Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lu T’ung and the “Song of Tea”: The Taoist Origins of the Seven Bowls [Part 2 of 2]


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of two instalments in the publication of Steven Owyoung's essay on the famous "Song of Tea." The first part can be read here.]]

The "Song of Tea"

Lu T’ung wrote to Meng Chien, thanking him for the large package of exceptionally rare tea. The letter of verse provided a fascinating glimpse into the early world of the art of tea. Originally entitled "Writing Thanks to Imperial Grand Master of Remonstrance Meng for Sending New Tea," the poem became simply known as the "Song of Tea":














The sun is as high as a ten-foot measure and five; I am deep asleep.
The general bangs at the gate loud enough to scare the Duke of Chou!
He announces that the Grand Master sends a letter;
the white silk cover is triple-stamped.
Breaking the vermilion seals, I imagine the Grand Master himself
inspecting these three hundred moon-shaped tea cakes.
He heard that within the tea mountain a path was cut at the New Year,
sending insects rising excitedly on the spring wind.
As the emperor waits to taste Yang-hsien tea,
the one hundred plants dare not bloom.
Benevolent breezes intimately embrace pearly tea sprouts,
the early spring coaxing out buds of golden yellow.
Picked fresh, fired till fragrant, then packed and sealed:
tea’s essence and goodness is preserved.
Such venerable tea is meant for princes and nobles;
how did it reach the hut of this mountain hermit?
The brushwood gate is closed against vulgar visitors;
all alone, I don my gauze cap, brewing and tasting the tea.
Clouds of green yielding; unceasingly, the wind blows;
radiantly white, floating tea froth congeals against the bowl.
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
Where are the immortal isles of Mount P’englai?
I, Master Jade Stream, wish instead to ride this pure wind back
To the tea mountain where other immortals gather to oversee the land,
protecting the pure, high places from wind and rain.
Yet, how can I bear knowing the bitter fate of the myriad peasants
toiling beneath the tumbled tea cliffs!
I have but to ask Grand Master Meng about them;
whether they can ever regain some peace.

Lu T’ung began the Song with a bit of self-mockery, describing himself as rudely awakened from a deep sleep at nearly midday. Unlike officials who rose before dawn to attend court, Lu T’ung let everyone know that he slept in and slept late. Moreover, he dreamt of the Duke of Chou, the virtuous minister of antiquity who loomed as an auspicious premonition of Meng Chien and his gift. The crashing reports at his gate alerted Lu T’ung to the martial presence of no ordinary courier, but a general and armed escort with a parcel and message direct from the Grand Remonstrator. The value of the package was signaled by its wrapping of sealed silk and the cover letter providing the exact count of its contents -- all steps to foil pilfering. The precautions were warranted, for the gift was quite extraordinary: three hundred round cakes of imperial tribute tea.

Lu T’ung was so surprised that he wondered out loud: “Such venerable tea is meant for princes and nobles; how did it reach the hut of this mountain hermit?” How indeed, for no one but the emperor had Yang-hsien tea. Grown on the crown estates of Huchou and Ch’angchou near Lake T’ai, the tea was made from imperial reserves for the exclusive use of the throne. Yang-hsien tea was recognized as a rare tea since the first century A.D. in the Han dynasty. In the Book of Tea, Lu Yü distinguished the tea from Huchou as “superior” and that from Ch’angchou as “next” in order of quality, but in every case he considered Yang-hsien a fine tea “with a lovely fragrance.” in Huchou and Ch’angchou prefectures in Kiangsu, the tea was known by several names, including Ku-chu from the name of the mountain in Huchou where the tea was grown. The tea was also called “purple sprout” after the dark russet color of its new leaves. Tea came in the form of small wafers and cakes. The freshly picked leaves were steamed, ground into paste, and dried in moulds of different shapes: rounds, squares, and rectangles. It was recorded that in the T’ang a monk offered “a beautiful tea” to the Prefect of Ch’angchou, Li Hsi-yün, who sent it as tribute from Yang-hsien district to the throne. The tea was much admired by the emperor who ordered that Huchou be established as an imperial estate. Crown properties were administered by the Household Commissioner for Estates, a palace office staffed by high ranking eunuchs who ensured the annual shipment of Yang-hsien and other tribute teas to the throne. There were numerous imperial estates in the south that produced tea for the throne; at his discretion, the emperor distributed the cakes as gifts to the imperial family, the aristocracy, and meritorious officials.

Yang-hsien was among the most symbolic tributes of the year, and its arrival at the palace was anxiously awaited. Fresh and tender, the “pearly tea” appeared early, coaxed to sprout by gentle winds off the lake, the season nurturing “buds of golden yellow." The tea was, therefore, the harbinger of spring, for “the one hundred plants dare not bloom” until the emperor had the first taste of Yang-hsien tea. Yang-hsien also had great ritual and ceremonial importance to the emperor and the annual sacrifices to the imperial ancestors. Preparations for the event began immediately after the New Year when the prefect of Huchou ordered repairs to the road leading from the valley into the mountain to accommodate the laborers required for the harvest. Soon after, palace eunuchs arrived from the capital to direct the harvest as local officials planned the housing, provisioning, and care of the thousands of tea workers coming from the countryside. In the second lunar month, the tea was picked and quickly processed into cakes over just a few days followed by a week of special handling. The tea was carefully inspected and packaged, wrapped in fine white paper and bundled in soft silk satchels, then locked in lacquered cases. The shipment of the tribute tea was overseen by palace eunuchs whose logistical experts took command. Invested with broad administrative and military powers, the eunuchs allowed nothing to interfere with the safe and speedy passage of the tea.

The first batch of Yang-hsien tea was called “express tea” (chi-ch'eng ch'a) because it was dispatched in the second month to the palace in less than ten days by equestrian couriers riding their mounts over a thousand miles to the capital. The urgency of the eunuchs was driven by the calendar. The tea had to arrive at the palace before Ch’ing-ming, Festival of Purity and Brightness, the fifth day of the third lunar month, the date fixed by tradition when the emperor honored his T’ang ancestors. The eunuchs would not risk the wrath of the dragon throne by being late. Sent from Lake T’ai in the south to Ch’ang’an in the northwest, the bulk of the tea was conveyed up the Grand Canal to Loyang, overland through the Lan-t’ien Pass, and then again by boat to the capital. Once in the city, the tea was escorted to the inner palace. In the safety of the emperor’s private treasury, the tea was divided and a portion sent to the imperial family shrine to be offered in sacrifice to the ancestors of the dynasty. The rituals were performed by the emperor, who, on fulfilling his filial duties, returned to the palace where his tea master prepared Yang-hsien tea.

Ordinarily, the emperor’s tea was brewed by one of his ladies-in-waiting who was skilled in the art of tea. The Taoist priestess Li Yeh, taught the art by her father and tutored in its finer points by Lu Yü, was a model tea instructress for the imperial consorts and palace ladies. On ceremonial occasions such as the feast of Ch’ing-ming, however, the emperor called for his official tea master. The palace master made tea much as Lu Yü described in the Ch’a-ching. Preparation began with the toasting of the tea cake at the brazier, then grinding the tea, and sifting it into a powder as fine as “rice flour." In the cauldron, water was heated and a bit of salt thrown into the roiling boil that the master constantly stirred, creating a whirlpool down into which the tea powdered was poured. In an instant, “there is a surge in the water like flying billows and overflowing froth” whereupon a dipper of hot water was added to temper the brew. When the tea was ladled out into bowls, each serving was topped by an ample helping of froth that looked “splendid like the spring florescence." Lifting his bowl in salute, the emperor took the ceremonial “first taste” of Yang-hsien tea, a formal and auspicious gesture that declared Spring had officially begun.

Far from Ch’ang’an on Lesser Stone Peak, Lu T’ung also celebrated with Yang-hsien tea. His cottage was humble but his manner was as formal as the emperor’s. Seeking tranquility to enjoy himself in solitude, he barred his gate and shut his doors. Before preparing the tea, he made himself ready, donning his silk gauze cap, focusing on the task at hand, calmly concentrating on preparing and brewing the imperial tea. He listened for the first boil of the water and sighted bubbles the size of “fish eyes,” followed by the second boil and its bubbly “string of pearls." The surge of the third boil erupted with the measure of tea powder, then there ensued a quiet simmering as the tea brewed. Looking into the cauldron, Lu T’ung imagined the convecting tea to be billowing “clouds of green yielding, unceasingly” blown by the spring “wind." Ladling out a serving, Lu T’ung admired the fine, “radiantly white” froth floating lightly on the tea, the foam thickening as it cooled and clung against the bowl.

Froth was the essence of the tea. As described in the fourth century poem "Ode to Tea," froth was “lustrous like piling snow." Four hundred years later in the T’ang, froth was still appreciated as tea’s most important aesthetic feature. On seeing it, Lu Yü was moved to wax poetic over froth:
Froth is the floreate essence of the brew. Froth that is thin is called mo; thick froth is call po; that which is fine and light is called hua, floreate essence .... Mo froth resembles date blossoms floating lightly upon a circular jade pool or green blooming duckweed whirling along the winding bank or layered clouds floating in a fine clear sky. Froth resembles moss floating in tidal sands or chrysanthemum flowers fallen into an ancient ritual bronze.
Lu Yü also wrote that the first cauldron’s brew was “ambrosial and lingering." The taste of tea was long regarded as its most interesting feature. In the Materia Medica, tea was described in these words, “Ming is bitter tea. Its taste is sweet and bitter." The phenomenon of tea tasting both bitter and sweet rests in sipping tea. On the tongue, the bitter taste of tea stimulates the flow of saliva that then mixes with the tea and alters its taste from bitter to sweet. Human saliva contains salivary amylase, an enzyme that converts carbohydrates into sugars. Bitter tea, especially green tea, is thus sweet tea. Tea of great quality was often called “sweet dew” (kan-lu), a poetic name for celestial libations of infinite purity, lightness, and sweetness. In Taoism, sweet dew was an essence that came from Heaven. Celestial descent of sweet dew sanctioned virtuous rule as intoned by the Tao-te ching (Scripture of the Way and Power) in chapter 32:
The Tao is constant, but nameless.
Although the Primal Simplicity is small,
All under Heaven submit to it.
If lords and princes would but embrace it,
The myriad creatures would do homage to them;
Heaven and Earth would harmonize to send sweet dew.
Emperors of the Han dynasty, mindful of Heaven’s mandate and the power of the Tao, built storied pavilions in the palace suburbs to catch the sweet dew, the sign of Heaven’s sanction of their rule. Condensed in golden dishes and upon silvery mirrors atop high masts rising to the sky, sweet dew was collected and then imbibed to promote longevity and attain immortality. In the Ch’a-ching, Lu Yü followed imperial precedent:
It is recorded in the Records of the Former Song that, ‘Prince Luan of Hsin’an and Prince Shang of Yüchang visited the Buddhist monk Tan-chi on Mount Pakung. The monk prepared tea for them. Prince Shang tasted it and said, ‘This is truly sweet dew of the immortals! How can it be called tea?’
To the prince, the taste of the old monk’s tea was so delicious that it begged comparison to the saccharine flavor of sacred nectar, sweet dew. Moreover, Lu Yü considered the herbal properties of tea to be superior in kind and noted that “In efficacy, tea rivals ... sweet dew” thereby linking tea with the spirit realm and the ancient notion that tea endowed immortality.

Lu Yü was exact in his instruction that “for tea of superb flavor and fragrance, the bowls number just three ....” Three was the perfect number in tea and Taoism. As a prime, three was especially potent in the Taoist naming of fundamental things: Three Primordials, Three Primary Vitalities, Three Powers, Kinship of Three, and so on. Lu Yü favored the number in the Ch’a-ching by using three as a mystical constant. For instance, the bronze brazier he used as a tea stove was a tripod with three legs, three vents, three inscriptions, three trigrams, three elements, and three cardinal animals. By using the number three, Lu Yü adhered to Taoist practice and faith in numerological power.

Three bowls of tea was prescriptive and closely related to the Taoist belief in tea as a food and herbal drug. The Book of Tea was full of quotes on the physiological effects of tea. The herb’s stimulating qualities were long recognized and were used to treat mental depression. One suffering soul wrote candidly in a heavy but hopeful confession: “My body is confused and melancholy. I have always relied on true tea for relief.” In accordance with dietary writings, the Book of Food noted that “tea, when taken over a long period of time, gives a person strength, contentment, and purpose.” Likewise, the Discourse on Food recorded that “bitter tea drunk habitually over a long time benefits the power of thought.” Tea was used in strict dietary regimens among monks and laity. Taoists believed that long and sustained drinking of tea endowed longevity and eventual immortality. In Foods to Avoid, a physician prescribed, “bitter tea drunk habitually over a long time bestows immortality." Taken in an ascetic, vegetarian diet that allowed no meat nor grain nor allium, Taoists said that tea “lightens the body and transforms the bones” but “if taken with leeks, will make the body heavy." In the monastery, tea was notably substituted for the evening meal and drunk as an aid to study and meditiation. Taoist adepts employed tea as a stimulant to clear and concentrate the mind during long and intense periods of meditation, especially focusing on the mind and body as an alchemical vessel in the creation of the elixir of never ending life. To enhance their powers of concentration, they relied on tea in consistent and effective doses, utilizing the physiological effects of the herb to alter mood and particularly to achieve heightened states of consciousness and enlightenment. Thus, by using three bowls of tea, Lu Yü addressed not only the aesthetic issue of achieving “superb flavor and fragrance” but also stressed the essentially pharmaceutical nature of the herb and its precise prescriptive use in mental health and Taoist meditation.

As a Taoist and tea connoisseur, Lu T’ung knew the gustatory delights of tea-drinking as well as tea’s herbal effects. In the "Song of Tea," Lu T’ung described the physical sensations produced by three bowls of tea as the herbal decoction worked on his body and mind.
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The stimulating and mood-changing effects of tea were already apparent to Lu T’ung after the second bowl, and with the third, his heart was plumbed. After a lifetime of ascetic practices, Lu T’ung’s body readily absorbed the caffeine and theine concentrate. His head lightened, his mind cleared and sharpened, his senses elevated, his thoughts cerebral and inspired, and his entire being flooded with his vast learning. With the prescribed three bowls of tea, Lu T’ung had reached the ultimate of the tea experience in both feeling and connoisseurship.

Yet remarkably, Lu T’ung continued drinking, taking several more bowls of tea, a thing against which Lu Yü strictly warned: “All of the best tasting tea is in the first and second bowls. The third bowl is next in quality. Fourth and fifth bowls of tea are excessive ... one must not drink more." But Lu T’ung raised the bowl again and experienced a further sequence of sensations that altered his body and spirit:
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
With the sixth bowl, Lu T’ung exceeded Lu Yü’s prescription of three bowls of tea and ignored the master’s proscription against any more. As a connoisseur, Lu T’ung thus greedily doubled his enjoyment of the imperial tea. But as a Taoist, he recalled the further words of Lu Yü: “In efficacy, tea rivals ... sweet dew." Tea was alchemical and effectively was equal to the benign celestial essence, the heavenly elixir of life. With tea’s potent herbal effects, Lu T’ung radically transformed his powers of concentration and perception, creating a transcendent state.

As Lu T’ung was about to drink an extraordinary seventh bowl, he felt a “pure wind” beneath wings that lofted and sent him flying. Airborne, he left the last bowl behind as he soared as a feathered spirit searching instinctively for the fabled mountain of P’englai, the Taoist isle of the immortals, a distant and mystical place somewhere in the Eastern Sea yet beyond the phenomenal world. Then literally remembering himself by his sobriquet, “Master Jade Stream,” he inclined instead for Huchou and the earthly tea mountain to join the “other immortals ... protecting the pure, high places from wind and rain” to nurture the imperial gardens of Yang-hsien tea. As he mused about the tea plants, he was suddenly struck by a great pang of conscience and Taoist charity. Crying aloud, he bemoaned “the bitter fate of the myriad peasants toiling beneath the tumbled tea cliffs!” Realizing the human cost of tea, his flight of fancy abruptly faded, displaced by a desire to know of any relief for the tea workers. In his letter of thanks to Meng Chien, Lu T’ung flattered the minister, obliquely comparing Meng to the righteous Duke of Chou of antiquity, hoping to stir the man’s moral senses and so gain some small assurance of the peasants and their fate.

Tea Czar

If Lu T’ung was ever given any comfort by his patron, it was not recorded. But the lot of the tea workers only got worse. Influential though he was, Meng Chien had no authority in determining state policy on tea. That power came to lay in the hands of Wang Ya, a chief minister at the imperial court in Ch’ang’an. In 835 A.D., Wang Ya was given the reins of the Tea Monopoly Commission (chüeh-ch'a shih), a revenue office that oversaw the collection of taxes on tea. Wang was de facto tea czar and played a decisive role in the taxation of tea in the late T’ang. When control of tea accrued to Wang Ya, Lu T’ung gravitated to him, introduced to the chief minister by Meng Chien and Han Yü. The officials all knew one another because of their close relations with the throne and their common political interests. Han Yü and Wang Ya had a long and special bond as classmates in the imperial examinations. Other than the emperor, there was no one with finer tea than Wang Ya. Other than the late saint of tea, Lu Yü, there was no more celebrated connoisseur than Lu T’ung. This being the case, Wang Ya and Lu T’ung fulfilled mutual interests. Lu was a frequent visitor to the minister’s mansion in the garden district near the southern gate of Ch’ang’an, spending time there as the Wang’s house guest, writing poetry and enjoying as much of the rarest tea as he could possibly drink. As described in the "Song of Tea," Lu’s capacity for tea was more than considerable, and in terms of the common practice of tea, his tolerance and use of its physiological effects was extraordinary. Lu T’ung did not stir long nor far from the Wang mansion.

When Wang Ya took control of the Commission, the T’ang tea market was well established and thriving. In the eighth century, when Yang-hsien tea was first presented to the throne, Lu Yü noted that the inaugural tribute sent ten thousand ounces of caked tea. Production was labor intensive, the leaves handpicked during the early morning hours of a few absolutely clear, cloudless days. Each tea cake weighed less than an ounce but hundreds of thousands of leaf buds were required to make every cake. The tea was much admired by the emperor, who ordered regular tribute from Mount Ku-chu in 770 A.D. An imperial estate was then established in Huchou to produce Yang-hsien for the throne. Not only was the tea of excellent quality but high in production as well. By 781 A.D., the annual tea tribute was over one thousand pounds; the amount grew exponentially as each year passed. In the ninth century A.D., thirty thousand peasants harvested the annual Yang-hsien crop; the leaves were processed by a thousand more. Multiplied by the other imperial estates plus private and corporate tea production, the work force devoted to tea throughout the empire was as great as any other product and mitigated only by the harvest seasons. In 817 A.D., nearly one million pounds of tea were stored in the emperor’s two private treasuries alone. The open market for tea was even more vast and supplied a great demand within the country and abroad. In terms of consumption, market and production, tea was so ubiquitous that it was treated as a veritable commodity. Tea became a common thing -- a necessity of life -- and as a necessity, it was, of course, taxed.

The first duty on tea was state imposed in 782 A.D. at ten percent of the average market price, the same rate as lacquer, bamboo, and timber. In addition to the imperial tea gardens, fine teas were produced without regulation by private and cooperative operations comprised of independent farmers, monasteries, and landowners. Such teas were routinely recommended by local officials for the annual tribute to the throne. In 793 A.D., the tea tax took the form of a ten percent trade duty paid in cash by tea merchants. Annual revenues from tea were minor, amounting to one twelfth of the cash brought in by the state salt monopoly. However, the tea revenues were considerable enough to incite bureaucratic wrangling and misuse of funds, becoming an object of political and finanacial import and institutional graft. Moreover, the market continued to expand along with high profits, and tea thus became an attractive target for bandits, dishonest merchants, and corrupt provincial officials. Yet, despite its problems, the tea market and the system to tax it worked relatively well for over fifty years up until the disastrous policies of Wang Ya.

The political fall of Wang Ya began with his paradoxical rise to the empire’s highest honor. In the fifth month of 835 A.D. when the emperor appointed him Area Commander Unequaled in Honor (k'ai-fu i-t'ung san-ssu), a high honorific title equal in prestige to the Three Dukes of antiquity, the paramount aides to the ruler and the highest possible rank in officialdom. The title permitted Wang Ya to staff a private office in the outer palace, a privilege that greatly extended his already formidable power and one that gave him a distinct advantage over his political enemies among the court officials and palace eunuchs. With the blatant favoritism of the throne for Wang confirmed, the enmity of his opponents grew and hardened. But much to their chagrin, Wang Ya became even more powerful.

In the tenth month, the emperor ordered the establishment of a new regulatory commission, the Tea Monopoly, and Wang Ya was created a commissioner by imperial appointment. The move was in response to internal stresses on tea production and uncertainties in the market that had grown over several years. In 829 A.D., Ch’engtu, the capital of Szechwan, was sacked and large areas of the tea growing region laid waste. Seasonal disruptions in tea harvests in other parts of the south finally forced the state takeover of tea production. The emperor was advised to create the Tea Monopoly by Wang Ya who stood to gain enormous wealth and power as its chief commissioner.

As planned, Wang Ya acted swiftly and ruthlessly, enacting draconian measures to utterly change the tea market. He ordered all production transferred and confined to state plantations; private manufacture was illegal and prohibited. Even harsher rules were imposed. All tea plants were ordered transplanted to government estates, and furthermore, private stocks of processed tea were ordered destroyed. The reaction was immediate and predictable. The tea market fluctuated wildly on rumors of the impending monopoly, petty officials made small fortunes trading in secret information, merchant and connoisseurs hoarded stocks and hid inventories, shortages occurred and prices rose, the market collapsed and a lucrative black market thrived, and displaced tea farmers and merchants joined criminal gangs to deal in the business they knew best. Peasant and merchant opposition to the policies was so overwhelmingly violent that the throne and court were advised that to enforce the orders on tea the government would have to “exterminate the population, or force them into resistance in the hills." Wang Ya hesitated but did not rescind his orders. Unknown to him, certain events were already in play to bring down the Tea Monopoly and ensure Wang Ya’s sudden fall from grace and mark his terrible end.

Sweet Dew

Ironically, it was the emperor who made certain that his favorite minister was destroyed. Emperor Wen-tsung twice attempted to rid himself of the powerful eunuch clique that controlled the throne, and twice he failed. The first plans were discovered when word was leaked. On his second try, Wen-tsung engaged two high courtiers to assassinate the chief eunuchs. The three agreed to absolute secrecy. Distracted and tormented by his palace eunuchs and fearful of the secret scheme being discovered, Emperor Wen-tsung gave little thought to warning Wang Ya about the plan. The plot involved the report of an omen, the investigation of the event, and the ambush of the eunuchs and their henchmen. The attack would take place in the early hours of the morning within the palace precincts just outside the gates of the inner palace. The outer palaces held the court and administrative offices of the bureaucracy. The inner palace was comprised of the emperor’s private offices, halls, and residences, including the courtyards of his empress, consorts, and ladies. Wen-tsung’s personal secretaries, a few Han-lin scholars, were restricted to their offices and accompanying the emperor. Staffed by eunuchs, the palace servants were the only other males allowed within the inner palace. Under strong emperors, the eunuchs served the imperial household; under weak emperors, the eunuchs served themselves and bullied and abused their masters. Wen-tsung was weak, but he wanted desperately to rid himself of his eunuch handlers. The plan was to play on the superstitions of the eunuchs and lure them from the inner to the outer palace and kill them before the purge was stopped by the eunuch-controlled palace army.

In the early hours of the twenty-first day of the twelfth month, 835 A.D., a report of an auspicious omen was brought to the emperor. Sweet dew had descended from Heaven and formed on a pomegranate tree growing in the court of the Chin-wu Guard in the outer palace. Sweet dew was Heaven’s blessing on a sovereign and his good and moral rule. The celestial sign was doubly auspicious because the Guard was named after the fabulous Chin-wu, a mythical bird that warded off pestilence and misfortune. Wen-tsung sent the chief eunuch to investigate the matter. Leaving the inner palace through a gate into the outer palace, the eunuch and his assistants walked quickly in anticipation of seeing the miracle. Believing that sweet dew endowed longevity and even immortality to those who drank it, the more audacious among them imagined licking a drop or two from the leaves of the tree. As they arrived, they were suddenly shocked to hear the clank of weapons and glimpse armed men hiding behind curtains. They fled back through the gates of the inner palace, raising an alarm. The chief eunuch ordered Wen-tsung hustled off deep within the inner palace, isolating him from the conspirators. Then the palace army was summoned. Garrisoned on ready alert just west of the capital, the palace army of fifteen thousand troops was directed by eunuch commanders. A vanguard of five hundred was dispatched. As the soldiers entered the outer palace, the officials within were unaware of the danger.

That morning, Wang Ya left the Secretariat for a meeting and then returned to attend a banquet. Although Wang Ya had nothing to do with the coup against the eunuchs, he knew that something was awfully wrong when the feast was suddenly interrupted: “Before anyone had set down their chopsticks,” soldiers entered the gates, killing everyone they came across. Escaping by luck, Wang Ya and others fearfully made their way to the tea market in the Yung-ch’ang ward where they were surrounded and captured. More than a thousand died within the outer palace as the slaughter continued throughout the day. Thousands more died in the following weeks as officials, their families, friends, and servants were hunted down by the eunuchs, imprisoned and killed. Any reason was enough to earn suspects slow torture and death. The massacre eliminated the clans of eleven high officials. History remembered the attempted coup to oust the eunuchs as the Sweet Dew Incident.

In the garden district, troops streamed through the city’s south gate and broke into the mansions of three chief ministers. At the time, Lu T’ung was visiting Wang Ya and staying with the minister as an honored guest. At the Wang residence, a dragnet was formed to catch anyone in the house. Put up in a guest room, Lu T’ung was among the last to be found. It was easy to imagine Lu as usual abed and sound asleep. For the last time in his life, Lu T’ung was rudely awakened by a soldier. Angry and indignant, Lu dared the armed man to touch him and promised the harshest retribution from the chief minister. The soldier gruffly ignored his sputtering and manhandled him into a room already filled with servants and family. Everyone was put in chains and dragged away. In prison, Lu was abused, tortured, and put on trial. Falsely accused of conspiracy, Lu T’ung was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Although as innocent of the crime as Lu T’ung, Wang Ya suffered great pain and humiliation during the Sweet Dew Incident. The eunuchs tortured him, extracting false confessions that condemned his entire clan. After trial, Wang was paraded through Ch’ang’an by three hundred cavalry. Past the shrines, round the merchant and trade quarters, the cavalcade wended its way through the capital and headed for the Western Market where it halted at the execution ground. The place was known as Lone Willow, named for the solitary, forlorn tree that grew there. By the time Wang Ya was dragged beneath its drooping limbs, the tree was besieged by an angry mob that rushed from the mean streets of the city to taunt and glare at the hated head of the Tea Monopoly. Wang Ya stood dazed and unaware as the soldiers quickly stepped away from him, leaving him standing alone as the first rock hit him. With each stone thrown, the crowd’s murderous rage grew. When at last the man fell and died, it drained away, soundless and exhausted.

It was not recorded how Lu T’ung died, but it was quite certain that he was executed under the bare branches of Lone Willow. The wrath of the eunuchs was terrible. When they discovered they held the author of "Eclipse of the Moon," they were without pity. When they finished with him, Lu T’ung was a hollow wreck of a man. The only mercy accorded him was when they finally killed him. Whoever took his body for burial observed the barest ceremony; what was done was hasty and scant. The paucity of Lu’s grave dismayed the few friends who ventured there to pay their last respects. The poet Chia Tao set to verse a remembrance titled "Lamenting Lu T’ung":
A worthy man, albeit no official, is dead.
Even those unrelated to him are sad.
The Void causes ancient spirits to weep
On getting yet another new neighbor.
For the forty years of his adult life,
He wore only clothes of plain cloth.
The Son of Heaven never summoned him,
So who in Hell pursued him?
His friends in Ch’ang’an, entrusted with his orphaned children,
Suddenly deserted them.
The small stone marker beside his tomb is wanting,
The inscribed lines, uneven and confused.
There is no money to buy the pine to plant at his grave
But shoots of artemisia grow there naturally ...
Chia Tao described the aftermath of Lu T’ung’s death in the starkest terms. Lu’s children, fatherless and motherless, were abandoned on the hard streets of the capital, forsakened by the very people meant to protect them. As an accomplished and admired man, Lu T’ung deserved a stone stele inscribed with belles-lettres and lavish praise, but the marker at his grave was small, its inscription inadequate; the few columns crooked, the meager words jumbled. The tree traditionally planted at a new tomb was missing. The only thing passing for the pine sapling that should have honored him was the artemisia growing wild on his grave. The presence of the little plant seemed a comfort. Like an ancient recluse, the hearty herb survived the cold of winter, its buds potent and sprouting from old, dried stems in spring. The bleak and paltry scene of the grave completed the destruction of Lu Tung’s life and art, a thought so unbearable that Chia Tao turned away to speak to the poet’s spirit, crying out promises to remember him by cherishing his literary remains.

For centuries, the Sweet Dew Incident served as a stern warning to all emperors and ministers against the power of eunuchs. The caveat extended to everyone, even to poets and tea connoisseurs whose innocuous, cultural pastimes might nonetheless get them killed. In the case of Lu T’ung, his fondness for tea did indeed lead in unexpected ways to his complete and utter demise. It was no small cruelty that “sweet dew” -- Heaven’s blessing or beautiful tea -- had such devastating cause and effect. Time was also brutal to Lu T’ung. His poetry was all but forgotten, notwithstanding the poet Chia Tao’s vow before Lu T’ung’s grave to remember him:
The poems you sent me while alive,
I hold and read, tears flowing.
From now on, I will revere them all the more,
Treasuring them deeply, afraid to lose them.
For the poetry of Lu T’ung, the long-term consequences of the Sweet Dew Incident were unintended but nevertheless severe. Despite the faith of Chia Tao, the vividly beautiful and grotesque images conjured up in Lu T’ung’s verses nearly disappeared. The hapless poet was again condemned. Considered by critics a “minor” poet, his work was ignored or denigrated for his strange and fantastic “flights of fancy." Through the ages, all that was left in the anthologies were a few prose poems, most notably "Eclipse of the Moon" and the "Song of Tea." It is perhaps fitting that these two works endure as his most famous. With each passing century, the despised and long forgotten “demon frogs” are overshadowed, defeated again and again; the lunar poem and its defiant, sarcastic words delighting generations of readers just as it lifted the brows of officials in times past. Revenge, like tea, is bitter and sweet. In some consolation to his spirit, Lu T’ung’s brilliant verse on seven wondrous bowls -- the Song of Tea -- continues to be sung in the minds of tea-drinkers to this day. And at each silent singing, Master Jade Stream remains immortal, soaring above the tea lands, winging away to the far and mystic Isles of P’englai.

Image Credits

FIGURE 6: Tea Master
Yen Li-pen (ca. 600-674 A.D.), attrib.
Tea Master and Servant, 10th century A.D.
Detail from Hsiao I Stealing the Orchid Pavilion Preface
Handscroll: ink on silk
Location unknown

FIGURE 7: Immortals
Artist unknown
Nine Taoist Saints, 13th century A.D.
China: Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.)
Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk
112.5 x 54.1 cm.
Hôngonji Temple, Shiga

FIGURE 8: Mount P’englai, Isle of Immortals
Wang Yün (1652-1735 A.D. or later)
The Fanghu Isle of Immortals, 1699 A.D.
China: Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.)
Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk
142 x 60.3 cm.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Fortieth Anniversary Memorial Acquisition Fund (F75-43)

[[This is the second of two instalments in the publication of Steven Owyoung's essay on the famous "Song of Tea." The first part can be read here.]]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lu T’ung and the “Song of Tea”: The Taoist Origins of the Seven Bowls [Part 1 of 2]


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: By now Steven Owyoung, one of the world's authorities on tea and a veteran contributor to CHA DAO, will need no introduction. His topic in this essay is the "Song of Tea," one of the most quoted (and perhaps least understood) pieces of ancient literature on tea. Few even of our most learned readers will know the details amassed in this fascinating essay, which expertly weaves together elements of biography, history, Daoist thought, human physiology and nutrition, numerology, and tea culture, in a virtuoso illumination of this famous poem. (Along the way, he also sheds some important light on the Cha Jing of Lu Yu.) Unless otherwise indicated, all translations (including that of the "Song of Tea" itself) are Owyoung's own. His new English version of the entire "Song of Tea" -- a text far more substantial than the excerpt usually cited -- first appeared in Beatrice Hohenegger's Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West (St Martin's Press 2007) pp. 20-21. The complete translation appears here, in very slightly revised form. Because of its substantial size, this essay will appear in two parts.]]

Seven Bowls of Tea

The “Song of Tea” is one of the most beloved tea poems known the world over. Its verses on “seven cups” of tea remain as famous today as when written in China over a thousand years ago during the T’ang dynasty (618-906 A.D.). The Song was composed by the Taoist recluse Lu T’ung (775-835 A.D.), a celebrated poet and connoisseur of tea. Lu T’ung was inspired by a gift of tea from an official high in the ranks of the imperial court. The tea was named Yang-hsien, after the gardens where it was grown for the exclusive use of the emperor. Surprised and delighted by the present, Lu T’ung brewed the tea and drank. Bowl after bowl, he felt the tea transform him until it seemed that he became immortal. The story of Lu T’ung – his life, poetry, and tea -- provides an understanding of the “Song of Tea” and the idyllic but fragile world of the T’ang literati.

Lu T’ung and Lu Yü

Lu T’ung hardly lived a dangerous life. He was, after all, a gentleman of leisure. Indeed, for all of his sixty years, he lived in retirement, realizing the literati dream of being free from the dusty world to write and pursue artistic pastimes. Erudite and cultured, he was a poet of considerable eccentricity and a noted connoisseur of fine tea. For a time, he lived as a hermit in the mountains near the eastern capital. His lofty, independent style was admired by the wealthy and the powerful. While ministers and officials might fret and toil for rank and fortune, they could always look to Lu T’ung as the ideal among them, unsullied and beyond the fray. Fame for Lu the recluse was unfortunate but rewarding. And in truth, his celebrity kept him in the highest company and in the rarest tea. Yet, the farther from solitude he strayed, the closer he came to the imperial court and its lethal intrigues. In a knotted twist of fate, Lu T’ung’s passion for tea proved to be his undoing. His perfect life ended abruptly and very badly.

As a connoisseur, Lu T’ung naturally drank tea. But in the late T’ang, nearly everyone did. Tea was everywhere: from the palace to the cottage, from the northernmost borders to beyond the eastern seas. There were tea shops and market stalls and itinerant tea sellers offering a bowl of tea on the streets and alleys of every city and town. Among the elite, tea was an aesthetic pursuit, an artistic and culinary endeavor codified by the Ch’a-ching, the Book of Tea. Published in 780 A.D., the Ch’a-ching was a canonical work written by the great saint of tea, Lu Yü.

Lu T’ung, who was no relation to the elder tea master, studied the Book and became expert as a connoisseur. He was thirty years old when Lu Yü died around 804 A.D., but there was no history of their meeting. Yet, Lu T’ung might well have shared tea with Lu Yü when the master was still alive; one or two apocryphal stories survive. Both men certainly held a good deal in common. They were deeply learned but disdained official life, devoting themselves instead to scholarship and poetry. And, despite their eremitic characters and eccentric personalities, they were admired and patronized by the high and mighty of the imperial bureaucracy. Late in life each faced personal tragedy. Lu Yü lost his teacher and foster sister. Lu T’ung lost his life. But the great bond that connected the men was tea, especially the use of tea in Taoist meditation and inspiration.

Saint of Tea

In life and lore, Lu Yü and Lu T’ung were intimately associated with Taoism. Lu Yü was particularly accomplished in cosmological and alchemical studies, interests that began when he was young. Lu Yü was orphaned at the age of two and abandoned “desolate and exposed” along the shores of the West Lake in Ching-ling, Hupeh. Discovering the child, the head priest Chi-kung took the foundling to the Lung-kai Temple, a Ch’an Buddhist monastery. Cloistered, the boy was raised as a little monk, or so the story was told. But there was another tale for the telling. According to legend, the toddler stayed at the monastery only briefly before he was sent to live with the Li family. Master Li was a Confucian from Huchou, an eastern town famous for its tea gardens on the southern rim of Lake T’ai. When he retired from office, Master Li “divined a dwelling place” in which the augury foretold the move south to Hupeh near the Lung-kai monastery. Master Li set out in anticipation of a peaceful, retired life; he was known by the Taoist name Ju-kung, Master Child. When the priest Chi-kung learned of the family’s arrival from Huchou, he asked them to care for the small orphan. Master Li fostered the child and raised him like a son with his own daughter, Li Yeh, a brilliant and precocious girl of five. The two grew up as sister and brother and were tutored together, learning Confucian belles-lettres and Taoist teachings. At the age of eight, Lu Yü returned to the monastery. But not for long. Desiring to study the classics and unhappy with the intellectual strictures imposed by his teacher Chi-kung, Lu Yü – aged just eleven – rebelled. Deserting the monk and monastic life, Lu Yü joined a traveling troupe of actors, trying his hand at playwriting and comedic skits. On discovering Lu Yü again, the old priest relented and granted the boy time to study non-Buddhist literature. As a young man, Lu Yü spent many years as an itinerant scholar and later roamed the wilds of Szechwan searching for tea when war and chaos forced him south of the Yangtze. Mixed with the mass of refugees fleeing the bloodshed, Lu Yü found himself in the tea town of Huchou, the home of the Li family, and reunited with Li Yeh.

After the death of her parents, Li Yeh returned to her hometown as a young, unmarried woman to become a Taoist priestess and one of the foremost poets of the age. She lived near Lake T’ai and cut a striking figure against its dark, broad waters in her Taoist robes of deep yellow and a many-pleated cape of shimmering, translucent silk. She carried a bamboo staff of nine knots, and as she walked, her lotus crown of gauzy petals trembled with each step. Her exoticism, beauty, and allure were all heightened by her exceptional talent as a poet. She was often found at the K’ai-yüan Temple surrounded by admirers. Finding Li Yeh in Huchou, Lu Yü settled there, building a small hut on the banks of the T’iao-hsi, a stream within walking distance of the large imperial tea estates near the lake where Li Yeh lived. The familial ties between Lu Yü and Li Yeh were renewed and close, their visits with one another recorded in exchanges like the bitter-sweet poem by Li Yeh entitled, "Lying Ill above the Lake, Happy for the Visit of Lu Yü":
Long ago, the night you left,
the moon shone harsh as frost.
Now you return at a time of bitter mists.
We meet again; but as before, I lie here ill.
Wishing to speak, tears first fall.
Urged to drink T’ao Ch’ien’s wine,
I respond, chanting a poem by Hsieh Ling-yün.
Now, all at once, we’re perfectly drunk ...
What else could we possibly do?
Li Yeh’s teasing, unrestrained love poems made her a favorite among the highest literary circles and she soon attracted the attention of the emperor. Answering the imperial summons, she traveled to the capital Ch’ang’an by boat and litter under escort, a watchful but arrogant company of palace eunuchs sent to fetch her. She entered the inner palace, entertaining the emperor, composing poetry in his praise, chanting her poems to him, and accompanying her songs for the sovereign’s ear on the soft-sounding zither. All seemed well until Li Yeh astonished everyone by abruptly leaving the palace after a single month. Her parting was amiable for she left with presents from the emperor, but her release from the inner chambers of the palace was still a source of comment. Her strong streak of independence was called “masculine” by her admiring male contemporaries, and for most of her unconventional life, she was held in awe as a courtesan of the most extraordinary order.

Lu Yü was nothing if not a fair match for his foster sister. In due time, he received his own invitation to the imperial palace, but not because of his looks or personality. Lu Yü described himself as “ugly” and “biased and irascible and often subjective.” He stuttered and was distant and aloof, ignoring company, preferring to wander about chanting poetry and Buddhist scripture, “wailing and weeping” until people thought him mad. He had a deep, reclusive bent and enjoyed solitary study. Even as a teenager, Lu Yü showed great literary promise. Escaping the monastery, he impressed and gained the support of several important officials who recognized his innate talent and sponsored his education with literary collections, teachers, and academic opportunities. Later in life, he rose on a literary tide that granted him several titles, ranks, and positions, swelling even to the use of the title Imperial Instructor and an honored seat on the editorial board of an imperial compilation on rhyme. Lu Yü was an eclectic scholar and wrote on a variety of subjects, including political and social theory, genealogy, famous people in history, officialdom, and local histories.

As a Taoist, Lu Yü was deeply committed to the T’ang imperial house, honoring its ancestral line to Lao-tzu. When rebels defied the throne, Lu Yü expressed his outrage and loyalty by composing a series of poems called the Four Lamentations and The Obscuring of Heaven. To honor the triumph of the imperial forces over the rebel armies of An Lu-shan and Shih Ssu-ming in 763 A.D., he dedicated the casting of his bronze brazier to the victory. Lu Yü’s faith in the throne was severely tested when his foster sister Li Yeh receive another imperial summons. Ascending the august dragon throne, the emperor Te-tsung called for her to ornament the inner palace where she was inducted into serving his personal court. When Ch’ang’an was attacked in 783 A.D., the emperor fled, leaving Li Yeh and other palace ladies behind and at the mercy of the rebel general. When Te-tsung returned to the capital the next year, Li Yeh was denounced by eunuchs and charged with crimes against the state. The emperor learned that while in the rebel’s hands, Li Yeh wrote a song in praise of the general. It was understood that her poem was coerced from her by her captor but there was no assuaging the emperor’s anger. Her art, Li Yeh’s own poetry and music were used in evidence against her. Li Yeh was humiliated, tortured, and executed. If a lament was written to mourn Li Yeh, none survived. Lu Yü was shocked and saddened by the unimaginable loss of his sister and friend.

In addition to the priestess Li Yeh, Lu Yü counted among his Taoist friends the noted recluse Chang Chih-ho, who, like Lu himself, also lived in a hermitage on T’iao-hsi Stream. It is unknown if Lu Yü was celibate, but he never married; that fact alone brought him close to a priestly life and stature. The popular notion of the man was revealed in an image of Lu Yü. In the late T’ang, tea merchants commissioned glazed porcelain statues of Lu Yü that showed him seated, wearing a Taoist miter – a tripartite, lotus-form headdress -- and reading a handscroll. Given out along with miniature tea sets by the merchants to their favored customers, the ceramic figure was revered as the “Saint of Tea.”

Lu Yü studied Taoist alchemy and was remarkably current on all of the theoretical developments of the eighth century A.D. in the esoteric field. In 759 A.D., he visited Mount Mao, the founding site of Shang-ch’ing Taoism and repository of its most sacred scriptures. The Ch’a-ching (Book of Tea) and a lost work known as The Interpretation of Dreams were among his most overtly Taoist writings. Lu Yü’s profound Taoist experiences provided great personal insight into the intimate connections between tea and Taoism, notably the prescriptive use of tea in the preparation and service of the drink. All were manifest in the Book of Tea.

Hermit of Mount Sung

In the mind of Lu T’ung, the elder tea master Lu Yü and the Ch’a-ching were models of the art of tea and eremitic Taoism. By a quirk of fate, Lu T’ung was born in one of the most sacred of Taoist places. His hometown of Chiyüan, Honan was famous for Mount Wangwu, “mountain of the King’s chamber,” where in hoary antiquity the Yellow Emperor received the Scripture of the Divine Elixirs of the Nine Tripods. The hundreds of medicinal plants that grew abundantly on the slopes attracted physicians and apothecaries like the early T’ang alchemist Sun Ssu-mo who roamed Wangwu in search of herbal remedies. Ssu-ma Ch’eng-chen, the twelfth patriarch of the Shang-ch’ing Taoist sect, lived in tranquil seclusion on the sacred mountain in a palatial temple built for him in 724 A.D. by Emperor Hsüan-tsung. The sanctity of his surroundings imbued Lu T’ung with a deep sense of the spiritual, and Taoism was held by him all of his life -- his poetry and tea, reflections of its teachings.

Lu T’ung practiced the art of tea in Stone Village, a place near Mount Wangwu where he lived in a country villa with his wife and children. Originally from Fangyang, Loyang, he was a member of an aristocratic clan and belonged to landed gentry, his status and means allowed him a life devoted to family and the aesthetic ideal. He called himself "Master Jade Stream" (Yü-ch'uan tzu) after a local mountain spring, laying claim to the cosmic yin, the expressive Taoist force of water. While on pilgrimage to Mount Sung, one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism, he stayed to live in seclusion for years on Lesser Stone, a peak rising amidst the monastic sanctuaries that flourished on its slopes. There he pursued scholarship, poetry, and tea in a tranquility broken only by the visits of family and friends. It is a question as to what moved Lu T’ung to abandon his solitude. But he descended from his Taoist hermitage around 810 A.D. and entered the old city of Loyang.

Known as the Eastern Capital, Loyang was the official city and residence of the crown prince and a major market and entrepôt of the empire. Divided by the Lo River, Loyang boasted three great marketplaces strategically located in the city’s northern, eastern and western quadrants and accessible by an intricate network of canals and channels. In the seventh century A.D., “more than ten thousand boats from all over the country” crowded about the T’ung-chi Bridge near North Market. Just as the imperial capital Ch’ang’an in the west served as the trade terminus of the Silk Road, Loyang in the east funneled tribute grains, silk, and tea and all the exotic goods and materials of the abundant south to the western capital. Borne on the waters of the Grand Canal, the wealth of the empire streamed into bustling Loyang where the nobility, officials, and merchants shared in the riches, gathering in select neighborhoods near the southern gate and building great mansions and splendid gardens.

Lu T’ung arrived in Loyang a celebrity. He owed his fame in part to the lunar spectacle of 810 A.D. and to a long, intricate prose poem he entitled "Eclipse of the Moon" to commemorate a wintry scene of ice and cold when the midmonth moon and its radiant light were gradually dimmed:
... At first it seemed that a white lotus
Had floated up from the Dragon King’s palace.
But this night ... was not like other nights;
For now we saw a strange thing:
There was something eating its way inside the rim ...
Ring and disc crumbled away ...
Darkness smeared the whole sky like soot ...
The poet then told the ancient tale of “a demon frog that comes to eat the moon,” a monstrous creature lustful yet careless of evil, choosing only to devour luminous purity. Lu T’ung then addressed the horror directly:
With lips stretched wide and gaping jaws, you eat insatiably.
You have fed your disobedience by eating the eye of Heaven.
How long before the Lord on High ordains your execution?
[after A.C. Graham, trans.]
"Eclipse of the Moon" circulated widely, and Lu T’ung gained a reputation for fantastical images and literary bombast as well as derring-do. High officials at court were impressed, particularly those who believed the poem to be an attack on the eunuch clique clawing its way to power through the shadows of the imperial palace. Many thought that Heaven represented the emperor, and the bright moon symbolized the pure light of a loyal and incorruptible official who warned against the growing evil of the eunuchs and was utterly destroyed by the “demon frog.” The name Lu T’ung was on the lips of all the gossips. The famous writer of ancient-style prose, Han Yü, even wrote a poetic response to Lu T’ung, a move that earned both men the enmity of the eunuchs.

The power of the eunuchs was insidious and formidable. Only months before the eclipse saw the establishment of the Office of Privy Affairs, an inner palace department staffed by eunuchs who controlled the flow of documents from the bureaucrats of the outer palace to the emperor. The Office was headed by chief eunuchs who exercised the informal but nonetheless influential privilege of advising the throne. The might of the Office was reinforced by eunuch commanders of the palace armies stationed on alert just west of the capital. With their grip on the throne tightening, the eunuchs reveled in their success, becoming more abusive and voracious in their appetite for power, cowing all who opposed them.

No minister dared write what Lu T’ung had written. They had seen firsthand the vindictiveness of eunuchs who sent their enemies into exile or to death. The more timorous officials feared for Lu T’ung, but to the eunuchs Lu T’ung was no threat. Sipping tea in a hut on a faraway mountain, the hermit was beyond serious consideration or scrutiny. In the eunuchs’ eyes, he was merely an eccentric of means but of little consequence. Just let him step down from his mountain and come into the capital, however, and he would then answer for his sarcasm and their discomfort. Let him pray that day never comes. To harried courtiers, on the other hand, Lu T’ung’s boldness, his bravery, and untrammeled expression were heady stuff, particularly to scholars like Han Yü, officials anxious to relieve the trials of bureaucratic life with respites of poetry and tea, elegant pastimes at which Lu T’ung so effortlessly excelled.

Lu T’ung first met Han Yü when the official climbed Lesser Stone Peak where Lu lived in seclusion on Mount Sung. The sacred mountain lay just southeast of Loyang, and its sights and sanctuaries attracted the literati as a place of refuge from the hubbub of the city. In 807 A.D., Han Yü, who was originally from Loyang, had returned with his family to the secondary capital for a two-year appointment at the imperial university. He frequented Mount Sung, taking leave of light teaching duties to visit the famous hermits on the mountain. Finding Lu T’ung’s hut, Han stopped to pay his respects and stayed for tea. By 809 A.D., Han Yü and Lu T’ung were friends for some time. The two men also had a personal connection and were distantly related through Han Yü’s wife who came from an aristocratic family, the same prominent Lu clan of Fanyang to which Lu T’ung belonged. After the lunar event in late 810 A.D., Lu T’ung composed his poem on the “demon frog,” and Han Yü wrote a reply, “The Eclipse of the Moon: An Imitation of the Work by Lu T’ung.” Poetry was the mutual medium of expression for them, but their means were separate and particular: Lu T’ung the hermit critiqued palace politics from afar; Han Yü the official crossed superiors and eunuchs at close range. Han ran afoul of the throne and its eunuchs many times and was once exiled to the far south, a virtual sentence of death. The two men commiserated with one another over the state of affairs at court. From that time on, Lu T’ung was a member of Han Yü’s literary circle.

The Poet

Lu T’ung’s poetry was extreme, full of hyperbole and exaggeration, drawing on strange allusions and discordant prose. His baroque style, especially when directed at a target, was devastating or overwhelmingly flattering. He once met a poet named Ma Yi and afterwards sent the new friend a poem expressing his admiration:
There is only a single heart, spleen, and bones,
Peak-craggy, jag-jutting, sheer abyss-creviced
Knives and swords as the peaks and cliffs,
While flatlands let loose into heights like Mount K’un-lun.
No place for it in Heaven,
Earth cannot receive it,
Nor do sun and moon dare steal its splendor.
[after Stephen Owen, trans.]
Lu T’ung’s words and images were irrepressible -- ardently passionate, nearly inflammatory. When writing a poem, Lu visualized every detail, remembering and enhancing a scene with his vivid imagination. His memory was a sharp knife that he candidly confessed to wielding: “All my life I’ve made friends like a petty man, but I remember you right before my eyes as though actually seeing you.”

Reclusive in practice, effusive in company, Lu T’ung was an odd contradiction in personality that attracted admiration and made friends of fellow poets like Ma Yi and Han Yü. His affability was a useful thing, not only to himself but also to his friends. During his visits to the peak, Han Yü and Lu T’ung called on the famous recluse Li P’o, a man of great ability and integrity, who had been appointed to a government post but had refused to come out of retirement to assume official duties. Accompanied by Lu T’ung, Han Yü eventually convinced Li P’o to come down from the mountain and go into Loyang. Less certain was whether or not Han Yü might well have persuaded Lu T’ung to give up his life of seclusion. In any case, soon thereafter, Lu T’ung left Lesser Stone Peak for the eastern capital, but not before encountering a far more influential patron.

While still atop Mount Sung, Lu T’ung befriended Meng Chien, Advisor to the Heir Apparent. At the time, Meng Chien was in disgrace and in exile from court, sent to Loyang and demoted to the prince’s staff as punishment for victimizing some innocent in Ch’ang’an. But Meng Chien was a man of power and consequence. His usual duties at the imperial capital were as Vice Minister in the Ministry of Revenue and vice executive officer in the Censorate, no trifling offices by any means. Meng belonged to an influential family whose patriarch was the eminent physician Meng Shen of the early T’ang. The Meng clan boasted its own poet laureate, Meng Chiao, who was Meng Chien’s nephew and a major figure in Han Yü’s literary circle. Meng Chien was also Grand Master of Remonstrance, an imperial advisor whose duty was to correct and admonish the emperor on policy and matters of state. Because of Meng Chien’s position and closeness to the throne, the emperor Hsien-tsung dispensed his punishment with a light and lenient hand. From the imperial perspective, it was neither politic nor safe to let Meng Chien languish away far from Ch’ang’an: the throne sorely needed officials of caliber to give sound advice and carry out its reforms. Predictably, the exile was temporary and short. But while in Loyang, Meng Chien took his leisure, enjoying the pleasures of the city and lavishly entertaining local luminaries, including the eccentric poet Lu T’ung.

Lu T’ung’s literary prowess and unconventional manner impressed Meng Chien who, as everyone, cultivated relationships for political as well as personal reasons. Meng had read "Eclipse of the Moon" in copies that circulated throughout Loyang and Ch’ang’an and had rightly judged that friendship with its courageous author only enhanced his own stature among scholar officials and perhaps even with the emperor himself. Learning of Lu T’ung’s taste and connoisseurship, Meng Chien favored him with gifts of the most expensive and exclusive caked teas. As a man of wealth and resources, he could acquire any rare tea in the markets of the two capitals. But on one occasion, Meng Chien gave Lu T’ung a present of Yang-hsien, the Son of Heaven’s own tea. Made exclusively for the throne’s private use, no market carried it and no amount of gold or silver or copper cash could buy Yang-hsien tea. It could be acquired, however, but only direct from the hand of the emperor. Not a problem for the wily and savvy courtier. As imperial counselor, Meng Chien’s sage advice to his sovereign was often pried from him by gifts of rare imperial tea. More to the point, the emperor Hsien-tsung was not above bribing his own ministers to keep them happy and close at heel.

[[Part 2 of this essay can be read by clicking here.]]

Image Credits

FIGURES 1, 2: Taoist
Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322 A.D.), attrib.
Portrait of T’ao Hung-ching, 14th century A.D.
China: Yüan dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.)
Album leaf: ink and color on paper
36.7 x 30.4 cm.
National Palace Museum, Taipei
Taiwan, Republic of China

Artist unknown
Portrait of Lu Yü
Dynasty and date unknown
from a version of the Ch’a-ching
Woodblock printed book: ink on paper

FIGURE 4: Ch’a-ching, Book of Tea
Lu Yü, Ch’a-ching (Pai-ch’uan hsüeh-hai, ed., dated 1273 A.D.), 3 chuan
Sung dynasty
Woodblock printed book: ink on paper

FIGURE 5: Saint of Tea
Artist unknown
Saint of Tea, 10th century A.D.
Porcelain with pigments and glaze
H: 10 cm.
T’ang-hsien, Hopei