Sandra's Reviews > The Book of Tea

The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura
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Feb 24, 2014

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bookshelves: non-fiction, asian-literature, in-english, e-books, read-in-2014
Read from February 19 to 24, 2014

I really don't know how to rate this book. It is much more than a book about tea, also more than the Zennism and Taoism Okakura links with it. The book is an odd mix of a history lesson about tea and these religions, propaganda for the Eastern way, and interesting quotes. And, perhaps most importantly, a guide on how to fail in intercultural communication.

Though this book was released about a century ago and things have changed since then, the passages where Okakura discusses the Western view about the East are still quite relevant. He was clearly not a big fan:

"He [the average Westerner] was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indilged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields."

Continuing on that line of thought, he often mentions that he prefers the Eastern way to the Western way of thinking. Most of his frustration seems to come from the fact that the West doesn't even try to understand:

"When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East? We Asiatics are often appalled by the curious web of facts and fancies which has been woven concerning us. We are pictured as living on the perfume of the lotus, if not on mice and cockroaches. It is either impotent fanaticism or else abject voluptuousness. Indian spirituality has been derided as ignorance, Chinese sobriety as stupidity, Japanese patriotism as the result of fatalism. It has been said that we are less sensible to pain and wounds on account of the callousness of our nervous organisation!"

Yes, the West has been very good in coming up with different stories about the East/Orient, making it a sort of propaganda that helps their own cause (of justifying colonialism amongst other things), but not so much the people living in these respective countries. Any attempt to change this opinion seems fruitless: "Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavourable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive."

These and many more similar quotes can be found in this book. This book would be interesting to research in the light of Postcolonial Theory (I wish I'd known about this book last year, when I took a PT course), but overall the sentiments in this book seem to be quite relevant for today's society as well. It's a reminder that in order for intercultural communication to work, we need to be tolerant, and be willing to learn about other people's cultures. It is one of the prerequisites of intercultural competence. Interestingly, Okakura claims the East does just that: "Our insight does not penetrate your culture deeply, but at least we are willing to learn." Whether that's true or not, the sentiment is the right one. Being willing to learn about other cultures is vital. That being said, Okakura seems rather biased and intolerant himself, so I wouldn't name him as a prime example of someone who's good at intercultural communication. But the book is still interesting to read as it shows what kind of attitude certainly does not work when trying to bridge the gap between two cultures.

Should this not interest you at all, you probably should not pick up "The Book Of Tea". But even disregarding this major theme, there are also some interesting quotes in this book, that certainly provide food for thought. You may not agree with the quotes, but it never hurts to think about society and the people in it. Here are the ones that have stuck with me while reading:

"Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others."

"For life is an expression, our unconscious actions the constant betrayal of our innermost thought."

"Our standards of morality are begotten of the past needs of society, but is society to remain always the same? The observance of communal traditions involves a constant sacrifice of the individual to the state. Education, in order to keep up the mighty delusion, encourages a species of ignorance. People are not taught to be really virtuous, but to behave properly. We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!"

"We have an old saying in Japan that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for there is no crevice in his heart for love to enter and fill up."

"Shrine after shrine has crumbled before our eyes; but one altar is forever preserved, that whereon we burn incense to the supreme idol, -ourselves. Our god is great, and money is his Prophet! We devastate nature in order to make sacrifice to him. We boast that we have conquered Matter and forget that it is Matter that has enslaved us. What atrocities do we not perpetrate in the name of culture and refinement!"

"It has been said that a man at ten is an animal, at twenty a lunatic, at thirty a failure, at fourty a fraud, and at fifty a criminal."

Yes, it's a difficult book to sum up in a review. So all I can say is: yes, there's some talk about tea, Zennism and Taoism, but it mostly seems to be a critique on society. Still interesting, but just know what you're getting into. Don't let the title mislead you.

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Reading Progress

02/19/2014 marked as: currently-reading
02/24/2014 marked as: read
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