James Benn - Professor of Religious Studies, McMaster University
The beverage culture of premodern China was largely dominated by two substances in particular: alcohol and tea. One of them—alcohol—has been part of China’s cultural scene from as far back as our sources allow us to go. The other—tea—remained mostly a local speciality until the eighth century CE, when it rose to become a popular drink throughout the Tang empire and beyond. On closer examination, however, the picture becomes more complex and the scene more crowded when we realize that by the ninth and tenth centuries people had a much wider range of drinks than tea or alcohol from which to choose. There was a particular enthusiasm at all levels of society for beverages made of aromatic herbal ingredients that had medicinal qualities, a class of beverages that we might today term “health drinks.” In this talk, I aim to give a better account of a crucial phase in the beverage history of China, from around 750 CE to around 1200. Most of the material I will discuss is located in textual sources: anecdotal collections, material medica, and in particular the rules and regulations of Chinese monastic Buddhism. I will note also some evidence from art history and archaeology. An appreciation of how and why tea and other beverages were consumed is important for medical history and urban history, as well as for the cultural and religious history of China. It may even shed some light on what we drink today and why we do so.