47.9 F

Davis, California

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Celebrating tea: The Global Tea Initiative highlights the links between tea, science and society

Professor Katharine Burnett discusses the initiative’s mission and reasons to study tea


By ADHITHI ANJALI — arts@theaggie.org


On a campus as large as UC Davis, myriad opportunities and organizations can fall right beneath the radar of most students. The Global Tea Initiative (GTI) is one such example that almost slipped past me this quarter. 

True to its name, GTI is focused on the study of tea through a global and interdisciplinary lens, asking what insight tea can provide about science, culture and industry. 

GTI has been in development since 2012, when Dr. Katharine Burnett, a UC Davis professor of art history and the founding director of the Global Tea Initiative, brought together a small group of faculty with the intention of studying tea. Eventually gaining attention from staff and tea industry professionals, former Provost Ralph Hexter set forth two goals for Burnett: “organize annual colloquia and make it blossom.”

Now, GTI has grown to more than 40 faculty members, including librarians, professors and students. They have held an annual colloquium on tea since 2016 and have just recently been able to return to an in-person gathering for their eighth annual symposium, entitled “Tea and Value.” Researchers from across the U.S. were invited to speak at the event on Jan. 19, as well as industry professionals spanning Europe and Asia. 

Following the event, Burnett reflected on the art that brought her attention to tea and how GTI is uniquely equipped as an interdisciplinary organization to explore these broader questions of culture through tea.

“When I was a child, my mom and my grandmother would have people over and there would be tea, which I thought was incidental, as a little kid,” Burnett said. “I didn’t understand the organizing principle that tea had in people’s lives.” 

The concept of sociality around tea, which is shared across cultures with a great appreciation for the drink, has also likely entered into the realm of art, according to Burnett. She has been exploring how much tea and art have respectively influenced and changed each other. 

“I’ve been trying to write an article about late Ming tea culture and the relationship between the major art theorists of the time and their friends who were artists,” Burnett said. 

Due to a sudden reduction in the size of the teapot as well as a change in material, these new teapots could achieve a wonderfully smooth finish and have no need for a glaze, but they also required a highly skilled artisan to create as the teapots could not be hand-thrown on a wheel. 

This strange shift sparked questions about the culture that must have spurred it. Burnett said that she wants to recognize the philosophy and psychology behind tea and its art. She believes that “each [teapot] tells a story about the local clay, the local people, the local culture and what’s important to that culture.” 

In more modern examples, Burnett points to the novel “The Tea Girl on Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See. The story follows a young Chinese girl who returns to her family’s home and tea farm in China. See engages with tea in its practice and cultivation across generations, highlighting how tea’s cultural value has shaped some communities. 

Burnett also underscored how diverse GTI is in its approach to studying tea. 

“My friends in nutrition or pathology or chemistry are analyzing the tea for different kinds of things,” she said. 

Indeed, at their recent symposium, scholars such as Dr. Sandra D. Adams spoke about the potential antiviral properties of tea, and others spoke to the tentative truth behind its value as a health food. 

In the future, Burnett hopes to develop more opportunities to connect students with industry professionals. Her aim is to open up the space for internships and study abroad courses.  

“We are on the cusp of becoming an institution, on the cusp of developing courses for our students,” Burnett said. GTI is aiming to release a 12-week program that will teach people in the industry and the public about tea and its business this year. 

Burnett emphasized that students who would like to study tea now can do so through independent study with a member of the GTI faculty, and said that students should not feel limited by their field of study when it comes to seeking this kind of opportunity. 

Currently, Burnett and second-year graduate student Hunter Kiley are in the process of rebooting the Global Tea Club, a space for tea-lovers to mingle and share their interest. They are aiming to hold their first meeting in February, and students can learn more about it at the Global Tea Club’s website

The future of GTI seems bright. Though a relatively new presence on campus, the initiative has clearly taken advantage of the many facilities and resources UC Davis has to offer, and they hope to blossom further with the help of students.

Written by: Adhithi Anjali — arts@theaggie.org