The importance of tea in Deang culture and life


One of the most interesting books about the Mon-Khmer speaking peoples in China is the monograph of Li Quanmin (1) about the Ang, one of the ethnic groups known as Deang in Chinese bibliography. Though the relationship between the Ang and the tea has been known in the anthropological records from the times when Chinese ethnologists effected their first collection of Deang myths, a comprehensive study of the manifold aspects that this relationship develops, and the way in which the tea, tea drinking, tea cropping, tea treasuring, affects Deang lives had not been published before.

In the present book a global and comprehensive relationship between the Ang and the tea is unfolded before the reader. Progressing along the chapters the reader began to know how tea growing molds Ang way of life and production, how it influences its religious customs, how is integrated in their social and family life and paradoxically how their respect and esteem to the tea prevented the Ang to profit from the “tea-worship” developed in mainland China during the last years. Because the Ang, while being one of the oldest tea croppers in Yunnan province, growing tea maybe for the last one thousand years, did not get a public acknowledgement of thequality of their tea leaves.

As Nicholas Tapp points out in his preface:

“This is a fascinating ethnography of the Ang people… It shows quite clearly that, although tea has been traded through petty markets for centuries, so tht the Ang were never an isolated or segregated community, the importance of tea for them goes beyond its economic or commercial value. Tea is a marker of their very identity… Tea forms the most important part of virtually every social and ritual exchange.” (2)

In the following paragraphs Professor Tapp elaborates about the relationship o the Ang with the tea:

“The reciprocity of tea exchanges and offerings within the community knits Ang society tightly together. Tea is used at marriage exchanges and at Buddhist monastic and merit-making rituals… Exchanges of tea punctuate the life-cycle at birth, courtship, marriage, the establishment of a new house, and death. It is all at once a “food, herb, beverage, and good”. The book provides a detailed examination of the use of tea during all these occasions, from family rituals to temple festivals, and shows how it functions as a primary “symbol of wealth” for the Ang.” (3)  

“Tea… links Ang insiders together through gifts and exchange, and also connects them to the outside through market trading. It establishes relations with supernatural beings and outsiders as well as cement pre-existing ones.” (4)

The main aspects of the Ang life, social relations, cultural relations and religious activities spin around the tea.  

In the words of the book author:

“This book is an ethnographic study of how the Ang, a Mon-Khmer speaking people along the China-Burma frontier, use their production, exchange and consumption of tea to express their identity and make important statements about their relationships with themselves and others. It inquires into the relationship between tea and Ang identity and its significance to the Ang. The discussion focuses on two issues: how the Ang make use of ideas about and exchanges of tea to convey particular ideas about their identity and represent their social relationships, and how Ang use such representations to maintain a sense of their own identity despite the important influences of Tai-ization and now Sinicization in contemporary Chinese society.” 

(1) Li Quanmin. Identity, Relationship and Difference: The social life of tea in a group of Mon-Khmer speaking people along the China-Burma border. Yunnan University Press. 2011.
(2) Nicholas Tapp. Preface One. p. 1
(3) Idem. p. 2.
(4) Idem. p. 3
(5) Li Quanmin. Personal communication.

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