I'm just back from a quick jaunt to Hong Kong and the mainland of China, and hope eventually (time permitting) to tell you more about all of that. Today, there's just one major point that I want to make. It's about a poster ad that I saw repeatedly, in many different stations of the Hong Kong underground, known as the 'MTR':
'The Wisdom of Oriental Living. Creating a Family-Oriented Community with the Oriental Culture.'
My first response to this was, 'Good for them. They're not afraid to embrace and preserve the glorious, millennia-long traditions of their culture.' (This is all the more important in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, in which so much of the cultural history of China was just eradicated; the ironic result is that to learn about 'Old China,' in many ways the best places are now Taiwan and Hong Kong.)
My second response -- registered with particular pleasure -- was 'Hey, those people are drinking out of gaiwan!'
... so they must be drinking TEA!' I was delighted to see that as a synecdoche of Chinese culture, they had selected tea -- a theme, of course, that I myself have chosen on more than one occasion.
But my third reaction was: 'Why did they choose models for this poster who are obviously middle-aged? Why not shoot the photo with people in, say, their early twenties?'
Is this ageism on my part? Certainly not. Is there a logic to depicting the bearers of culture and traditional wisdom -- tea-related or otherwise -- as being in their forties or fifties? Absolutely. But my question was prompted by another, deeper question: What is the rhetorical purpose of this poster? I.e., what is it trying to accomplish communicatively?
Unless I miss the point profoundly, the goal of this advertisement is to convey to the younger generation -- people now in their teens and twenties -- the importance of preserving, cherishing, and celebrating traditional Chinese culture. Hong Kongers the age of the models in the photograph are not likely to be the target audience of such coaxing: they are either already doing such preserving, cherishing, and celebrating, or have already turned their backs decisively on such Olde Ways.
This is not a new concern of mine. As a classical scholar, one of my principal worries is the diminution (not to say total eclipse) of classical learning in the (post)modern era. There is so much other knowledge to be known now; how, in the twenty-first century, are we to make a cogent case for devoting years of one's life to the minute and careful study of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome? I have also worried aloud, ere now, specifically about the effacement of tea culture in Pacific Asia. When traveling in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, and in the People's Republic of China, I have made it a point to ask young people whether they drink tea, and if so, what sort of person that makes them. A disturbing number of them said either, 'No; I just drink coffee,' or 'I do drink tea, but my friends think I'm weird.'
So this is a larger cultural shift that I am detecting, and not just on the mainland of China. I am fairly certain that the creators of this 'Oriental Culture' advertisement were themselves sensible of it, and wanted to do something about it. It is perhaps not coincidental that I found the poster in Hong Kong, where for so long the occidental influence has been felt on every level -- cultural, political, economic. I saw many more Asians eating with forks in Hong Kong than in either Taiwan or the PRC.
One other question that needs to be asked and answered is, 'Are all such cultural shifts necessarily bad, even if they appear to involve the loss of something that many deem precious?' -- and, perhaps prior to this: 'Is it even possible to halt the flow of cultural change?' Time and tide, as they say, wait for no man. Cultural change, in some sense, is the very metric of human existence: a stagnant culture is a dead one. And, of course, by no means all change is bad. Surely it was a step in the right direction when folks in the USA stopped burning people at the stake for their religious beliefs; and I'm quite certain that we are better off without slavery (though a waggish colleague, when I remarked on this to him, replied simply: 'You want fries with that?').
The rub comes when something beautiful and potentially beneficial, such as tea culture, develops and blossoms over a course of many centuries, and then seems to be waning, not to say in actual danger of extinction. You cannot force such things onto people who don't want them, or who no longer want them; it may be that in a few decades the widespread practice of tea-drinking will have outlived its attractiveness or usefulness in Chinese culture. What is interesting in this regard is the burgeoning interest in Chinese teas outside of Chinese culture -- in the USA, in Europe (particularly France), and of course in Japan -- just at a time when it seems that its cultural weight may be on the decline in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. (I write in full cognizance of the current interest in green, wulong, and pu'er teas in Pacific Asia. Such teas are being sold there by the ton, literally, each year. But my query stands: Is this interest on the wane among people of the younger generation?)
Is it possible that the cultivation of tea in China and Taiwan may become principally an export industry? That may be its only hope of economic feasibility. This could have the concomitant result, not insignificant by any means, of better pay for the laborers in the tea gardens -- perhaps even 'fair trade' wages. But unless the retail cost of such teas skyrockets even beyond the increases we have seen so far, to the point that it is irresistible for these growers to continue producing it, one fears that it may eventually disappear anyway. Even the lure of financial gain may someday be insufficient to keep this ancient heritage alive. So far it has survived, I think, on love above all: the love of the tea farmers for the craft and traditions they have inherited from their forebears. And of course, the love of a delicious cup of tea. But if that vanishes -- and if they discover they can make more money by using their time and energies in other ways -- what comes next?
We may shrug and say: après nous le déluge. We may console ourselves with the assurance that even if this worst-case scenario obtains, it could not come to pass for decades at least. But as some disquieting signs are already beginning to appear, it is perhaps worth our while to think ahead a bit.
And that, dear reader, is why there is CHA DAO.