In the rise of visual social media such as Twitter and Instagram, visual culture can have significant influence on behaviours and attitudes.
I take a very small glance at the visual culture of tea from as far back as the 1700s and compare it to modern tea culture portrayed in visual media.
Social networking sites are important platforms for visual self-presentation online (Baker & Walsh 2018). Equally the commissioning of portraiture in the 18th Century was an equivalent way of promoting self and ideas of social status. The rise of romanticism in western art put emphasis on emotion and individualism, such that visual culture turned itself towards the person and promoting ideals.
In this 1720 painting, by Dutch artist Matthijs Naiveu, we see some familiar artefacts of Chinese tea drinking. There is an iron kettle, clay teapot and ceramic celadon teaware.
Both tea and Chinese ceramics were conspicuous components in the emergence of consumer societies in Europe during the eighteenth century. The painting therefore exhibits an exuberance of individual status much like celebrity consumer branding on social media today.
Here tea culture is reflected to display material culture and opulence demonstrating the role tea played in reflecting European empire building in the mid 18th century.
In contrast, what I find on Instagram and Twitter is that there are far more “posed” photos of tea and far less images of tea drinking.
Images of “posed” tea stations or tables are absent of human interaction, presenting an empty and zen like image which is peaceful and aesthetic. Similar to 18th Century paintings of tea culture in Europe, they reflect a form of idealism and individualism, you could almost say these are a new form of romanticism. They too are displays of materialism, but unlike 18th century European depictions of tea culture, modern social media images demonstrate something more existential. Something I would describe as “spiritual materialism”, where the opulence is translated more through experiences and ideals rather than accumulated artefacts or items.
In contrast the actual experience of tea sessions in the Spring in Menghai city is nothing like these “posed” zen-like sessions and looks more like Las Vegas than some type of ancient tea temple often portrayed on social media platforms.
Equally lush green country scenes of individuals picking tea or next to old arbor trees present a rural ideal or “back to nature” imagery, a romanticized branding of human and environmental harmony. We don’t however otherwise appreciate the long back breaking and subsistence existence many small farmers undergo in the production of tea. Additionally, images of “old tea gardens” are often shown as manicured and neat islands of lush green, where in my experience are often roamed by pigs and overgrown with other plant species.
What slowly becomes clear it that the visual culture of tea on social media platforms are staged and appear like a glossy edition of the latest Elle Decoration, manipulated to solicit appeal and interest. Almost a form of individual and personal branding of ideas and ideals.
Instagram has the ability to transform images into visually appealing content through the use of ‘filters’ so even with the most representative images of tea culture it can be generously sprinkled with visual appeal. This is literally “tea pornography”
In slight contrast, Youtube videos tend to represent something less staged and more representative of current tea culture. In the video image there is less ease of manipulation to some ideal or intention. This perhaps leads it to being the platform of visual culture where you will find more representations of consumption of tea and more representations of the production of tea.
I also think on platforms such a Vimeo and Youtube, as consumers of visual culture, we become more focused on the foreground of the image, whats going on rather than where it is happening. This is possibly because our eyes and mind have less time processing the image to make up the story behind it and instead more passively absorb the visual culture.
The promotion and propaganda of romanticised depictions and ideals of tea culture is perhaps less so in the moving image and more so in a static image.
This hasn’t always been the case, the BFI (British Film Institute) as part of the “Tea Revives You” campaign produced a propaganda film on how to store and prepare tea as part of promoting tea as way of boosting homeland morale during the war years, drawing on symbols ad language around national identity and social cohesion.
This film demonstrates how tea imagery can be filtered through visual culture to influence behaviours and attitudes way before social media platforms.
Context and background are decisive parts of influencing and motivating consumer behaviour through Instagram images (Eriksson & Frohm 2018) hence on Instagram and Twitter images of tea culture are more manipulated to serve a particular aim. In this respect Instagram and Twitter are more similar to our elaborate 18th century paintings of tea culture, motivating a form of consumerism and celebration of material culture, albeit existential and experiential.
In contrast, during the 18th century in China, although individualist painters included Bada Shanren (1626–1705) and Shitao (1641–1707) drew more upon revolutionary ideas of transcending tradition to achieve original individualistic styles, depictions of tea culture were less about an ideal and more about reaffirming ideas of no boundary between internal self and external world (Zito & Barlow 1994). It is less about portraying the individual or ideals but portraying a distinct reality that people and self were not separate from the wider world or nature.
The famous painting of the Qianlong Emperor, although not displaying artifacts of tea culture depicts this style of 18th Century Chinese art, where unlike visual culture on social media platforms or in European 18th Century art, the artifacts and person are almost arranged like some pseudo-anatomical poster representing the whole person. Similarly styled depictions of tea culture in 18th century Chinese art are about depicting a fundamental Chinese ontological concept. This being that the human self and nature are non-separate.
Context is also important when we try to analyse or dissect visual culture.
There can be a world of difference between posting images of tea being consumed, shown in images of broken open bings or leaves spilling from a Puerh wrapper and an image of the latest Menghai factory production or for example a Mengku “Wild Arbor King” strategically placed next to an earthenware tea bowl.
Whatever the reason behind the visual image, tea has been propelled and extolled through visual culture.
I just hope we enjoy the consumption with our mouths as much as our eyes and allow the tea to tell its own story, not a story where tea is a mere vehicle.