Thesis Review: Tasting Tea, Tasting China

Photograph: by the author – Cha xi design in Hengshan Temple event

Tasting Tea, Tasting China: Tearooms and the Everyday Culture in Dalian. Yingkun Hou. Ph.D. Thesis in Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2021.

Chenjia Xu (Institute for Science, Technology and Society, South China Normal University & Food Studies Centre, SOAS University of London)

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In Tasting Tea, Tasting China, Hou takes us on a journey into the everyday life of tea enthusiasts (ai cha zhi ren) in Dalian, a north-eastern Chinese city, with a focus on the interplay between sense experience and social life in contemporary China. By doing so, she provides an ethnographic elaboration of “gustemology” (Sutton 2010), a research agenda that highlights the epistemological value of the senses implicated in eating and drinking as a revealing lens into different cultures. The tenet of Hou’s project is to demonstrate how “learning to taste tea, which ‘happens’ in people’s individual bodies, is externalized as a culturally meaningful experience that speaks to questions of life in contemporary China” as well as “the relationship of sensory experience to people’s negotiations of symbolic meanings and social relations” (p. 7, italics added).

The thesis consists of six chapters, with three of them constituting the thrust of the original ethnography. Putting tea drinking in Dalian in dialogue with anthropology of food and the anthropology of the senses, the Introduction establishes “taste” as the central approach to “investigat[ing] people’s everyday life of tea tasting/drinking” to “reveal the subtle interplays of cultural categories and subjects, and social changes in the context of contemporary urban China” (p. 38). This is followed by a chapter detailing the field site, general socio-economic contexts, the key characters of the ethnography and methodological considerations. Particularly worth noting is the combination of “participate sensing” and digital ethnography via WeChat, the dominant social media platform in China. Sensory ethnography is warranted by the central theme of the project, “taste”, and was enacted in the field through “drinking and tasting tea together, taking tea classes together, serving tea together, all the while talking about the experience of tea drinking/tasting”. Digital ethnography through WeChat is also necessary, given that the virtual and online space has become an equally important domain for tea enthusiasts to forge and maintain a “tea community”. The everyday life of a tea drinker entails not only drinking and tasting tea, but also talking about and sharing the sense experiences of such tea drinking and tasting.

The next three chapters, the core of the thesis, present tea tasting/drinking practices and experiences in Dalian in three dimensions. Chapter 3 dwells on the spirituality and sociality of tea tasting, which is described to be “a social event”. Here, Hou introduces us to Cha Li, the etiquette of tea, as the essence of tea drinking practice, through the origin myth of tea in which the sage Shen Nong and his heroic, courageous qualities led to the discovery of tea. The chapter then offers an interesting discussion of Li (etiquette, propriety), its historical significance, its contemporary rejuvenation, and its intricate connections with embodied social memories. Once the connective tissue of the nation in Imperial China, Li collapsed at the encounter with colonial powers during the 19th century and was further distanced from everyday life due to various nation building campaigns of the 20th century. By emphasising and embodying Li, tea enthusiasts turn tea tasting events into the celebration of traditional Chinese culture, an effort to restore Li in the age of globalisation.

Chapter 4 addresses the materiality of tea drinking, walking us through the production processes that give different types of tea their characteristic sensory qualities, as well as the various tea utensils which are constitutive of the overall experience of tasting tea. It seems that to “learn to taste tea”, it is necessary not only to know and appreciate the art of tea but also to aptly manoeuvre the body around the tools and utensils. Translocal exchanges and influences, e.g. with Taiwan, have a prominent role in shaping the understanding and practices around the art of tea and the deployment of tea utensils.

Chapter 5 brings us to the sensoriality of tea and tackles the “taste of tea” head-on. It should be noted that the preceding chapters have dealt with the sensorial aspects of tea and tea drinking quite consistently. This chapter is a more focused discussion on the sense experience. It opens with an account of how taste and flavour are defined through individual “tastants” in “sensory science”, then proposes a firm framing of taste, or flavour, as “synesthetic”. In this way, Hou identifies two contrasting ways to define, construct and experience “taste”. Following the reductionist model of empirical science, taste is objectified in the response to the stimuli of tastants, while in the synesthetic framing, taste becomes holistic and greater than the sum of the experiences of individual tastants, which leaves a vast room for subjective interpretations. The vernacular philosophies among tea enthusiast, presented in the ethnography, emphasise mostly that tasting tea is synesthetic and “blurs the division of different senses” through notions like yun (p. 166), allowing for the enjoyment of the “overall ambience and experience” without “minding the ambiguity” (p. 162). However, some of them also express the aspiration towards more “official” systems modelled on the wine industry.

Photograph: Zachery Saucier – Tea tasting events for Mid-Autumn Day (Author in the back)

These contradictions are addressed and settled in the Conclusion: the disparity and tension between the two schemata of “taste” are analogic to the frictions between “traditional values of Chinese culture” and “the values of modernity”, which is the general condition of social life in today’s China. The taste of tea, by its “fluidity” and the “analytic ambivalence in connoisseurship” it has allowed, mediates such tension and the search for “reconciliation between abstractions and lived experience” (pp. 192-193).

What I find most fascinating is the location of tea drinking/tasting at the intersection of the Chinese tea and the western wine or coffee cultures and their respective ways of tasting. Professionally trained in viticulture and with a few years of practice in the wine industry, Hou is proficient in the scientific, often reductionist approach to tasting experiences. The familiarity with both the wine and the tea cultures leads her to assert that “knowing wine or tea, is a way for one culture to know more about the other”, and to further wonder “if the wine tasting class is an example of a cultural structure designed from the ‘scientific’ system, then what would a tea tasting class look like in China and what cultural construction would that reflect?” (p. 26), which points to the prospect of “perspectival exchanges” through tasting and sensory experiences. Moreover, the tea enthusiasts in the ethnography also frequently conjure up the same juxtaposition between tea, on the one hand, and wine or coffee, on the other.

It is also worth noting that their framing often highlights the similarity rather than the distinctions between tea and wine/coffee cultures, e.g. Lan’s remark that coffee and tea both bear connections with water (pp. 95-96), and Lijie’s comparison of tea’s fengtu and wine’s terroir and her subsequent call for a geographical indication system for tea in China (pp. 156-162). Discernible here is the mimetic faculty, the ability to recognise and produce similarity (Benjamin 2005), which would have been unthinkable, say, in the 1980s and 1990s, when the rhetoric of reified China-West difference (for instance, Fei Xiaotong’s distinction of “differential pattern” vis-a-vis “group pattern”, or the disparity of “land-based civilisation” and “maritime civilisation” portrayed in River Elegy) prevailed. In short, the thesis provides interesting materials that shed light on how tea tasting – and tasting in general – is entangled with the dynamics of similarity and difference, of mimesis and alterity. In this regard, taste, situated at the contact of cultures, enables a gustemology for intercultural understanding and a culture’s own understanding of itself vis-à-vis other cultures.

Hou’s writing is clear and engaging. I especially appreciate that she presents her ethnography in the fullest possible details, without chopping off the heels to fit the crystal coffin of the so-called theoretical frameworks. This is why the thesis feels sincere and personal. As a reader I feel like I am following her into each tea tasting event, meeting the tea enthusiasts, learning about the etiquette, the art and the taste of tea, and embracing the synesthetic experiences as she did. Such deep and rich description, powerful as it is, is not without potential pitfalls. When the ethnography flows too well, the reader, perhaps the writer too, gets carried away. Occasionally the thesis does not deliver what it sets out to do. For instance, Chapter 4 begins with a fascinating question regarding the changing taste for tea especially in terms of “what people favor in tea” (p. 93) in contemporary China, acknowledging it as “a result of multiple factors”, and proposes to address some of these factors by exploring how a particular type of tea – white tea – is experienced in tea ceremonies and tea courses. But the theme somehow dissipates as the author takes us deeper into the material world of tea utensils. We are given detailed accounts of how tea makers, tea utensils, tea and water interweave a multi-layered universe of taste. But one is left to piece together how these details tie in with “the changing taste for tea”. There is potentially an argument in there, probably having to do with translocal communications of tea practices and ideas. But as a reader I would hesitate to make that epistemological jump, and ought not to be expected to do so.

Having said that, the overall arguments and the major themes of the thesis do get conveyed effectively. The most salient ones, “gustemology” and “synesthesia”, are well established and convincing. And they tie into each other quite seamlessly: that the synesthetic experience is underscored and appreciated in tea tasting renders “the taste of tea” complex, fluid, ambiguous and conflicted, which becomes a gustemological trope to expose the “friction between subjective, traditional, holistic, and ambivalent lived experiences and objective, modern, positivistic, and precise abstractions” (p. 193) that is at the heart of “contemporary Chinese culture”.

It is on this point that I would like to challenge the author further to consider this: does “the taste of tea” refer to the sense experiences of tea or the sense categories through which tea is experienced? Or put differently: given that tea enthusiasts not only sense the taste of tea, but also talk about their sensing, under what conditions can or cannot such sensing and talking be distinguished? In addressing the questions, Hou acknowledges that while the categories have to be evoked in order to “articulate and communicate” the experience, they “only partially reflect the actual ‘taste of tea’ we experience”. I reckon that such “partialness” opens up more questions: Given the partialness, how do we access the part of experience that cannot be reflected? If sense categories cannot reflect the entirety of our actual experience, then can they reflect experience at all? If so, then to what extent are they effective, if not faithful, reflections or representations of experience? If not, then in what ways do they relate to experience? Pertaining to these question is an important debate in the anthropological discussions of sense experience, between the anthropology of the senses and the sensory anthropology (Pink and Howes 2010; Ingold and Howes 2011; Pink 2015; Howes 2019).

The former, led by David Howes and Constance Classen, is a “culturalist” approach that collects and compiles the sense categories from different cultures to demonstrate the multiplicity of ways of sensing. It also produces insights from the “sensory order” into the “social order” of a given culture, rendering the senses the appearance or representation of the social. The proponents of the latter include Sarah Pink and Tim Ingold, who advocate for the phenomenological exploration into the pre-reflective realm in which sense experiences arise. Since it is pre-reflective, the distinction between the subject and object of sensing is not established, sense experiences linger in indeterminacy and perpetuate the connections with “the environment”. Underpinning the debate is the metaphysical question of whether we can sense outside language, which the “partialness” eventually leads us to.The anthropologists of the senses would say we cannot construct sense experiences without the sensory categories given in our cultures, while the sensory anthropologist seeks to go back to the pre-reflective sensing untainted by any categorical tropes.

This would mean very different relationships between the sensing and the talking among tea enthusiasts, and raise questions about the combination of “gustemology” and “synesthesia” in exploring taste. My understanding is that “gustemology” is more aligned to the anthropology of the senses, in that the sensory phenomena, practices and processes are used as a gateway to understanding culture. Important here are the semiotic dynamics of the senses as the signifier and the social/cultural as the signified. “Synesthetic taste”, on the other hand, seems to suggest a phenomenological approach, in that the individual senses are left undifferentiated and the overall taste experience kept elusive, fluid and indeterminate. But it also could be the case that synesthesia is a unique “sense category” of the Chinese culture when it comes to sensing tea. Whatever the case, speaking to the debate through the contemplation of “partialness” is important because it helps better position the thesis in relation to the two main camps in the research field, and also because the thesis is full of potential to offer an alternative approach to think about sense categories and sense experiences.

Overall Tasting Tea, Tasting China is a well-researched, well-presented PhD project. The ethnography is solid and rich, providing multiple angles for further interpretations for students and researchers interested in taste and sense experience and in food and drink practices. Moreover, featuring the everyday practices, lifestyles and aspirations of the middle-class tea enthusiasts in Dalian, the thesis is particularly valuable for those who would like to explore contemporary China beyond the first-tier cities.


Benjamin, Walter. 2005. ‘On the Mimetic Faculty’. In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2: 1931–1934. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

Howes, David. 2019. ‘Multisensory Anthropology’. Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (1): 17–28.

Ingold, Tim, and David Howes. 2011. ‘Worlds of Sense and Sensing the World: A Response to Sarah Pink and David Howes’. Social Anthropology 19 (3): 313–31.

Pink, Sarah. 2015. ‘Approaching Media through the Senses: Between Experience and Representation’. Media International Australia 154 (1): 5–14.

Pink, Sarah, and David Howes. 2010. ‘The Future of Sensory Anthropology/the Anthropology of the Senses’. Social Anthropology 18 (3): 331–33.

Sutton, David E. 2010. ‘Food and the Senses’. Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (1): 209–23.


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