Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The history of Chinese thought

To understand Chinese tea culture well, it's also interesting to get to know the broader culture of Chinese thought. I guess most people who drink gongfu cha have some knowledge of Chinese philosphies, but maybe you'll still find this little article interesting. It took me half a year of slow reading to finish 'Histoire de la pensée chinoise" (see the title of this post for the translation) by Anne Cheng. She's the daughter of François Cheng, a famous Chinese writer exiled to France, and she's also a professor at the College de France. So, even though this book isn't directly about tea, I will try to summarize it and try to find how it can be applied to tea!
Chinese thought has developed over 3000 years and is quite complex, as one can imagine for such a long culture in such a big land! There are 3 main doctrines: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. But the content of each of them has evolved with time, circumstances and with the authors writing about them. The popularity of these doctrines has also varied with time. Sometimes they would fight each other and sometimes they would find common ground. So, I'm going to simplify and try to extract some key thoughts and I apologize in advance for my oversimplifications and errors.

1. Confucius (551-479 BC)
He's the earliest Chinese thinker who laid the groundwork for the Chinese philosophers to come. A little bit like LuYu with his Cha Jing (the book of tea), Confucius is the sage that all the thinkers who have come after him are quoting, interpreting. Sometimes they try to clarify his thoughts, sometimes they build on it and sometimes they also oppose him. But he's almost there and for every question, before trying to find your own answer, one would first wonder "What would Confucius think?"
One of the main contribution of Confucius to Chinese culture is his emphasis on learning. He thinks that man has the power to improve through learning from others. That's why, in Taiwan, there's a Confucius Day on September 28th, that is known as teacher's day!

In order to learn, one must respect the person taking his time and effort to teach. So, it's quite natural that Confucius would place emphasis on respecting parents, teachers and people with authority/power. But this respect must also be earned by these people and they must teach and rule with the best interest of their children/students/citizens in mind. 
And this respect also comes alive in traditions, ceremonies that help create harmony between the different groups in the family, in an organization or in a country.     
2. The Dao (the way) by Zhuangzi and Laozi
This is the most poetic concept and it's apt to be reinterpreted by each generation. For me, the Dao is life symbolized by the flow in a river. It's no use to fight to hard against nature and one's nature. Life will end no matter what. The best way to go with the flow is to know yourself, because it will let you prosper with a minimum of action. Instead of fighting the forces around you, use them to your own advantage, find your strength in the energy inside and around you. Act by not acting.

A practical application of this thought is, for instance, to turn your hobby or your interest into your job, because like this you'll enjoy working and won't even realize you're working! Or, if you like tea, try to find a work environment that will let you enjoy tea frequently. Here, for instance, the teleworking enforced by many organizations because of the virus can be seen as a chance to spend more time at home where it's easier to brew gongfu tea than in the office!
The Dao is also a reaction to the scholarly knowledge promoted by Confucianism. In the Dao, practical know-how becomes almost an instinct. One knows and practices something so well that it becomes natural, it flows! So, maybe it's not Taoism is opposed to Confucianism, but that it sees real knowledge as what you have made your own and what you master so well that you don't have to think when you execute it. This kind of know-how comes from practice and it's also the goal of a tea brewer to be able to understand all the parameters of brewing that he can brew and take them all into account in an subconscious way.

The Dao is very modern in the sense that it tries to make us think in terms of paradoxes (ex: act by not acting), kind of out of the box thinking. It's a very creative process. And it also focuses a lot on understanding how energy (trends) can't be fought directly, but must be influenced or used. This thought also aims at finding harmony by letting people follow their heart as long as they don't harm others. 
3. Buddhism

Originally from India, this school of thought started entering China in the first century AC and was gradually accepted and transformed into a local tradition by the Tang dynasty (7th to 9th century). There, it has become know as Chan (or zen) Buddhism. Its goal is to free the mind and find peace through silent meditation. 

Monks practicing Buddhism found a great interest in tea, because, unlike wine, it didn't cloud their mind and helped them stay awake during early and long periods of meditation. 
These 3 doctrines have undergone a lot of criticism and change in the last thousand years, but they have shaped public thought for a long, long time, until China's last dynasty fell in 1911 and modern, western ideas entered the public arena. Nowadays, these 3 doctrines are almost blended into one big Chinese thought and actually, it's OK, because Chinese thinkers have often found their inspiration in more than just one school of thought. 

It's like with Gongfu tea! You first learn the basics, the concepts from a master (Confucianism). Then you practice, experiment what works best until you can make your tea in the simplest, most natural way possible (Taoism). And the best way to enjoy and feel the taste of tea is to be very calm up to a point where tea brewing becomes almost like meditation (Buddhism). And that's one of the reasons why it is interesting to study the history of Chinese thought! 

1 comment:

le disciple du thé said...

Bonjour Stéphane,
Merci pour cet article très intéressant, ta façon de faire relation avec le thé et toujours pour moi source d'inspiration ! Et je confirme, ayant changer de profession et pouvant déguster le thé plus aisément, le plaisir est décuplé. J'ai commandé ce livre !