Tea in its simplest form are the leaves and stems from a tea plant which have been processed and dehydrated to be infused with to form a beverage. Common and affordable, tea is liked by many primarily for its aroma and taste. To think of tea as art, which is associated with abstract concepts such as beauty, emotions or imagination, may seem far stretched. That said, the art of tea is often used by people in the tea industry to describe tea as an object, process and an experience.
So, what is the art of tea? Is it related to art? How can tea be expressed, presented and appreciated in a way that art does in offering meaning to our lives?
An internet search on the art of tea reveals to us how the term is used in our society. The art of tea is generally used by tea shops to emphasize the craftsmanship of tea leaves they sell and by tea rooms and restaurants that serve afternoon tea to highlight their tea and food pairing. It also refers to the way to make a tasty cup of tea, and the traditional rituals of preparing and appreciating tea in China and Japan.
When art is interpreted straightly as a skill, the aforementioned activities can be described as art because skills are required to perform the different tasks well. When artistic expression and creation is concerned, it becomes difficult to associate tea with art because art is subjective - people interpret it differently based on their perceptions, personalities, background, experiences and beliefs. There is no universal definition of art. Nonetheless, there are general qualities about art that people tend to agree on which make their way into dictionary definitions.
The Oxford Dictionary Online, for example, defines art as
“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Based on that definition alone, we may make sense of tea as an object that expresses nature and represents the application of creativity and imagination by man to craft and process fresh tea leaves into various shapes, forms and styles to be appreciated for its beauty in terms of appearance, smell and taste.
Furthermore, we may think of tea as a process and experience in which creativity and imagination is applied to the presentation, preparation, serving and enjoyment of tea such that beauty is expressed not only in terms of aesthetic to appeal to all five of our senses. Beauty is also appreciated in terms of harmony and respect between men and nature, purity and tranquility of our minds and hearts. This helps to bring comfort to our souls, and motivates us to live with awareness, respect and appreciation.
The above interpretations seem reasonable, but shouldn’t there be a higher threshold that needs to be reached for tea to be considered as art? I think this is where we should consider the purpose and value of art in terms of its meaning to humanity.
In an exclusive video for The Guardian titled “what art is for?” Alain de Botton explained why art, specifically visual art, is important to humanity. According to Mr. de Botton, art keeps us hopeful, makes us less lonely, rebalances us, helps us appreciate what is genuinely worth appreciating in life, focuses us on what truly matters in the way we live. The founder of The School of Life and co-author of Art as Therapy encouraged people to learn to use art “for what it is meant for – a constant source of support and encouragement for our better selves.”
Where the value of art is concerned, a comment from the Chair of the Arts Council England in the foreword of a study titled “The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society an evidence review” resonates well with me. “When we talk about the value of arts and culture, we should always start with the intrinsic – how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world. That is what we cherish.”
Henceforth, I believe the evaluation of tea as a form of art should consider the application of skills to create something for its impact in terms of aesthetic appeal and meaning it offers to our lives. Among the activities that are frequently described as the art of tea, I believe the traditional rituals of tea practiced in China and Japan are the only ones that truly meet all the criteria to be considered as art.
- Often being referred to as the tea ceremony by people in the West, the traditional rituals of tea in the East requires the application of skills and imagination to present tea as an aesthetic experience where the beauty of nature and humanity is expressed and appreciated. The rituals are just as relevant today as it was in the past as an art which offer people of any ethnic background guidance to leading better lives. Specifically, practising the rituals trains and motivates us to seek beauty from natural and simple things,
- quiet our minds by focusing on carrying out simple tasks without making judgement,
- observe carefully and exercise care and respect in handling everything however small and insignificant,
- maintain a gentle and humble heart in guiding our actions towards others,
- make our best efforts yet be at ease with what life brings and accept with grace.
The rituals of tea practiced in China and Japan is certainly an art form that is aesthetically pleasing to our senses, comforting to our hearts and inspiring us to lead better lives. In my opinion, it is an activity worthy of the term the art of tea.