East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society

Nov. 2 Workshop


Workshop on East Asia:
Politics, Economy and Society Presents

“Wenren Tea—A Practice of Self-Cultivation”

Fan Zhang
Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences
University of Chicago
4:00-5:30pm, Tuesday
November 2, 2010
Pick Lounge
5828 South University Ave.

Workshop website: http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/eastasia/
Student coordinator: Jean Lin (jeanlin@uchicago.edu)
Faculty sponsors: Dali Yang and Dingxin Zhao
The workshop is sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies and the Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. Persons with disabilities who believe they may need assistance, please contact the student coordinator in advance.

Based on the ethnography of tea connoisseurship in a southeastern city in Fujian, this paper depicts an aspect of the rise of the Chinese middle class during the post-Maoist period. These local tea connoisseurs are regarded as wenren (man of letters or cultivated man) in the local community and they refer to their tea practices as xiushen (self-cultivation). This reveals a historical continuity between ancient wenren (derived from the shi class, scholar-intellectuals or scholar-officials) and contemporary local literati. It is the self-cultivation tradition held by local literati that marks the diversion of the local middle class from the western trajectory. The Western-style middle class was developed to have the appearance of a public sphere that is rooted in free-market and individual value. In contrast, the self-cultivation tradition attaches individual development to the state, and the local literati act as part and parcel of the state, enthusiastically participating in local public affairs. However, the aesthetic taste of wenren also accommodates the consumerism brought by the rapid economic development and the need for social classification in the post-Maoist era. Therefore, this paper contends that the local middle class, with the representation of tea connoisseurship, results from the overlaps and conflicts of the continuity of the Confucian ethics (self-cultivation and the concept of liupin), the rise of consumerism, and a transformation from the Maoist era to post-Maoist era at the level of the senses and the body.

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