Accepted Paper:

Unspeakable taste: communicating through the sensory modalities of tea in China.  


David Parkin (Oxford University)
Kunbing Xiao (SouthWest University for Nationalities)

Paper short abstract:

Descriptions of tea taste often diverge. Chinese tea circles (chaye quan) address this elusiveness over time through sight, touch, smell and voice, with each sense alternately marking phases of the communication event. How much is this orchestrated by commerce, aesthetics or rivalry?

Paper long abstract:

A 'communication event' has multiply intended facets: information; prestige or ritual display; reconciling or creating conflict; etc. The different facets may be communicated through one sensory modality or through a selected combination, changing as circumstances require. Does an ongoing communication event presuppose identifiable boundaries or does it morph unintentionally into something no longer seen as belonging to an earlier form? Some communication events strive not to stray over time from core intentions, for example the formalised and relatively unchanging Japanese tea ceremony. By contrast, there are a number of relatively recent, regionally different, and changing Chinese customs around tea drinking. Some observers see them not as ceremonial but as practical procedures for securing the best taste in tea. Others regard them as tea ceremonies. The particular case presented of stylised tea preparation and tasting in China, is only about three decades old but feeds into a modern China-wide perception of tea ceremonies as continuing the country's ancient heritage. Depending on participants' interaction in seeking to determine the elusive nature of tea taste, tea-tasting alternates between a) visually focused 'ceremonial' silence and body language in tea preparation, b) the invention of vocabulary to describe the taste, smell and touch of particular teas, and c) open discussion and commercially driven, competitive tea-tasting Throughout these interlinked, spatio-temporally separate occasions, however, the agreed identification of taste remains elusive. It is the unspeakable sense that knows neither fixed name nor boundary.

Panel Lang01
Semiosis as orchestration