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.