CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


The Constant Tea Meeting | China Heritage Quarterly

The Constant Tea Meeting
Excerpts from the blog of Lawrence Zhang 張樂翔

Lawrence Zhang has been blogging about tea since 2006. Below we republish two excerpts from his blog, 'A Tea Addict's Journal', that explore the ways in which the internet and social media have enabled new forms of community to coalesce around the subject of tea. For the original posts, see here and here.—The Editor

31 July 2007

It's been almost a year and half since I started my blog. Initially I had no idea how many people would read it. I figured that if I get 10 readers a day, I would be doing well, since according to some study the average blog is visited by 7 unique visitors every day. While my blog has certainly exceeded that expectation, the fact remains that it is merely a small project, comprising mostly of notes for myself and observations I have gathered along the way.

During this time, however, the blogosphere has blossomed. When I first started, only four of the links on the blog existed—Babelcarp, CHA DAO, La Galette de Thé, and the LiveJournal Puerh Community. The rest, as far as I am aware, were still in gestation. Now any visit to any of these sites will bring you to even more blogs and journals out there, composed by dedicated tea drinkers like you and me. Just keeping up the reading would mean visiting a dozen or so blogs every week, at least.

Visiting these blogs in quick succession, one will get the impression that most of the blogs on tea are devoted to reviewing specific teas. In fact, many blogs do basically nothing but review teas. Is what we're doing merely tea reviews, tea reviews, and more tea reviews?

Fig.1 A cup of Jingmai 2010 loose pu'erh (Photograph: Lawrence Zhang)

Is there a value for this, or is it mostly old news, uninteresting because of the relative lack of experience on the bloggers' part in drinking tea compared to some grand tea masters out there? After all, my sister has likened the reading of my blog to reading knitting patterns for people who don't knit—it's really rather boring stuff. Why bother?

I think what's beneath the surface of the blogs is what makes some of us come back, day after day, blogging about the rather mundane topic of 'what tea we drank today' or 'what we found.' It is the exchange of information, the interaction, and the joy in knowing that somebody else is interested in the same thing with the same keen interest that you do that keeps us interested in maintaining our respective blogs. I believe this is partly because of an acute lack of a culture of gongfu tea drinking in much of the blogging community's own locale. When I was in Beijing there was always a ready-made group of tea drinkers who could share my interest in person, going out to a tea store or a teahouse to share a cup of our favourite beverage. But in much of the English-speaking community, from which most tea bloggers are drawn, oftentimes the only person who drinks tea seriously whom the blogger knows is the blogger him/herself. What the blogs, and the exchanges that take place both on and off sites, serve are the same needs that a tea drinker in China wants from a visit to a teahouse or teashop—an interaction with somebody else who is passionate about tea. (French blogs, curiously, have a very high 'comment' rate unmatched in the English community—I've always wondered why.)

Online interactions also turn into real life interactions. The LA Tea Drinkers were formed, I think, from exchanges online and now meet regularly in person for drinking sessions. There's an active group of drinkers in New York centered around the Tea Gallery, and though they do not blog, by and large (except for Toki, from time to time), others from other blogs or websites have found them through the internet. For a little while, a few of us in the Boston area tried our best to get together to drink some tea. The same has happened in the UK, and is going on in Hungary soon. Drinkers in Asia are luckier, but even then, on forums such as Sanzui, a large section is devoted to tea drinkers from various cities trying to organize tea tastings, sometimes on a weekly basis. In Beijing, for example, there's a dedicated group of them who get together every so often, trying everything from white to black teas. All of these groupings consist of people who, by and large, would never have met in real life were it not for their love of tea—and their online activities which revealed themselves to each other.

These groupings remain small, however, and even in China, there are many cities where one sees users post something along the lines of 'I'm the only person I know in the city who really likes tea—anybody else???' with nary a reply. The internet in general, and personal blogs in particular, become our outlet for the need for such exchanges. When we review the same tea, or teas of similar genre, or even drinking something random, we're exchanging views in what is sort of a constant tea meeting. Photos and videos enhance that experience, but at the end of the day, I think it is the exchange of information and views that constitute the raison d'etre of the blogs out there. I, for one, have met many new friends both online and offline through my writing, and now I can count at least a dozen places where I have gotten to know new tea friends because one day in 2006, I decided to start keeping my tea notes online in a blog format. I'm sure I will only meet more in the future.

I think nobody is claiming any of this information in the blogs to be necessarily new, accurate, or thought-provoking in and of themselves; however mundane and knitting-pattern-like, they serve a purpose that is only possible thanks to the democratisation of the internet experience—as an ongoing virtual tea gathering of like-minded individuals, each sharing their little slice of knowledge learned while drinking this marvelous beverage.

1 March, 2012

Thoughts on tea blogging, 2012 edition

The last time I explicitly wrote about blogging about tea, it was more than four and half years (!!!) ago. The post, which is still on the hibernating Cha Dao blog [see above], talked with enthusiasm about how tea blogging is like a 'constant tea meeting' which enables us to share our experiences, exchange views, and in general meet like-minded people who are interested in the same thing you are. It was a pretty optimistic post, and the youthful exuberance is obvious.

The whole blogging scene has changed much since then. I think among all the blogs from the time when that post was written, and not counting blogs associated with vendors that try to sell things (either physical goods, or advertisements) only the ever diligent Hobbes remains. Lew's Babelcarp is still an essential resource for those who haven't fully mastered the mysteries of the Chinese language. Of course, Bearsblog is around, but it wasn't there in that form when I last wrote about blogging. BBB's previous project, the Puerh Community, has basically died, due in no small part, I think, to the fact that livejournal is not the most friendly place to conduct such business anymore. Mike Petro's has been dormant for many years, and I think we have lost hope for its return. There have also been many personal blogs have were around at the time, or about to spring up.

Many, in the intervening years, have died. Others, too numerous to name, have sprung up, although even some newcomers are already showing signs of slowing down, often the first hints of death for any blog. It's not really a surprise that they come and go—tea blogging takes time, effort, and money. It's no wonder that after a while, people give it up. Heck, even this blog was relatively dormant for stretches of time, especially when I was trying to finish my dissertation. Of course, many, if not all, of these people are probably still drinking tea. Some blogs, after all, do show signs of life once in a while.

Of course, the overall sum of things on the internet about tea has grown, not shrunk. Among blogs, of the few surviving ones from when I first wrote about this topic, most have turned into vendors of some sort. Stephane was already around back then, and is still selling tea and teaware from Taiwan today. Toki now has his own online store, and a physical presence as well in New York City. Gongfugirl is, from what I understand, a co-owner of Phoenix Tea. Imen still runs her TeaHabitat from the web. There are others, of course, but then we start to veer off from Chinese tea, and the universe gets bigger all of a sudden.­­

Then there are vendor blogs, which are too numerous to name. Those without a blog or something similar back then have often now included one, in order to provide better, in depth information for the customers. Teachat still exists as a good beginner type forum for all sorts of things, and it's to Adagio's credit that they run it at arm's length, so that people can talk about other vendors, teas, and what not on there freely (the software, however, can really use an update). Twitter, of course, is a great leap forward in this regard, and enables many to send out timely information and updates to thousands of people directly. I also discovered that it's a good way to let people know about new postings on this blog, and increasingly traffic comes from Twitter feeds, not more traditional channels.

Fig.2 Aged oolong tea leaves (Photograph: Lawrence Zhang)

There are also social networks of sorts that have sprung up that are specific to tea, although personally I have not found them to be most interesting or rewarding. I know of Steepster and Ratetea, but neither seem particularly suited to the task of categorizing loose tea and even then, meaningful reviews are rarely shorter than an average posting on the Half Dipper, haikus notwithstanding. The 'constant tea meeting', I think, needs to be conducted in the long form, and a short, snippet view of tea just doesn't work that well when describing the nuances of the fourth steep of a Menghai 2005 7542.

On some level, this reflects a general trend in the online world—blogs are now very specialized things, generally speaking. Those who used to use blogs for personal reasons have migrated to twitter, or to places like Tumblr. In fact, I think Tumblr might work very well as a kind of continuation of the tea exchanges that I originally thought we're doing online.

Of course, in real life, groups like the LATA and others are still thriving, and without all these online communities of one sort or another, I don't think many of these groups would ever have been possible. I, for one, have met dozens of tea friends entirely because they read my blog, and we happen to be in the same place. Some of these exchanges are very enlightening, and I have learned much from them. It's worth it, in the end, to keep this up, both in treasure and time. If others reading it feel it's worth something to them, well, I suppose that's why they keep reading.