In the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, an era of nascent colonialism and internationalism, Europe looked to the west and to the east. European powers moved across the Atlantic and started to jostle for control of the Americas and the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, in the Far East, there was a similar spirit of voyage, trade and diplomacy, particularly around Japan, a nation first attested in Europe as Marco Polo’s Cipangu. This previously isolationist land, hitherto stubborn in allowing access for outsiders, was slowly becoming more open (though it remained reluctant to entirely abandon its self-imposed isolation). A result of European persistence, and of an explorative, commercial spirit, was a desire to document the exotic culture and geography of Japan. The German scholar Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) met this desire with a tremendous effort, covering the architecture, landscapes, flora, fauna, history, customs and religion of Japan. His manuscript was posthumously translated into English by a J. G. Scheuchzer and published in two volumes as The History of Japan in 1727.
Interestingly, Scheuchzer’s preface, addressed to King George I, attributes much of Japan’s success as an affluent, cultured land to its isolationism; to its powerful aristocracy, who ruled under a largely symbolic emperor; and to its ‘polite, industrious and virtuous people, enrich’d by a mutual Commerce among themselves’. The last mimics how the British like to think of themselves, as a well-mannered nation of shopkeepers; the second mirrored well the development of the British state since the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Only the first, advising a monarch to keep his country’s matters to itself, seems incongruous on the eve of explosive expansionism.
However, there is one further facet that links this German work on Japan to a British audience- at least, to a modern one. After various chapters, including on buildings (‘by no means compar’d to ours in Europe, neither in largeness nor magnificence’); on acupuncture; on paper making; on flora and fauna (Kaempfer notes that some animals, like the kirin, are borrowed from Chinese mythology; he is taken so much with others, like the ‘Kinmodsui, a beautiful duck’ that ‘I cannot forbear mentioning’ it due to its ‘supreme beauty’); and on its people, who are ‘warlike, revengeful, invincible’, Kaempfer devotes a large section of an appendix to a matter that is clearly of utmost importance today. He talks about tea.
Tea-drinking emerges as ubiquitous, yet far from homogeneous in its nature, across Japanese life and culture. ‘Most travellers drink scarce anything else upon the road’; tea-booths are set up in fields and woods, even ‘at the top of mountains’; and it ‘is sold at all the inns and cook shops across the road’, slaking the thirst of weary travellers everywhere. Kaempfer sees tea also as the backbone of Japanese labour, with working families drinking large quantities throughout the day.
However, this is where the stratification (stra-tea-fication, if one were to open the Pandora’s Box of bad tea puns) sets in. For the kind of tea drunk by the masses is ‘gross’ and ‘vulgar’, smelling and tasting of lye. It is harvested in vast quantities and prepared in a rushed way; this was perhaps the mass produced, and mass consumed budget-value tea of its day.
In contrast, the highest echelons of the early-modern Japanese tea drinking hierarchy saw tea produced with exorbitant amounts of care and preparation. So-called imperial tea, drunk only by the emperor and his close family, was taken from the earliest harvest, when tea leaves were at their most young and tender. All the plants came from the same mountain, which had provided imperial tea for generations. Those harvesting it had to abstain from fish and ‘any other unclean food’ for three weeks prior to the harvest lest their breath taint the valuable leaves. They had to wear gloves while picking the tea, and had to wash ‘twice or thrice a day’.
Much more tea trivia is listed, including the various months in which different classifications of tea were picked (the earlier the better; the third, final harvest is ‘gross and coarse’), and the preparation of the picked leaves. During the dry-roasting, preparers had to handle the leaves as quickly as possible ‘burning pain notwithstanding’ (a sentiment shared by anyone lacking a spoon and desperate to stop their tea brewing). Leaf-preparation appears to be a difficult task, and the ‘tea-preparers complain mightily of the unhappiness of their profession’ due to the arduous work and levels of precision needed in handling the tea leaves. Also included in the book are the two styles of consuming tea. The Chinese method, adopted in Europe, saw leaves put in boiling water to infuse; in contrast, the Japanese method saw leaves ground into a fine powder and mixed ‘with hot water into a thin pulp, which is afterwards sip’d’. As if the idea of drinking tea pulp isn’t unattractive enough, Kaempfer also includes the vices of tea; it is narcotic in its fresh state, causes head-pain when consumed too much, and it suppresses other medicines. Nevertheless, its virtues are many, not least its ‘exceedingly agreeable and pleasant taste’. A rather wonderful sentence describes how tea ‘opens the obstructions, cleanses the blood, and more particularly washes away the tartarous matter, which is the efficient cause of calculous concretions, nephritick and gouty distempers’. It’s rather surprising that modern tea sellers don’t lead their marketing with this statement.
To end, it is rather pleasing to look back to the beginnings of tea in Japan- at least, according to one myth as relayed by Kaempfer. The 6th Century AD religious figure, Darma, was dedicated to piety and spreading his holy message. He was so committed that he vowed never to sleep while striving for spiritual perfection; however, after staying awake for many years, he eventually fell asleep. On awakening, he was so distraught that he ‘cut off both his eyebrows as the instruments and ministers of his crime, and threw them upon the ground’. The next day, he found that each eyebrow had turned into a tea shrub; he ate a leaf, found it invigorating, and started espousing its benefits as a brew.
This little gem of a story demonstrates something; across time, from the 6th Century, to the 17th, to the 18th, to the 21st and beyond, and all across the world, we are linked together by love for the humble cuppa. Though, perhaps for the best, most of us don’t have to go to the extent of shaving our eyebrows just to get one.