Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Future of Tea Culture

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.


Hobbes said...

Dear Corax,

Thanks as ever for an excellent article.

I was interested to read your concerns that tea culture might wane in China, based on the fact that younger types are not adopting it:

"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?"

The appreciation of tea has, to my limited knowledge, never been a "young man's game" in China. Liken it to wine in the western world: we know many people with pretensions to good taste, I am sure, who adopt the love of wine once they enter their more mature years. Observe the number of younger people taking wine as their beverage of choice, and they are in the vanishing minority. Similarly, tea is something that Chinese come to appreciate (if they come to it at all) with some maturity.

Look at the house of your average professor, businessman, or other mature individual who is aiming at pretensions of taste: one of the first furnishings they purchase is a nice oversized, overly ornate tea-table. The tea-table is the wine cellar of the mature Chinese, along with plenty of framed calligraphy and other cultural icons.

I feel that the fact younger Chinese haven't adopted tea (isn't a matter for concern, because I don't believe that it has ever been the case.

On the subject of the poster in Hong Kong, I wonder if it is worth taking it in the context of the port's history and their current cultural priorities... :)



Anonymous said...

advertisements made for young people do not portray calm static scenes containing "OLD" people sitting down drinking from little cups.
yes it may appeal to a certain *ithink* small proportion of the young- those who have "respect" for the elders, but even in Asia *ispeculate* that is changing.

MarshalN said...

Hi Corax,

Interesting post. It's always revealing when a fresh pair of eyes looks at something that you're so used to.... two points about the ad

1) This is an ad for some sort of real estate development, or perhaps for the IPO for Fineland, a mainland property group, I'm afraid. For a foreigner, it's probably not obvious, but I think people in Hong Kong would recognize it as such (as it would be accompanied by ads in other forms of media). So.... the purpose of the ad is not to promote any sort of cultural preservation, but rather, their company's image.

2) I'm appalled that Engrish made its way into this ad with "with the Oriental Culture". Not to be prejudiced, but these guys should've hired people who won't make such mistakes if they want to project an image of a sophisticated, cultured company. Or, for that matter, the very use of the word "oriental". There are better terms out there.

As for the problem of cultural shift, I think it is, first, not necessarily a bad thing. Old traditions die all the time, unfortunately, but that's how human society has always been, and there's nothing anybody can do to stop such tides. I lament the gradual disappearance of Chinese dialects, but it's happening and it's probably not going to stop. What can we do?

As for Hobbes' speculation that tea drinking is an old man's thing, I think I have to disagree. I think it is just as much a matter of individual taste as fine wine or coffee is in the West. The outward appearance of appreciation of tea is more obvious when one reaches a mature age, not necessarily because they care more all of a sudden when they get older, but rather a function of income. When you're young and mobile, buying a big tea table is hardly practical. It's also a hobby that takes years to cultivate, so it is hardly surprising that it takes a person time (when they reach some sort of stable stage in their life) when such hobbies really rear their (sometimes ugly) head.

I think tea culture in China is hardly dying. In fact, a side benefit of the economically-drive puerh craze has a side benefit -- it brought a lot more consumers into the tea business who began paying more attention to other things besides just drinking some random tea. As China becomes more prosperous, I think that is actually going to continue, rather than diminish. Fear not, tea's not going to go away anytime soon.

corax said...


thank you for your comment. i'm fascinated by your observation about respect and elders. are you saying that this is changing in chinese culture? historically, of course, it has been a phenomenon of the utmost importance -- culminating in ancestor-worship and festivals like qing ming. even the term for teacher, 老师 lao shi, has [as you doubless know] as one of its elements the word lao, i.e. 'old.' so this aspect of asian culture is deeply rooted, even in the language itself. for it to be vanishing would represent a seismic shift.


some fascinating aperçus here. yes, i have no doubt that 'fineland''s being a mainland company impacts the company's image. but in that case -- keeping with my earlier question -- what *is* the rhetorical purpose of the ad? to imply that 'fineland' is the guardian of traditional chinese culture? if so, then perhaps the people in the ad represent the target audience -- the middle-aged chinese. and if it's about buying and selling real estate, then it would be aimed at the propertied class. [but can one actually *own* land in hong kong? i'm told that not even chinese-born chinese can own the actual *land* in PRC; only the building on the land. it may well be that the property laws are dramatically different in HK, which i saw has been termed a 'special administrative region' of the PRC since the UK transferred its sovereignty in 1997.]

and, of course -- that poster aside -- i cannot shake the somber apprehension that my conversations in china, in taiwan, and in HK have provoked: that the young are *not* as interested in tea as their parents and grandparents were/are. this is, obviously, anecdotal evidence and no more, which is why i was so interested in the testimony [such as it is] of that poster.

as for the language of the ad: your point about idiomatic english here is in keeping with what you've said elsewhere about, say, the english-language material in the new art of tea magazine, and i think you have a very cogent point. regarding the term 'oriental,' you're in a more authoritative position than i am to comment on that -- typically it's folks within an ethnic group who get to say what sorts of labels are and are not appropriate. though, à propos, i've noted with interest recently that a number of asians have explicitly *embraced* the term 'oriental.' [for those readers who want to know more about the brouhaha surrounding this word, i strongly recommend having a look at edward said's landmark book, ORIENTALISM.]

i'm glad to hear you don't think tea culture is actually dying. as i mentioned, i do recognize [and welcome] the growth of interest, outside of asia, in chinese teas. i myself am, in my own small way, a part of that growth. but how much of the 'boom' in pu'er tea is the result of stockpiling [in HK and taiwan] by a few rich tycoons? and: how much of the interest in pu'er worldwide is [as some pundits have feared] a 'bubble' that will, sooner or later, burst? [i am purposely voicing the most pessimistic possibilities here, to argue the other side of this.]


Thanks as ever for an excellent article.

you are most welcome! you yourself set the bar very high, you know ... both at your own blog and in your thoughtful comments, for which i thank you. [ditto of course to marshaln and his excellent blog as well ...]

The appreciation of tea has, to my limited knowledge, never been a "young man's game" in China.

well, if you read hong lou meng, for example -- and actually, i see that you have been doing just that -- you will note that pretty much *everyone* in that story drinks tea -- when they are not drinking wine. and several of the main characters are quite young -- clearly in their twenties or so, i.e. exactly the age-group i was thinking of.

i recognize that this work is both composed and set in the 18th century, not in modern times. but that date, i think, actually underscores my point: if young people are not as interested in tea now as they were then, that is a difference that has developed since the 18th century.

the other point to be made about hong lou meng, perhaps, is that virtually every tea-drinking character in the story comes from the elite/ruling class. [the one exception is granny liu, and even she is distantly related to the house of wang.] but just because the middle and lower classes of the epoch are not depicted in hong lou meng as drinking tea, does not mean that they did not drink tea; in fact, i would guess that they did drink tea, then at least as much as now; maybe just not typically of the quality or the broad variety available to middle- and upper-class consumers on the internet.

[after many conversations about gao shan wu long cha in taiwan, one of my friends there made me a present of a canister of what he called 'ordinary tea' -- because he 'wanted {me} to know what regular taiwanese drink every day.' i was very moved by this gift; but it was also something of an eye-opener: without actually saying so, i had clearly been on a mission to find and purchase the highest-end taiwan teas possible. this gift subtly made me aware of that, and also brought me back to 'reality' as experienced by most asians -- much more so than my own rarefied experience could show me by itself.]

maybe part of the reason for the decline of interest -- if there *is* in fact any decline -- is that we're now spoilt for choice? there were no coca-cola or other commercial soft-drinks in the 18th century. if the global broadening of the soft-drink spectrum is a major source of the change, then my complaint about tea is perhaps like complaining that people today don't read as much as they used to. i do make just that complaint as well -- how could i not! -- but i think that it's partly because 'in the old days' people didn't have television, cinema, DVDs, CDs, MP3s, and all the other forms of entertainment that now exist. more people read books 'back then' because that's what there was.

in any case, i hope that you and marshaln are right that there's no cause for concern. one of the things that put this in my head, though, is the striking contrast with the remarkable occidental surge of interest in chinese tea. marshaln is perhaps a special case, though he currently lives in the USA; you yourself are arguably also a special case, because of your familial connections with asia [and your own linguistic ability]. but most of the people i know in the west who are fascinated with the teas of pacific asia have no such connections, have indeed never been to asia, and will likely never go there. for such a 'market,' these teas will always be an import/export commodity.

On the subject of the poster in Hong Kong, I wonder if it is worth taking it in the context of the port's history and their current cultural priorities...

i have no doubt that you are right about this, if only in regard to the choice of english [or 'engrish' as marshaln diagnoses it] for the text of the poster ... hong kongers born and raised speaking cantonese would first and foremost expect to read a poster in chinese characters. demographically, the greatest exception to this rule would be among the *younger people* -- those who, simply by attending a university in HK or the PRC, are most likely to be taught several years' worth of english. it is the language of the text, above all, that makes me wonder to what extent the ad might be aimed at an audience younger than the models in the photo.

MarshalN said...

Well, in the case of Fineland, I think it's just a matter of raising their company's profile in anticipation of their upcoming IPO on the HK exchange. You don't get oversubscription for your stocks if people don't know much about your company, hence the image-enhancing ad.

Re: property law, in HK most lands are leased by the government for 99 years to whoever the developer is. You buy a piece of that land lease (a sliver, really) when you purchase an apartment.

I think it's definitely true that there are more choices among the young for the sort of thing they like to drink/pursue. Tea is now only one among many, many others that one could choose from (coffee being the prime example). Nevertheless, I think something I read before about marketing applies here -- if a product receives universal approval, but without any strong feeling from anybody, it's not going to sell well. If a product is hated by 80% of the population but is loved by the other 20%, you've got a marketable product, or something like that anyway. Tea, I think, is one such thing. Those who don't care will never care much, but those who do do it passionately. Something that excites a segment of the population in the way tea does will never die.

Lew Perin said...

Hey Corax: Thanks very much for the thoughtful remarks on what we care so much about!

Regarding tea drinking in Chinese classics: Last summer I inhaled the 2000+ pages of Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn (The Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh) in English translation. This book is hundreds of years older than Hónglóu mèng. I kept track of the tea drinking, and there really wasn't much. Basically, people drank wine, for some value of "wine". The only tea drunk in that vast book was drunk by Buddhist monks, aristocrats, and one goddess.


corax said...


that's some fascinating marketing research. i hope it is true in our case!


you are very welcome. thanks for all you do, as well.

why am i not surprised either that you read shui hu zhuan, or that you kept track of the tea references in it! yes, that work is set in the song dynasty, and the text was [i gather] compiled during the ming. perhaps it's significant that there are, overall, fewer references to tea-drinking there than in hong lou meng: maybe this fact tells us something about an overall growth in popularity of tea [demographically i mean, not measuring the intensity of some individual aficionados] between the ming and the qing.

but even if not, i'm interested to learn that your reading indicates that the tea-drinking in shui hu zhuan is, as later in hong lou meng, somewhat socioeconomically restricted. does *that* tell us anything significant about the actual demographics of tea-drinking across those centuries? or is it just that the audiences of these stories preferred [like the audiences of greek tragedies] to be entertained with stories of people from the elite/ruling class generally?

MarshalN said...

If I may offer a historical conjecture... tea was rather expensive in the Song, I believe, and the cheap stuff was really not very good. Thus, you don't really drink it. There's probably also a cultural thing going on. Seeing that Shuihu Zhuan is about bandits, tea drinking probably isn't going to be very big. Hong Lou Meng, on the other hand, is about a bunch of nitwits who have nothing better to do and have lots of money. Tea probably works better in that case.

I wonder what that says about us.

Anonymous said...


I was delighted to find your new post on Cha Dao reporting in part on your recent trip to Hong Kong. Expecting to find images and descriptions of your tea activities, I was surprised to note that your first essay was a reflection on the future of tea in China. After reading the several comments and discussions on the essay and its image, I thought to offer a few of my own.

Firstly, , the image suggests that the man and woman live in the Fineland residential community, owning property there, a house if not the land itself.

Secondly, the man and woman are contemporary, smiling, and sharing a cup of tea. It is a leisurely moment of relaxation and contentment. The picture offers a married couple, retired but engaged, still healthy, active, and attractive, leading meaningful lives. A Chinese person of any age can aspire to or identify with the idealized couple: oh, that’s grandma and grandpa; well, that’s my parents; yes, that’s me and my old man.

Thirdly, tradition appears in the image as the custom of tea, the dressing in comfortable clothes of traditional style, and the hint of traditional architecture in the background. The image confirms traditional values: marriage, customs, and styles. The stability of their lives is reflected in the couples’ return to traditional things and manners and the appreciation and acquisition of customary clothes, blue and white porcelain, and good tea.

Fourthly, the image of the middle-aged couple appeals to the traditional ideal and the perennial Chinese concern for a secure future.

The economic growth of China has spurred modernization but not at the cost of tradition. The return of Chinese haute cuisine, fine tea and wine, qipao and changpao, and traditional art and literature suggest that achievement and success are still measured in terms of culture and its many veneers.

I was impressed by your story of the gift of "ordinary" tea and was reminded of my recent foray into matcha. For some time now, I have been whisking a bowl of powered tea to drink in the afternoon. It is just the thing to sharpen the gray matter and enliven the thought. What I had on hand was matcha of superior quality and I enjoyed it greatly. But it wasn't until I acquired some "ordinary" tea powder (right of the grocery shelf) and drank it that I truly began to appreciate the superior matcha. So, now I alternate teas - superior and palatable - relishing the difference.


Anonymous said...

Hi - just a brief comment by a newcomer to this site.

Before I read the words "family oriented" it was clear to me the message in the poster was one of a Chinese equivalent of "family values." People having tea is a great act of sitting down and talking to one another; that's the opposite of rushing around in ten directions never having time for anyone. I think that's the value of the symbol for purposes of this add.

I would guess that it appeals to the wistfulness of a generation that has spent its life in search of career and material security and long for what they remember that is good in the culture from their childhood, and has been a great deal lost in the midst of changing economies. (The tea and gaiwan a great symbol for that; included in potent symbolism also for its valuable revival as an important and sought after commodity.)