“We are selling tea from Taiwan”: merchants and the invention of the Taiwanese terroir

Key information

3:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Main Building, SOAS University of London, 10 Thornhaugh St, London WC1H 0XG

About this event

This talk will attempt to describe how actors narrativize ‘Taiwanese’ tea – the stories they tell others and their customers when they introduce their teas.

Taiwan has been a producer of tea for over a century. From a large supplier to the US and Southeast Asian countries in the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries, Taiwan now mainly produces tea for domestic consumption.

Although the economic and social importance of this beverage has been steadily decreasing for the past forty years, tea remains one of Taiwan’s most culturally significant crops, associated both with its economic development and notions of Chinese culture. In the past decades, some merchants and producers have been attempting to rebrand tea in an effort to revive the industry.

In doing so, they have been increasingly relying on notions of terroir – an originally French concept describing the unique natural and human characteristics of a region affecting the taste of foodstuff. However, explaining what the Taiwanese terroir (or terroirs) might be is not a straightforward endeavour: In the process, actors from the tea industry have to contend with ideas of taste, nationhood and customers’ desires.  This talk will also highlight some of the challenges they face in defining “the taste of Taiwan”.

Meet the speaker

Pauline Harlay is a 4th year PhD student at the department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS. Her thesis focuses on the role of Taiwanese merchants in transforming tea from a plant to a cultural commodity – a process in which notions of taste, nationhood and sociality all play important roles. 

Pauline completed most of the research for this project in Taiwan, where she conducted ethnographic fieldwork in 2021-2022. Pauline’s interest in tea grew out of her experience working with a Taiwanese tea “master” in Paris. There, she developed the technical knowledge which inspired and helped her frame her PhD about tea merchants. Pauline is now in the final stage of her PhD, incorporating her findings into her thesis.