- Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History by James A. Benn, and: The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual by Bret Hinsch
Tea, the most consumed beverage in the world, has had a relatively low profile in histories of China, where it originated. While its dramatic spread to Europe—mainly Britain—during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its successful transplantation to India and other European colonies during the nineteenth century have received ample attention, accounts of its history and development in China have consisted largely of specialized studies, particularly in the Western-language literature.1 The appearance of two books on the history of tea in China within a year of each other is therefore remarkable, particularly since both focus on the Tang and Song dynasties as the seminal periods of that history. Just as remarkable are the dramatic differences between the two books. Whereas James Benn’s Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History presents a detailed account of the emergence of tea as beverage and medicine and its subsequent development, highlighting the role of Buddhism in the process, Bret [End Page 493] Hinsch’s The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual presents a more impressionistic account of that history, arguing, as the subtitle suggests, that the emergence of a tea culture resulted in a profound psycho social change in Chinese elite culture. Just what these two studies have to teach us about tea and culture in Chinese history is the subject of my review.
James Benn’s account of tea’s development into a cultural and religious commodity is complex, most particularly with regard to its origins. Although the Classic of Tea 茶經 by Lu Yu 陸羽 (733–804)—a work that, more than any other, established tea as a respected beverage—associated its beginnings with the mythical Divine Husband-man (Shennong 神農), tea’s origins appear to have been relatively late. Benn meticulously combs through a wide variety of sources, many of them “from the margins of unofficial literature and historiography” (p. 41), confronting thorny issues of textual authenticity and provenance and of terminology. The latter is particularly problematic, for the most common glyph for tea, cha 茶, can only be definitively dated to the Tang. In earlier texts we have references to ming 茗, commonly used for tea in later pharmacological texts; jia 檟, which, according to a fourth-century writer, was a small tree whose leaves could be “boiled to make a soup for drinking” (p. 23); and especially tu 荼, described in a Han pharmacopeia as “a bitter vegetable” (p. 23), whose morphological similarity to cha (differentiated by a single stroke) makes confusion between the two an ever-present possibility. But when found in early texts, do these terms describe anything that we would recognize as tea? Benn agrees with other scholars that true tea probably came from Si chuan in the southwest, but he also argues that tea as a comestible was a Tang invention (pp. 27, 41). This is arguably an overly conservative conclusion, for Benn cites a number of references from the Han as well as the Northern and Southern Dynasties with references to what may well have been tea, but he persuasively points to the Tang as the period of tea’s most important development and popularization.
Benn’s treatment of tea during the Tang comprises the heart of his book, occupying as it does three of the book’s six substantive chapters. How was tea, initially regarded as a “bitter vegetable” used in soups and often for medicinal purposes, elevated into a desirable and prestigious drink? The role of Lu Yu, the subject of chapter 5, was critical. Orphaned at a young age, Lu was raised and educated in a Buddhist [End Page 494] monastery located in Tianmen 天門 County in...