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[Opinion] Sharing of tea a symbol of exchanges between civilizations

On April 7 2023, whilst in Guangzhou in Guangdong province during his visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron shared tea with his host, Chinese President Xi Jinping. The sharing of tea between the two world leaders was a symbol of the exchanges between civilizations and the values of harmony, respect and friendship that this social ritual implies. This seemingly simple act of sharing tea is something that takes place millions of times every day throughout the world. Tea, after all, is the world's most popular beverage after water. Tea also originated in China and is one of its most significant contributions to human civilization. The tea and context of the setting where the two leaders took their refreshment also celebrated Chinese civilization through music, art and aesthetics. Thus rather than a "clash of civilizations," the act of sharing tea can pave the way for a "confluence of civilizations".It doesn't matter if we are state leaders or ordinary folk, when we share tea we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of meaningful dialogue and exchange. This "civility" is indeed one of the hallmarks of "civilization".

The Global Civilization Initiative was proposed by President Xi in March 2023. Through this initiative, and the related Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative, China is outlining a plan for harmony and cooperation between civilizations. The Global Civilization Initiative advocates respect for the diversity of civilizations, the common values of humanity, the importance of inheritance and innovation of civilizations, and robust international people-to-people exchanges and cooperation.

Tea is a part of the story of exchanges between civilizations. May 21 is marked by the United Nations as International Tea Day. This is a day set aside to celebrate the tea plant — Camellia sinensis — and the people whose livelihoods depend upon it and for everyone else who enjoys this most intoxicating elixir. It is, therefore, very appropriate that we take some time to consider the relationship between tea and civilization.

With regards to art, literature and philosophy, tea has been a major inspiration for many artists in China and beyond. Lu Yu, a Chinese writer and tea master, completed the Classic of Tea during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Lu Yu's work is considered one of the earliest guides to tea cultivation, preparation and appreciation in Chinese history. The Classic of Tea is the beginning of what we might call a specific "tea civilization".

Later this body of work and the refined practice of tea drinking became the famous Tea Ceremony or chanoyu of Japan. Tea also provided the fuel for creativity of many a great intellect beyond China. For example, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is an English writer best known for his influential literary works and his role in compiling one of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language. It is well known that Johnson was a ravenous imbiber of tea. Johnson's fondness for tea is evident in his writings, where he sometimes humorously remarked on the pleasures of tea drinking and the social atmosphere it fostered. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is widely considered one of the most important figures in modern philosophy. He also made important contributions to what would become International Relations theory. His breakfast is recorded as consisting of "a cup of tea and a pipe of tobacco". As a mild stimulant and refreshing beverage, tea has played a positive role in shaping civilizational development and facilitating the exchanges between civilizations.

Tea and humanity are also entangled in what we can refer to as an ecological civilization. The concept of ecological civilization, also a crucial component of the Global Civilization Initiative, reflects China's commitment to achieving sustainable development while preserving environmental quality and ensuring the well-being of present and future generations in China and beyond. In this regard, the World Heritage listed tea gardens of Jingmaishan in Southwest China's Yunnan province, represent valuable contributions to "tea civilization". Part of the value of these groves of ancient tea trees lies in the lessons they can share with the tea industry as it seeks ways to encourage resilient and sustainable tea cultivation practices that will help mitigate the challenge of climate change. These tea gardens represent a form of sustainable tea agroforestry that is the embodiment of the Chinese civilizational ideals of "harmony between nature and humanity" (tian ren he yi).

Thus no matter how we define "civilization", either as the development of sophisticated knowledge, technology, art and literature, or more inclusively as those knowledge and practices that contribute to a sensitive and sustainable relationship between humanity and nature, we can see that tea has played a significant role. The Global Civilization Initiative advocates for the equal respect of all human civilizations. Tea as a form of ritualized shared experience is an excellent way for us to find the time to celebrate what we have in common and what makes us distinct. This is, in my view, precisely what President Xi and President Macron experienced when they took tea in Guangzhou in April 2023.

As we celebrate International Tea Day in 2024, let's take the time express our gratitude for the tea plant and all those who work tirelessly to bring us the daily beverage that is the hallmark of a "tea civilization". Tea means "peace" and "harmony" between humanity and nature and between the diversity of human civilizations and cultures. Think about that when you next hold your cup of tea. Think about the breadth of human experience through tea. Like a tea seed that gives life to a tea tree, from little things big things grow.

The writer is a professor of human geography in the Faculty of Geographical Science at Beijing Normal University.