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Archive → November, 2011

Towards a Manifesto for the Slow Tea Movement

‘Tea is blood! Tea is flesh! Tea is life!’ Tibetan saying.

China’s Second Cultural Revolution

‘Culture’ in contemporary China is undergoing a remarkable transformation. The combined forces and effects of urbanisation, industrialisation, globalisation, consumerism and myriad other social and economic transformations taking place at the level of the individual, the family, the community and the nation are creating the conditions for both the ‘invention’ and ‘reinvention’ of ‘culture’. At one end many of these cultural projects are supported and engineered by the party and government. In this sense ‘culture’ is an artifact of government, something that can be developed and guided and put to specific social and governmental uses. At the other end of the spectrum is culture at the grass-roots of society. In this sense ‘culture’ is closely tied to economic opportunities, to localised identities, subcultures and ethnicities in which it can be both a reaction to social change as an ‘economic opportunity’ or as a means of highlighting one’s ‘identity and difference’ (and other things besides). Whatever the case may be it is clear that ‘culture’ can refer to many different things and is not readily reducible (nor should it be) to one essential ‘substance’. Here I am simply reflecting on culture as a form of ‘resource’ open to interpretation, meaning and redeployment in certain contexts.

A good example of ‘culture’ as an artifact of government in contemporary China is the establishment and expansion of the Confucius Institutes. The primary reason for establishing the Confucius Institutes around the world is to help create a positive image of China. The question to be considered by the Chinese authorities and social elites is how will China be understood by a foreign audience as China’s importance and influence in world affairs continues to grow throughout the 21st century. The Confucius Institutes, through the provision of Chinese language education, attempt to work with this agenda. In so doing the question of what kind of ‘cultural representations’ of Chinese culture should be emphasised also invariably arises. The Confucius Institutes present a particular form of ‘soft’ culture that it is hoped is attractive to foreigners. And of course the Confucius Institute strategy has attracted a lot of negative publicity as well. Whether in the long term it will succeed remains to be seen. This is thus a good example of culture as an artifact of government, here in this instance in the service of ‘public relations’.

At the same time the issue of ‘Chinese culture’ and what it stands for is also being played out domestically (within China). This is just as crucial and important, if not more so, than the external projection of culture as a form of so-called ‘soft power’. Within China there is much discussion about the role of culture in the form of a common set of shared values in providing a source for stability and harmony during a period of rapid social change and growing social tensions . ‘Culture’ therefore is a key component of the ‘Harmonious Society’ campaign and was highlighted at the recent Central Committee Plenary Meeting (the Sixth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth Central Party Committee to be exact).

Both the external projection of culture and the internal deployment of culture intersect in the form of a cultural nationalism and shared discourse of ‘Chinese characteristics’. When China was relatively isolated and insular (before the period of ‘reform and openness’ launched in the late 1970s) the question of ‘Chinese characteristics’ was not a burning question of global importance. Now that China is rising the question of ‘Chinese characteristics’ has attracted the attention of many sectors within the foreign community. People all around the world are asking, ‘What values are the foundation of Chinese society’?; ‘How will these values influence the behaviour of the Chinese state?’; and ‘What will China bequeath to the world as its legacy during the 21st century’? Once again the Chinese government has responded through programs like the Confucius Institute to direct this discourse in a specific direction. Chinese society itself will also develop different responses in both ‘harmony’ and ‘tension’ with the wishes of the central authorities.

In this essay, which I hope will one day become a kind of manifesto, I would like to propose that we consider the consumption of tea as a possible resource to draw upon to project a certain set of cultural values that will appeal not only to Chinese consumers of tea but also to the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of tea drinkers around the globe. In taking inspiration from the ‘slow movement’ (which I examine in more detail below) I propose we launch a ‘slow tea movement’ as a way of highlighting the significance of tea consumption as part of everyday social life in ways that reclaim our own time at a moment of fast and superficial consumption. This will also be beneficial to the image of Chinese culture abroad as it both highlights the origins of tea and also the set of cultural values that have shaped themselves around the habitual consumption of tea in China.

Mixing business with pleasure,

Cultural Products and Cultural Values: The Origins of Tea and Historical/Cultural Memory

Through the mass media and the sophisticated manipulation of signs, consumerism has been particularly adroit at attaching values to tangible products. Consider the values of individual choice and the ‘American way’ that are associated with a syrupy beverage known as Coca-Cola. Modern consumer capitalism is built partly on the circulation of images of desire and association (that is, to associate a particular set of values or lifestyle with a particular product). Many other examples, including the importance of film as a text saturated with ‘values’, and other consumer products, could be given. These products have been important complements to state directed strategies to develop soft power and good will.

But what about China? Is there any comparable product or tangible cultural artifact that could be said to embody certain Chinese values? The answer for me is very simple. Yes. Tea, of course. Chinese civilisation has contributed much to humanity over the millennia and is well known for the ‘four great inventions’ of papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and printing (and many more besides these). Although these are in their own right revolutionary in terms of their impacts on society and on values they do not necessarily embody any specific values themselves. Tea, by contrast, is an almost universal and integral part of daily life and habitual social interaction.  Tea is not just a botanical ‘invention’ but perhaps more importantly it is a ‘cultural and social invention’. We know that tea was most likely first consumed as a ritual/medicinal plant harvested from wild tea trees. Over time people began to cultivate the tea plant and the beverage had important physiological effects on health and social effects on communities. Some have even argued that tea has had a profound social medical effect on human societies by popularising the drinking of boiled water. For example, it is argued that once tea became very affordable and widespread in late Victorian England that the drinking of tea with sanitised boiled water had a positive overall impact on the overall health of the population. Of course tea’s contribution to trade and commerce cannot be overlooked. Tea has played a major role in the economic development of many societies and in the development of global trade networks. This also has auxiliary effects on the development of navigation and maritime technology such as the ‘tea clippers’ which were the fastest sailing ships ever built.  The actual contributions of tea to human society are thus very significant. In more ways than we realise tea has shaped human history just as humans have, through selective breeding, shaped the tea tree (Camellia sinensis).

Yet although tea is such a ubiquitous part of daily life and an important part of the story of human civilisation it is often overlooked and taken for granted. In 1839, on the eve of the Opium War (which we may also call the ‘Tea War’ as the acquisition of tea was one of the driving factors for the British to open the Chinese market), the botanical scientist G. G. Sigmond,  in a lecture addressed to the Royal Botanical Society, declared that:

‘Man [sic] is so surrounded by objects calculated to arrest his attention, and to excite either his admiration or his curiousity, that he often overlooks the humble friend that ministers to his habitual comfort: and the familiarity he holds with it almost renders him incapable  of appreciating its value. Amongst the endless variety of vegetable productions which the bountenous hand of Nature has given to his use is that simple shrub, whose leaf supplies an agreeable beverage for his daily nourishment or for his solace; but little does he estimate its real importance: he scarcely knows how materially it influences his moral, his physical, and his social condition: individually and nationally we are deeply indebted to the tea-plant.’

Hence tea could be said to be one of the most valuable and far-reaching ‘inventions’ to come from China. Yet although in English there is a saying ‘Not for all the tea in China’ (which highlights the enormous value of tea compared to other objects) the actual origins of tea seem to be almost forgotten outside of China. Tea in Western societies, for example, is associated with and dominated by companies such as Lipton’s. In an ironic twist of historical fate Lipton’s is also now the tea company with the greatest market share in China itself. This now brings us to the topic of ‘product nationalism’ and the short term challenge faced by Chinese producers of tea in competing with giants like Lipton’s and Starbucks.

Wrapping puer tea cakes.

Product Nationalism: The Starbucks and Lipton’s Challenge

Starbucks, known worldwide for its coffee shops, now includes tea on its beverage list in its Chinese outlets. At the time of writing Starbucks has approximately 500 outlets in mainland China with plans to reach 1,500 by 2015 (Starbucks Newsroom, 2011). Although tea is still the most popular beverage in China, coffee has begun to make some serious inroads especially through the younger cohort of college students and office workers. Yet coffee consumption is still less than five cups per year per person, compared to 400 cups per capita per year in North America (Coonan, 2011). There is still a long way to go but the trend of drinking coffee is certainly making headway. Indeed companies like Starbucks (for which the average price for a cup of coffee is much more than ordinary Chinese folk can afford) and Nescafe (which has aggressively marketed its series of instant coffee) see their future in China. Most recently the celebrated and controversial writer Han Han has just launched an advertisement for Nescafe. (There are of course Taiwanese style coffee houses in mainland China which are somewhat different in terms of how they are marketed and used as sites of consumption, but I will leave them out of the picture for now).

A few years ago Starbucks was embroiled in a major controversy that generated a great deal of heated discussion about China’s cultural heritage. In 2006 Starbucks opened an outlet within the confines of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the centre of political power in China for much of the Ming and all of the Qing dynasties. It is a World Heritage site (one of the first such sites to be inscribed in China after the People’s Republic of China joined the United Nations in the early 1970s). The presence of Starbucks within this iconic site attracted the heated attention of online discussion. Indeed it is often regarded as the first major instance of ‘online public opinion’. Many netizens felt affronted. Rui Chenggang, a well-known TV anchor-man, called for a web campaign against the outlet that he said, ‘tramples over Chinese culture’ (cited in Watts, 2007). Rui said:

‘The Forbidden City is a symbol of China’s cultural heritage. Starbucks is a symbol of lower middle class culture in the west. We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination.’ (ibid)

In response to the controversy Starbucks soon closed the Forbidden City coffee house. The Starbucks/Forbidden City case is interesting insofar as raises the complex intersection of practices of consumption and the manifestation of ‘cultural’ values.

At the moment there are no tea house chains of any significant size that can compete with outlets such as Starbucks. There are many tea houses especially in cities like Beijing, Chengdu and Hangzhou (approximately 60,000 nationwide according to a survey from the China Tea Marketing Association), yet they are small-scale and scattered. As Xu Fuliang, a tea industry expert at Achieve Brand based in Hangzhou, said, ‘Chinese tea houses lack strategic planning and a standard production process … I know some tea house owners in Hangzhou. They run tea houses based on their personal interest and don’t want to enlarge their businesses’. (quoted in Chen 2010).  This is confirmed with my own interviews with tea house proprietors.

But coffee and the coffee house is not the only challenge facing the consumption of tea in China. Probably an even more serious challenge is the growing market share of Lipton’s in the actual tea market itself. There is a widely known saying in the Chinese tea industry, ‘Seventy-thousand Chinese tea companies are equal to one Lipton in terms of turnover.’ In 2008 Lipton’s market share in China was approximately 23 billion yuan, which is almost equal to the entire output of Chinese tea production at 30 billion yuan. Lipton’s has at its disposal over one hundred years of research marketing experience and through its parent company, Unilever, access to sales points across urban China (supermarkets, convenience stores, hotels, etc).

Lipton entered the mainland Chinese tea market in 1992 and it brought with it the humble ‘tea bag’. Tea aficionados often look down on the tea bag, and in terms of the general quality of the tea they seem justified. But by no means should we overlook the massive cultural and social impact that the tea bag represents. The tea bag personifies the ‘values’ of modern urban consumer life: standardised, convenient and fast. In the 1960s in places like the United Kingdom and Australia most people still consumed loose leaf tea. However, by 2007 tea bags made up 96 per cent of the British tea market (United Kingdom Tea Council 2011). Since 2004 Lipton’s has also introduced other teas, such as green tea, into the Chinese market indicating that it is quite capable of adapting to local conditions in order to increase market share even further. Wu Xiduan, general secretary of Chinese Tea Marketing Association, is quoted as saying, ‘The hundreds of different types of tea drunk by Chinese people mean it’s not possible to develop the Chinese tea industry into a company like Lipton’s, which is standardized with no difference in quality’.  (cite in Yue 2011)

True. Chinese tea producers cannot compete with the scale and power of the Lipton’s and Starbucks, at least not in the short term. But they having something very valuable to draw upon that Lipton’s and Starbucks have little real hope of acquiring, that is, the rich set of cultural and social values associated with the ‘traditional’ consumption of tea in China.

A welcome brew.

The Slow Tea Movement

Zheng Xin’an, professor at the Chinese Brand Research Center, Capital University of Economics and Business, is a bit more optimistic about the Starbucks challenge. He is quoted as saying, ‘Starbucks will not grab business from traditional tea houses, as they face different consumer groups … Older people like to go to tea houses to relax, because preparing and drinking tea is a piece of slow art in their eyes, while Starbucks attracts young people and office workers in busy downtown areas.’ (cited in Chen 2010)

Yes, that’s right, the consumption of tea is traditionally a form of ‘slow art’ and it is perhaps the ‘art of being slow’ that is one of Chinese tea culture’s greatest virtues.

In my experience of traveling throughout China in search of the perfect ‘cuppa’, but especially in places like Yunnan which some hold to be the very original source of tea itself, I have been struck by the importance of tea as part of daily social life. Often in Yunnan when you visit a friend, colleague or even a businesses, the first thing you are offered is a cup of tea. Many people have ‘tea stations’ set up in their homes and offices and spend much of their time interacting socially with their friends, relatives, colleagues and clients over many cups of tea. Each cup of tea is carefully brewed according to set protocol and customs and guests are invited to saviour the colour, aroma and taste. The consumption of tea is not to be rushed. There is no place for the tea bag here (although admittedly some people will still have tea bags in store for times when ‘convenience calls’, a sin for which I will also make a confession). Yunnan, long known for its slower and more relaxed pace of life, has been able to resist or control the pressures of modern life. Until now that is. With the development of the economy, especially mass tourism, and of modern infrastructure the gap between Yunnan and the rest of China is gradually closing (of course I do not mean to imply that the closing of the gap is an even process).

Thus even the tea culture in Yunnan has not been able to avoid some of the pitfalls of extreme commercialisation and the temptations of modern lifestyles. For instance, there are many small operations which produce very poor quality teas which they sell to unsuspecting and uneducated buyers, typically in the tourism market. The unscrupulous tea salespersons of this kind are cashing in on the craze for puer tea and the associated romance and nostalgia of the ‘ancient tea horse road’. However, there are also many reputable companies, large and small, which take the tea business very seriously. On my travels throughout Yunnan exploring and investigating the world of tea (and Yunnan is home to many more varieties of tea than just puer) I have often heard from those in the business the importance of incorporating ‘culture’ into the tea business. Mu Ga, a fine tea proprietor based in Lijiang (his tea is marketed under the label of Qiuyuetang 秋月堂), for example, refers to his puer tea in terms of ‘humanity puer’ (人文普洱) by which he means it is important to stress that tea is a cultural and social practice that is best consumed bearing in mind certain ethical standards and cultural practices. Proprietors like Mu Ga attempt to distance themselves from the fad for instant gratification and convenience that is often associated with the consumption of other beverages. To avoid association with dodgy tea producers, for instance, Mu Ga does not label any of his teas with the icons or references to the ‘ancient tea horse road’.

I believe in building upon the experience of efforts by Mu Ga and others that we have the embryo of a ‘slow tea movement’ in China, a movement that could grow to international standards and make its mark at a crucial time when people are beginning to increasingly question the shortcomings of modern consumer capitalism. In doing so we can take inspiration from the ‘slow movement’. The slow movement is an international movement that is a reaction to the pressures and commercialisation of modern life. Modern consumer capitalism celebrates convenience and the fast pace of life as virtues in themselves. Yet many people are finding the forces behind the expansion of a standardised form of global capitalism to be wantonly destructive and exploitative. Since the onset of the industrial revolution the pace of life has quickened. The motto of modern capitalism is ‘time is money’ and factories and workplaces have been designed to facilitate the need for efficiency and speed. These pressures have gradually found their way into all fields of working life and have even begun to extend into the private realm of individual, family and community life. The ‘slow movement’ advocates for a cultural change and a shift back towards a more balanced lifestyle in which social and familial time are valued and respected (and not just corporatist slogans of ‘life balance’).

At the heart of the ‘slow movement’ is a certain ethos that advocates for a shift to smaller scales of production that favour local communities, local produce and ethical forms of consumption (non-exploitative and environmentally sustainable, for example). It can be conceived as part of the growing concerns for all manner of ethical considerations in our contemporary period. By its nature and in keeping with its ethos the ‘slow movement’ is not a centralised organisation or political force. Rather it is as disparate and diverse as the principles it advocates for. The ‘slow movement’ now has many branches: ‘slow food’, ‘slow cities’, ‘slow design’, ‘slow travel’, and so on. I believe in building upon the experiences of the ‘slow movement’ that alongside ‘slow food’, ‘slow cities’, and ‘slow travel’ we can now also work towards including ‘slow tea’ as part of the ‘slow movement’ platform. And based on the thousands of years of rich cultural experience I believe that China, and Yunnan in particular, is well positioned to kick start this call for returning both ‘time’ and ‘tea’ to the people.

Tea consumers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your tea bags! You have a whole afternoon of tea drinking to win!

Slow Tea Ceremony.


Chen Yang (2010) ‘Role Reversal’, http://news.alibaba.com/article/detail/business-in-china/100259015-1-role-reversals.html

Coonan, Clifford (2011) ‘China’s coffee consumption: from leaves to beans’, Global Coffee Review, http://www.globalcoffeereview.com/regions/view/chinas-coffee-consumption-from-leaves-to-beans.

Fromer, Julie E. (2008) A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England, Ohio University Press.

Sigmond G. G. (1839) Tea Its Effects, Medicinal and Moral, London: Longman.

Starbucks Newsroom (2011) ‘Starbucks Celebrates Its 500th Store Opening in Mainland China’, http://news.starbucks.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=580.

United Kingdom Tea Council (2011) ‘The history of the tea bag’, http://www.tea.co.uk/the-history-of-the-tea-bag.

Watts, Jonathan (2007) ‘Starbucks faces eviction from the Forbidden City’, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jan/18/china.jonathanwatts.

Yue, Ben (2011) Investors get picky about rare, exotic teas (China Daily) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2011-03/28/content_12235355.htm