By Samuel Hughes


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Steeped in Tea By Samuel Hughes
Photography by Candace diCarlo




I N T E R V I E W | A couple of things prompted Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature, to embark on The True Story of Tea, a project that he had been mulling for the better part of three decades.

The first was that common undoing of writers, a passion for his subject matter. It began in Nepal, where Mair served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1960s and where he became “deeply enamored” of masala chai (milk tea with sugar and Indian spices). His devotion to Indian tea was deepened by several trips to Darjeeling, “that ‘diamond island’ of the finest teas on earth” in the high foothills of the eastern Himalayas.

The Peace Corps stint did more than just inspire a lifelong love of tea in Mair; it also steered him toward a career in Buddhist studies and Sinology. The former field led to a “keen realization of the intimate relationship between tea drinking and Buddhism,” he notes in the book’s acknowledgements; the latter introduced him to the vital role of tea in Chinese culture.

Perhaps inevitably, his study led to the realization that there were “many myths concerning the history of tea that needed to be exposed and explained.” Given the amount of time he has spent in China and the other sacred haunts of Camellia sinensis, and all the reading he has done, he had a pretty good idea where the myths were lurking.

But it wasn’t until he met the Swedish-Chinese journalist Erling Hoh that he found a willing and congenial accomplice. Their three-year collaboration yielded The True Story of Tea, published last year by Thames & Hudson. “It was a completely pleasurable experience,” says Mair. “The most fun part of it was when we isolated ourselves—together with the large tea library that we had amassed—at Erling’s retreat in the far north of Sweden near the Arctic Circle. With reindeer and bear for our neighbors, we could concentrate on our writing for as long as we wished without disruption or distraction.”

Having steeped themselves in old volumes and journals, Mair and Hoh dug into the tangled roots of Camellia sinensis in Southeast Asia and followed the plant’s remarkable diaspora, the drink it yields, and the cultural traditions it has spawned. While their book is, on one level, roughly what you’d expect from a history of the beverage by a scholar of Chinese language and literature, it’s also a fragrant chest of tea arcana, legends, and personalities.

I recently spoke with Mair—by email, with a mug of green tea steaming beside the keyboard—about his beverage of choice.

Any misconceptions about tea you’d like to clear up?

There are tons of misconceptions about tea, such as that the Chinese have been drinking it for 5,000 years. But perhaps no misconception about tea is more widespread than the idea that black tea and green tea are from two different plants. Actually, they are both from the identical plant. The difference lies solely in the way they’re processed.  

Did your research yield any particularly surprising stories or results?

The most surprising result of my research—something that I was completely unprepared for—is that the history of tea drinking in India is so recent. I had been under the impression that Indians—that is, South Asians—had been drinking their beloved, ubiquitous chai since time immemorial, but it turns out that the British were probably the single most important factor in introducing the custom of tea drinking to India. That just boggled my mind.  

To what degree did tea drinking develop as an agent of temperance?

Temperance was clearly a significant factor in the popularization of tea drinking in England, and it also was operative in dissuading some groups from drinking alcohol in other societies as well. We must remember that, before the introduction of tea drinking, non-distilled alcoholic beverages were one of the few safe liquids that could be drunk in some quantity. But, of course, alcohol had its deleterious side-effects. Coffee in quantity does too. Once tea became available, however, the boiling of the water to make it offered a means of killing harmful microbes, and, if you didn’t put in too many tea leaves and didn’t steep them too long, the tea would give you a mild stimulus without making you jittery, even if you drank a number of cups.  

Tea has been used in religious rituals, as an economic weapon, and as a cultural door-opener. Could you talk about that a little?

Tea has played many important roles in human history during the last thousand years, from an aid to meditation, to an aesthetic ritual, to a means of payment for vast numbers of horses from Central Asia, and so forth. But, as an American, nothing about tea resides more powerfully in my consciousness than that special tea party held in Bean Town on December 16, 1773.  It’s interesting that the whole idea of a “tea party” can range from an elegant and even effete afternoon affair to a raucous political outcry—which, as we’ve seen in recent months, is still very much alive as a potent avenue of protest.  

Could you give a few examples of how tea reflects the culture in which it is drunk?

Some of the most distinctive tea-drinking customs are to be found in the Middle East and North Africa. So part-and-parcel of these societies is tea-drinking, and so distinctive the apparatus, that one can scarcely imagine what life would have been like without them. But the warmest feeling I get from watching others drink tea is in England where, at a certain point in the afternoon, even construction workers take a break and relax with a cuppa their PG Tips or other preferred blend.  

Any favorite historical characters or stories?

I have two favorite tea personalities: Li Yu, who legitimized and dignified tea-drinking in China in the 8th century AD, and Sen Rikyu, who founded the tea cult in Japan, but was ordered to commit ritual disembowelment in 1591 for some unspecified offence to the powerful warlord Hideyoshi, for whom he had served as tea master.  

I’m sipping Tazo’s Zen tea as I write these questions. Do you have favorite teas for different occasions?

Well, I’m a connoisseur of fine tea, and I buy very expensive single-estate, first- and second-flush Darjeeling teas from Upton Tea Imports. These I drink at special, virtually sacred, moments. But my first cup of the day is usually Tazo’s Awake, which tastes somewhat like an East Frisian tea to me, and my last cup of the day, when my spirits are starting to flag, is often Lipton’s Yellow Label Orange Pekoe and Pekoe Cut Black Tea—makes me feel all perky and proletarian. In between I enjoy various teas from Stash, Rishi, Tea Forté, Twinings, and other major British houses, and many other suppliers. I choose them for my particular mood and for the particular moment. The greatest masala (spice) chai I know of comes from Travelers in Seattle. Brewed properly, it is simply divine. The Holy Grail of tea for me is still a fine Darjeeling tea with a small amount of half-and-half and a touch of Sugar in the Raw. As I savor the aroma and feel the warmth in my throat, I am transported back to the Himalayas where I spent the mid-Sixties. If you want to gain a sense of the atmosphere such a heavenly tea evokes, watch Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjunga. The strangest teas I’ve encountered are handcrafted varieties from China that come in the form of tiny balls. When you pour hot water over them, they mysteriously start to unroll, and out come magnificent, whole tea leaves. Some of these odd teas will float up and down in the water before they decide to fully unravel. Watching them move around in the water is a captivating, slightly unnerving slow-motion spectacle. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that I have a habit of keeping a few tea leaves in my mouth after finishing a cup of fragrant tea. They make me feel fresh and alert for long afterward.

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