China is the birthplace of tea- it is the place where it was first discovered growing, the first place where it was used in cooking, as medicine, and as the much loved drink we know today. There is a concept in China called “Kung Fu”, or “Gong Fu”. Most may know it as applied to martial arts, but gong fu can be applied to anything. All Gong Fu means is to have the ability do something with great skill after much practice. Thus, you can have gong fu in cooking, in sewing, or in giving speeches. Besides martial arts, gong fu in China is know when applied to making tea. In China (for a lot of people) making tea is an art that must be learned over time. There are many special tools needed to make the perfect infusion, each with very specific and important uses. Today I’d like to talk about one of these items used in the tea art of China, or in “gong fu cha” – making tea with skill- and how it can help us have an appropriate attitude in regards to food and water. I will note that this process applies only to loose leaf tea.
Traditionally, the first steeping of tea is discarded, this first steeping is usually known as the tea rinse or tea wash. The purpose for doing this is mainly to allow the leaves a chance to begin to open up and absorb water. Many teas are tightly rolled or curled and this initial steeping allows them to start unfurling and thus release their full flavor. The rinse also allows any “tea dust” or small leaves to be poured away before drinking. Some believe that this process also helps to get rid of impurities or pesticides in the tea, but that is not really a scientifically viable belief.
So what is done with the first steeping if one is not to drink it? It is poured away- often times on a little unglazed clay figure called a “tea pet”. It is unknown when tea pets first began to be made and used but they were originally made from the same clay as tea pots. A famous Chinese clay is called Yixing, or “purple sand clay”. Tea pots made from this clay are very coveted in “true tea” culture communities. With proper care and use, they gain more and more value over time. Since these teapots are unglazed and porous, the oils from the teas are absorbed into the clay. Over time this improves the flavor of the teas brewed in them and actually polishes the appearance of the teapot. Usually only one family of tea is used in Yixing teapots as to not mix the flavors.
The true history of tea pets is largely unknown because it was not recorded- but people today use them in a couple different ways. Good luck charms are a big deal in Asian cultures, there are a myriad of good luck symbols and figures everywhere in their daily lives. Thus, many tea pets are made in the likeness of good luck figures and people use them to invoke good luck into their homes. Specific symbols are believed to bring specific kinds of goods such as health, wealth, or fertility so people can choose to use different tea pets depending on what they are wishing for. Others use tea pets just for fun, it’s more interesting to pour the first steeping on a cute figure instead of just down the sink. This is why other tea pets are made into the Chinese zodiac signs or simply into some other cute image.
However, some believe that the clay originally used to make tea pets was so precious that people wouldn’t have wasted it on figures just for fun. A deeper view of tea pets is that they were used as a thank you offering to the earth. The idea is that the earth gives us tea and so we pour our tea back into the figure made of earth as a symbolic “sacrifice” of thanks. (The Japanese tea ceremony has a special moment to give thanks for everything that had to happen in order to be able to enjoy the particular moment. This involves simply lifting the tea bowl to the forehead and giving a slight bow.) This thanksgiving view on tea pets is much more complex and is how I like to use tea pets. Yet, as a Christian, I know that the earth cannot produce anything on its own but is dependent on God’s power to make anything grow. For this reason, I chose my tea pet to be a symbol of Christ, specifically the sacrificial lamb. Tea is one of my favorite things to enjoy and so it only seems appropriate to me to thank God for allowing it to grow on planet earth. I’ll be sure to clarify that God is not in the clay figure, but only serves as a symbol that points to Him. Christ sacrificed His life for me so that I can enjoy a life free from the bondage of sin and full of His life and blessings, the least I could do is remember to thank Him for the things I enjoy in this life.
This particular tea pet was custom made for me by an artist (Soubie Pizzuti), it is a rendition of the 1640 painting called Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbaran. It is one of my favorite paintings of all time as it is a somber reminder of what Christ endured out of love for us despite being 100% innocent. We have a print of this painting in our living room as a constant reminder not only of Christ’s sacrifice but of all the animal lives taken in order to feed us (you can read more about my view of animals as food on my post A Christian View on Animals as Food).
You do not have to have a tea pet (or even like tea :O) to remember to give thanks to God whenever you eat and drink. Most Christians pray before they eat as a way of giving thanks to God for their food but it is easy to fall into the habit of just reciting a string of memorized lines. Friends, food and water are life giving! We cannot survive without them and thus we cannot take the subject lightly. Humanity will forever work in strife to get their food- floods, droughts, thorns, thistles, and insects make it hard to grow food. This, as many other struggles on this earth began in Genesis- after Adam ate from the forbidden tree, God put a curse on the earth which would cause man to toil in sweat in order to eat (Gen 3:19). We must be grateful for all the effort and of those involved in bringing the food and drink to the table.
Meal time puts all of humanity on the same level; rich or poor, young or old, you will die if you do not have food and water. It doesn’t matter if you eat on a paper plate or on a silver one, you need the same nourishment as your neighbor and a family on the other side of the world in China. People like to elevate themselves for many things including skills, money, or their beauty, but eating food puts them on the same humble plane of dependence as everyone else. If you eat and drink you are dependent. You are dependent on the farmers who plant the food, on the factory workers who package it, on the truck driver that takes it to your local supermarket, on the produce worker putting that food on the shelves, on the person who cooks it, and on God who allows all those things to happen.
Life began in a garden- it is perhaps one of the most important places in the world. Food and water allows people to gather together, to enjoy flavors, and to experience God’s creation at such a deep level that we consume it. What we eat and drink becomes part of us, it is how God nourishes us through His creation. Thinking about it, this makes the atrocities being committed in the big food industries a much graver problem than we think. The improper stewardship, destruction, exploitation of resources, and the inhumane treatment of animals is not just a disturbing reality- it is a perversion of God’s good creation.
Therefore, our first steeping of tea needs to be given to God. For you, this may look like taking the time to not only pray for having food itself, but praying for all of those that God put in the way between you and the food on your plate, such as the cook in a restaurant. It can be considering and reflecting on the lives of the factory workers or artists who designed and made the plate that holds your food. Another way of showing your gratitude can be to volunteer at places that work towards ending world hunger and getting clean water sources to those who need it (Here is a great organization my family and I like to volunteer at). Food and water are essential to any kind of human flourishing- without it, a person cannot focus on working or studying because their body will literally be unable to do so.
Strive to see the deep interconnectedness we share with all humans through food and water. Pray for God to show you His deep love for you through what you eat and drink. Contemplate how we will be nourished without strife at the end of time when the Genesis curse is lifted. Remember to SAY thank you to those who feed you! What will your first steeping look like? Who will you pour it over?
(If you’re interested in tea check out my website Camellia’s Treaty )