If we are to trust old Chinese myths, the cultivation and brewing of the Camellia Sinensis (tea) plant has been around for thousands of years. And perhaps no person in history has been more influential in how we think about tea than Lu Yu, the sage of tea. His seminal work ‘The Classic of Tea’ or ‘Cha Ching’, was the first-ever in-depth study of the production and consumption of tea, and provided the world with both a practical and spiritual perspective on tea that lasts to this day.
According to his biographers, Lu Yu was born in the year 733 (Tang Dynasty) in the small town of Tianmen, Hubei province, China. He was taken in by the Dragon Cloud monastery after being orphaned at a very young age. Here Lu Yu was taught calligraphy, literature, Buddhism, and this is also where his interest in tea first showed. However, he left the monastery before he could be ordained and joined the circus as a clown. Still having aspirations as a scholar, Lu Yu at some point found himself commissioned by tea merchants to research the cultivation and consumption of tea. Determined and passionate to leave his mark, Lu Yu traveled the Chinese countryside to learn as much as he could about tea in all its facets. His findings were compiled into the Classic of Tea, published around the year 780.
The Classic of tea was originally published as ten separate chapters spread over three volumes. Later all chapters were combined into one book. Although not a large book, it contained only about 7000 Chinese characters over 55 pages, its impact to this day cannot be overstated.
The book starts out with a general description of tea, from its mythological origins, to its health benefits and best growing conditions. The second chapter delves into the tools used in tea-production at that time, while the third chapter elucidates the production process (picking, processing) of tea leaves. The fourth chapter focuses on all the utensils used in brewing and drinking tea, from pots and cauldrons to tongs and brushes, while the fifth chapter is about the tea baking and brewing methods best suited for tea. Next, Lu Yu writes about the origins of drinking tea and how to consume a good brew. The final four chapters talk about the history of tea in China, what have been the best producing regions in China, a simplified approach to tea cultivation and consumption when a shortcut is needed, and finally a picture-guide with all the important information provided in the book.
Throughout history, Lu Yu is referred to as the patron saint of tea, the sage of tea, and some even worshipped him as a deity, a “tea god”. He was celebrated while he was still alive as he had many statues made in his honor and several poems written about his life. Growing weary of all the attention he gained, Lu Yu retreated to a monastery where he would live out his life, while continuing to write books that unfortunately have been lost to time.