Sunday, March 04, 2007

READER'S CORNER: corax on beatrice hohenegger's liquid jade

[EDITOR'S NOTE: with this entry we inaugurate what we hope will be an ongoing, if not always frequent, feature of CHA DAO: reviews of books that are relevant, in one way or another, to china teas. we begin here with a very recent release, but we expect to be delving into older works as well.]

beatrice hohenegger. LIQUID JADE: the story of tea from east to west. NY: st martin's press 2007. xxx + 326 pp. ISBN: 0312333285.

hohenegger's [hereafter 'H'] new book is a most welcome addition to the shelf of literature on tea, particularly asian teas. indeed for aficionados of this blog, LIQUID JADE is spang on-topic.

as is often the case with labors of love, H did not originally intend to write this book as it now exists. she began, instead, with the intention of researching the opium trade and its baleful effects on chinese culture [p. xi]. but she soon found herself lured into the fascinating history of cha dao, from its earliest mythic beginnings down to the present day. she has laid out her material under four broad headings, as follows.

part 1 ['from east ...'] explores some of the earliest origins of camellia sinensis, and its use in brewing a beverage, in china and japan. you will find some [if not all] of the usual suspects here: shen nong; lu yu; gloved virgins plucking tea-leaves at dawn; the tea/horse trade; the eyelids of bodhidharma; and the rituals of the cha no yu. of particular interest to this reader was the explicit connection drawn between tea culture and the daoist tradition, as well as the connection to zen buddhism.

part 2 ['... to west'] narrates 'the traumatic encounter and clash of cultures between east and west' [pp. xi-xii]. here is where we learn more about 'the opium factor,' as H calls it, and the way in which china was approached by occidental traders on the hunt for exotic goods such as silks and spices. [occidentals, i fear, come out looking rather bad in this squalid chapter of history.] reciprocally, H spends a good deal of time documenting how, where, and when tea began to impact western culture. her narrative is lightened by such irresistible diversions as an account of how the east/west porcelain trade parallelled [and complemented] the tea trade; a brief history of the willow pattern made popular by josiah spode and others; and the exciting story of the clipper-ship races from england to china and back.

part 3 ['curiosities, obscurities, misnomers, and facts'] is what H describes as 'a small, and certainly not comprehensive, collection of diverse and informative topics around tea' [xii]. here you will find items, for example, on the discovery of the tea plant; the etymology of the word tea; anecdotes on tea customs ['milk in first?']; the origins of iced tea and the tea-bag; notes on caffeine content and on misnomers such as the widespread use [in the USA] of the term 'high tea'; and some data on the role of tea in sustaining health.

in part 4 ['tea today: the people and the earth'], H explores 'contemporary issues and circumstances around today's tea trade .... what is the state of things in the world of tea today? in what practical ways can we in the west begin to address the social inequities initiated by colonialism and perpetuated in today's trade practices? and what is the condition of the earth, of a soil dried out and deadened by decades of chemical agriculture in the large tea plantations?' [p. xii]

the conception of H's chapters is sensible and clear. she knows how to organize her information, how to present it, how to embellish the larger flow of prose with the occasional small fillip of information, and how to keep sight of both the forest and the trees. there is also a lot of meticulous learning underpinning this text, although she never belabors that point. to take a single example: hei cha and pu'er cha are not in fact the same thing, though most people [including many chinese] group them in the same category; it is clear [p. 203] that H understands the distinction between them, though she does not make heavy weather of it.

the four main sections of the text are followed by an epilogue in which H follows up on ideas introduced much earlier -- the possibility that there can be a philosophical or even a spiritual dimension to the drinking of tea. H calls this 'tea meditation,' and in less than two full pages she sketches -- with exceedingly light touch -- what the experience of 'tea meditation with friends' might be like. the epigraph to this section cites the japanese proverb ichigo ichie -- 'one time, one meeting' -- which is the heart and soul of H's idea here.

there follow two appendices: the first offers a list of imperial chinese dynasties and key japanese historical periods; the second, a parallel romanization table rendering her most commonly-used chinese terms according to both the hanyu pinyin and wade-giles transliteration systems. next comes a section of end-notes, keyed [without numerals in the main text] to the appropriate chapter and page. the book concludes with an extensive and useful bibliography, and an index.

the volume itself is a pleasure to hold, designed with dimensions approximating the golden section, and cleanly printed on creamy paper. it is furnished with numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout, many of which images i had not seen anywhere else. [as the back dust-jacket flap advises us, H is curating 'a traveling museum exhibition on the history and culture of tea, slated to open in 2009 at the fowler museum at UCLA'; so she knows a thing or two about the power of the graphic image.]

in sum, this is an engaging and informative book, produced with both elegance and care. it manages to be thematically substantial without miring the reader in pedantry. it is written in a lucid and readable style that occasionally attains to real eloquence; my rather nuts-and-bolts account here does nothing to suggest the charm of H's prose, which is compulsively readable. moreover, without the slightest heavy-handedness, H gracefully negotiates the tricky balance of social conscience [and even metaphysical awareness] against the luxuries of sensory aesthetic delight. if i had been H's editor, the only real change i would have urged upon her would have been to transliterate chinese words using hanyu pinyin instead of the wade-giles system [though she has thought even about this, as evidenced in appendix B]. but this is to cavil. make no mistake: this is one of the very best books on tea to appear in a long time.

more about H [including a schedule of public appearances] at her website,

-- corax


full_of_puppy_love said...

hi this message is for corax. thanks for commenting on my post about tea! and thanks for the correction on my error about golden heaven yunnan :) how did you find my blog, by the way? happy tea drinking!

corax said...

> how did you find my blog,
> by the way?

well, i hesitate to say 'corax knows all,' but i do try to keep my ear to the ground. [to the blogosphere? that's an odd image ...] fun blog BTW!

anyway ... thanks for visiting. you're welcome here anytime!