The Newsletter 80 Summer 2018

Chinese tea and Asian societies

Kunbing Xiao

<p>Tea originated in China and has spread worldwide over the past two centuries. Tea plants are highly sensitive to their natural environment and, even today, are mainly cultivated in subtropical Asian countries. The cultivation, processing and consumption of tea has influenced Asian societies for centuries, in various ways. In this edition of ‘China Connections’, inspired by Appadurai’s ‘Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy’, we explore how tea, as a commodity critically involved in modern world history, affected ancient China’s regional politics, and how it still permeates ordinary people’s lives in Asia.</p>

We encourage our readers to consider tea in both its macroscalar and microscalar contexts. On the one hand, tea is associated with regime change, long-distance transportation, the organization of production, and global capitalism, and so has propelled the emergence of the world trade system. On the other hand, tea is closely related to our consumption habits, our social organization and life-styles, and to some extent reflects our bodily perception of the environment.

Following the ‘the flow of tea’, five articles outline the transmission of tea and the interplay of tea-tasting arts in Asian societies, including China, British India and Taiwan. Researchers working from the diverse backgrounds of history, art history, anthropology and substance abuse, reveal in their studies the hidden nature of tea’s impact on economics, politics and people’s daily lives throughout Asia. These fascinating research findings also remind us of Okakura Kakuzō’s claim made approximately 200 years ago, when he asserted that “Asia is one”, a possible contemplation on his latter even more renowned work, “The Book of Tea”.

However, a discussion about tea in Asian societies should never ignore western influences. We cannot imagine those tea plantations in Darjeeling and Assam without the enthusiastic British search for the taste of tea. The circulation of Chinese tea around the world occurred at the same time as westerners invaded the old empire. Thus, global capitalism has been a critical factor, infiltrating and becoming rooted in Asian societies. In the modern era, tea’s globalisation is significantly accelerating and becoming more widely appreciated than ever before.

The extensive influence of tea has also challenged researchers’ assumptions and knowledge, making an interdisciplinary approach and methodology essential for the study of tea. From China of the Tang Dynasty to California in America, from British Indian tea plantations to teahouses in Chaozhou, tea has influenced our societies dynamically and is still shaping our modern world. We hope that the following articles will unveil some of tea’s mysteries and enable you to enjoy more than just a cup of the beverage.

Kunbing Xiao is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Southwest Minzu University; the CGA-ARC postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Global Asia (2017-2018) NYU Shanghai; and Regional Editor of 'China Connections' (