A good cup of tea requires harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Man (the Three Domains or San Cai in traditional Chinese culture). In fact, the entire idea of goodness can be defined as the harmony between these domains. Every traditional Chinese artform and aspect of life is steeped in this concept, but perhaps most perfectly in tea culture.
Lorenzo Barbieri and Vivian Zhang are the founders of Eastern Leaves, a grower and distributor of Chinese fine tea. “Being Italian,” says Barbieri, “I’ve had to learn about the role of San Cai in tea. But because Vivian is Chinese, she says it’s just something that lives inside her.”
For 5,000 years, Chinese culture developed with an ingrained sense of connectivity and harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Man. Yet much of this wisdom has been lost since the Chinese communist regime has always promoted struggle with Heaven, Earth, and Man. The concept of harmony among the three domains hasn’t disappeared, however. It’s built into the soul and DNA of the Chinese people, even if many have forgotten it.
When it comes to tea, farmers must harmonize their efforts with the cycles of heaven to grow and harvest the leaves from the earth. The potter needs a peaceful heart to produce an inviting vessel made of clay. The preparation and brewing require harmony between the brewer and the elements involved—tea, water, and pottery—to create the best aroma and perfect flavour. Finally, if the drinker has a calm heart and clear mind, he or she can find the inner harmony to appreciate the tea’s long journey and experience a brief moment of transcendence.
Within tea culture, there are many layers of meaning to the concept of harmony between Heaven, Earth, and Man, just as there are layers of flavour in a good cup of tea and layers of enjoyment when drinking it. “It’s a really personal experience,” says Barbieri.
Connected to the land and history
Eastern Leaves has two headquarters, a tea shop in Barbieri’s homeland of Italy and a farm in Zhang’s homeland of China. In normal years, they travel back and forth frequently, but they haven’t been able to return to China since 2020 because of travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had to supervise the last two harvests remotely from their Italian home, and the disconnection from their land has challenged them in ways they never expected.
But in many ways, their love for that wild mountain covered in tea trees has never been stronger. “For me, when I’m in Italy, tea brings me back to the mountains of China,” Barbieri says. Their Yunnan tea farm, however, isn’t like others. In fact, it’s much more of a forest than a farm. The trees have grown wild on the mountain for as long as anyone can remember. Most of them are 300–500 years old, and the couple’s goal is to interfere as little as possible with the natural life cycle and ecology of the forest. This approach to farming distinguishes Eastern Leaves from other companies.
The result is an incredibly rich collection of organic teas grown and harvested in harmony with Heaven and Earth. Barbieri and Zhang don’t even call themselves farmers, preferring the term “wild forest keepers.” “One day we dared to dream,” says Barbieri. “Our hearts fell in love with the ancient, with the solid as well as the ephemeral, with history and culture, stewardship and preservation.”
The joy of ritual
“I’m not a person who does things just for the ritual,” Barbieri says. “But once I learn to do something well, I understand how much benefit the ritual brings to my life.”
Different teas prefer particular pots, various temperatures of water, certain steeping times, and are even particular about the manner in which they get poured into cups. It can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s the tea’s way of encouraging people to just take their time and be mindful. Tea likes routine, and our minds like it too. By preparing the same tea repeatedly in the same manner, we train ourselves and deepen our connection to it. In time, the process becomes a ritual, and through ritual, our minds calm down. This then increases our sense of harmony and our ability to appreciate the full experience.
“When I make tea, the instruments are always in the same place. This lets me focus on the subtle gestures in each step, and it lets me focus on the guests and their experience,” Barbieri says.
Tea culture gives people an opportunity to turn the simple actions of making tea into art, and this is something that you can also experience by incorporating a bit of mindfulness. Scoop the tea into the pot. Slowly pour in the water. Wait patiently while sitting alone in contemplation or with guests in conversation. When the tea is ready, fill the cup, take in the aroma, and savour that first sip—that moment will never come again.
Rushing to prepare tea or drinking big gulps depletes the experience. The tea has its own nature—it doesn’t simply want to be consumed. It wants to be savoured, but this takes more time and effort. Surprisingly though, not much more. It only takes a little more preparation time to arrange the tea set, bring the kettle to the table, put everything in its place, and then to just take one extra breath before sitting down and beginning to drink.
There are numerous online videos on how to prepare tea, and it’s worth watching a few to get the basics, but the real art of enjoying tea is in finding an individual ritual and discovering the process that can bring you into greater harmony with Heaven, Earth, and Man.