Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea As as a Way of Life is as much about philosophy and history as it is about the revered beverage of the East. Solala Tower's book begins as a background of how tea was first discovered — and there are several conflicting tales. However essentially, someone first put a dried Camellia sinensis leaf into a pot of bowling water, tasted it and realized it wasn't like bitter herbs at all.
At first tea, or cha in most Chinese dialects, was a medicinal brew because it was made of water purified (by the boiled water) of germs and kept people awake and aware thanks to the caffeine. This was especially prized by the Daoist monks who appreciated the way they were able to meditate for many long hours longer thanks to the tea.
Later, tea became so prized it became tribute for the emperor. Peasants worked an entire month a year at nothing but producing tea for the emperor. Their families went hungry, and the pitiful wages they earned were spent in whorehouses and gambling establishments in the shantytowns that popped up around the fields. Eventually, the economy couldn't sustain the tribute-tea work and the custom died out. However, the middle-class began drinking tea in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) A man named Lu Yu wrote a vast treatise on tea and became the emperor's first Master of the Way of Tea.
A Zen priest then took tea to Japan. The Chinese had perfected a way of powdering green tea and then beating it into a froth. The Japanese took to this style with a vengeance. Today this is still done in the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu. (The beaten green tea has since fallen out of favor in China). In Japan, the ceremony took on a very austere style. Implements became simple and wooden, sometimes even scratched and bowls or cups elliptical instead of round. This was called raku style. This mirrored the particular, severe type of Buddhism called Chan Buddhism and was popular with the Samurai, who frequented the tea ceremonies. For them the tea ceremony was an isolated place of serenity. They overlaid the teahouse with their own mode of bushido, which translates as bushi, samurai, do, way — a strict code of honor.
This section of the book goes on for some time, making the reader wonder if the tome is really about Japan, but suddenly it switches back to China. There are some fairly mystical stories about tea masters and Daoism, not even clear to the most dedicated Daoist. (But then is the Zen koan clear to the Buddhist student?) Then Towler gets into the details of holding the gong fu (not kung fu) tea ceremony in China. It's quite a bit different than its Japanese cousin. There seems to be copious amounts of water spilled about to keep the pot and cups ready for the hot tea. Boiling water is not added to tea, which must be cooled to just a touch below boiling point (shattering one of the rules this tea aficionado had kept sacred). A special cup is held for smelling the tea only. The first pot of tea is tossed away. (Yow!) This probably cuts down on the caffeine content of the subsequent pots of tea, however. Then, unlike the Zen ceremony, participants are not limited in what they may discuss, but a rather free and easy discussion takes place.
At the end of the book, Towler offers lists of important Chinese teas, black (which he calls red), oolong, and green. Unfortunately, he goes along with the common wisdom that green is the most healthful tea for you, when increasing amounts of research are showing that certain black teas have just as many polyphenols as green tea. Plus pu-ehr, a special black tea that is formed into bricks, has been shown to protect against heart attacks. In fact, there has been a lot of discrimination going on. Otherwise, her heath information is fairly good, even his information about caffeine, a subject many people often want to run away from.
Unfortunately, Towler, a resident of the Pacific Northwest makes no effort to find tea emporiums or tea sellers in other parts of the United States or Canada — only areas near him. Surely, he could have tried a little bit to look in some of the major cities where Chinese people have settled. Instead, he just lists places in Portland, Seattle, and other places in his vicinity. This is truly lazy and if we were giving star ratings for books, this would knock a star off immediately. In other words, If you are looking for lung jing or Dragon Well, the tea the author praises most, you have to hit the Internet yourself — with no help from him.
Still, this is a most unusual book, if not the most helpful. I'm not a Daoist nor a Zen Buddhist, but I now have some idea of how a tea ceremony is conducted, I know the finest teas that are served in China, and I even know why the British got so hooked on tea and started the Opium Wars. (No, they didn't want the opium.)
I still think the book belongs in the food section of the bookstore, but I can understand if others argue that it should be placed on the philosophy shelf or even under eastern religion.