George van Driem is a linguist, professor of historical linguistics, director of the Linguistics Institute at the University of Bern and author of the recently published book The Tale of Tea: A Comprehensive History of Tea from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. We asked George van Driem a few questions about his new book and tea — and we are delighted to share his answers with our readers.
Dear Professor van Driem, thank you for agreeing to answer our questions. If we may, let us start not with history, but with stories. For many tea specialists, any information about tea (description of the production process, results of scientific research, historical works, etc.) is valuable only insofar as it can be turned into an interesting story for the tea table. Do you yourself tell entertaining stories at the tea table? Would you recommend your book as a collection of such entertaining stories?
The history of tea is, of course, brimming with stories, but tea servers are not traditionally story tellers. It is true that the Dutch literary circle Muiderkring, whose members first popularized tea in Europe in the first half of the 17th century, included dazzling playwrights, novelists, poets, and orators. However, during the Japanese tea ceremony, tea is served in silence. The “tea girls” serving tea in tea pavilions of Bangkok’s old Chinese quarter in bygone days certainly told stories to their clients, but most of the tales they told were expressed primarily through body language. Some tea lovers have heard or read one of many myths about tea and may spread that narrative further. The Tale of Tea is steeped in history and makes a point of dispelling such persistent myths because fact is far more fascinating than fiction.
Muiderkring was an informal circle uniting artists and scientists of the “Dutch Golden Age”. The members of the circle met regularly at the Castle of Muiden (owned by the poet Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft) and conducted literary and musical soirees there. In August of 1640, one of the members of Muiderkring wrote a letter in which he called his fellow members of the circle “illustres Te-potores” (illustrious tea drinkers), himself — a tea worshiper, and spoke of tea in the most enthusiastic terms.
Muiderkring members acted as a productive elite, deliberately cultivating in the general population a fashion for their favorite things and habits, including tea, which they presented as a drink familiar to educated and progressive people. In fact, they created the first consumer tea culture in Europe.
In your opinion, what moment should be marked as “the appearance of tea in human culture”? The question is not about a specific date or time period, but about an event that could be designated as “the point of origin” of tea history. What is it: The beginning of cultivation of tea plants? The appearance of special tea ware? The start of tea trade? The appearance of a special word for tea? What is the starting point of the tea history?
The beginnings of tea history are concealed in deep antiquity. Tea culture emerged as soon as tea was first consumed by humans. Throughout time, tea culture has changed, and most readers of The Tale of Tea will be surprised to discover that the oldest tea cultures are not what they expect. In Asia, there are several ancient lexical roots denoting tea, and some of these oldest words for tea originally also denoted other herbs. All the questions you asked just now have detailed answers, but no short answers. Genuine tea people will want to know the detailed answers, and this is the very reason why I wrote The Tale of Tea.
Is there anything in your book that goes radically against established ideas about the history of tea?
Many historical facts may surprise us today. Tea was originally eaten, not drunk. The first tea drinkers in Europe were not English or Portuguese. The Boston Tea Party was not called the Boston Tea Party, and American history schoolbooks generally misrepresent what the incident was really about. The samovar was not invented in Russia. The list goes on and on. All this is told in The Tale of Tea.
The answer to this next question can go far beyond the scope of the interview, but perhaps you could briefly describe for us the methods and the research focus of historical linguistics.
As a discipline, historical linguistics is often misunderstood. In recent years, some scholars from other disciplines with no expertise in historical linguistics have managed to get pseudo-scientific studies published in otherwise serious journals, where none of the editors are historical linguists.
During my visiting fellowship here at the University of Sydney this month, we are holding workshops to combat just such sensationalist and often politically motivated poppycock. I welcome any truly interested person to come to the University of Bern and complete their studies in historical linguistics with us in beautiful Switzerland.
Historical linguistics often allows you to find answers to questions that at first glance may seem completely non-linguistic.
The fact is that any historically significant event leaves traces in the language — and, working with these traces, a historical linguist can reconstruct the development of a certain phenomenon or a whole culture. Based on linguistic evidence and population genetics, George van Driem concluded that the ancient Miao-Yao people and the Austro-Asians were most likely the inventors of rice farming.
George van Driem works a lot in the Himalayas, so crossing paths with tea was inevitable for him. But for this inevitable encounter to turn into a large-scale scientific work, it took years of effort and a profound personal interest in tea and tea culture.
Have you always been interested in tea or did your interest arise as you worked in tea-growing regions? Has your work influenced your tea tastes?
My interest in tea arose during my childhood when I took a liking to tea and asked my mother to explain the difference between Indian tea and the Chinese jasmine tea that we were drinking. The more probing my questions became, the less she was able to answer them. So she told me to read books.
The more I read about tea, the more I realized that many of the contradictory stories in print were not based on historical fact. Consequently, tea became my life-long passion since childhood. Decades ago, I resolved to write a book about tea and began to conduct historical research. Because my main research involves the description and analysis of hitherto undocumented languages as well as historical comparative linguistics and population prehistory, tea research was always on the back burner. For years, I privately conducted research on tea history, patiently and methodically.
Do you have favorite tea/teas? What method of brewing do you prefer?
My own personal preference is perhaps strongest for matcha, white teas, gyokuro, lóngjǐng, bìluóchūn, fine oolongs and some fragrant Darjeeling and Nepal teas. But I love many other teas too. Each tea has its own method of brewing, and there are known variations in these brewing techniques that are familiar to well-practiced tea cognoscenti.
Do you teach anything related to the history of tea?
My book has appeared in print just four months ago, and since then I have been invited to give tea talks in Switzerland, Kathmandu, Edinburgh, Bangkok and Sydney. My next tea talk will be in Holland. Each of the tea talks thus far has been completely unique in theme and substance because every host has wanted a different focus. My teaching at the University of Bern and my regular guest lectures abroad deal with topics in linguistics, population genetics and prehistory. Now people have begun to invite me to lecture on tea history.
Is there a place in Switzerland where you like to drink tea? I know there’s quite a decent tea trade in Bern, is there a nice place to have a cup of tea, too? Or do you prefer to drink tea at home?
The book mentions the tea room at Länggass-Tee in Bern, but I prefer to drink tea at home, in the garden with a friend, student, or colleague, or just by myself.
Is there a tea tradition among academics in Switzerland? Do you often drink tea at work?
At the Linguistics Institute at the University of Bern, the administrative personnel take a regular morning tea or coffee break together, but the professors and research scholars work all day without taking any breaks. Many do enjoy drinking tea but sip their tea while working. Swiss people evidently really enjoy working, and so as a flying Dutchman I fit in quite well.
Has the topic of tea been exhausted for you? Or will you continue to conduct research in this area?
I have already begun writing a second book on tea that addresses lingering questions and some of the remaining unresolved mysteries in tea history. The historical research for this second book is already well underway, but I am in no great rush.
At the same time, some people have asked me to write a lighter version of the entire history of tea. The Tale of Tea has been written to be understood and enjoyed by any and all educated readers, but the book is still a scholarly work. The Tale of Tea weighs 2.865 kg. A lighter version would not only weigh less but could also be lighter in style. I have become amenable to this idea.