The Essence of Tea by Shan-Tung Hsu. Seattle, WA: Blue Mountain Fung Shui Institute; 2010. Hardcover; 82 pages. ISBN 978-0-9832160-0-1. $28.50.
There has never been a more perfect time to take a moment for tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae). With the recent onslaught of technology, people are increasingly bombarded with external stimuli. Whether it is through e-mail, cell phones, advertisements, text messaging, or television, it often seems that the increase in available modes of communication is causing a breakdown in communication as people move further and further away from person-to-person interaction. In a world that seems to demand so much of our attention in so many ways, it has become increasingly difficult to find the time to be introspective, to give our thoughts a rest, to enjoy time with family and friends, or even more challenging, spend time by ourselves. And as we are all being torn in many directions at once, we are also losing our connection with the natural world. We are losing our connection with the rituals and traditions of our ancestors, as well as our reverence for the simpler aspects of life. Tea can bring us back to that place.
Who drinks tea? Is it a high status drink for the well-to-do? Is it best suited for British aristocracy or Buddhist monks? Shan-Tung Hsu believes that tea is for everybody, and in his book, The Essence of Tea, he desires to construct a portal through which people from many divergent backgrounds can enter into the delightful world of tea-drinking, sharing, community, and mysticism that has enthralled and inspired Eastern cultures for centuries. When Shan-Tung Hsu came to America in the early 1970s, after being “steeped” in Taiwanese tea culture for most of his early life, he was surprised by the lack of availability and visibility of good teas. Although the culture around tea has grown substantially since he first arrived, this book marks Hsu’s effort to bring tea to the people on a larger scale.
The result, The Essence of Tea, is the perfect book for the beginner brewer. Hsu heightens tea’s allure by focusing on the visceral aspects of the enjoyment of tea. He draws attention to the uncurling of the leaves, the scent, the warmth, the color of the drink when poured into a clear glass. We absorb the distinct floral essences vicariously through his descriptions of the subtle sweetness, astringency, and aftertaste unique to each variety. He makes tea accessible, without pretension, in an effort to bring each and every one of us into the fold, into the community that is created by tea. By concentrating on the most universal, artful elements of tea, Hsu also instills in us a curiosity about the spiritual nature of the drink. Over the course of this journey, he likens tea to nature and to music. He compares the enjoyment of tea to a dance, and the interaction with tea to a lifelong friendship.
One word comes to mind when reading The Essence of Tea: simplicity. The layout of the book is sparse, images of rippling tea fields accompanied by small, digestible bits of information about different aspects of tea. The author begins by outlining the basic elements of the plant itself, its leaves and buds, before moving through the varieties and cultivation techniques for each type. The Essence of Tea is not heavily detail-oriented and may seem to lack cohesiveness for some readers, as it jumps somewhat abruptly from topic to topic. However, though, the book must certainly be considered a topical look at tea, Hsu still adds his originality, his unique flavor to the mix. Hsu describes green tea, unfermented and made up of the freshest shoots and most delicate leaves, as “the energetic teenager.” Oolong, having the most refined processing technique, is “the sophisticated lady.” And the aged pu-erh tea is, somewhat predictably, “the mellow, affectionate grandparent”. However, he is also able to expand these personifications of tea to the ways in which one interacts with it. The green tea “teenager” must be treated gently, and its flavor palate can be completely explored in 2 to 3 steeps. It lacks the emotional and spiritual depth of the oolong, or “sophisticated lady,” who reveals her complexity in layers, communicating subtle differences in flavor and aroma with each subsequent steep. The well-aged pu-erh, or dependable grandparent, is mellow and earthy, remaining consistent, some claim, for up to twenty steeps.
The Essence of Tea advocates a return to simplicity. Hsu explores the beauty of tea as a plant, as an art form, as a living thing, and his approach, if not comprehensive, is refreshing and revelatory. Rapid advances in technology have distracted us in many ways, leaving us hungry for connection, for experience, for meaning. And overall, Hsu does a commendable job of reminding us that to enjoy a moment with tea, to strive to perpetually recreate that moment, is of the highest order when it comes to maintaining a balance between the demands of our external existence and the necessity of our inner spiritual calm.
How does one live authentically in our new and increasingly virtual society? Recently, there has been a rise in both the visibility and accessibility of research on tea’s myriad health benefits. This, in combination with mainstream society’s growing fascination with spirituality and self-cultivation, is bringing in a new age of awareness for tea. Overall, the book serves the perfect cup of tea, because it is a simple and accessible pleasure, to be enjoyed by anyone. Hsu believes that tea can serve as a unifying force—it has the power to unite the subjective and the objective, bridge the gap between the self and other, and bring balance to our relationship with nature and our relationships with people. I believe that The Essence of Tea will succeed in its mission to enlighten a new audience of tea lovers and that it will be a welcome addition to the canon of reflective works that strive to explore the subtle artfulness hidden within the many meanings of tea.
—Scott C. Hoyt
Director, The Meaning of Tea
New York City, NY