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Exhibit Serves Up History of Tea

Exhibit Serves Up History of Tea

Current installation at the Fowler Museum highlights fresh flavors of an ancient brew, reports The Daily Bruin.

The first lecture, with UCLA professor of history Sanjay Subrahmanyam at 7 p.m. on Sept. 24, considers world trade issues and India's transformation by the advent of tea plantations by the colonial powers.


By Ruiling Erica Zhang for The Daily Bruin
Sept. 20, 2009 at 5:26 p.m.

On campus, caught in a trivial debate with a pal over which is the better iced tea brand, Lipton or Arizona, few of us would think of the long journey tea has traveled in history to get here since its beginnings in China's Zhou dynasty.

So put that debate on hold. From now until November 29, head over to the Fowler Museum for Steeped in History: The Art of Tea. The exhibit traces the rich, heavily conflicted history and culture of tea through art collected across three continents and several centuries.

Unlike most people, Curator Beatrice Hohenegger did not become interested in tea because she liked drinking it. Even now she maintains that she is "not a tea specialist" and doesn't drink tea as often as she would like to.

"One (reason) is I can't have too much caffeine, two is I can't afford it," she said.

Instead, it was the historical link between tea and opium that piqued her fascination.

Importing increasingly large amounts of tea from China in the early 1800s, Britain had wanted to trade while China wanted cash. Britain looked for a desirable good to trade and found opium. The connection between the Opium War in 1839 and its second wave about 20 years later "is a very dark chapter in colonial history," Hohenegger explained, and while tea was not the sole cause, it was a huge trigger.

The exhibit is set up in four parts, beginning with an introductory section that includes a display of various teas, differently shaped, colored and uniquely manufactured, that may interest those less familiar with tea.

The first section of the exhibit focuses on China, where tea began as a crop, and showcases watercolor scrolls as well as centuries-old Chinese tea bowls on loan from the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Hohenegger said.

Japan is the focus of the next section, which is dedicated to the importance of tea in Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony and tea-drinking culture.

The third section, called "Tea Craze in the West," looks at the arrival of tea in the West at the start of the 17th century. When tea-drinking was first popularized in the Netherlands, beautiful porcelain vessels from China and Japan, used to serve tea, came along with the tea imports.

Many early American oil paintings are on display and reflect the role tea played in colonial life and as a part of the American Revolution in major upheavals such as the Boston Tea Party. A silver sugar urn crafted by patriot Paul Revere is also available to view.

The last section explores how the British took the trade away from China by establishing large plantations in India, and includes historical photographs, posters and prints revealing the social and political role of tea in modern times.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum has planned numerous events to give patrons a more well-rounded view of the history and culture of tea, said Bonnie Poon, manager of public programs at the Fowler Museum.

These events include a lecture series co-sponsored by UCLA's Asia Institute, tea-tasting opportunities and bus trips within the city of Los Angeles.

"With the tea demonstrations, (participants) can actually see tea culture as it has been practiced for many years, as it is being practiced in contemporary times," Poon said. "And with the bus trips, people will have access to tea purveyors and tea aficionados they normally would not have access to."

The lecture series corresponds to the four-part focus of the exhibit, said Elizabeth Leicester, assistant director of the Asia Institute.

The first lecture, with UCLA professor of history Sanjay Subrahmanyam at 7 p.m. on Sept. 24, considers world trade issues and India's transformation by the advent of tea plantations by the colonial powers.

Scholar Pei-Kai Cheng from Hong Kong will also speak about the cultural significance of tea in ancient China, as well as the aesthetic choices that have influenced the development of porcelain wares at 3 p.m. on Oct. 24.

Local scholar Morgan Pitelka will present his lecture "Tea of the Samurai in Times of War and Peace," exploring the materialism and the tea culture in Japan.

"These lectures are meant to provide some deeper intellectual and academic context to the culture and political socioeconomic practice of tea," Leicester said. "(Tea is) a really interesting kind of connoisseur-appealing topic. ... It's easy to experience."

The idea to stage some kind of exhibit came to Hohenegger while researching for and writing her first book Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West, published in 2007.

"I was thinking there are so many interesting objects that have been created around tea, and they are so varied and so different from one culture to another, that a book does not really do it justice," she said.

Although Los Angeles is not a city one would associate with tea, Leicester pointed out the city's geographic locale on the Pacific Rim and its Asian American resident population that fosters appeal for such a topic.

"There is a kind of interest and affinity for looking East, but there is also – partly because of this new global community that we live in, we're finding an incredible popularity of tea culture," Leicester said. "It's just trendy right now, there are tea shops all over the place, tea connoisseurs ... people who have health and medical interests, so that dimension appeals to the LA people here too."