Book Review by Nathan Kaehler, MA, LAc
The Spirit of Tea by Frank Hadley Murphy
Sherman Asher Publishing, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2008, 126 pages
Among the thousands of titles on the world’s favorite beverage (outside water), many of which have
been added in the past few years due to tea’s rising popularity in the U.S., this small book is probably
unique. There are many good reads on tea, beginning with the world’s first monograph on it,
Yu Lu’s Classic of Tea written in the late 700’s AD (English translation by Francis Ross Carpenter—
Little, Brown 1974: EccoPress, 1995). Of the recent informative-style books, I would recommend
Tea: Aromas and Flavors Around the World (Lydia Gautier, Chronicle Books, 2005) for its photos,
international history and accessible visual overviews of teas, tasting and recipes. But if I were to
select a tea book as heirloom, it would be "The Spirit of Tea".
Like nothing I’ve read, this book imparts a connection to the transcendent aspects of preparing and drinking tea—the experiences it can create within our bodies, its ability to nurture us and our relationships, and especially its mystical qualities. He approaches tea with informal reverence integrated with practical discussion of the six main types of Chinese tea, historical anecdotes, and poetry—both Murphy’s and other poets, stretching back through the centuries.
Surprises include, for example, discussion of tea’s relationship to the trigrams of the I-Ching, and the myths and realities of Pu-erh (a tea from Yunnan province in China whose leaf is from the large Dei-Yeh variety; it is the staple tea of the Manchurians, Mongolians and Tibetans). Still more surprising, a very complex discussion of the difficulties that may be associated with drinking tea!
Among my favorite pages is an English translation of the poetic names of 100 winning teas in the National Tea Competition in Hang Zhou, China. These names, as in so much of Hadley’s book, describe the experience of tea within our body, in addition to its taste. Some of my favorite names from this list: “Celestial Lake of Jade Bamboo”, “Reflections of the Phoenix” , “Song of the Ivory Butterfly , “Blushing Lotus” and “Shrine of the Pale Green Tortoise.”
Samples from the book:
“Understand if tea is going to speak to you, if tea is going to enter your heart and change your life, it will do so no matter how it is packaged, processed, or presented, no matter where it is from, how old it is, or how it is brewed.”
“Tea seeks to be rooted through us and thus assists us to ground. It is a natural desire of all plants,whose home is the earth to
bring us there.”
“Once I prayed over the leaves, holding my hands aloft in a final gesture of blessing and thanks, I watched the field open to reveal the clear red liquor of the tea. To my amazement, three white cranes emerged from the bubbles around the edge of the glass…No wonder this tea retrieves my soul, I mused, when cranes fly in from Yunnan and bring with them gifts from the mother trees.”
Both sophisticated and unpretentious, this book is likely (for anyone who likes tea) to bring joy.