Review of The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

The Book of Tea is one tome that all food lovers should take the time to read.
This compact book is packed with thought provoking prose. It opens with a foreword by Elise Grilli who, in part, says:
"The book is just fifty years old, and in this half century its fame has grown steadily and continuously. Starting out as an esoteric morsel for a select few in the small aesthetic world of Boston at the turn of the century, it has been moving into ever widening circles."
She then goes on to explain a little of the importance of the author in the art and literature landscape:
"For some two decades, from 1880 to 1900, Okakura stood at the very centre of Japan's art activities. He was a key figure in the gigantic effort to bring some order into the cataclysmic clash between Oriental tradition and Western innovation, which shook Japan to its very foundations."
She asserts that Okakura had developed the "gentle art of making enemies" and so began an epic journey which ended in his taking up a position as Curator of Oriental Art at the Boston Museum.
He wrote The Book of Tea soon after arriving in Boston. It was not a book about tea - it was more about the gulf that divided understandings between East and West at the time.
The book is divided into seven chapters each with an alluring title;
The Cup of Humanity
The Schools of Tea
Taoism and Zennism
The tea-room
An Appreciation
Each of these chapters begins with a beautiful ink sketch by the 15th Century Japanese art genius Sesshu.
Okakura thought that most in the West would not be interested in his writings:
"The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and the childishness of the East to him".
And so the book begins. And it begins gently with "tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage". He explains that as far back as the eighth century "it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements"
And the religion of aestheticism known as Teaism began! You will be entranced by the slim volume which is just over 100 pages in length.
You will be delighted by the prose: "Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities".
He goes on to explain the rise of tea with beautiful, lyrical phrases:
"In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism - Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order."
He moves on the a brief history of tea, referring to the main source of revenue in Canton in 879 as being duties from tea and salt showing that trade in tea was institutionalised at an stage in history.
He takes it one step further making the link once again to art:
"There is no single recipe for making perfect tea, as there are no rules for producing a Titian or a Sesson."
He sees the convergence of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism in the Tang Dynasty as leading to the 'final idealisation' of tea. This was codified by the poet Luwuh in his work The Holy Scripture of Tea.
He then traces the entry of tea into Japan from by a variety of means including a monk Saicho in the 12th century when tea ceremonies began to be performed.
But he doesn't confine his descriptions to tea alone but also to the environment within which you enjoy tea as he shows with a short poem.
"A cluster of summer trees,
A bit of sea,
A pale evening moon."
It is a short book, but one full of inspiration, information and introspection.
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