Unearthed teaware mirrors Chinese tea traditions

By LI RUIHUA / 08-12-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A gilt silver turtle-shaped container unearthed from Famen Temple, probably used for the storage of tea powder Photo: FAMEN TEMPLE MUSEUM

Chinese people have had the habit of drinking tea since ancient times, and the Tang Dynasty (618–907) is a critical period in the history of Chinese tea drinking. According to the Shanfujing Shoulu (Kitchen Master Handbook), a Tang Dynasty book about preparing food and tea, tea drinking was rare in very early history. After the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220–589), the Wu people [who mainly lived in modern Jiangsu Province] made tea into porridge, which was called ming zhou [tea porridge]. It was not until the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (r. 712–756) that people started to drink tea. When it came to the reign of Emperor Suzong (r. 756–762) and Emperor Daizong (r. 762–779), tea drinking became increasingly popular. The practice of drinking tea thrived after the Jianzhong era (780–783). It followed that the trend of drinking tea in the Tang Dynasty started from the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and gradually spread nationwide. At the same time, teaware gradually became specialized.
For a long time, due to the lack of physical materials, it was difficult to know the details of Tang people’s tea-drinking practices; traces could only be found from extant ancient archives and paintings. It has been widely accepted that tea drinking “came into fashion in the Tang Dynasty and thrived in the Song Dynasty.” However, there were significant differences in the tea-drinking methods between the Tang and Song. Therefore, the evolution and innovation of tea-drinking methods from the Tang to the Song era are particularly important.
In 1987, an underground palace was discovered at Famen Temple [a famous Buddhist temple dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220)] situated in Baoji City, Shaanxi Province. A large number of precious cultural relics dated to the Tang Dynasty were unearthed from this underground palace, grabbing the attention of academics. From the palace, archaeologists excavated a set of exquisite teaware, which is the only court tea set of the late Tang Dynasty that has been discovered so far.
Unearthed tea set
A stone tablet unearthed from the underground palace of Famen Temple was inscribed with a list of the offerings to the temple stored in the palace, known as “yiwu zhang” (literally: “account of clothes and other objects”). The description of a tea set mentioned in the inscription matched a gilt silver tea set unearthed from the palace. This gilt silver tea set included a mortar (cha cao zi) and roller (nian zi) for grinding tea leaves, a sieve (cha luo zi) for sifting tea powder, a spoon-shaped tool (ze) for spooning tea powder, and a long-handled spoon (chi zi) for tapping boiling tea. All those silver utensils are engraved with elaborate patterns. For example, the mortar is decorated with wild geese and floating cloud patterns, and the case of the sieve is decorated with fairy-riding-crane patterns. In addition, a silver tea caddy woven out of metallic yarn, a silver seasoning container [the Tang people often added salt, ginger, and pepper in tea], and a glass teacup and a glass saucer can be viewed as part of the set.
This tea set was gifted to Famen Temple by Emperor Yizong (833–873) and Emperor Xizong (862–888) between 873  and 874. Since then, it had been sealed in the underground palace of Famen Temple. Most major tea vessels are engraved with chiseled inscriptions, which clearly record their dates of production, manufacturers, number and weight of the utensils, craftsmen and inspectors, etc. For example, an imperial connection is emphasized by the “Wu Ge” [the birth name of Emperor Xizong] inscription on the tea roller and mortar. Therefore, it is generally believed that this tea set was used daily by Emperor Xizong. 
Tea traditions of Tang and Song
As tea drinking practices proliferated during the Tang era, tea scholar Lu Yu (c. 733–804) wrote the first known monograph on tea, The Classic of Tea, which systematically summarized the tea activities in the mid-Tang period and before. The Classic of Tea marked the formation of jiancha dao [Literally the Art of Tea Brewing] in the Tang Dynasty. Afterwards, tea monographs came out one after another, comprehensively promoting tea study in the Tang Dynasty. This laid the foundation for the maturity of tea culture in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and for the formation of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The Classic of Tea indicates that tea practices had been systematized and standardized in the mid-Tang period, and tea drinking methods were innovative. The mainstream method of preparing tea was summarized by The Classic of Tea, known as sanfei jiancha fa (literally: “boiling tea for three times”). 
Diancha fa, or Whisked Tea Method, a popular tea brewing method of the Song Dynasty, inherited and further developed the Tang method. There are two main differences between the two methods. In the process of jiancha fa, tea is directly boiled in a pot, while diancha fa features putting tea powder in a teacup, pouring boiling water in the tea powder, and then whipping the mixture with a bamboo brush until it becomes foamy. This is the biggest difference between the two methods. The methods of jiancha and diancha also differ from each other in processing tea leaves. The Classic of Tea notes that the tea leaves used in jiancha fa should be ground small like rice granules, while diancha fa requires tea leaves to be ground more finely into powder, so as to make the tea powder and water fully blend. 
Transformation between Tang and Song
The change of cooking and drinking utensils directly reflects the transformation of tea drinking methods. Compared with the 28 types of tea utensils recorded in The Classic of Tea, the late Tang tea set unearthed from the underground palace of Famen Temple shows that teaware underwent many novel changes in materials and shapes during the late Tang era.
The tea rollers listed in The Classic of Tea are made of wood, and most unearthed tea rollers of the Tang era are made of stone or porcelain. The one from Famen Temple, however, is the earliest silver tea roller ever seen. It is certainly due to the tradition of producing court teaware with luxurious materials. Moreover, it reflects people’s deepening understanding of the materials of tea rollers.
The sieve (cha luo) and the tea box (cha he) in The Classic of Tea are independent of each other, while the cha luo zi unearthed from Famen Temple is a one-piece combination. This two-in-one box-shaped design is more convenient to use. There are gauze silk screens on the sieve. The yarn density indicates that the tea powder used in the late Tang was finer—perhaps fine enough to be applied in the diancha method.  
The Tang Dynasty was the first milestone in the history of Chinese tea drinking. During this period, tea became a common drink, and many tea monographs and tea utensils emerged. Research shows that the tea set excavated from Famen Temple was made when the tea drinking method was transformed from jiancha to diancha. The shape and texture of teaware had also been improved, which laid a solid foundation for the establishment of the diancha method and the prosperity of tea culture in the Song Dynasty.
Li Ruihua is a lecturer from the School of Marxism at NorthWest University.