Addenda et Corrigenda for
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide
by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

 

by DougH

 

(This page is provided as a supplement to my review of The Story of Tea on CHA DAO, http://tinyurl.com/24xy5n9.)

 

Sensibilities

 

“For the eloquent Song people life had little concern but for pleasurable moments” (p. 14). This seems almost absurdly reductive. When has there ever been, at any point in history, in any culture, a time when any “people” “had little concern but for pleasurable moments”? I imagine that 99.9% of the “Song people” had a good deal of concern for lots of things besides "pleasurable moments" -- like making sure they had enough to eat, raising their children, and so on.

 

“In the East … tea permeates and sustains life in ways that those of us in the West simply fail to comprehend” (p. ix). Again, pure orientalism.

 

Part and parcel of the authors’ sensibility is their grotesquely unrealistic view of tea workers. The Preface contains numerous examples, especially on the bottom half of p. ix: “... along with the experienced senses of tea workers who can see, feel and hear the elusive changes ....This human factor conveys – in hand movements, glances, and the concentration etched on the tea worker’s faces – indefinable but almost tangible connections to the wisdom of the sages and the tea masters who came before. [¶] From China to India to Sri Lanka the tea workers all share a common connection with the land and a keen awareness of the way their tea should be. Perhaps most important and most difficult to define is an appreciation for the way that the leaf wants to be [emphasis in original]. Experienced tea workers know to work with the leaf and the calendar, not against either.” Other examples are sprinkled throughout the book.

 

Tea picking is mechanized in a few tea areas, such as much of Japan and some plantations in Assam. Other than those areas, many, probably the majority, of tea workers are pickers (and those who support them). Their job is:

• Go out into the tea field

• Pluck the appropriate leaves from a tea plant

• Put the leaves into the large basket one is carrying

• Repeat the above until the basket is full

• Take the basket to a central point and empty it, then return to the tea field

• Repeat the above for 6-8 or more hours a day

• Repeat the above for the rest of your working life

 

While emphatically not denying the cognitive skills necessary to quickly recognize which leaves to pick, or the physical skills necessary to pick those leaves quickly and carefully, this is still agricultural grunt work, little different from agricultural work for most crops in most countries around the world, including that of migrant farm workers in the USA. It is not grand and glorious, there is no “connection to the wisdom of the sages and the tea masters,” and I rather doubt that the tea plantation workers of South Asia, Africa and Indonesia romanticize a “common connection with the land” or have much “appreciation for the way that the leaf wants to be.”

 

I suspect the authors spent most of their time talking to owners and managers rather than to actual workers (who are typically much less likely to speak English, and who in any case will always – in the absence of effective labor unions – be reluctant to speak freely when the boss is standing there next to visitors). Perhaps because of their orientalist mentality, the authors have cherry-picked, or imagined, idyllic scenarios of contented, empowered tea workers, and presented these as typical.

 

There is, in fact, a significant history of labor conflict in at least some tea-plantation areas -- notably Assam, but also Darjeeling and perhaps other areas of India. For just a taste, see:

http://tinyurl.com/24off4c,

http://tinyurl.com/2ekh8a5,

http://tinyurl.com/2cysejx, and

http://tinyurl.com/22oyq2j .

Finally, for a far better critique than I could possibly do on a practice very similar to the cha deconstruction, see

http://tinyurl.com/r467e.

 

Organization and Editing

 

Though there are sections in Chapter 1 specifically for Japan (including one titled “Tea Arrives in Japan,” p. 14), there is one paragraph (bottom of p. 11) specifically on Japan, in the section on Tang China, about ... tea arriving in Japan.

 

Though Chapter 6 is the chapter on “brewing,” gongfu steeping is only covered in Chapter 7 (p. 308).

 

Though Chapter 3 is the chapter on tea manufacture, there is substantial information on tea manufacture scattered throughout Chapter 4.

 

At the beginning of the chapter (p. 112), the text cites 2004 tea production statistics. Unfortunately, there seems to be a significant set of typos here, as the specific numbers cited appear to be off by a factor of 1000. Total world production is claimed to be something over 3,200,000 metric tons. But then the figures for the top ten individual countries are numbers like 835 metric tons, 820 metric tons, 325 metric tons, etc. These numbers have to be typos, off by times 1000 (see, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/2dk6jpn). However, the relative magnitude of the numbers appears correct, asserting that China was the largest tea-producing country in the world (835 metric tons), followed by India (820 metric tons). But then in the section on India, the text cites a 2005 statistic (p. 192), claiming that India was the largest tea producer (around 928,000 metric tons). Since these figures are from different years, they of course could both be correct. However, it is confusing to indicate that China is the largest producer, and then in another place in the same chapter, use a different year’s statistics to say that India is the largest producer. If they had 2005 statistics, why didn’t they just use them consistently, thus producing a consistent production picture?

 

Again, at the beginning of the section on Africa, they say “Africa ranks fourth in world production with an impressive 476,641 metric tons produced” (p. 238), though they don’t say what year this number is for. “Fourth” compared to what? Their statistics at the beginning of this chapter are for countries, not continents, and in any case, 476,000 MT would place third in that list, not fourth.

 

As noted in the main review, though the book has a chapter on the history of tea (Chapter 1), there are extensive historical passages scattered throughout Chapter 4. For example, there are at least two pages of pure history of Japanese tea (pp. 164-166), over three pages of Korean history (pp. 187-190), almost three pages on Russia and Georgia (p. 209) tea history, a page or so each on Taiwan (p. 214) and a page and a half on Sri Lanka tea history (p. 227), two pages on Indonesian tea history, and a page or so for Vietnam. Consolidating this historical information in the actual history chapter (Chapter 1) would have made for a cleaner organization of the book and of Chapter 4.

 

The authors discuss in Chapter 3 aspects of the processing of CTC tea (p. 87) before they ever define what orthodox (p. 89) or CTC processing styles are; I couldn’t in fact even find in Chapter 3 an actual definition of CTC to match the orthodox definition, even though there is a specific section (p. 93) on the processing of CTC tea. However, there is a basic definition of CTC, in Chapter 4, dropped into a chapter subdivision on Nilgiri tea (p. 208), as if the CTC discussion only applied to Nilgiri teas. Further, there is an associated discussion of Orthodox processing, dropped into this same Nilgiri tea section (p. 207), which again has nothing to do specifically with that section. Both of these Orthodox and CTC discussions should have been located in Chapter 3, where tea manufacturing is discussed.

 

History

 

The material on South Asia emphasizes the (extremely sanitized) derring-do of Europeans, eliding centuries of imperial oppression and humiliation, the deaths of many thousands of Indians recruited to work on tea plantations under the most outrageous of lies and false pretenses, horrendous (and often deadly) working conditions (especially during the initial creation of many Assam plantations), the grotesque ignorance, incompetence and stupidity of many of the European (usually British) “planters” (so blatant and so widespread that even British commentators at the time spoke of it disparagingly). The only example you get here of any European perfidy is some brief coverage of the multiple British invasions of China during the Opium Wars, a time when the British and their proxies were probably the biggest drug pushers in the world.

 

On p. 120: “The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) first uncovered the secrets of producing whole-leaf green tea.” This is wrong (or at least misleading, depending on what the authors exactly mean by it), as the authors themselves apparently know (p. 14: “the Song began experimenting with drinking tea brewed from loose leaves”). The switch to steeping leaf tea was pretty much a done deal by the start of the Ming (see Mair/Hoh, p. 110).

 

If you have any serious interest in the history of tea, run to your favorite bookstore or online book vendor. The best overall book on tea history I’ve seen is The True History of Tea, by Mair and Hoh (reviewed on CHA DAO awhile back: http://tinyurl.com/2ah65hj). Other pretty good or better books on specific areas of tea history are Roy Moxham's Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire; Iris and Alex MacFarlane's The Empire of Tea; John Charles Griffiths's Tea: The Drink That Changed the World; and Beatrice Hohenegger's Liquid Jade (also reviewed here three years ago: http://tinyurl.com/yspfmd).

 

Romanization, Translation, Terminology

 

Romanization

 

The authors say: “There are often several equally correct spellings for the same Chinese tea. This is the result of the changes in translation from Chinese to English over the years (tea vendors primarily use pinyin and occasionally the Wade-Giles spellings)” (p. 256). This is rather misleading, and surely is an overly rosy view of industry practice (at least in the USA).

 

First, for practical purposes, outside of academia, there have been only two systems of romanization (which is not “translation”) for Mandarin (Putonghua). Thus there are really only two “correct” spellings for a given Chinese tea name or word. Second, pinyin (specifically Hanyu pinyin) is the official romanization scheme of the PRC, ISO, the UN and (apparently as of 2009) Taiwan; thus, again outside of academia, the Wade-Giles system is effectively obsolete. This argues for using pinyin as the romanization system for tea terminology, now and for the foreseeable future – at least, “simplified” pinyin (my term), i.e. without numerals or diacriticals indicating tone.

 

Third, regardless of what romanization system you use, you definitely ought to use that system correctly and consistently. Yet, after years of looking at many, many dozens of English-language tea-vendor and other tea sites and reading many tea books, it seems clear to me that the only “system” used by the vast majority is a random mash-up of pinyin and Wade-Giles, with a healthy dose of completely made-up spelling thrown in for good measure. This is true even of some English-language tea sites run by Chinese, whose proprietors apparently either don’t know pinyin or don’t care about getting it right.

 

The authors of The Story of Tea are clearly attempting to use pinyin, but they don’t come close to doing it either correctly or consistently. Do not use this book (or the authors’ tea vendor web site) as a source for the correct romanization of Chinese tea names or terms, or for the correct translations of same.

 

Translation, Terminology

 

Inconsistently, the authors spell the name of the Chinese oolong tieguanyin at least three ways (in one place, p. 219, two different ways on the same line of text): “Ti Kuan Yin,” “tieguanyin,” “Tie Guan Yin.” Further, they spell the name of the bodhisattva Guanyin – for whom the tea is named – as “Kuan Yin” (pp. 149, 150, 151), even though they (more or less) know the correct pinyin (p. 149). Such inconsistency is, of course, bad in and of itself, but if nothing else, this inconsistency makes it harder for readers to see the connection to the oolong tea name.

 

On p. 156, the text states that “Guangdong Province” is the modern name for Canton, “the region made famous in the days of the historical tea trade.” Guangdong is actually the pinyin for the real (or at least long-standing) name of the province. “Canton” is, I believe, the Anglicization of a Portuguese corruption (from the late 1500s?) of the province name in a local version of Chinese.

 

In Chapter 5, one of the teas presented is “Tung Ting” (p. 264); the correct pinyin is dongding. Another is “Bi Lo Chun” (p. 261), which is closer (biluochun), but still not quite right.

 

In Chapter 3, there is a section title "Oolong Tea (Wulong or Blue Tea)" (p. 77). In Chapter 4, there is a section titled "China's Oolong Teas (Blue Teas, Ching Cha, or Wulong)" (p. 142). Both romanization and translation are incorrect – the Chinese qing () is usually translated in this context as “blue-green,” which makes at least somewhat more sense than “blue” – there is nothing blue about oolong leaf or liquor (I don’t myself see anything blue-green about them either, but maybe that’s just me).

 

In a more subtle example, on p. 70 in the discussion of yellow tea, they use the romanization “men huan,” which they translate as “sealing yellow.” Mair and Hoh, in a very similar discussion (their p. 118), use the correct pinyin men huang and translate it as “sealed yellowing,” which makes more sense.

 

Throughout the discussions of pu’er tea (e.g., pp. 95-100, 139), the authors consistently use the incorrect pinyin spelling “shou” for shu ().Though this is not uncommon in the small part of the Western tea world that knows about pu’er (and the even smaller part that knows the difference between the two basic types of pu’er), other websites and vendors do spell it correctly.

 

The authors consistently (pp. 133-135, 271) misspell as “zhen” the romanization of the first character in the Chinese name of the tea Lapsang SouchongZhengshan xiaozhong (正山小). The correct pinyin for the first character is zheng (). Zhen could be the pinyin for a number of different characters, none of them correct in this context. Further, in the index, the spelling for this tea is “Zen Shan” (though I realize the authors may not themselves have compiled the index).

 

On p. 133, in the discussion of Lapsang Souchong, the authors start a paragraph “On Zhen [sic] Shan Mountain ....” First, this is redundant, since shan means “mountain.” Further, the authors obviously believe there is a mountain named “Zhen[g] Shan.” I have been unable to confirm this, but if the authors are making this assumption from the first characters of the name of the tea discussed on that page, their assumption is incorrect. The first two characters of the tea named Zhengshan xiaozhong (正山小种) are not the name of a mountain, but a phrase meaning something like “original mountain” or “truly from the mountain.”

 

Finally, as further evidence of their carelessness in romanization, the authors (as of June 2010) in multiple places on their own web site romanize the last character of this tea name as “Chung” (e.g. http://tinyurl.com/2fvoo39), which not only isn’t even close to being correct, but is completely inconsistent with the spelling they use in this book (which, remember, is now three years old).

 

The authors also use terms, usually from the South Asian tea industry, as if they applied worldwide. For example, in Chapter 3, which describes how different classes of tea are manufactured (according to the authors’ color classification – not according to geographical production area), the terms chung (p. 86) and dhool (p. 91) are used as if they applied everywhere, yet as far as I can tell, these are specific to Indian (or at least South Asian) tea manufacturing – I doubt these terms are known or used in East Asia, for example.

 

In Chapter 2, the authors use the term “first flush” in a general discussion of “China Bush” (p. 43), yet this again is a term from the Indian tea industry, not used in East Asia, or even, from what I’ve seen, in Sri Lanka or Africa.

 

Though the authors discuss CTC tea processing, nowhere could I find mentioned the fact that CTC processing is used only in the areas of historic Euro/British tea – India, Sri Lanka, Africa, perhaps Indonesia – and not at all by East Asian tea producers, thus again implying that the term “CTC” is relevant world-wide and that CTC tea is made world-wide.

 

Tea Categories

 

The problematic discussion is the initial section of Chapter 3, on the “six classes” of tea. The authors first describe a supposed classification system “devised early in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)” (p. 50) where tea was identified “by the color of the liquor of the brewed beverage” (p. 50). This system used the “designations of white, yellow, green, blue, red, and black to differentiate the various classes of tea” (p. 50). They then describe a twentieth-century “major/minor” classification scheme used by “many tea writers” (by which they clearly mean: many Western tea writers), a scheme “that is still popular today” (p. 50), which “lists only five teas – the majors being green, oolong, and black, and the minors being scented and bricked” (p. 50). Finally (p. 51), they propose, in a rather confusing chart, their own 6 categories: green, yellow, white, oolong, black and pu’er.

 

This discussion is problematic for a number of reasons, the first couple being yet more organizational problems:

• The authors don’t explain until much later (p. 84 is the earliest I could find; there is no entry for “red tea” in the index) that the Chinese term “red tea” (hongcha) refers to the same category of tea that is called “black tea” in most of the world outside of East Asia.

• The Chinese term heicha refers to a category of tea that has no specific name in the West, but which includes not only shu pu’er (and maybe aged sheng, though this seems to be unclear or inconsistent in Chinese practice), but also liubao and many other post-fermented teas (see http://tinyurl.com/27tgev9 for a list of many heicha). The authors do not mention this category until much later (p. 95 is the earliest I could find), and then inadequately and incorrectly (they imply that only pu’er is “black” tea in “old Chinese”).

 

Without the above information, how is one to understand the (supposed) Chinese system, or recognize the correspondences between it and Western systems such as the one proposed by the authors?

 

Further,

• Regarding the supposedly popular “major/minor” system, despite 8-9 years of reading many tea web sites and quite a few tea books, I’ve never seen this system mentioned or used, at least not as the authors name it or describe it.

• If the original Chinese system was devised “early in the Ming,” how could it have “red” as a category, since red tea (hongcha) probably wasn’t invented until at least the mid-Ming, if not later?

• If the Chinese system was based on the “color of the liquor of the brewed beverage,” how does one explain the “blue” category? No tea brews up blue. However, it seems likely (though they cite no source for their information on this scheme) that what they mean by “blue” here is qingcha – blue-green tea, the traditional classification for oolong (which still leaves the question somewhat open, as I know of no oolong with a blue-green liquor).

• The authors' own proposed classification scheme ignores the traditional general category of heicha (“black teas” in the Chinese sense – which virtually always refers to post-fermented teas), apparently using the pu’er category in its place. But, as explained above, this omits many teas, since, regardless of where you stand on classifying pu’er teas as heicha, there are definitely heicha that are not pu’er.

• Finally, where does this classification leave other obvious tea categories, such as flavored, scented, or smoked? Though the more austere among us may tend to lean away from these, they undeniably exist, even in China. Jasmine-scented tea is and has been popular in parts of China (supposedly, mostly in the north), the authors themselves claim since the Ming dynasty (p. 160). And the Chinese invented smoked tea and are still the main source of it (though they themselves rarely drink it). Further, scented and flavored teas, like Earl Grey, are enormously popular in the West. What kind of classification system leaves out those classes of teas that are the most likely ones that most readers will see most often?

 

Finally, they say this of tea classification schemes: “… there have always been only six main ‘classes’ of leaf tea manufacture” (p. 50). In my experience, different tea writers, and different tea traditions, come up with different numbers of tea categories – I’ve seen from three to at least seven (and probably more, especially if a writer throws in categories like scented and/or flavored); this one (http://tinyurl.com/2bldvzc) claims seven varieties. So, regardless of how useful the current authors’ categories may or may not be, the number of them is clearly not as fixed as the authors say.