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Archive → June, 2014

China’s Great Tea Revival: An Interview with Zhou Chonglin

Zhou Chonglin at ease with the pen, the microphone, the mobile social network platform ... all for the revival of China's greatest gift to humanity: tea. Image courtesy of Chaye Fuxing.

Zhou Chonglin at ease with the pen, the microphone, the mobile social network platform … all for the revival of China’s greatest gift to humanity: tea. Image courtesy of Chaye Fuxing.

On the 1st April 2014 – and this is definitely not an April Fool’s joke – the President of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party – Mr Xi Jinping, gave a speech in Brussels in which he contrasted the cultures of the West and China by comparing the former to wine and the latter to tea. President Xi’s purpose seems to have been to note the different cultural and political traditions in East and West and figured that, in the case of China, nothing better than tea could highlight the unique features of Chinese sociability. The West, he was reported as saying, celebrates friendship and important occasions with wine, whereas in China tea has been the beverage of choice. The President’s choice of tea for China is somewhat disingenuous as we all know that wine in Chinese culture has also lubricated many a festive occasion, indeed some of China’s greatest poets did their best work ‘under the influence’. But we get the point and there is no point pursuing the matter any further (not here at least), suffice to say that in my opinion East and West can both be characterised as ‘tea cultures’, albeit with different connotations and nuances. Western style wine is just making its mark in China whereas tea, by contrast, has shaped the interactions of China and ‘the rest’ for well over a thousand years.

To learn more about the true nature of tea in world history we are well advised, of course, to turn to the expert opinion of those who devote their lives to its study, and invariably if he or she is wise enough, to its consumption. In this blog I have previously provided transcripts of interviews with some of contemporary China’s most influential tea and tea culture scholars, notably, Professors Mu Jihong and Shen Dongmei. Today it is my pleasure to share with you the abbreviated transcript of an interview with Zhou Chonglin. I met Chonglin several years ago when I commenced my research on Southwest China’s ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’. At that time he was working closely with Professor Mu Jihong in the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute’ at Yunnan University. We had long discussions, many cups of tea, and a few memorable (sic!) bouts with Chinese wine. Chonglin introduced me to the world of the young Chinese scholar. It was so refreshing and enlightening to meet someone so passionate about their research and, of course, about tea and China. Chonglin published the book The Tea War in 2012. The book, which is a reassessment of the Opium War (1840) through the lens of tea, was a huge success and catapulted Chonglin onto the national stage. To put this in context we need to understand that as China is rising there is much discussion about the nature of cultural change, and what kind of ‘culture’ China needs to develop in the 21st Century. Of course the role of ‘traditional culture’ in this scheme of things is very important. In Chonglin’s case the question is what is the role and place of tea in Chinese culture and society? As you shall see in the interview below there is much more to this than just the pleasant feeling you get when drinking quality tea in aesthetic surrounds with your friends – it also speaks to the anxiety many people have in China, and around the world, about the pace of change and the disruption modernity brings to our daily lives. Personally I detect here the beginnings of a great work on political economy that takes tea and its production, distribution, branding and consumption as its focus. More on this in the future.

Most recently Chonglin, along with support from the Chinese tea industry and research community, has established an organisation aimed at promoting the development of Chinese tea in China. The movement – as they refer to such things in China – is called ‘The Tea Revival’ (茶叶复兴). I like to think of it as a movement dedicated to ‘reviving China through tea’. One of the great ironies of China’s engagement with the West since the so-called ‘Opium Trade’ (in which, to put it crudely, the British traded opium from India for Chinese tea) is that now, as the Chinese economy is opening to the outside world, that the company with the largest market retail for tea in China is Liptons. This represents a humiliating slap in the face to the Chinese tea industry. It is also a reminder that as China embraces global capitalism it will have to think quite creatively about how to protect and promote its own industries, including tea, in the face of multinational behemoths that have almost unlimited resources and decades of experience in market competition. A lot more could be said on this front but let’s ask Chonglin to do the talking for now.

Just a few quick words about Zhou Chonglin’s background. Chonglin is from Yunnan Province, a native of Shizong (师宗) in eastern Yunnan near the border of Guangxi and Guizhou. He attended the Chinese Faculty at Yunnan University. Upon graduation he was a journalist in Beijing for one year whereupon he returned to Yunnan. Since then he has been intimately involved in all things tea-related. His books include The Tea War  and The Tea Secret. He is a Research Fellow in the Ancient Tea Horse Road Culture Research Institute at Yunnan University, and one of the Founders and Directors of the ‘[China] Tea Revival Movement’ In 2013 he was nominated by an influential Chinese magazine as one of the young and upcoming people to keep an eye on. He is in his 30s and is the recent proud father of a baby girl.

Note: The interview was conducted in Chinese and has been translated into English by yours truly. The text has been back-translated into Chinese and be found here.

1. I know that tea has always featured strongly in your life since the day you were born. What are your earliest recollections concerning tea?

I started drinking tea when I was just a child, but it wasn’t a regular daily habit at that time. Nonetheless the stage was set for tea to become a lot more central to my life later on. My most vivid recollection is the holding of the ritual offering ceremonies to the family ancestors. My father would get the tea ready for the offering. The everyday ritual items and food were always the very vest we could offer, and tea and alcohol couldn’t of course be forgotten. I remember that there were always people who aren’t tea drinkers but needed it for the ritual offering – they would come around to our house to ‘borrow’ some tea. Hence it is clear that the ritual offering couldn’t be done without tea. The fact that in our lives tea occupies such a very important position is thus one of the deepest motivations for me to do tea culture research.

2. Why did you decide to write The Tea War (《茶叶战争》)?

There has been a consistent position in the Chinese tea and cultural worlds, that is, to describe the Opium War (1840) as a tea war. Of course evidence was needed to make the argument stronger. It was only later that I learned that in Western academia the Opium War was also highly controversial. I spent several years looking for the evidence and during the 2012 European Cup wrote the manuscript in one hit.

3. What has been the reaction of the reading public to The Tea War?

Within one year the book sold several ten thousand copies when it was published on the mainland. It was well reviewed in the media and won numerous book awards. It was also very well received when it was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many said such an influential book in the tea history field had not been seen for many years. As a result I received many invitations, went on television, and gave countless lectures. In fact the book is still generating interest. So The Tea War has certainly put me in the spotlight. I couldn’t have imagined the success and popularity of this book, especially since the style is a bit bookish. I wrote it without the intention of it being a popular-type book. So I’m very satisfied and honoured by the success.

4. Please speak to us a bit about the ‘Tea Revival’ project. What is the idea behind it? What are its objectives? And what form does it take?

China has been studying the West for over a hundred years. China’s GDP is now ranked number two in the world. But people still aren’t satisfied or happy because the environment is polluted and the villages are disappearing. We studied and adopted parts of the Western style of economic development, but China hasn’t adopted the Western political system or yet developed a good system of social welfare. Scholars like me need to eliminate the anxiety that modernity brings and concentrate on reviving traditional culture, and bring out the beautiful things in life, and thereby let people live a life of security and dignity. In China all the people in the tea business are very idealistic and spirited, with the finest tea vessels, ceremonial attire, mountain tea, pure spring water, and fine fellow travelers with who to chat; it’s an exciting and stimulating field to work in with many pleasures along the way.

Since I started the Tea Revival Movement I’ve encountered many like-minded people who are concerned about China and hope that tea’s traditional core role in daily life can be re-established. So this is our goal and for which we are developing programs and activities. For instance, we have launched a ‘Chinese style afternoon tea’, the purpose of which is to let more people understand and appreciate the place of tea in Chinese culture. We are utilising social networking platforms such as WeChat to spead our message and it has proven to be very effective.

Zhou Chonglin takes to social media like a fish takes to water. Not is he a prolific writer of academic texts, he also a modern day digital mass mobiliser. Very effective indeed.

Zhou Chonglin takes to social media like a fish takes to water. Not only is he a prolific writer of academic texts, he is also a modern day digital mass mobiliser incarnate. Very effective indeed.

5. What is the biggest challenge facing the Chinese tea industry?

Firstly, there is no strong and competitive brand; if you add up the entire Chinese tea industry it still falls short of the size and sophistication of Liptons, one single English company.

Secondly, value adding in the industry is underdeveloped and the tea industry is still primarily agricultural in orientation. In this connection there is also insufficient participation of scientific research and innovation.

Thirdly, the consumption base of tea has been significantly disrupted. The consumption of tea in China has in modern times been disrupted several times. For a time tea was replaced by opium and tobacco; later it was ideological objections to the drinking of tea – as it was seen as a petit-bourgeois pleasure during the 1960s and 1970s – that put restrictions on the aesthetic consumption of tea. After the launch of ‘reform and openness’ in the late 1970s coffee and soft-drinks – such as Starbucks and Coca-Cola – poured into the Chinese market; not to mention the competition from an experienced multinational player such as Liptons. As a result the Chinese tea industry has been unable to react effectively. Nowadays the ‘teahouse’ is synonymous with a place for senior citizens to play mahjong; not a very attractive environment for young Chinese. We are trying to the fortunes of tea around and make it more attractive for young people.

6. In light of the above, how has Chinese tea culture developed in recent years? What are the main trends?

In recent years, due to the support from the Yunnan puer tea folks, the Fujian ‘iron buddha’ (铁观音) and black tea producers, the lifeblood is being slowly pumped back into the Chinese tea industry. The number of tea consumers in China has also significantly increased in recent years. As the tea industry revives research on Chinese tea culture has also picked up. By 2006 in Yunnan alone there were at least ten tea journals and over one hundred tea-related books published. Hence the visibility of tea in the media has improved considerably. Furthermore, in 2013 the ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’ was officially recognised by the Central Government as ‘China National Cultural Heritage’ (国家文物保护单位). China Central Television (CCTV) produced and broadcast two well-received documentaries on tea. So tea continues to increase in visibility and is becoming a source of cultural pride for more and more Chinese people.

7. What do you mean by ‘tea life’ (茶生活)? What relationship does it have we the so-called ‘slow movement’?

‘Tea life’ means to take tea as a central part of life. It could be as routine as part of the list of essential daily necessities in Chinese family life, that is, ‘fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea’ (柴米油盐酱醋茶); or it could be part of the more aesthetically refined notion of ‘music, chess, books, art, wine and tea’. No matter whether ‘ordinary’ or ‘refined’ both of these include tea as an essential element. And both note ‘slow time’ as a core platform.

Indeed the traditional Chinese life-style is characterised by ‘slow time’, such as ‘kungfu tea’ (功夫茶). In Chinese ‘kungfu’ actually means to ‘consume time’. ‘Slow time’, not surprisingly, can be found in the ‘less developed’ regions of China such as Yunnan. I was raised in this kind of ‘slow time’. Part of our agenda is to help people rediscover the importance of ‘slow time’ through the social consumption of tea. [note: this fits well with my own position towards the ‘slow tea movement’ for which I have written a manifesto on this blog].

8. What message would you like to directly convey to a foreign audience?

If foreigners are interested in Chinese culture they can discover an ‘interesting China’ in tea culture. Tea in traditional Chinese culture – including the important elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism – was developed into a spiritually refined beverage and art of consumption. Just as I noted at the beginning of this interview, tea is still an important ritual item for Chinese to pay respects to their ancestors. In these times of a changing China, out of the three commodities that once made China famous and powerful – silk, porcelain, and tea – only tea remains in any significant way. China has much more than just ‘fake products’, it also has something as beautiful and refined as tea. I encourage our foreign friends to discover the ‘real China’ through tea.

'Hey Chonglin, we're putting a lot of effort in here but not making an progress ... time for tea break!'

‘Hey Chonglin, we’re putting a lot of effort in here but not making an progress … time for a tea break!’ ‘Gary, this IS the tea break!’