The Classic of Tea: Origins & Rituals; by Lu Yü

Silently, silently I steal into my chambers.


Deserted and barren is the grand hall.


Waiting for a man who will not return.

Resigned, I go to my tea.


This poem by Wang Wei is listed in the anecdotes of Chapter 7 in Lu Yü’s Ch’a Ching, or, The Classic of Tea. My edition is the 1995 reprint of the long out of print 1974 edition by Francis Ross Carpenter. The book seems scarce again now but is a classic that students of tea would do well to track down. There is so much to learn from both Lu Yü and from the insightful and informative introduction and notes by Carpenter. Lu Yü wrote this first book on tea around 760CE, after tea had been known in China for at least a thousand years and a thousand years before it would be known to the West. In his preface, Carpenter says “Tea may be the oldest, as it is surely the most constantly congenial, reminder of the West’s debt to the East.” He goes on to state that there should always be western-language versions of this important text in print.

And so the act of drinking tea must be attended by beauty.

The introduction takes you through the origins of tea in China and how it has become an integral part of the Chinese spirit, then gives its history up to Lu Yü’s time, how it has changed from the T’ang to the Ming dynasties, how the West came to tea, and finally discusses the Life and Times of Lu Yü. Tea was taken very seriously indeed. At one point in the Introduction, Carpenter points out that:

The waste of fine tea through incompetent manipulation was considered one of the three most deplorable acts in the world (the other two being false education of youth and uninformed admiration of fine paintings).

The tea in Lu Yü’s day was brick tea, so his instructions on making tea and the equipage needed are not always in sync with the tea of later eras but some of his writings certainly still ring true. He has much to say on what makes quality tea and he says it beautifully. For instance, he states:

Tea has a myriad of shapes. If I may speak vulgarly and rashly, tea may shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots. Or it may look like the dewlap of a wild ox, some sharp, some curling as the eaves of a house. It can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak. Its leaves can swell and leap as if they were being lightly tossed on wind-disturbed water. Others will look like clay, soft and malleable, prepared for the hand of the potter and will be as clear and pure as if filtered through wood. Still others will twist and turn like the rivulets carved out by a violent rain in newly tilled fields.

Those are the very finest of teas.

But there are also teas like the husk of bamboo, hard of stem and too firm to steam or beat. They assume the shape of a sieve. The there are those that are like the lotus after frost. Their stem and leaves become sere and limp, their appearance so altered that they look like piled-up rubble. Such teas are old and barren of worth.


He would probably turn away in horror at the profusion of tea blends in today’s modern marketplace and at the ingredients used for that blending. Indeed, even in his day, he states that:

Sometimes such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches; still, alas, it is a common practice to make tea that way.


He obviously liked his teas straight. But at the end of Part One, he does state that “Its goodness is a decision for the mouth to make.

My favorite parts of the book are chasing down the obscure references and trying to verify that he actually mentions some of the teas he is reputed to have highlighted. That can be tough in a translation because subtle or unclear references can get lost. For example, could he be referring to Gan Lu (Sweet Dew) tea in the following passage, again from the anecdotes he lists in Chapter 7?

The Records of the Sung: Wang-Tzu Lüan of Hsin An and Wang-Tzu Shang of Yü Chang paid a visit in the Mountain of the Eight Dukes to a Taoist from T’an Chi. After savoring the tea laid for them, one protested: “This is nothing less than sweet and peaceful dew fallen from Heaven. How can you call it tea?”

It was on my third read through before I caught that reference.

In his notes, Carpenter supplies more modern names (and coordinates) for the Tea Producing Areas listed by Lu Yü as producing the best quality teas. This allowed me to figure out that my An Ji Bai Cha was produced one of these areas, tying in this more modern tea to the same quality tea terroir known in his day.

All in all, this book provides a fascinating glimpse into tea and tea history. I highly encourage you to track down a copy and add it to your tea reference library.