Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut is currently hosting an exhibit called Chado: The Way of Tea through Nov. 30 in its College of East Asian Studies Gallery. The exhibit’s focus is on tea’s origins, the medieval period in China, Japan and Korea and how tea’s role evolved in East Asian society.
“What most people take away from the exhibit is how remarkable the results of this plant are,” said Exhibit Curator Stephen Morrell. “It explores tea’s impact on cultures.”
The exhibit shows how Camellia sinensis was discovered by Chinese emperor Shennong in 2737 BCE in southeast China and originally used as a medicinal plant; and how its use later spread north and west.
Tea’s popularity picked up momentum as Buddhism became established in China. It became used as a beverage and a healthy alternative to alcohol. Morrell spoke of how tea complements Buddhist practices, “Buddhism cultivates presence of mind—your ability to live in this moment. This ritual of making and serving tea became an extension of the practice.” Cha Dao means “the way of tea,” and relates to tea as an extension of spiritual practice.
Morrell went on to say that the publication of the first known publication about tea, Cha Ching, created by Lu Yu in 760 CE, further bolstered awareness about tea. The text covered preparation methods, different utensils, where tea was grown, the importance of water quality, etc. “That really caught the attention of the imperial family, and from that point on, tea really took off and became a very significant commodity,” Morrell said of the Tang dynasty (618-906) through the Song dynasty (960-1127).
The exhibit also covers how tea spread to Japan, initially to the aristocracy and warrior class. Then with the publication of KissaYōjōki (Drinking Tea for Health) by Japanese Buddhist monk Myoan Eisai in 1214, tea drinking spread to the masses.
Several artifacts used in ancient tea preparation have been loaned to the university for the exhibit, such as tea pots, tea caddies, tea scoops and classic Chinese, Japanese and Korean bowls, water vessels, bamboo ware, incense containers and more. There are also photographs covering tea plantations and different types of tea processing.
Tea samples are offered at the exhibit’s programs, the next of which is Sung Poetry and Tea with Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Ao Wang and Curator Stephen Morrell, Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 4:30 p.m.
Morrell plans to curate additional tea related exhibits at Wesleyan University in the future.