The story of tea, at least according to some, stretches back nearly five thousand years. Supposedly, a Chinese emperor was in the habit of enjoying a cup of hot water in his garden. A leaf from an ornamental shrub happened to drift in one day and, instead of picking it out, he let it infuse and started an enduring tradition.
The drink was initially enjoyed mostly by the upper classes or used for religious and medicinal purposes. Eventually, though tradition was rigid and travel slow at the time, the practice of tea-drinking spread throughout society and eventually all over the world. The spread of this harmless pastime may seem insignificant today; this is not the case. Entire cultures and communities changed, revolutions were caused, and some really deplorable wars were fought.
Of course, this enormous tapestry really consists of millions of individual threads, each one the tale of a human life. Though a work of fiction, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane records one such life, with the growing, curing, selling and serving of tea symbolically tying the whole together.
Set around the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the plot revolves around the often-painful clash between tradition and modernity. In Li-yan’s village, life goes on much as it did a century before – if this seems improbable in the 1970’s, you should know that in much of China’s interior even today, the appearance of a Caucasian is still an incredibly rare event.
One day, one such outsider – not a Westerner, but remember that China plays host to over 50 separate ethnicities – appears in the first automobile any of the locals have ever seen. Although he brings prosperity to the village, he also disrupts the well-worn rhythm of its life – and that of Li-yan, who hopes to pursue education and independence – as a side effect. This comes to a head when she, unmarried, gives birth to a child and refuses to let it be killed, setting in motion a change of events stretching over several decades, countries and cultures.
The author, Lisa See, lives in the United States and claims only one-eigth Chinese heritage, yet does a remarkable job of evoking a sense of that country’s circumstances, cultural attitudes and the details of its daily life. Anyone who enjoyed Wild Swans is certain to love this book, which touches on many of the same themes.