Tea Course Steeps Students In Historical Research

They have heated water in a kettle over a charcoal brazier. They have ground powdered tea from compressed tea cakes in the way of 8th century Chinese tea master Lu Yu.

Today, students in Lawrence Zhang’s first year seminar, The History of Tea in East Asia, are lining up for a comparative sips of three teas, using brewing and tasting techniques employed by contemporary tea merchants.

“Wow, bitter!” says Gus Vergara ’13, shaking his head after downing a small cup of the concentrated liquid.

“I didn’t say it would taste good,” says Zhang, a history instructor. He smiles broadly and offers another cup.

Students in the popular history course are getting more than just a spot of tea. The unique curriculum incorporates wide spans of world history. There are centuries of geopolitics to consider as tea commodification spreads from East to West. Transportation and trade routes evolve, production methods change, and access to tea reflects profound societal shifts. There are teahouses and drawing rooms, elaborate and minimalist ceremonies, and no end of teacup designs across cultures and centuries.

Almost without knowing it these first-year students are also being steeped in methods of academic research, writing, analysis and presentation.

“This is a methods class and tea is just the medium,” observes Zhang. “But when you reconstruct the process of how do you brew this, students get interested. That I think is very valuable too.”

Students are exploring a range of academic writing and primary texts. Recently, Zhang introduced a selection of letters from Scottish tea trader William Melrose, who spent a decade in China in the 19th century.

“We read his letters to his family talking about the tea trade,” says Zhang. “The students came up with interesting observations about his traits and attitudes over the course of the year in which these were written. I think it’s important for them to be able to read primary texts where what you are learning about isn’t the explicit thing. How do you make some conclusions when there aren’t obvious points and arguments?”

The final research project will mirror the object-history approach of the course. Zhang has asked students to develop research papers on subjects relating to tea. “One student is writing about the Suez Canal and how it facilitated trade from East to West,” says Zhang. “Japanese tea gardens are another potential. Clipper ships. They have to take an angle and narrow it down.”

Today, however, the class is only being asked to narrow down the distinctive qualities of each tea they taste.

“What do you think?” asks Zhang. “Keep in mind, this is black tea. It’s not something that is completely foreign to you. But when you make it so strong like this, it’s different. It smells good. Smell the leaves. Smell everything.”

“The middle one is actually good,” says one student. “Mmmmm,” she adds. “And it smells like barn. I like that.”

Published by Bowdoin College.