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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Tea is Tea

Walking back from lunch one afternoon I decided to stop by a local convenience store to pick up drink. Standing there, in front of the glass refrigerator door, I am overwhelmed with my selections…. of tea.

Black teas, milk teas, oolong teas, green teas, herbal teas, lemon teas, “wang lao ji”….. WHICH ONE??!

I close my eyes and blindly grab the closest bottle; I mean, does it really matter? Tea is tea.

In my time spent in various Chinese cities, my observations of capitalism and free-market economic policies within the confines of modern China suggest that the modern Chinese society is all about the “spectacle”, an idea Guy Debord predicates in his text “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere”. Debord defines culture first and foremost as “the general sphere of knowledge”. How fitting that in this last decade, the influx of information and information technology has advanced the world tremendously. Global communications and transferring of information has allowed platforms for cross-cultural exchange, from which China has now emerged as a major powerhouse in the new century. However, with the advancement of culture (or knowledge), the idea of the image presupposes all aspects within a society; knowledge becomes a commodity of a society of the spectacle. Surveillance is a large component of this as cities and government are now more and more prone to monitor their citizens. China, still a Communist government, still employs close watch and censorship over information outlets such as the Internet, television, printed media etc. We’re all reminded of this everytime we turn our VPN on to access social networking sites like Facebook, or staring up at CCTV surveillance cameras that seem to be everywhere.

Now we go back to the tea, how? Culture naturally is issued from a historical point of view and often struggles between tradition and innovation, which seems to plague many modern societies/cities. Debord states that. “Cultural innovation is impelled solely, however, by that total historical movement….tends toward the transcendence of its own cultural presuppositions-and hence toward the suppression of all separations”. Tea, both a widely celebrated beverage and long-standing ceremonial ritual in China, has met this drastic fate in a modern, consuming Chinese society. The fact that this once highly relegated ceremonial drink that was, at times, reserved for aristocrats is now being cheaply sold in mass quantities means the inevitability of that cultural item’s loss of significance. The uniqueness of the quality, or scarcity of the type of flavor becomes meaningless in a free-market system that encourages industrialized mass production and multiple competitors. The individual/consumer becomes desensitized with quantity, and this is what Debord calls the disappearance of separations.

This past weekend we made a trip to Xi’an where I was fortunate enough to visit an actual teahouse. Upon arriving at the front door of the courtyard house, I was stopped by the hostess. She pointed to a sign that said “20 RMB Tea Ceremony”. It didn’t occur to me in that instance, but now reflecting on that moment, I am conscious now of what Debord was getting at. Similarly to Benajmin’s argument in Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the society of the spectacle within the cultural sphere reduces what was once considered true art in the sense of enrichment, to the spectacle within a purely consumer-centric society. In essence, this devolution, if you will, of culture to a merely another product completely negates any real, intrinsic value it previously had. I recently read an article published earlier this year about Starbuck’s discovering that Chinese people actually like drinking tea….what a shocker. Needless to say, this was a market study that led to the recent introduction of  “ nine new tea drinks in China including three original-leaf Chinese-style tea drinks, four original-leaf foreign tea drinks, and two handmade special tea drinks”. I found an interesting quote from the article about the current move from Starbuck’s to “get in touch” with the Chinese:

“This is not the first time that Starbucks is trying to (slowly) localize in China. China Daily points out that there is already a tea-themed Starbucks location in Shenzhen and over the past few years, Starbucks has taken to selling their own mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival and zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival”.

It seems in an age of globalization, the purity and significance of culture becomes one of the first to take a hit from the ever-changing society of the spectacle. What happens to our perceptions of culture? What is real vs. fake culture? The everydayness of walking the city presents itself with various images and advertisements of “culture”, fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, etc. Consumption and negation within the modern era leads us ever closer to the blurring between reality and the surreal, which toggles the understanding of our own culture.

 

_Jonathan

“Starbucks discovers that Chinese people like tea”,

http://www.cnngo.com/shanghai/eat/starbucks-discovers-chinese-people-tea-224930

Filed under: China, Culture, Debord, knowledge, Psyche, spectacle, Starbucks, Tea, Walter Benjamin

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu