Stealing Tea and Saving Face

On our 5200-mile road trip last month, I listened to the audio version of the book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

 

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

Here is the Amazon description of the book:

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish Botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to the British plantations in India. Fortune’s danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

The book is a treasure trove of historical information about China in the mid-1800s, as well as all things related to tea. Occasionally, there are cultural gems to be mined. In chapter 5 Rose describes an incident that took place in Hangzhou between Fortune and his servant, Want. Having failed to follow Fortune’s instructions, they find themselves in the city of Hangzhou, where if it is discovered that Fortune is a foreigner and not a Chinese official (he was disguised as one), he could be killed. So he gives the servant a public scolding. In the course of describing this incident, Rose (perhaps inadvertently) gives one of the best descriptions of the Chinese notion of “face” that I have found anywhere!

But Fortune’s recriminations had little effect, for a master’s scolding his servants publicly only served to build their self-esteem, or “face,” as even a reproach was a tacit declaration that the servant was important enough to merit the notice of a wealthy mandarin. In China “face,” or mianxi [sic] was a concept that a Westerner like Fortune did not instinctively understand, describing as it does the prestige and reputation one gains from every human interaction. Relationships in China were defined by the reciprocal obligations between people, whether of the same or a different status, and every individual existed within a network of influence, a matrix of duties and social connections, or guanxi.

The family came first, then the extended social neighborhood. “Face” expressed a person’s position within his or her network and was the mechanism by which the Chinese assessed their obligations: which orders to obey, which favors to grant, and which supplications and apologies to make. A son might perform humble acts for his father, or an employee might bow before his master or a student before his teacher, but in turn the father would have a set of defined responsibilities to the child, the master to the slave, and the teacher to the student.

However subtly they were expressed, mianzi and guanxi were inescapable facts of life in China; then as now they forged the social fabric of the nation. Social connections determined the measure of justice received and discrimination suffered. While no Chinese person was free from these relationships, many peasants had very little face and therefore little access to justice, wealth, or freedom. When social obligations were met, someone gained face and an increase in status; when a person failed those to whom he was socially connected and thereby obligated, he suffered loss of face (diumian) and a downturn in his social standing. When Wang was shouted at by Fortune for failing to follow orders, it demonstrated to the world that he had responsibilities to an important man. Wang lost face with Fortune, while simultaneously gaining it in the wider neighborhood of Hangzhou.

Face was a very Confucian concept. The great philosopher, whose ideas gained influence during the Han Dynasty, 206 BC-AD 220, described a world where familial connections and obligations to ancestors were the highest good and the greatest aim of an individual. A single person was nothing if he did not bring honor to the world from which he came.

A foreigner in China had no network of relationships of prescribed duties and no social capital, and therefore lacked any obvious signifiers of face. Many foreigners handled their outsider status adroitly. They engaged in relationships with the Chinese immediately, offering gifts and favors to officials and higher-ups; they recognized that a servant did not just serve but was owed things other than monetary reward, such as honor and respect. Fortune, however, seems to have paid little attention to the finer points of Chinese social interaction. He treated the Chinese as he would any employee: demanding excellence, refusing to hear excuses, and chastising failure. Wang and Fortune would travel together on and off for years, and the servant valiantly tried to negotiate the workings of guanxi on his master’s behalf. Wang effectively created Fortune’s identity as a mandarin by forging a fictitious network of prestigious connections for him, elevating his master’s face (and, not incidentally, elevating his own status by association). He also bribed and negotiated on Fortune’s behalf, not just for favors, but for face. (p.69-71)

“Note to self,” I thought, as I listened to this passage while driving across the deserts of eastern Oregon, “find a print version of this book and post the passage on my blog.”

Done!

Sipping Tea from a Magazine

This is for all my tea-drinking friends out there. The March edition of the China Heritage Quarterly, one of my favorite online sources for all things Chinese is completely devoted to a subject that is near and dear to pretty much every Chinese heart — TEA!

I realize this may seem strange, but even after almost thirty years here I’m still not a huge tea-drinker. It’s not that I don’t like tea — I do. It’s just not a drink I tend to go out of my way to have.  If it’s served I’m happy enough to drink it, but I’m not likely to make myself a “cuppa” (as the Brits say) at home or carry it around with me in a thermos. Iced tea is fine, so long as it does NOT have either lemon or sugar in it.

I grew up in Pakistan where we drank a lot of “chai”—a brew of tea, milk, and sugar, all boiled together.  I chuckle whenever I walk into a coffee shop or cafe that takes itself a bit too seriously and see that they are selling ‘chai’ as a trendy drink. Chai? Trendy?  Give me a break. Chai is best drunk by pouring some onto a saucer and drinking from the saucer.  Try doing that in Starbucks someday and see what happens!

The only times I consume large quantities of tea here are when I hang out at my friend’s tea house and drink Pu’er tea all afternoon.  We have to drink seven rounds as part of the ceremony….and THEN the serious drinking begins.  If I have a group of visitors in tow (which is usually the case) I have to translate her 30 minute tea ceremony, which includes a half dozen poems.  Since there’s no way I can translate a poem, I just toss in the phrase “she just recited a poem about how wonderful tea is.” Works every time!

Which brings us back to the China Heritage Quarterly. If I can steep myself in this issue, I’m sure I’ll be a better translator of the tea ceremony the next time I take a group to the tea house.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to this month’s issue:

Tea and politics, teahouses and activism, gathering and gossiping, all of these things mark the life of tea in China’s largest inland empire, that of Sichuan 四川. Given the dramatic events of the first months of the Dragon Year of 2012, an ancient saying about the restive nature of what was once the Kingdom of Shu 蜀 would appear to be an appropriate place to launch our issue-length meditation on tea.

In Sichuan they call it ‘laying out the dragon formation’ 擺龍門陣. An ancient military tactic famous in China’s southwest, the ‘dragon formation’ has, over the years, became a popular expression used to describe the setting of verbal stoushes and gossip. In teahouses throughout the province, men and women have gathered over the years, often sitting on bamboo stools or reclining chairs, with small tables scattered about, tea cups and teapots mixed among clutches of locals, visitors and passers-by. Amidst the clatter and the long, slow sipping of tea, people discuss matters pertaining to ‘All-Under-Heaven’ 天下事兒. Although the Internet has become the virtual space of choice for the movement of idle chatter in recent years, it is the heritage of tea and the teahouse that bound people in conversation and conviviality in the past.

In the teahouse people would engage in idle gossip 閒談, chat 聊天, rant 侃山 and brag shamelessly 吹牛. It was, and in many places throughout China, an environment in which tall tales 大話 and arrant nonsense 廢話 can hold the day; it’s also where the chatter on the streets 道聽途說 is elaborated and circulates with the speed of a prairie fire. It is over tea too that people gather to play mah-jongg with clamorous concentration, although tea is just as much a boon companion that is suited to quieter moments of relaxed repose 閒適 and thoughtfulness 静思, as it is for conviviality and calm conversation.

Here is a taste of some of the articles that you will find in the magazine this month:

A Short History of Tea in China

The Gentle Art of Tea-Drinking

On Tea and Friendships

The Strange Tale of the Cultural Revolution Tea Industry

Sip away……

 

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Tea and Games

I have spent my entire ‘China career’ living and working in the north and up until now have only spent a few days in a few cities in the south, most often passing through on my way to somewhere else. As a result, this trip along the back roads and to the smaller cities of Sichuan has been somewhat of a cross-cultural experience for me.

Different regions of China do have distinctive cultures (or should I say sub-cultures), much as we do in the US. Minnesota and Mississippi are quite different, as are California and Connecticut. To be sure, on the surface there is a sameness (both here and in the US), but close observation reveals definite difference — in food, language, and even lifestyle.

One of the things that has struck me about Sichuan is that everywhere you look there are people sitting around drinking tea and playing cards or ma jiang (mahjong, as it is called in English). People in the north certainly engage in both of these activities, but what’s so striking here is that they are outside, and everywhere. And all ages are participating.

Drinking tea + playing games = living!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural Revolution Tea

I have long been a student of Chinese history, with a particular interest in the now 62 years of The People’s Republic of China. Compared with China’s dynasties, which often lasted 300-400 years, this one is just getting going. Yet, during the relatively short time of its existence, the PRC has had more than it’s fair share of ‘turbulence.’

 

A particularly turbulent time was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Often referred to as ‘the ten-year chaos,’ The Cultural Revolution was a mass political movement ostensibly designed to give a new generation the experience of revolution. In fact, it was an outcome of a power struggle between Chairman Mao and the leadership of the Communist Party. For ten years, the country’s economic, social, and intellectual life came to a halt as people engaged in mass political campaigns, the schools and colleges were closed, and intellectuals were persecuted. This, of course, is a very brief, and general, description of the era, but it will suffice for this blog post.

 

Today, when one thinks of The Cultural Revolution, images that come to mind are Red Guards, socialist operas, and propaganda posters.  We don’t generally think of tea.

 

That changed for me a month ago when I was at a teahouse in Beijing run by a close friend of mine. It’s a great place to hang out on Sunday afternoons, chatting with Ms. M and her two nieces who help her in the shop. Since she is from Yunnan Province, her specialty is Pu’er Tea, so whenever I am there, that’s pretty much what we drink.

 

Pu’er tea is one of the only teas which, like wine, improves in taste and value with age. Whenever she makes a pot of tea she is careful to tell me what year it was harvested in. The older the better. And when she gives me a “cake” or “ball” of tea (dried, in patties or small balls), she tells me to throw it in a closet and forget about it for 5 years, something I rarely do.

 

Anyway, last month a colleague from the US was in town, so I decided to take him to the teahouse. He’s been in Beijing dozens of times and wanted to do something different. She was particularly excited to see me that day because she had a new tea (well, it was actually really old) she wanted me to try. “What’s it called?” I asked her. “Its’ Cultural Revolution Tea.”

 

Come again??

 

What she was making for us was a pot of tea from a “Cultural Revolution Brick” (the shape/form of the dried tea). She told us that it was a brick of tea dating back to the late 1970’s, and was a collector’s item — very expensive. She was serving it this day to teach her teahouse assistants about it.

 

Graciously she shared it with us, and I will say that it was one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had.

 

 

Oh, and yes, it is available in the US….from Amazon….where else?