Thursday, February 23, 2012

John Blofeld's "The Chinese Art of Tea": Book Review


Although appearing in 1985, this feels old-fashioned. Its tone is reflective and its pace suitably unhurried for its topic and theme. A skilled interpreter of Asian culture, John Blofeld provides a mixture of lore, poems, legends, travel narratives (often during WWII in the "Bohea" or Wu-I mountains of Fukien), ceremonial suggestions, and practical advice. Tea, in the Chinese version, emphasizes conversation, contemplation and conviviality, if  far less formality compared to the ritual Japanese applications of its infusion and consumption.

Blofeld, a longtime "China hand" and friend of Ian Fleming (note the surname!), writes suggestively about the connections of tea to spirituality. However, he minimizes direct exploration of this aspect, in comparison to his earlier, learned studies in Tibetan mysticism. It's a bit odd to note his reticence about spiritual connections here, given his life's work elucidating Taoism, shamanism, and Buddhism for Western readers.

Yet, as he notes: "Spirituality is by no means diminished by being given a different label." He nods to it, but he doesn't reveal his own involvement with a long spiritual path around Asia. Therefore, building on Stephen Batchelor's Korean interviews, Blofeld incorporates testimony from Zen practitioners, if less than I expected. This reticence surprised me, for Blofeld's expertise leads one to expect more connections with the spiritual.

Instead, this volume surveys the often fantasized and fabled history which leads in fiction and fact to many types of Chinese tea. While he claims erroneously that tea contains tannic acid, it's a minor flaw. He delves into not only what types to find but how to serve it; the aesthetics enrich the beverage, as form follows content. This book provides a great feel for what it's like to drink tea in its original and natural setting, as far as can be reconstructed and refreshed as each taster adjusts the venerable method to one's preferences.

Blofeld tells his findings movingly, as with his pilgrimage to Fukien province before the Communists obliterated nearly all the teahouses and the practices long indulged in a more leisurely time. This proved the most memorable section of his account, even if he blurs in recollection some of its beauty. As a man of seventy, he credits modestly lots of green or oolong (not much room for "red" black varieties in this study) tea for the past half-century for his vigor and outlook.

For a similarly eclectic volume on Eastern background (and also Western impacts), see Beatrice Hohenegger's "Liquid Jade"--it draws on many of the same sources, including Blofeld; I reviewed this and a "cultural history and drinking guide" by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, "The Story of Tea." Blofeld's strength is his easy familiarity with Chinese language and customs; he stresses more the ambiance than the technicalities, but such deeo immersion in Asian ways allows him to share his perspectives on an invigorating and calming cup. (Amazon US 2-10-12)

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