An evening with Victor Mair

9th century Fiestaware

Dr. Victor Mair is a linguist.  What can a linguist offer to further the study of tea?

In 1998, his book, “The True History of Tea,” co-written with Erling Hoh, was a month from completion when he learned of a shipwreck being excavated in the Java Sea.  What’s known as the “Belitung wreck,” named for the nearby Indonesian island, turned out to be the most important archaeological discovery in southeast Asia: a ninth-century Arab trading vessel loaded with Chinese export porcelain.  And one of these bowls bore this inscription: 荼盞子.

“Tea-bowl (thingy).”  It was the capstone of his research.

Let’s start with the third character on the bowl, 子, “zi.”  By itself, it means “son.”  But when used as a suffix in this fashion, it emphasizes that the word is a noun.  This is a vernacular usage, and it wasn’t classically seen in written Chinese.  The effect is that this object is a concrete one, here in messy reality. And this effect was deliberately employed by Zen Buddhist masters to remind their disciples that the way “does not require seeking for things outside of the here and now.”  Mair’s book tells a story in which tea drinking, contrary to popular myth, was not a widespread Chinese practice from 2737 B.C. onward, but rather, in hand with Zen Buddhism, suddenly became popular in the 9th century.  Buddhist monks were drinking caffeinated tea to aid meditation, and evidently using objects like tea bowls to convey philosophical teachings.

The first character on the bowl, 荼, “tu,” is not the one used today to signify tea. That’s 茶, “cha.”  (Since the characters are difficult to distinguish at this resolution, I’ll proceed to refer to the pinyin transliterations.)  “Tu” referred to any of several bitter vegetables.  Seeing “tu” in pre-Tang dynasty texts, scholars have wondered which of these usages referred specifically to tea, and thus how early tea was drunk in China.  The Belitung bowls seem to have been made in 826 A.D., but about a half-century earlier, Lu Yu referred to “cha” in his “Tea Classic” codifying the tea cult.  Mair posits, buried in Appendix C, that it may well have been Lu Yu himself who first differentiated tea from the bitter vegetables linguistically, as a “rebranding campaign.” In any case, Lu Yu was an early adopter.

But Dr. Mair’s biggest contribution to tea scholarship is hidden in Appendix C, “A Genealogy of Words for Tea.”  When we spoke with Dr. Mair, he recounted how the conservative, exacting editors at his publishing house wanted to cut this linguistic research from the book.  He refused to yield, but it was still relegated as an appendix, tiny type in double columns.  Publishers are right to be mercenary these days, but this made it easy for the tea world to overlook the most significant part of Mair’s groundbreaking work.

Appendix C describes how all of the worldly names for tea derive from the three avenues by which each culture may have obtained their tea from the Chinese.  The southeastern coastal province of Fujian gave their word “te” to tea that shipped overseas via English or Dutch traders.  “Cha” was used by Mandarin or Cantonese speakers who shipped tea overland, say to Tibet or Thailand, or overseas via Portuguese traders.  The neatest trick though, is that the usage of “chai,” which seems like a random corruption of “cha,” is confined to central Eurasia, coinciding with the 13th-century Mongol empire.  The Mongols used Persian as their lingua franca, which gives “byforms ending in -i” to words otherwise ending in long a’s.

But the biggest bombshell of all is that Mair traces “tu,” “cha,” and a third Chinese tea word, “ming,” back beyond Chinese to the Mon-Khmer language group of southeast Asia.  “Tu” and “cha” come from the Mon-Khmer “la,” for “leaf/tea,” while “ming” indicates a borrowing of Mon-Khmer words like “meng” or “miiem” that indicate a tea product that may be locally grown, specially fermented, and/or have ritual significance.  The final conclusion: while China turned tea into a commercial enterprise, it was not Sinitic peoples who first cultivated it.

The Philadelphia Tea Institute has been studying “The True History of Tea” as a book club, and Dr. Mair was gracious enough to join us for Q&A at The Random Tea Room last night.  As much as I want to gush and brag about it here, I concluded the most valuable use of this post would be to highlight the essential contribution of Dr. Mair’s book, which was otherwise hidden under a bushel.  (I’m glad I forced our book club participants to read the appendices!) Readers looking for a thorough review of the book should visit the venerable Cha Dao site, and note that crucial wisdom is also contained in the comments.

Victor Mair, in "tea lecture uniform"

But I will mention a few highlights from Dr. Mair’s talk.  He said he initially wanted to write about India’s history with tea: he first became enamored of chai while serving in the Peace Corps in Tibet.  (At this point, Dr. Mair put on his “tea lecture uniform,” his gray-blue Nehru jacket.)  To his chagrin, he realized that the history only went back as far as the British capitalists who urged it upon India.  There is no ancient Sanskrit word for tea.  “And I know Sanskrit!” he moaned.  I was glad to hear this anecdote, but sorry our club-member Nachiket could not be in attendance; Nachiket had spent the five weeks complaining that Mair was giving his native India short shrift.

Dr. Mair told us how he received a scathing letter from Brother Anthony of Taizé, who thought Korea received even more negligent treatment in the book.  In his defense, Dr. Mair had consulted with with several Korean historians, who all told him that tea was “not important” to their country’s history.  Given the tea world’s recent surge of interest in Korean tea, perhaps the Korean tea industry needs to do more to raise its profile at home?

People have wondered why “The True History of Tea’s” first chapter is devoted to plant beverages other than tea proper.  Dr. Mair confirmed that he was building a case for tea’s exceptionality.  Specifically, he said there is a book waiting to be written about tea’s epidemiological effects: it was boiling water and drinking tea, he asserts, that allowed people to live in cities.

Dr. Mair told us about the scholarly controversy surrounding the Smithsonian’s planned exhibition of the Belitung shipwreck next spring.  We hope to organize a visit, and we also hope discussions involving the Bowers and Penn Museums regarding an American tea exhibition come to fruition!  Many thanks are due Dr. Victor Mair for taking the time to chat with us local tea enthusiasts in the midst of his many undertakings.

1 Response to “An evening with Victor Mair”


  1. 1 Rebecca Goldschmidt June 13, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    Fantastic information, thank you!


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