A Tea Addict's Journal

Quick review: The True History of Tea

June 17, 2009 · 10 Comments

I don’t normally do book reviews, and I know that Corax of Chadao will be doing a much more thorough and thoughtful review of this book at some point or another, so here are just my quick thoughts on this nice, new, shiny book.

The book is by Victor Mair and Erhling Hoh.  I know nothing about Erling Hoh.  Victor Mair I do know by reputation — he’s a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, and is very prolific with both scholarly work on philology, literature, and also translations of classical texts.

The pedigree of the author matters, because I feel that the authors of many of the books currently on the market that talk about tea, especially ones that purport to discuss the history of tea, are not familiar with the country they’re discussing, nor well versed enough in the language to use primary sources that are reliable.  While this may be all right for a book that only makes gestures towards explaining the history of tea in East Asia, they inevitably have to rely on second hand evidence or anecdotes from other sources.  They also tend to over-rely on Lu Yu’s Chajing because it along among older texts on tea is translated, giving it a place that is well deserved but not entirely representative.

This book does indeed try to fill that very large hole, not only in talking about the history of tea pre-Lu Yu, but also that of the period that came after but before the Europeans arrived to bring tea to their own shores.  The authors really do try to cover the entire history of tea, from inception in China, its spread to Japan, the Islamic world, and then to Europe and the New World.  They do so with a better command of the sources and materials than I’ve seen in other works on the same subject, and organized into a logical and easy to follow sequence.  Great stuff for a quick, fun read, but also well suited for the course I’ll be teaching next semester on the history of tea.  I’m ordering this for a textbook.

There are some glaring holes, however.  There’s virtually no mention of Korea anywhere in this, and I think it’s always easy to forget that much of China’s cultural influences on Japan passed through Korea at one point or another.  I’m sure tea is no exception, although that part of the story is really quite murky as far as I know.  The other is that as someone who works on later imperial China, the history of tea in the last six hundred years of imperial rule was dealt with rather quickly in the space of one chapter.  I know the story is richer than that, and I do think there’s room for more, not least becuase what happened in those years had a direct impact on what we’re drinking now.  Maybe that’s for another work.

But either way — I’d highly recommend this book.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // June 17, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Reply

    Maybe you should write a book to fill in the spaces.
    As the say, publish or perish.

  • Anonymous // June 17, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Reply

    Truth- One has never read a book that offered more than a few lines on Korea’s deep tea history and culture. In fact, most, like this book, simply exclude the small country completely. That’s really too bad considering how much depth it has to offer the tea world.

    The world isn’t to blame though, historically Korea has always had a very ‘hermit, leave us alone’ mentality. Really North Korea’s isolationist attitude is quite normal historically for Korea (minus the crazy of course). Being wedged between the two big tea superpowers of the world doesn’t help much either.

    Thanks for giving Korea the honorable mention.

    A book is currently in its early stages.


  • MarshalN // June 19, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Reply

    What may that book be for, Matt?

  • Anonymous // June 19, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Reply

    What about “The Korean Way of Tea” by Brother Anthony of Taizé & Hong Kyeong-hee ?

  • Anonymous // June 20, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Reply


    That book,

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    The Korean Way of Tea” by Brother Anthony of Taizé & Hong Kyeong-hee

    is a great introductory covering a wide range of Korean tea related topics written by a true gentleman and tea enthusiast. One went out for tea with Brother Anthony of Taize. We stopped by a few of his favorite shops in Insa-dong (Seoul) and chatted about Korean tea.

    His translations of the classics of Korean tea are the best one has read.

    As far as the book… guess you’ll have to wait and see.


  • Anonymous // June 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Reply

    At which University will you be teaching the class on tea? Damn, maybe I should transfer there 😉

  • Anonymous // June 24, 2009 at 9:34 am | Reply

    Thanks for the utterly fucking predictable academic review, complete with that stupid paragraph about what the authors missed.  How long did it take you to settle on Korea?  Enjoy your cookie cutter career, you fraud. 

  • korpotman // November 2, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Reply

    If you are really interested learning about Korean tea you should go to Korea on the upcoming spring tea tour. It with trace both the history of tea and tea ware in an unprecedented tour. The highlight for tea folks is picking and processing your own wild green tea at Hwaeom Temple in Mt Jirisan where tea was first introduced to Korea – before it went to Japan. You will also have a temple stay there. Brother Anthony and Hong Kyeong-hee will host the tea portion of the tour. You will also visit with some of Korea’s most distinguished tea ware masters. To learn more go to the web site TeaTourKorea.com Some important tea people may be on this tour.

  • Anonymous // November 18, 2009 at 2:02 am | Reply

    A book that (in my opinion) gives a better historic overview of tea in Korea is:
    Yoo Yang-Seok _The book of Korean tea : a guide to the history, culture and philosophy of Korean tea and the tea ceremony_ (Seoul, Korea : MyungWon Cultural Foundation, 2007.) ISBN: 9788995502129

    I personally found that most of the history mentioned in _The Korean Way of Tea_ to be largely recycled from articles in a 1997 volume of Koreana*, although the discussion of modern practices was interesting.

    * http://www.koreana.or.kr/issues_result.asp?volumn_id=34

  • Anonymous // November 18, 2009 at 2:08 am | Reply

    @quokkaqueen – 

    Apologies, the link is http://koreana.kf.or.kr/main.asp?volumn=11&no=4&lang=
    Vol.11, No.4, Winter 1997.

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