Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh. THE TRUE HISTORY OF TEA. London: Thames & Hudson 2009. 280 pages. ISBN 978-0-500-25146-1.
There are those who believe we in the USA are seeing -- or are about to see -- or will someday see -- a significant increase in the popularity of tea. I have some doubts about this. But one argument in favor of such optimism could be based on the recent inundation of English-language books on tea. Ten or twelve years ago, there were almost no such books; there were (and still are) the classics -- James Norwood Pratt’s The New Tea Lover’s Treasury (1999) and the Chow/Kramer All the Tea in China (1990) -- and precious little else.
Now, however, there are dozens of books on all aspects of tea, and with every conceivable aim. CHA DAO has over the last couple of years been publishing occasional reviews of a few of the more noteworthy of these (click here, here, and here for some examples).
Many of the newer books follow to some extent -- often very closely -- the model established in Pratt’s book, and to a lesser extent in the Chow/Kramer book: some account of the history of tea, something about the “culture” of tea, and something about tea itself -- the types, the tastes, the steeping, and so on.
Pratt’s book set a pretty high bar for this kind of work, certainly by the standards of such work in English, and many of the newer books I’ve seen over the past few years do not measure up to that standard, much less exceed it. One of the biggest deficiencies of these is that while almost all their authors are native speakers of English, few if any are fluent in the language family that is by far the most important in the history (and arguably the culture) of tea: the Chinese family of languages. There is a more-than-1200-year history of writing about tea in China, going back at least to Lu Yu’s 780 CE Chajing; virtually nothing other than that has been translated into English (nor, probably, into any other Western language). The history of writings on tea in non-Chinese languages -- especially Western languages -- is pretty thin compared to this; there is some history of tea writing in Japanese and Korean, but these again are languages that few if any tea writers in English know.
Of course, the span of writing history is no guarantee of worthiness or current relevance (for a brief critique of the belief that Lu Yu is of any worth other than historical for tea drinkers today, see e.g. MarshalN's comments at the end of this blog entry). However, to not only not be acquainted with by far the longest-lived body of tea writing in the world, but to not even be able to be acquainted with it (because an author doesn’t speak or read Chinese) is clearly a serious deficiency.
The work considered here, The True History of Tea, by Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, does not have that problem. Mair is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and well known as a scholar in those fields. He has written, to quote the dust jacket, “many other works dealing with the culture and history of Central Eurasia, East Asia and South Asia.” He is clearly fluent in classical and modern Chinese. Almost all of the translations in the book are his, including two extensive translations of ancient Chinese manuscripts (included in Appendices A and B). For those interested in language as well as tea, Appendix C offers by far the most extensive treatment I have seen of the “genealogy” of words for tea in languages outside of China.
In other words, the authors can read both modern and pre-modern Chinese tea writings in their original language. And it shows. While this book is not the “be all and end all” of tea books -- and such is probably impossible and even nonsensical, since different readers will want different things from a book on tea -- it is one of the best books in English on tea I’ve seen, and probably overall the best book in English on the world history of tea. It places a more accurately proportional weight on the geographical areas covered: five chapters on China (plus portions of other chapters); two chapters on Japan; one on Russian-Chinese tea history; three chapters on the history of tea in Europe, Britain and the USA; and one on India and Sri Lanka (which inevitably includes various British figures). While this is still far from historically proportionate (perhaps 3000 years or more of Chinese tea history and roughly 1200 years of Japanese tea history compared with barely 400 years of Western tea history), it is much better than most other tea books in English accomplish.
Along the way, the authors visit China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Russia, the “Islamic world,” India and Sri Lanka, Europe and Britain, and even the USA. About the only significant tea culture the authors miss, for unknown (and unmentioned) reasons, is Korea, despite a tea history apparently at least as long as Japan’s (see, e.g., the articles here). The last chapter very briefly and thinly updates the narrative to the present.
You should know what this book is not. It is not a book along the Pratt line: other than a tiny little bit in the last chapter, there is nothing about the current tea scene anywhere in the world, the types of tea, the steeping or taste of tea, and so on. The closest to the latter occurs in the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, where we find the authors’ own tea preferences (p. 268). Paradoxically, perhaps, the Sinologist Mair’s love is Indian tea, and the Scandinavian Hoh’s love is Chinese tea. This work, as its title says, is primarily a history book, with a secondary emphasis on the tea culture of the various periods. If you want to learn to make tea, or learn about types of tea, or tastes of tea, you must go elsewhere.
The Prologue gives an excellent overview of the book and subject. Chapter 1 is a bit of an oddity. It seems more of an extension of the Prologue than a part of the book proper, and it’s a bit unclear to me why the authors spent valuable pages on a quick rundown of other stimulant alternatives to tea throughout the world. Given inevitable space limitations, this material seems a waste of space: surely these pages could have been devoted to something more relevant to the book’s topic, such as Korean tea history, or more extensive Chinese tea history (late-Qing and post-Qing, including Taiwan), or better coverage of the transition from powdered to loose-leaf tea.
Chapter 2 thus is really the beginning of the book’s subject. It quickly surveys the botany of tea (and other Camellia family members); the authors claim “botanists now place the center of its natural distribution in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra river in the Indian province of Assam, the northern parts of Burma and Thailand, Indochina and southwest China” -- followed by an even more whirlwind overview of the non-steeping tea preparation practices of various Asian peoples.
The chapter ends with a few pages covering both facts and informed speculation about the oldest-known uses of tea in China. It is apparently (and not surprisingly) quite difficult to determine much concrete information for the first millennia or so of tea in China -- basically all dates BCE. For example, the Ba people, who lived in what is now Sichuan province, are the earliest-known recorded users of tea (apparently around the first century BCE; see p. 29). The authors also note here a question that “has vexed generations of Chinese etymologists and bedevils the study of Chinese tea history all the way up to the Tang dynasty” (p. 29): the distinction, if any, between the historical use of the Chinese characters tu (荼) and cha (茶). In other words, when ancient texts used the character tu, did they really mean the tea plant, the same plant now referred to as cha? Apparently, nobody knows for sure, making it nearly impossible to truly uncover the earliest history of tea.
Chapters 3-6 and Chapter 9 cover the history of Chinese tea from essentially the first century CE through the fall of the Ming dynasty with the invasion of the Manchu in 1644, then to some extent into the resulting Qing (Manchu) dynasty.
The authors cover tea and tea history in the following broad subject areas in these chapters: Chapter 3: pre-Tang; Chapter 4: Tang Dynasty (618-907, including the famous Lù Yŭ); Chapter 5: Song Dynasty (960-1279); Chapter 6: the tea and horse trade, primarily with Tibet; Chapter 9: Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. The authors cover in interesting detail much relevant history in these periods, though Chapter 9 is specifically about tea and tea culture during those dynasties, with much less of the historical context prevalent in Chapters 3-6.
There is one subject that is in my opinion poorly covered but is the most momentous development in the history of Chinese tea (and indeed in the history of all tea throughout the world). During the Tang and much of the Song, tea was powdered. In the Tang, the tea was boiled in an iron pot with salt, then ladled into bowls for drinking (p. 62). During the Song, this practice changed so that the powdered tea was placed directly into the bowls, boiling water poured in and the mixture whisked into a froth; this was the style brought to Japan by Zen monks, which eventually became the tea used in chanoyu. However, by the late Song (Southern Song), loose-leaf green tea, brewed by steeping, had been developed and apparently spread rapidly (p. 70), so that by the beginning of the Ming, ground tea was history and leaf tea was the standard (p. 110). The further development of tea production and steeping from then on consisted of elaborations on the new themes of a) whole loose-leaf tea, and b) steeping that tea in some kind of vessel. So the style of tea production and preparation that had prevailed for more than half a millennium was apparently overturned within the span of a century. Yet the authors basically present this major transformation as a fait accompli (pp. 62, 110), with no description and none of the detail they bring to the rest of the book. For writers who can read the original sources to miss the opportunity to bring this information to English-speaking audiences is a major oversight, in fact the biggest shortcoming by far of this book. (It was suggested to me during the writing of this review that there may not be any ancient sources that mention this transformation, and that its details are lost to history. That’s possible. It would have been nice, then, if the authors had at least noted this in some way. But surely there must be more information than they give.)
Chapters 7 and 8 cover tea in historical Japan, from its reintroduction by the Buddhist monk Myōan Eisai in 1191 to the ritual seppuku (suicide) of Sen Rikyū in 1591. Though tea had earlier been introduced to Japan (in the period around 805-810 CE) by the Japanese Buddhist monks Saichō and Kūkai, it had not yet caught on. But the culture was much more receptive to tea the second time around. These chapters cover tea in this period in extensive detail. They end with a sidebar (p. 108) on the development of sencha tea (originally imported from China in the late sixteenth century), and gyokuro tea (developed in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century).
If there is criticism to be made of the Japanese chapters, it is that they end their history too soon, and that they spend the greater part of twenty pages building up to and describing an aspect of Japanese tea drinking -- the tea ceremony -- that represents a tiny minority of Japanese tea drinkers for the last several centuries; they devote less than two paragraphs (in the sidebar and part of another paragraph in the last chapter) on the way the vast majority of Japanese drink tea (and have drunk it, for multiple centuries) the vast majority of the time. Uncharacteristically, the authors seem fixated on the hyper-ceremonial aspects of Japanese tea, and virtually ignore everything else, especially since the death of Rikyū.
Chapter 10 covers tea in Tibet and Mongolia, and the relationships among the Tibetans, the Mongolians and the Chinese. Tea was known in Tibet at least as early as 781. In contrast, there are few or no historical references to tea in Mongolia until the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty (1271 [or 1279]-1368). The chapter describes many political reversals, deals, and alliances in the relationship of the Mongols and Tibetans; one meeting, for example, resulted in the creation of the title “Dalai Lama” by the Mongolian Altan Khan. Unlike most of the other chapters, this one follows its subject right up to the present, where we learn that “[o]n average, a Tibetan consumes 33 lb. of tea per year, a Mongolian 18 lb.” (p. 136).
Chapter 11 describes the tea relationship and trade between the Chinese and the Russians. It runs from the first recorded Russians to taste tea (a pair of Cossack envoys in 1616, p. 138), to the history of the samovar, to the establishment of the empire’s first tea garden in Georgia in 1893 (p. 150).
Chapter 12 covers tea in the “Islamic world.” Arabs and Chinese had met each other by at least 751 CE (p. 151). Arab traders were in Canton by the ninth century CE (p. 151). The authors briefly outline quite a bit of subsequent history and geography, including Persia/Iran, Morocco, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bukhara, and other areas of central Asia. They even more briefly bring that history up to the recent past, where by “the 1960s, every country in North Africa and the Middle East, except Algeria and Israel, drank more tea than coffee, and the region now absorbs almost one quarter of the world’s tea imports” (p. 163). Among current Muslim tea-drinking countries, the Qataris drink the most tea -- 6.9 pounds per year per person (p. 163). This chapter covers 1300 years of history of a large geographical area with many peoples, and thus is more superficial than many of the other chapters.
Chapters 13-17 document the history of tea in Europe, Britain, India and Sri Lanka, and the USA. The first European reference to tea appears in a collection of Italian geographical accounts published in 1545 (p. 165). The earliest actual shipment of tea may have arrived in Europe aboard Dutch ships in 1610, though “this date remains conjectural” (p. 166). In England, tea was being served at least in Thomas Garway’s coffee house by 1657 (p. 169).
These chapters follow the ups, downs, twists, and turns of tea importing, tea drinking, national adoption, national abandonment, smuggling (supposedly during the 1770s more than 7 million pounds of tea were smuggled into England per year, and only 5 million imported legally!), debates over health benefits or harms, two Opium Wars, and the obligatory story of the clipper ships. They finish by bringing the story of British tea up into the early twentieth century.
I assume the chapter on India and “Ceylon” is included in this progression because tea cultivation in those countries was started by British adventurers and capitalists. The chapter covers this history in some detail. The passages on the huge increase in tea gardens and speculation (pp. 214-215) sound much like the recent real-estate boom and bust in Florida! However, while the chapter does devote a few paragraphs to the horrible abuses inflicted on huge numbers of Indian workers by agents of the various tea companies and plantations, in my opinion it seriously underplays how bad that situation really was (see, e.g., Chapter 4 in Roy Moxham's Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire and, to a lesser extent, Chapters 8 and 11 in Iris and Alex MacFarlane's The Empire of Tea).
Finally, Chapter 18, “Vignettes from the Global Village,” attempts to bring the world history of tea (briefly) both up to the present, and to a close. It’s here that the only significant mention of Korea is made, and almost all of the two relevant paragraphs deal with twentieth-century developments.
As mentioned earlier, Appendices A and B are translations by the authors of two Chinese manuscripts, the first a brief autobiography of Lu Yu, the second “A Debate Between Tea and Beer.” Lastly, Appendix C is, as also previously stated, the most extensive and informative discussion I have seen of the genealogy of words for tea in non-Chinese languages across the world.
The book itself is nicely produced and constructed, with an attractive cover (especially the back) and a nicely readable typeface. It is 280 pages long, including a six-page index in very small type. The chapters are well organized, and for the most part proceed in roughly chronological order, though of necessity there is some backtracking to give background for each geographical area. The specifics of tea history at a given time and place are positioned with just enough political/cultural and other historical information to provide useful context for the discussion. The writing is clear and succinct, and not at all pedantic; however, not least because of the detail, the book does have a bit of an academic flavor, and is in fact currently being used in at least one college course on Chinese culture and tea. The book includes some interesting sidebars on subjects often only tenuously related to the surrounding text; see, e.g., pp. 46, 66, 134, 108, 188.
There are some figures and pictures, but none in color. In the tea books I’ve seen, there seems almost an inverse proportion between pictures and information: the more and nicer the pictures, the worse the information, and vice versa. The current book is on the sparer end of that continuum; a few more pictures and figures than the most sparsely-illustrated books (like Moxham's Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire and Hohenegger's Liquid Jade), but far fewer than in some of the fluffier (but nicer-looking) volumes. However, I would much rather have lots of good, accurate information than lots of nice pictures accompanied by small amounts of mediocre text. (Of course, at US $27, one might reasonably expect both lots of nice pictures and lots of good, accurate information.)
If you are interested in the history of tea -- especially a full world history of tea, and not just one that starts when tea came to Europe -- this book is for you. It is reasonably complete (with the exceptions noted here), but not so extensive that it is a chore to finish. The fact that at least one of the authors can read and translate original Chinese documents really lifts this book above most others of its kind.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank – with the usual admonition that all errors, misinterpretations, etc. are mine alone – the following for their help while I was writing this review: corax, MarshalN, and niisonge. Any of these worthies would be far more qualified to review this book than I am, but for some strange reason, they left it to me.