If the abundance of tea shops in malls across Alberta is any indication, tea is in and it’s here to stay. But tea is more than simply a hot drink for a cold day—it can actually tell us a lot about the culture and identity of the region where it was cultivated.
Jean DeBernardi, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, studies the anthropology of tea culture in China to determine how tea promotes foreign tourism and investment in China, as well as how it impacts material and regional identity. Tea culture includes how tea is grown and prepared, the equipment used in preparation and serving, and the occasions in which tea is consumed.
“Tea culture represents some of Chinese culture’s great strengths, including aesthetic refinement, an appreciation of nature, and the…cultivation of convivial human relationships,” says DeBernardi. In China, tea culture is a form of material identity that represents shared history and values for the tea farmers who produce the tea and the tea connoisseurs who enjoy it.
It is also a social experience that brings people together: “My students and I have gotten to know many tea sellers and tea producers by drinking tea with them,” adds DeBernardi.
Some varieties of tea are closely associated with the places where they are grown and produced, either because of the local folklore surrounding the origins of the tea or because of the location’s climate, which is conducive to tea production. Other teas are popular because they were selected by the Emperor during imperial times as tribute teas to be offered to the royal court.
All of these details—the location where tea is grown, the folklore surrounding the tea, and the reputation of the tea—provide a wealth of information for cultural anthropologists like DeBernardi about the history, values and culture of tea regions. Tea producers are “very proud of their teas, which require great skill to make well,” she explains.
DeBernardi notes that Chinese tea culture is incredibly rich—both in its historical and social significance, as well as its value in commerce. For example, Big Red Robe tea is harvested from rare mother trees; it was recently sold at an auction for $1,250,000 US per kilogram. The last tea produced from these trees is on display at the National Museum of China in a gold container, which reflects how highly Chinese culture values its tea.
DeBernardi got her first “drink” of Chinese tea culture while researching pilgrimages to a famous Daoist temple complex on Wudang Mountain. The head of a tea company in a nearby village was promoting his tea as “Daoist tea” because it had absorbed spiritual energy from the environment. That sparked her interest in food culture and she quickly became interested in researching the relationship between tea culture and regional identity.
“Foodies enjoy new taste experiences, and specialty teas are like premium wines.”
She now wants to complete an in-depth study of the tea village located at Wuyi Mountain, which produces a very expensive tea known as rock tea. “[The region’s] local culture is exceptionally rich, and I’d like to document that culture in a way that anthropologists traditionally have done with an intensive study of a local community,” says DeBernardi. She also wants to look at how local government and businesses use folklore, rituals and the performing arts to promote their local tea culture. She received a three-year Insight Grant in 2013 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to support this research.
The recent popularity of tea in North America suggests that tea culture and the appreciation of premium teas have become globalized. DeBernardi also investigates the introduction of Chinese tea culture into Canada through international commerce and Confucius Institutes, and the effect it has on promoting Chinese language and arts in Canada. Her research could help inform how programs of cultural diplomacy are fostered and promoted.
As a result of increased export, more premium teas are available in North American than ever before. “Now that these premium teas are being exported, North Americans are learning to appreciate them for their special qualities,” she says. “Foodies enjoy new taste experiences, and specialty teas are like premium wines: there are many varieties to taste, and if someone takes the time to study it they can become a tea connoisseur or even a tea master.”
Jean DeBernardi’s website: