Tea & Ancient Chinese Culture - Part One

June 14, 2020

Tea & Ancient Chinese Culture - Part One

Starting from Huang Binhong

Huáng Bīnhóng (黃賓虹) (1865-1955) was a Chinese art historian and literati painter born in Jinhua in Zhejiang province. His ancestral home was She County in Anhui province. He was the grandson of artist Huang Fengliu. He would later be associated with Shanghai and finally Hangzhou. He is considered one of the last innovators in the literati style of painting and is noted for his freehand landscapes. He was also significant for creating several societies devoted to painting and calligraphy.

In Huang’s lifetime, he was not only a great artist, but also an important connoisseur of culture. I got a very thin but rare book from my father which is Huang’s few notes on how to paint and appreciate a good Chinese painting. I kept this book for over 20 years, and the more I read it, the more I understood things beyond painting. In Chinese traditional culture, everything was connected, and I found that I could use everything from Chinese traditional culture to explain tea, and tea can explain everything else from Chinese traditional culture, too. If you are interested in tea and ancient Chinese culture, please allow me to share a little bit of my views with you.

From Huang Binhong’s Chinese Painting Theory Notes

“画有三:一、绝似物象者,此欺世盗名之画;二、绝不似物象者,往往托 名写意,亦欺世盗名之画;三、惟绝似又绝不似于物象者,此乃真画。”

“There are three types of paintings: the first is where the painting looks exactly the same as the real thing, which is not a great painting; the second is where the painting doesn’t look like anything, and tends to be called impressionistic, but it’s not a real painting; the third is where the painting looks like something, yet doesn’t look exactly like anything – this is a great painting.”

There are various factions within Chinese martial arts, all with different styles.

The best martial arts master must have his own style which incorporates the advantages of the other various styles, but which he also uses to create his own style which is suitable only for himself. Chinese medicine follows a similar mindset: a specific herb can heal a specific disease, but the doctor should also learn the patient’s history and the way the patient got the disease, and based on that, use the herb in the appropriate quantity and blended with other herbs to create a prescription that is specific to the particular patient. Chinese medicine doctors believe that people are not products, and the same medicine cannot be universally used to treat all patients who have a similar disease. Everyone is different, and great medicine is just like painting, in that no one painting is ever the same as any other.

When I had the chance to communicate with one of Wild Tea Qi’s tea masters who created a wonderful ancient phoenix fermented puer tea, she told me that when you drink the best puer, it will allow you to recall something or have some feeling deep in your heart. You might not be able to say what it is exactly, but it will remind you of something, and you can feel it immediately, and it will profoundly touch your heart. Making tea uses the same method, but that is only the basic thing. To make great tea, the tea master must understand the leaves. Every year,  the leaves are different, and different moods can come from different teas, different people create different teas, and different energy creates different teas. Good tea has life. It will tell you where it is from by itself and it will touch your heart without needing anyone else to promote it.



“Everything grows on earth based on Yin and Yang, but not all is perfect. Human beings are always needed to establish balance.”

If you already read chapter two, you have a basic idea of Yin and Yang and how important it is that we establish balance in the body. If we don’t follow nature, we might get sick easily. Knowing basic Yin Yang theory and knowing how your body works, eating correctly, and drinking the correct tea for your body will help your body avoid lots of unnecessary diseases and get even healthier.

In Chinese martial arts, balance is also required. Various factors may need to be adjusted for different people, such as when a man and a woman are doing the same martial arts, so that certain actions will be suitable for individual people.

In traditional Chinese painting, if you just draw exactly what you have seen, that is a photograph, not a painting. Because the way you see something is not exactly the way it really is, there must be something you need to remove from your painting, or something in your imagination you need to add in, for it to be a good painting. You are the one who creates balance in your painting.

Human beings are the essential element in establishing balance on earth, but we can also destroy that balance. Only by keeping balance on earth can people live to their fullest, so we like to drink tea more than any other type of infusion, as it can help us to establish that balance. 


山川自然之物,画图人工之物。山川入画,应无人工造作之气,此画图艺术 之要求。故画中山川要比真实山川为妙。画中山川,经画家创造,为天所不能 胜者。 

“All landscapes are natural things, but paintings are artificial things. If you want to paint the landscape into your painting, you must try to avoid leaving any manmade mark on your painting. Keeping your painting as natural as you can is a requirement of the art. That’s why mountain paintings look more beautiful than real mountains. The mountains in the painting that have been created by artists should reach a level that not even nature can attain.”

This also applies to Chinese martial arts. We created tons of different martial arts that are all based on animals’ movements. We study how animals fight, incorporate animals’“martial arts” into our martial arts, and make it natural as we integrate it with our body. There are some famous martial arts we created based on studying nature, such as tiger palm (Learn from Tiger), Tanglang Quan (Learn from Mantis), and Hou Quan (Learn from Monkey).

In Chinese medicine, there are many examples that fit this theory. An example: hawthorn is the most common food used in Chinese medicine for healing different types of disease. Fresh hawthorn is used in Chinese medicine to improve circulation of the blood. When fresh hawthorn is sun dried, it becomes an effective medicine for reducing fat in the liver; when fresh hawthorn is fry dried, it becomes an effective digestive aid; if fresh hawthorn is fry dried to a brown color, it becomes an effective medicine for diarrhea. So as you can see, the ancient Chinese used natural methods to make hawthorn into different medicines for healing different diseases. This is the perfect example of how human beings can use natural methods to artificially change things to improve ourselves, which doesn’t hurt nature at all.

Tea is from nature, so when we make it into a drink, we should do the same as painting – don’t leave too many manmade marks on your cup of tea, and try to go about it in the most natural way possible. That’s why the traditional Chinese didn’t create milk sugar tea or some other tea with flavors that are so strong you can’t taste the tea itself. But we are still able to create different varieties of teas without those things. You can see how differently the Western way goes about creating different varieties of tea compared to the traditional Chinese way: the Chinese way is based on using natural changes to create different varieties, such as oxidizing the leaves and drying the teas in different ways, all of which use nature’s energy to change the leaves into different varieties without culling out the tea’s original nature. The Western way is to add sugar, bergamot or other essences to change the tea. It is like a bad Chinese painting that has too many human marks on it. The tea leaves have lost their nature and changed into completely different things that are no longer tea, but just some manmade beverage. 



“Painting should follow rules, but also break the rules. You should let it be natural, without polishing, and unfettered by the canon.”

If you have the chance to see ancient Chinese paintings, you’ll find that Chinese painting has many different types, just like teas. Some artists focus on landscapes, some focus on physical things, some focus on painting a story…different people use different methods to express themselves artistically, yet they are all based on ink, writing brush and the high quality paper used for Chinese painting and calligraphy. A Japanese tea ceremony master told me that he thinks Chinese painting is very limited. Most paintings are of flowers and birds or landscapes, so boring – unlike Japanese painting, which has lots of details, and most Japanese paintings are of people; Chinese paintings, on the other hand, always have huge landscapes that draw the tiny people painted in the corner of the painting. He generally thinks Japanese painting is of a much higher standard than Chinese painting. I didn’t argue with him, because I respect his opinion and it is very good to know how a Japanese tea ceremony master thinks of Chinese culture. But let’s try to analyze why Chinese painting gives this type of impression to this Japanese tea ceremony master. If you go hiking on a mountain, when you finally reach the top of the mountain, you can see the whole landscape. Beyond the mountain there are still more mountains, there’s water, and the sky is huge. As a person, if you are standing in these types of surroundings, imagine how insignificant you would feel in comparison to everything else? The Chinese way is to follow the rule of choosing the natural way, so paintings should show how big the landscape is compared to how small we are.

Huang Bin Hong Ancient Chinese Painting

Huang Bin Hong's Painting

If you notice what people’s clothes look like in Chinese paintings, you might not even be able to make it out clearly, as it might just be a small drop of color to show there is a person there in the corner. Imagine if you were standing atop a mountain and saw a person on the opposite mountain. You wouldn’t be able to see them very clearly because it’s too far away. You might just be able to see a small  dot moving over there. Doesn’t it make sense why Chinese paintings only use small drops of color to show that there is a person there in the corner? Now let’s get back to Japanese painting. You might be able to find some Japanese paintings showing a Japanese woman dancing in a room. Imagine if the scene were real: your eyes could only focus on her movement or her face – could you see the details of her clothing at the same time as you are looking at her face? Of course not, but in Japanese painting you are not only able to discern the woman’s face very clearly, you can also tell exactly what she is wearing; however, when you look at this type of painting for a while, you might start to feel like this woman is not dancing, but rather just posing as the painter painted her. That’s the only thing that explains why you can see everything clearly while she is “dancing.” So which one do you think is more natural?

Japanese Tea Painting
Japanese Painting: East Slope at Kanda Myojin Shrine
(Toto Meisho: Kanda Myojin Higashizaka)

 Based on the Chinese painting and Japanese painting, let’s talk about Chinese tea ceremony and Japanese tea ceremony. If you go to YouTube, just search Chinese tea ceremony or Japanese tea ceremony, and you’ll get tons of videos on how to do it. Different people might have different methods, but you can get the general idea of how different the feeling is between Chinese tea ceremony and Japanese tea ceremony.

Remember Huang Bin Hong’s painting theory: the painting generally should follow rules, but should also not be constrained by the rules. It should be done the natural way, without polishing, not bound by the canon. Now let’s use this theory to compare Chinese tea ceremony and Japanese tea ceremony:

When you attend a Japanese tea ceremony, you get the impression that everybody needs to conform. Whether you are the tea master or the guests, you must follow the rules to complete the ceremony step by step. The Japanese tea ceremony requires harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, but the Chinese tea ceremony doesn’t have a unified objective that has to be fulfilled, as it is broader than just harmony, respect, purity and tranquility alone. That’s why some beginners feel Chinese tea ceremony is more confusing and unclear than Japanese tea ceremony. Buddhism is the main influence of Japanese tea culture, but Chinese tea culture includes Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Those three different religions give Chinese tea culture many different expressions. Like Japanese painting, the Japanese tea ceremony requires the master to be attentive to every single detail when they do the ceremony, following the steps exactly and without excuses. If you are learning and practicing to be a master of the tea ceremony, you’ll feel like you are a soldier in the army and the master is the drill sergeant: no thinking and no creativity, just follow the rules without question.

On the other hand, if you learn Chinese tea ceremony, you need to know all  the different types of ceremonies that are based on the different philosophies. Once you get the basics of the Chinese tea ceremony, you’ll be allowed to create your own style. The principles of creation are firmly based in Chinese philosophies, but you need to create a way that is suitable only for yourself. It is the same way in Chinese martial arts: once you get the principles, you need to create your own way. This follows a very basic principle – let everything go the natural way, and once you get the principles, create a way that suits yourself and that follows those natural principles. As in Chinese painting theory, the highest level of art must be unfettered by proprieties.

“作画时须将心收起,勿使其如天马腾空; 落笔之际,应留得住墨,勿使其 信笔涂鸦。纵游山水间,既要游天马腾空之劲,也要有老僧补纳之沉静。”

“When you paint, your mind should be focused on the painting. Do not have other things in your mind. When you start to paint, you need to control what you are painting in your mind, and not paint arbitrarily. No matter how gigantic the landscape you are painting, you need to have an amazing imagination, yet you also need to have a mind as calm as a monk at the same time.” 

In my personal opinion, this not only describes how to paint a good painting, it actually clearly describes the development of traditional Chinese culture.

This follows Taoist philosophy. Lao Tzu is one of most important ancient Chinese philosophers. His philosophy tells us how we can become a true sage: “When the sage works, their way is to follow the natural way, and not to add too many manmade influences; when teaching, it is a very deep teaching that is on a much high level than talking; the sage can create everything but they do not consider themselves to be the most important; they bring up everything but do not take everything as their own; they can be very successful, but they do not consider themselves to be the most important. Because of this, their success is eternal.”

If you think about this very carefully, you’ll find the traditional Chinese have already found a great way for human beings to keep developing in a sustainable way: no matter what you do, you should try your best to do it, but when you are successful, do not regard yourself as too important. You need to always keep balance, calm your mind and let everything go. You must let everything go, open and clear your mind, and let yourself became a stable person whether you are a success or a failure. Always practice calming your mind and having an expansive outlook on life, then you can always be successful.

I hope that will help you understand the depth of ancient Chinese tea culture’s philosophy: whether we drink tea in the simplest way, drink tea in a ceremonial way, or create thousands of new ways, ancient Chinese believe that in the end, tea can offer you nothing but a pure mind. We don’t use tea as a drug, we are not using tea as a mere beverage, and we are not using tea for any other fancy purpose. We are using tea to help remind ourselves we are just like a leaf:  we come from the earth and we go back to the earth in the end. No matter how successful you are, we are all same.

If you have participated in Chinese tea ceremony before, you might know what a “fair cup” is; it is a tea pitcher for pouring tea for each of the guests. The reason why this tea pitcher is essential in Chinese tea ceremony is that it is used to ensure that each guest gets the same quantity of tea liquid, no matter who you are, what you do, or how high your status. When you sit for the Chinese tea ceremony, you will be treated the same as any other person. Tea is for human beings, not for special persons. Tea is to remind you that no matter how special you are, you still belong to the earth, and will go back to the earth the same as everyone else in the end. Tea is for reminding us to do whatever we can for others without expecting anything in return, as the reason you are living in this world is for giving and not for taking.

One Japanese tea ceremony master told me he has different ways of performing the tea ceremony for different people. A princess and a normal woman wanted to join his ceremony at the same time, so he separated them into different rooms and treated them differently. He told me Japanese tea ceremony originated in China, but attained a higher level of perfection once the Japanese adopted and refined it. I disagree that the ceremony should be altered for different people. After all, we are all human beings, doesn’t that make us equal? Japanese tea ceremony is supposedly influenced by Buddhism, but I don’t think Buddhism would treat people as unequal.


“山水画乃写自然之性,亦写吾人之心。山水与人以利益,人生息期间,应 予美化之。“

“Landscape paintings not only show nature’s beauty, but they also show the painter’s mind. The painting is totally connected to the artist. If you are living off your art, you should purify and beautify your own mind first.” 

If you are a tea seller, I would highly recommend you remember this statement, as it will decide the success of your tea business: tea is your art. How you sell tea and why you sell tea will directly decide whether your tea is good or bad. Your teas will show exactly who you are, just as your brewing and your taste in tea will also demonstrate exactly who you are. Tea is not such a simple product that you can sell it with sterile detachment. You need to connect with it. If you want to sell great tea, you have to first become a great person.

Tea is a magic leaf, and is a direct expression of who you are. Why did the ancient Chinese create the tea ceremony? Because it’s a good way to discover who you are. You can do a very simple test. Using the same essential tea ceremony tools, the same tea and quantity, and following the same brewing method, have two people brew the tea separately. If you taste their teas carefully, you will discover that they are different even though all the conditions of brewing were the same.

If you go to a modern tea shop where people just throw tea into the brewing machine, you can almost instantly get a cup of tea exactly the same as any other, but all you are tasting is the flavors. However, this method of brewing using gigantic machines just gives you machine tea. After you drink machine tea, you will live like a machine day by day, year by year, losing your feelings and losing your mind.

If you really care about what you do and care for your own heart, think about why you want to sell tea. To make people healthy? Or do you just see selling tea as a good opportunity to make money? You don’t need to answer those questions, the teas you are selling will answer for you.

Remember, the ancient Chinese believe your paintings will express who you are, just as in martial arts; what medicine you need to take shows your body’s problems and weaknesses in your personality; and what your brewed tea tastes like will show what type of person you are. Check your calligraphy to see what’s really going though in your mind. If you want to do some good, you need to improve your being.

Last, a quote I love the most for all of you: 
"Only by following nature can people attain absolute freedom."

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