Form and Significance of Tea Connoisseurship in the Late Ming Dynasty


Livio Zanini

PhD defended at: 

University of Ljubljana


The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was a crucial period in the history of tea culture in China. The reign witnessed important changes in the manufacture and consumption of tea as well as an unprecedented interest of the literary elite in the appreciation of the beverage and in the publication of essays dedicated to it. More than half of the corpus of the literature on tea connoisseurship produced in China during the imperial age was published in the last century of the Ming.

The present study investigates the form and the significance of tea connoisseurship in both its literary expression and material practice during the late Ming. It examines the corpus of essays on tea and the social and cultural context in which these texts were produced and circulated. It aims to shed light on the factors that account for the increase of tea essays in this period of history. The study poses several questions: what was the symbolic value of tea, who were the authors involved in the composition of essays on tea, what was the form and content of these texts, what was their dominant function, what was the relation between tea and Buddhism, what were the principles and the lexicon of tea connoisseurship, and what is the value of these sources for our understanding of tea production and consumption in the Ming dynasty.

The first chapter introduces the object, the background, and the methodology of the research, with an extensive overview of the modern scholarship on Chinese tea culture. Chapter 2 is an overview of the evolution of tea culture with an eye towards pinpointing the elements of continuity and discontinuity between previous epochs and the late Ming. Chapter 3 examines the social and cultural contexts of late Ming tea literature, analysing its position in book production, the revival of Buddhism in the sixteenth century and its influence on tea appreciation. Chapter 4 scrutinises the corpus of late Ming essays on tea, analysing the biography of the authors and editors, the structure and content of the texts. Chapter 5 investigates the discursive construction of late Ming tea connoisseurship of Ming, focusing on the textual modes and themes of tea literature and the lexicon of tea appreciation. Chapter 6 takes into consideration the production of tea and the preparation of the beverage described in Ming tea essays, comparing them with other contemporary sources and modern practices. Chapter 7 is a case study on the scholar Feng Mengzhen (1548-1605), which offers further insights on the role of tea and tea connoisseurship in the life of the literary elite.

The present research contributes to filling important gaps in the study of Chinese literary heritage and material culture. It provides the first comprehensive bibliography of Ming tea literature available in English, with detailed information on the works by Ming authors included in the collectanea Chashu quanji and other main writings produced in this period. It revises and corrects various errors found in previous studies and reference materials, bringing to light relevant sources not considered in earlier scholarship. It questions the teleological and positivist approaches of some modern scholars in the analysis of these sources and provides the first survey in English on the lexicon of tea tasting in premodern China. It analyses the background and context of late Ming tea literature, offering valuable insights for the understanding of late Ming culture and society.