Tea — Great Socializer or Ritualized Individual Distinction?

Editor’s note: Thomas Kasper is from Germany but now resides in Thailand where he studies and writes about tea. He is also a freelance writer and translator (German, English, and Thai). We are pleased that he is now contributing some of his tea knowledge to this blog.

Tea brings opposites from a huge spectrum of aspect under just one umbrella. A good example for this is the role of tea once as a means of inducing, fostering, promoting, easing, and prolonging social situations, and once as an expression of complex individuality and social distinction. Examining this topic in detail will fit the format and volume of an academic dissertation much rather than that of this article, so I am going to have to rely on you developing your own thoughts and ideas based on a random sample of examples I would like to provide to the topic:

Whether socializing or engaging in a individual tea moment, enjoy your tea! (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
Whether socializing or engaging in a individual tea moment, enjoy your tea! (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

What will I do FIRST, if I have a visitor to my house, given it is a welcome one, at any time of day, morning, afternoon, or evening, for any kind of purpose, business, private, or a visit of casual social nature? FIRST, I will make tea. The longer the visitor stays, and the longer I want that particular visitor to stay, the more infusions it will be, and the more different teas I will prepare to try, in order to value, enhance, and extend the social occasion. Once I won’t make tea anymore, my visitor will know that it’s time to leave.

Family members, neighbors, colleagues, project participants, members of a group, club, or management, one of the most probable and suitable things to do when meeting and taking place around a table will be preparing tea, alternatively coffee or alcohol, but unlike tea, coffee and alcohol will definitely not suit all of these situations, might today in fact be a no-go in many of them. In a number of cultures, people will even invite each other for “tea,” this invitation in its real manifestation often implying a huge set of social activities, such as dining, board games, leisure activities, gossiping, planning and coordinating, but all centered around one central element, tea.

On the other hand now, what will I do FIRST getting out of bed in the morning, or sitting at work and pondering over some task or issues, or waiting for something or somebody to happen or come, or enjoying listening to music, or watching TV, or sitting in my garden and contemplating life and things? FIRST, I will make tea. Monks that are meditating are often not allowed to eat or consume anything but water – and tea – for extended periods. All these are situations, where people are on their own, or alone, free of social contexts and constraints. Again, tea serves to value these situations, enhance their experience and enjoyment, and engage the individual actor in a ritualized celebration of that particular moment in time.

At the same time, tea will define an individual even in a social – or cultural – context: in many countries, such as China or India, tea will often be used to define one’s social class or caste, while in the west, people will use their tea habits and “tea type” to outline, emphasize and express their particular individuality. Even among like-minded members of tea circles, a unique set of particular tea preferences will not only define each person’s individual “tea type”, but beyond even give hints and build an image of their general character.

As we have seen, the thesis raised in the title of this article is only a rhetorical one: tea is not “either…or”, tea is “and”, as usually offering an arguably infinite cosmos, where all kinds of things, even different and otherwise inharmonious or even contradictious things find their place and can coexist in a smooth and peaceful manner.

See more of  Thomas Kasper’s articles here.

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