, bold, transparent. One feels he might have shouted the book and not written it. Welcome, one might say, to modern Japan. The red sun has risen.

At times the writing is so brilliant and original that we wonder if the author is putting us on. Tea, he says, "has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa." The simpering innocence of cocoa! If only pious Gandhi could have heard such a judgment upon his preferred breakfast drink. Okakura cackles over the West's invention of the "Yellow Peril", saying, "Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster." Bigotry right back at you! "We burn incense to our supreme idol - ourselves. Our god is great, and money is his Prophet!" This was written a century ago. What would Okakura think of a Japan now populated by robotic dogs and indulging in narcissistic sticker pictures? "Even self-regard," notes Okakura demurely," is apt to become monotonous."

"What," I once heard said, "would a country look like if its populace subsisted on coffee?" After a beat, an expatriate American replied dryly: "Like the United States." This was not meant kindly. Coffee creates a hyperactivity that can wreak disaster on a polity, and the definitive history of that beverage's positive and negative impact on the world has, correct me if I'm wrong, yet to be written. But no less has tea been influential, as Okakura reminds us. He locates American independence from Britain in the Boston Tea Party and recalls Britain's messy love affair with the Orient having derived in part from a love for Oriental leaf. "The beverage soon became a necessity of life."

.... I return to writing after pleasantly dozing off in my chair for a bit (was Boswell right after all?) and thereafter running to fetch more tea. Okakura would no doubt disapprove of my barbarous adulteration of Tea as Platonic Form: long ago, he scoffs, a "primitive" brew contained "rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk" and even onions. Rice and onions aside, this of course resembles "chai", which Americans now guzzle without perhaps realizing that "chai" is simply the Hindi word for "tea."

But Okakura might approve of my guzzling. He quotes a poet's description of the mental states arising from the ingestion of each new cup: "At the fifth cup, I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup - ah, but I could take no more!" According to the poet, my present intake of four cups should cause "all the wrong of life" to sweat out of my pores.

Okakura treats us to a discussion of Zen and Taoism. He relates the allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters: Confucius, Laotse, and the Buddha line up to take a taste of vinegar, a.k.a. life. Confucius finds it sour, the Buddha bitter, Laotse sweet. I have always envied Laotse's capacity for self-deception - would he find excrement sweet? But perhaps that just makes me a Buddhist -- or a Stoic, who, once knowing the vinegar, would not taste of it again.

"The art of life," writes Okakura, "lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings." This is as Eastern as it gets. A Westerner surely would say that the art of life lies in a constant readjustment of our surroundings. A choice of preposition can halve the world. What remains to be seen is whether East and West can find one that suits both. Find a preposition, that is - and a world. Maybe the answer can be found in the arrangement of tealeaves at the bottom of an emptied cup. Ideally an answer will be found before we complete the crime with which Okakura indicts modernity, that of "destroying the beautiful in life." Put that in your cup and drink it!

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