This article recently appeared in the British Acupuncture Council magazine entitled
'Quiet Medicine’- The Alchemy of Chinese Tea
I love tea. No - I really love tea. Not in a casual, admire from afar kind of way, but in a “I think I’ve met the woman I want to marry” kind of way. We all have a ‘thing’. The thing that lets us sync with the hum of the Dao and helps us make sense of our lives. For me that thing is tea.
Like you, I’m sure, I often feel blessed to be able to see the world from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. It is as if we’ve been given the key to a life more real, more tangible and more vivid than the world we knew before. For tea lovers it is just the same. There is much to say about flavour, aroma and taste but the real joy of tea arises when through the lens of Chinese Medicine we can make tea to bring out its energetic qualities known as ‘cha qi’.
The tea sage Lu Yu’s Cha Jing (Classic of Tea 770CE) which inspired tea culture throughout Asia, opens with the line “Tea is a magnificent tree growing in the South” and today in Southern China tea is still used by indigenous people as a medicine, food and for spiritual communion.
As a beverage tea is a perfect expression of the five elements. Fertile soil (Earth) gives rise to vibrant tea trees (Wood), which are then plucked and added to pure Water heated by a charcoal brazier (Fire & Metal). This pure Daoist alchemy inspires poetry such as this from Kazuko Okakura in the Book of Tea:
“In the liquid amber within the ivory porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Lao Tzu, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself”
You may know that all tea trees actually come from a single variety - camelia sinensis. So in order for us to enjoy the ‘liquid amber’ another kind of alchemy is needed. Man must use his ingenuity to cultivate the trees and to process the leaves in harmony with Nature to bring out the tea’s potential. Each process gives us a different tea - green, white, yellow, red, black, oolong or puerh - all with distinct ‘cha qi’ and medicinal properties.
When it comes to making tea, like herbs, the method of preparation affects the energetic quality of our tea. This is where as Chinese Medicine practitioners we get to perform our own act of alchemy - preparing tea to affect the qi of ourselves and our patients.
Some Green teas like Jade Stream prepared with cooler water have the rising Yang Qi of Wood, brightening the eyes and the mind; whereas others can be cooling and disperse downwards. Certain White teas, like Cloud Pass, brewed cold have a tonifying effect on Lung Yin; prepare them hot and they change nature to dry and disperse excess fluids. My personal favourite after lunch is an endless pot of raw or ‘sheng’ Puerh, like Yunnan Peak, which keeps me bright and energised all afternoon as it clears the turbid Damp of overindulgence allowing the clear Qi to rise.
When we start to uncover the tangible ways in which this ‘quiet medicine’ can be used to help our patients and ourselves it is no wonder that this ‘magnificent tree growing in the South’ inspires such devotion amongst the ‘initiate’. Lao Tzu, Confucius and Sakyamuni? What a tea party that would be.
James Thirlwall is an acupuncturist and tea teacher. He works in Oxford and London and leads tea and medicine workshops for Chinese Medicine practitioners.