Trying to understand Lu Yu

Among my chief regrets in life, is my lack of education. For instance, I cannot read classical Chinese. I cannot read modern Chinese either, but that does not bother me. The failing is on my part alone. As a child, in the Bangkok Patana school, in a special class that met by klong-side, an attempt was made to teach me at least the elementary Chinese characters, and how to draw them correctly with a brush. But my family left Bangkok soon after I began, and all I carried away was an instruction book that was soon lost. I lack application.

Translations are treacherous things, and neither are the works of critics to be trusted. If one is to enter into the mind and sensibility of another, in an olden time, one must go by a route that will not be easy. It is almost a religious quest: to shed the layers of personal hubris in the course of acquiring a knowledge that lies entirely beyond one’s self. Or more simply, to be drawn out of oneself by dedicated study. To some degree one may do this by leaps of the imagination. One reads different translations, and different accounts of the same ancient work; but really one is circling around it. To enter in, one must read the original Chinese, against a background of much other historical and cultural learning.

For today, the book in question is the T’ang dynasty classic of tea, the Cha Ching (or, “Chájīng,” to you pinyin commies), by Lu Yu. It was first published, or copied, about the year 762 of our era, in an edition long lost. Subsequent editions were also lost, but the fragmentary tradition was sufficient for Ming scholars to reconstruct the original. It was in three scrolls, comprising ten chapters; about seven thousand characters in all. This is not long, but the work is densely packed. It is full of interest, not only because it conveys a profoundly civilized attitude towards tea-drinking. It also provides basic information on tea botany, cultivation, and production in its ancient brick or cake form: how it is picked, steamed, pressed, dried, stored. All the many tools are described, and their uses concisely explained. It is a technical manual, preceded by learned speculations on the mythological and historical origins of tea; then followed by general directions for the tea connoisseur.

Every sentence raises questions that cry out to be answered. For instance, the seventh chapter appears more a collection of lists than a narrative; it is like an index to preceding Chinese history and biography, viewed from the very acute angle of common interest in tea. The sixth and eighth chapters leave one pondering over the many tea-garden districts scattered across T’ang China, and the range of cultivars in those times. Often one is at a loss even to follow the geography, and is left longing to depart from the present and go searching on the ground. For the poetry of tea arises from the earth; it is founded upon concrete associations.

Now, tea in its modern form — loose tea brewed in a tea pot with a handle and spout — is a development of the Sung Dynasty, centuries later. We tend to assume all progress is improvement, but Chinese scholars did not think that way. As we see in Lu Yu, the old methods were extremely complicated, and required great skills — down to the way the tea was powderized from the cakes, in specially-designed stone mortars, prior to brewing like Japanese matcha. The Japanese tea ceremony is itself derived from older Chinese rituals, which Lu Yu describes, but incompletely. One does not grab at tea, as one grabs at coffee in the morning. Rather it must be given one’s full attention.

We do not today understand what a T’ang writer means by a health benefit, for instance. Or, so I conclude from trying to understand the Cha Ching, as other classical Chinese works. A robust body is less important than a clear mind. The condition of good health involves a serenity that is more a spiritual than a material condition; a notion of harmony with heaven that will pass over the modern reader, for whom “heaven” is without content, without reality. The remedies for bad health are not “cures for what ails you,” in our technocratic, medical sense; not one of them seems to be task-specific. Rather, they relate to what we would call “syndromes” from our ancient Greek heritage: things that go together, and so must be addressed together. There are herbal remedies, and one of those was, classically, tea. But how to take them is as important as what they are; not only how to infuse and swallow, but how to taste and muse upon them. Hence the ceremonial attached, not only to tea.

Our modern “naturopath,” who goes into a store full of white plastic bottles containing herbal remedies in tablet and gelatin capsule form, is in his conceit much farther from understanding these things than, say, a motorcyclist stopping for a double baconator at Wendy’s. For the latter at least merges himself in the ambiance or culture of his hunger remedy, and is all of a piece with it as he consumes his hamburger, with coke and fries. He isn’t a fake, like the herbal pill-popper.

Yet I find the ambiance of the tea pavilion, whether in town garden or in the mountains, superior in kind to what we now have at Wendy’s. Call me a nostalgic, living in the past, but I would really rather be there than here.

This is why I wish that I could read, and through that ability enter into the spirit of classical Chinese. More is there than any straightforward translation can convey, and copious notes would surely be necessary, even to begin explaining what has not been said, but would nevertheless have been understood, implicitly through allusions. Who is alive, today, who can write them? The sad truth is, no one I can find.