They were looking for unicorns

This title comes from an essay by Umberto Eco, the famous Italian writer (among many, many, many other things).
In it,  he argued that when two different cultures meet, there are 5 solutions: conquest (either to make them like us or to destroy them), cultural looting, exchange, exoticism or the false identification. Obviously, the reality is usually more complex and you usually end up with a mix of them.

I can hear you boiling and wondering what is the link between Umberto Eco and tea (unless I missed something he never wrote anything about tea) but to know the answer, you will have as usual to bear a little more with me.

Camellia sinensis in Köhler’s Medicinal Plants

Tea is said to have been discovered by Shennong when he tasted hundred of herbs to see if they had any medical value. The result is said to be compiled in The Classic of Herbal Medicine. Tea being said to be efficient against a great number of poisoned herbs.

Tea appeared quite often in medical books or under most lists like a medicinal plant. For example, in 1887, Franz Eugen Köhler published Kohler’s Medicinal Plants in 3 volumes and guess what plant was in it? Yes, Camellia sinensis.

I am sure you begin to see a pattern here and perhaps see where I am heading.
Why do I say that? It is just because I noticed a trend of false identification in tea, one that has been going for a long time now and I think that if I look at some old ads, it was there even before my time.

Ad by the Tea Council (thanks to @scandaloustea for this ad)

If you read the paragraphs above, you can see that this trend has its roots in how the tea was said to be discovered; how it was first perceived and how it was first sent to and distributed in Europe (in private chests by seamen trying to improve their income and then distributed as a pharmaceutical drug).

False identification means that we explore and discover the world based on what we read about it and I would go as far as saying what we expect to find in it.
Tea was considered from the beginning as a medical herb and in an era where obsessed with well-being (which reveals something else about us too) this shows as tea is now said to have all kind of virtues. I won’t bother you with a list of all of them as I would probably forget a lot of them.
Therefore, we are expecting a lot of tea leave and we are interpreting everything about it with this focus in mind.

Aren’t we trying too hard to find something in tea?
Umberto Eco concluded his essay by saying that instead of focusing on finding unicorns, we should perhaps try to understand the nature, the habits and language of the dragons.
Perhaps we should stop trying to find anything in tea and just “listen” to it, enjoy it and let it speak to our tastes and our soul.
After all, traditional Chinese and Japanese tea drinking methods are all about water, leaves,  simplicity and nothing more.
I think there is something that the Long and the Nihon no ryū are trying to tell us.


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