This last Friday I attended Professor Victor Mair’s lecture at the University of Washington, hosted by our wonderful Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM). Mair is a linguist and tea historian. During his time living in Nepal he became acquainted with Darjeeling and other Indian style teas, and noticed the integral role of our favorite plant in Nepali daily life. He went on to say this inspired him, along with the prevalence myth and legend surrounding tea in China, to research what he calls the “True History of Tea”.
The lecture Mair presented was centered around the Belitung shipwreck, an archeological site which has been dated to around the mid 9th century, or China’s Tang Dynasty period. According to Mair, the ship has been identified as an Arabian dhow, assumably bound for Persia and the Arabic world with a load of porcelain ware when it sank to the bottom of the sea.
The interesting bit for tea geeks lights up when you are told that the Arabic world had yet to drink tea, and that tea historians believe a very small minority was imbibing our favorite plant at the time the ship is believed to have sunk. So the bowls which look like tea bowls were actually intended, to the best of our knowledge, to be regular, non-tea bowls.
However, Mair made an interesting discovery when he visited the warehouse where the German archeologists are keeping their historically significant spoils. A few bowls had what at first glance appears to be writing. Three or so (pictured during lecture) had symbols that appeared Arabic, and one Chinese. The Arabic ones, pictures of which I don’t have, can be explained by their modern counterparts as follows:
They were essentially a part of the Far East’s long history of mimicking the world’s non-sinic languages and orthographies with little or no intent to derive any meaning. They were pictures that resembled Arabic because, I assume, the artisans knew the destination of the wares they were creating and wanted to ‘throw those Arabs an orthographic bone’.
The significant discovery, though, was the bowl with Chinese characters. Without getting too detailed, on the bowl was written in Buddhist vernacular (not the standard Classical language of the time) which means ‘tea bowl’. [Tidbit: the word they used for tea was actually the predecessor to the modern ‘cha’ (茶 tea), a character 荼 meaning 'bitter herb', containing an extra stroke, and pronounced ‘tu’ in modern Mandarin.] According to Mair, this is good evidence that Buddhist monks were drinking tea at the time, and it was perhaps a plant only consumed by monks.
Special Thanks to: