SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Pauline Harlay

BA (Oxford), MPhil (Cambridge)


Paulene Harlay
Pauline Harlay
Email address:
Thesis title:
Tea, Taste and Traders: Cultural Mediators and the Reinvention of the Chinese ‘Traditional’ Beverage (working title)
Internal Supervisors


My BA and MPhil dissertations, for which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Taiwan, focused on the link between the reintroduction of a ‘traditional’ aboriginal festival in rural Taiwan and the region’s indigenous rights movement. Following the completion of my MPhil, I worked for Taiwanese tea specialist Tseng Yuhui in Paris. This experience with a renowned ‘master’ developed my technical knowledge of tea, which helped me frame my PhD project on tea culture. During the years I spent away from academia, I also worked as a Mandarin to French translator: among other works, I translated a novel and a short story by Chinese author Liu Cixin, to be published next year. My PhD is funded by ESRC.

PhD Research

My study will investigate the formation and development of ‘Chinese’ tea culture in Taiwan. In the past 30 years, Taiwan has been at the forefront of innovations relating to tea culture – constantly updating the concept by inventing traditions or fostering new tastes. My thesis will explore some of the practices behind Taiwan’s constant reinvention of tea culture by focusing on the activities of one type of actors: cultural mediators. In this category, I will include agents acting within the tea economy such as tea merchants and teahouse owners, having direct interactions with customers. These actors can be called 'mediators' insofar as their place in the supply chain – in between producers, suppliers and customers – allows them to influence how tea is experienced and understood by consumers. They perform 'cultural mediation' through the daily practices of their trade such as selling tea, organising tea tastings and tea fairs. I will argue that these practices allow them to influence the cultural relevance of tea by shifting the boundaries of the Taiwanese ‘field of tea culture’. The findings of this micro-analysis will enable me to explore more complex and overarching themes such as taste formation, identity politics and the role of merchants in cultural production. Most of my data will be collected through ethnographic fieldwork in Taiwan.