In its sixth year, UC Davis Global Tea Initiative continues sharing tea and history

In its sixth year, UC Davis Global Tea Initiative continues sharing tea and history

Photo Credits: Kiyomi Watson / Aggie

The founding director and a panelist discuss holding annual colloquium online and the versatility of their research through tea

The Global Tea Initiative (GTI), the first broad-based program for tea research in the world, is now in its sixth year at UC Davis. Even through the pandemic, the initiative has found a way to continue hosting their annual colloquium and has even expanded to a two-part event with over 30 speakers in 2021.

In 2012, Katherine Burnett, the initiative’s founding director, became the chairperson of the Department of East Asian Studies at UC Davis. After a somewhat unexpected conversation with a colleague, Burnett decided to pursue institutionalizing the study of tea to increase awareness of the East Asian studies department.

“One thing led to another, including a chance meeting with a collector in the area who collects Japanese art […] over dim sum, at which I happened to bring a bunch of little teapots and things that look like teapots,” Burnett said. “In the middle of this lunch, the gentleman, Darrell Corti, […] picked up one of the little teapots, and he said, ‘Catherine, what I don’t understand is why does UC Davis not study tea?’”

Burnett saw UC Davis as the perfect place to pursue the study of tea because it is a channel to learning more about many other topics.

“You literally can study tea from almost any different perspective,” Burnett said. “You can study the science, you can study the plant, […] you can study the literature in China, Japan, Korea, other places in India, literature and songs that are written that engage tea and talk about people’s lives. The list goes on and on.”

Once Burnett shared the idea to begin a tea research group at UC Davis with her provost at the time and the deans of the East Asian studies and art history departments, she was given seed grant funds and within six months of beginning her research, the initiative had gained a lot of attention. Burnett said that the new development officer, Assistant Dean Charlene Madison, approached her about how they could further the research in hopes of eventually institutionalizing GTI. 

They began holding yearly colloquia to bring awareness to the initiative, with a different theme each year that allowed GTI to explore tea from a different perspective. Held on Jan. 21, 2021, this year’s colloquium was called “The Stories We Tell: Myths, Legends and Anecdotes about Tea.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the colloquium to move completely online, GTI was able to have over 30 presenters on Zoom, making it a jam-packed day of panels and discussions. Burnett said that while it was amazing to have so many participants, attendees missed the conversational aspect of past in-person colloquia.

“At least there’s time at the lunch break or between panels for people to chat with each other and comment and network and share ideas, learn from each other and get that kind of personal engagement that you can do onsite,” Burnett said. “What everybody always says is, ‘You know what I’d like the most: I’d love the opportunity to meet other people and talk about this.’ The students love the opportunity—and the industry members love the opportunity—to network.”

In response to this feedback, GTI decided to plan a second virtual event for this year, called “Talking about Tea: Myths, Legends and Anecdotes,” to allow for further discussion of the research presented at this year’s colloquium. This event will be held over Zoom on April 23 from 3-5 p.m. and will be more of a casual, conversational event. Beforehand, various pre-recorded presentations from the January event and newly recorded presentations will be posted on GTI’s website for attendees to pre-screen.

One of the January panels that will be available online is a roundtable about tea in 17th century British culture. Hosted by UC Davis English professor Frances Dolan, this panel includes four graduate students—Ben Fond, Grace Hayes, Mikhaila Redovian and Himali Thakur—who offer presentations on various topics, from poetry and early writing about tea to the creation of spaces for consuming tea and a comparison of tea plantations in Assam today to the tea gardens in London in the 17th and 18th centuries.

According to Dolan, she first became involved with GTI as a tea drinker and attendee of past colloquia, but when the colloquium went virtual this year, she saw an opportunity to involve the graduate students in her global consumption seminar, which has a unit focused on tea.

“Once the seminar began, I asked students if they’d like to conduct some of their research on tea and present it for the symposium,” Dolan said via email. “We were able to film their presentations just after our seminar discussions about tea. Then they fielded questions ‘synchronously’ [during the colloquium in January]. As it turned out, doing it virtually was actually great for grad students early in their careers because we had a bit more control of the timing.”

According to Dolan, she knew she wanted to discuss 17th century British culture because that was when tea and coffee first came into the English diet, and many parts of British culture at the time could be explored through the consumption and discussion of tea.

“While coffeehouses excluded women, tea quickly became associated with women who presided over tea tables in their own homes,” Dolan said via email. “So you had, at first, gendered spheres: men drinking coffee in public coffeehouses, which were also hubs of news exchange and political intrigue, and women drinking tea at home with more intimate circles of friends.”

The beginning of trade relations between Britain, the East Indies and India were also traceable through studying tea, according to Dolan.

“One of the first references to tea in English texts is a poem dedicated to Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, who supposedly brought a trunk of tea with her from Portugal and popularized tea drinking,” Dolan said via email. “As part of her marriage settlement, she also brought Great Britain trading rights in the East Indies and India—trade routes that would encourage the English production and consumption of tea (among other things). I think that the [17th] century association of tea with women and private table talk haunts the use of the word ‘tea’ to mean gossip now.”

Presentations from Dolan’s students and their roundtable question-and-answer session can be found on the GTI website, as can many other panels that will be discussed at the upcoming event on April 23. To preregister for the event or view the panels from this year’s colloquium, visit GTI’s website

Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org