It is a great honour and pleasure to introduce Green Gold; the Empire of Tea, which I wrote with my mother Iris Macfarlane, to a Japanese audience. Many of my books have been translated into Japanese, but in some ways this is the most appropriate book for Japanese readers since tea and Japan are so deeply connected.
I am the son of a tea planter. My father worked in Assam in north-eastern India, so my life, as well as that of my mother, who lived for nearly twenty years on a tea estate, has been intimately bound up with tea. Yet, strangely enough, it was not until I visited Japan and studied Japanese history and culture that I really became interested in tea or to understand certain aspects of its dramatic role in world history. I would like to mention four ways in which my encounter with Japan, which will be fully documented in my forthcoming book Japan Through the Looking Glass (Profile Books, 2007) has helped me to see tea more clearly.
The first is in relation to health. In 1994, when I was trying to understand what it was that allowed Japan to be relatively free from many dangerous water-borne diseases from the fourteenth century, and England to avoid the almost universal rise in such diseases as its cities grew rapidly in the later eighteenth century, it was Japan that provided the vital clue. I read parts of the treatise by the monk Eisai, written in the twelfth century when he introduced powdered green tea and Rinzai Zen Buddhism into Japan. In his two-volume work called Kissa-yojo-ki, or Notes on the curative effects of tea, he explained how there was some medicinal property in the bitter substance in tea which helped to cure stomach troubles.
I took this clue and looked at the constituents of tea. I found that most of the solids in tea are tea tannin. These are known to chemists as phenolics and they kill the germs of dysentery, typhoid and cholera. So not only the boiling of the water to make tea but the chemicals in tea, protected drinkers from serious water-borne diseases. Later in my work, it was primarily Japanese research on the medical effects of tea which enabled me to discover many of the other consequences of tea drinking on human health. I discovered that certain forms of cancer, heart disease, strokes, teeth decay, eye-sight problems and many other areas (as described in chapter 13 of this book and on the website) were reduced in severity by tea.
Japan made me realize that the simple leaf, which I had taken for granted, contained within it the most important medical substance on earth, more important as a life saver than penicilin, quinine, ginseng or any other medicine. The fact that in terms of volume, tea is the most consumed substance on earth after air and water, made its effect immense. The Chinese and Japanese text books from Eisai onwards recognized this, but this knowledge has been largely forgotten in the west until I accidentally discovered it through my contact with Japan. Without tea, huge cities and relatively health working populations, both of which were the necessary basis for the first industrial revolution, could not have been maintained as the crowding and polluted water would normally have led to very high death rates. Our modern industrial world was only made possible by tea.
At the time that I was trying to solve the puzzle of how modern industrialism emerged, my wife and I were building a Japanese-style tea house in our garden near Cambridge in England. As we read about the philosophy of tea houses and gardens, and had the privilege of participating in our first tea ceremonies in Japan and in our English tea house, the Japanese-inspired experiences opened up another area which I had not thought about before. I became aware of the ritual or ceremonial importance of tea.
I had often attended British ‘tea parties’ of course, but they are purely social occasions and the etiquette is fairly limited. In particular the brewing and serving of the tea is not very elaborate. Participating in Japanese tea ceremonies I came to realize how the fact that, unlike coffee, wine or other drinks, tea has to be left to stand for some time, and one has to wait while it is being prepared, has had a profound effect. The slowness of making tea allows humans to elaborate a great deal of formal, ceremonial, behaviour around the process. A Japanese audience will know of the intricate and complex arrangement and use of objects, of the little movements, sounds, words which mean so much. For an outsider like myself, the whole occasion feels like a religious ritual. Yet I was constantly assured that there is no God or gods present, just the solemnity and community of the occasion.
I began to understand how a simple drink like tea could become a central unifying bond in the social, economic and political life of a great nation like Japan. I saw how it takes people out of their daily pressurized existence into a moment of calm, quiet, contemplation. I began to feel how it created a momentary stillness, a sense of the timeless and infinite, of equality and a deep sense of shared intimacy even between strangers.
So the Japanese tea ceremony which is the most stylized and exquisite of all such elaborations on serving a food or drink, made me aware that in other cultures also, whether Russian, Turkish, British, tea acted as a social vehicle, having unexpected effects on class, gender and age relations. The introduction of tea drinking, I began to see, caused a social revolution in eighteenth century Britain, as it had done in late medieval Japan. Without the exaggerated form which I was fortunate to experience in Japan, I doubt whether I would have seen any of this.
I also began to realize through a study of the tea house, tea ceramics and tea utensils, the way in which tea culture has had a vast effect on the aesthetic values of a civilization. The emergence of the new Buddhist sects, of the purified and minimal aesthetics of late medieval Japanese art and of widespread tea drinking were connected. I saw that the passion for tea, for haiku and waka, for exquisite pottery, for simple architecture, were all linked. This realization in turn helped me to see that in my own country of England, tea had similar, if not such obvious, effects.
When tea became popular in the early eighteenth century it had a huge effect in changing the nature and time of meals, on pottery (especially that of the firm of Wedgewood), on various crafts, particular silver-smithing and furniture making, on poetry and the other arts. The famous tea gardens of London, where the music of Handel, the poetry of Pope, and the philosophy of the early Enlightenment mingled with tea began to appeal to me more, and to be more deeply understandable. So again, spreading out from my experience in Japan, I began to see how tea changed people’s sense of shape, form and function, and their perception of the beautiful.
One of the strongest influences on my growing understanding of the role of tea in art and thought was the work of Edward Morse, who in his books on Japanese Homes and their Surroundings, and Japan Day by Day, gave so many hints of the effects of tea. Morse was a great expert on tea bowls and wrote the standard work on Japanese ceramics. He and other visitors also noticed something which set me thinking.
A number of western visitors noticed the prodigiously hard work of the Japanese in their tiny rice fields and in many other aspects of their daily lives. Living on a very simple diet of vegetables and a tiny amount of fish, they seemed to have superhuman strength to produce a living from a very crowded area of relatively infertile and rocky land. The visitors noted that the Japanese diet was supplemented by constant drinking of small cups of tea. After a few sips of tea, a Japanese man or woman went back to the heavy lifting, pushing, hoeing and endless back-breaking work which continue hour after hour. As I explored the chemical contents of tea I began to realize that among its more than five hundred chemical components, many of them still little understood, tea contains substances which contribute very positively to the human ability to concentrate, remember and to co-ordinate the muscles of the body.
Eisai as a founder of zen had been interested in this since he had realized that tea had this effect. One cup of green tea, the zen masters said, was equal to an hour of meditation in its effect in clearing the mind and enabling it to see into infinity. It also helped when people became fatigued or strained in their thought. As I sipped tea in the exquisite temples and shrines in Kyoto, Kamakura, Nikko and elsewhere in Japan, I experienced this clarification and refreshment. I was not surprised to learn later that modern research has shown that if you compare people who are set various tasks such as responding to signals, using computers, watching screens, the tea drinkers on average do about twenty per cent better than those who drink water or a caffeine drink. Tea helps people to associate faster, remember more, have greater stamina and concentrate better. Nowadays I recommend it to my students before their exams, for it also increases self-confidence and reduces anxiety.
Studies on the physiological effects of tea are equally dramatic. There is something in the tea which helps the muscles to work better, that reduces tiredness and that gives energy. As a result, as many will affirm, tea makes an enormous difference to the ability to undergo strenuous efforts, particularly for those who are cold and ill-fed. I first noted this in relation to Japanese labourers in the rice field, so it was natural to extend this to China, where tea had similar effects.
It was only later that I realized that his stimulating, yet calming, reviving yet relaxing, effect was equally important in western civilization. In the terrible battles of the First World War, the British soldiers in the trenches were sustained by tea. In the forest battles of the Second World War, the troops depended heavily on tea to keep them going. Likewise, in the appalling factories and mines of nineteenth century Britain, the widespread use of tea was essential. Long hours tending a complex cotton machine, or working underground in a coal mine, were made bearable by tea breaks. And the lapses of concentration which could so easily lead to a severed arm or a pit collapse were made less likely.
I concluded that tea drinking has had a huge economic impact on the work force of many societies. In Japan it made possible the agricultural revolution associated with intensive rice cultivation from the sixteenth century onwards and sustained arguably the hardest working population in the world. In Britain tea provided an essential support for the grinding labour which lay behind the first industrial revolution in history.
Confucius is reported to have said that it would not be a bird that discovered air, or a fish water. So it was unlikely that a tea-planter’s son and widow would have discovered the enormous extent and force of the ‘Empire of Tea’. That we did so, and particularly that we noticed the dramatic medical, ceremonial, aesthetic and economic effects which have hitherto not been fully appreciated, was an accident. The discovery was made possible by my encounter with Japan, which I first visited in 1990 and have visited five times since.
Trying to understand Japanese civilization over the last two thousand years, which has led to my forthcoming book, let me again and again to tea. That in turn made me see what had been invisible because it surrounds me, namely the role of tea in the two great tea-drinking islands, Japan and Britain. We are united by tea and I hope that this book will give you a little more understanding of how nowadays the whole world has become part of the Empire of Tea. A small plant in the remote Eastern Himalayas has conquered the world and everything has been changed by its success.