Beefeaters and Tea-drinkers_____茶の本 / by HUA SHANG

“When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East?” Okakura Kakuzo asks this question in his long essay The Book of Tea. This book can be viewed as his attempt to facilitate westerners understanding the East. Through raising awareness of the disequilibrium of the East and the West, and educating the (sympathetic and well-educated) westerners about teaism, which embraces many aspects of the Eastern values, ranging from religion to aestheticism, Kakuzo hoped to narrow the gap between the East and the West.

Indeed, the West neglected a large chunk of Eastern civilization. However, the East was not doing much better either. In fact, both sides were seeing what they expected to see. For the West, things in the East portrayed in exotic oriental fantasies first drew their attention. As for the East, people’s eyes were fixed on the “keys” to the secrets of Western military and economic success. There were few differences between the beefeaters in Japan and tea drinkers in Europe and the US, the majority of whom ridiculously assumed a commodity as proof of civilization.

Moreover, in this modern (new) world, both sides were busy with struggling for wealth and power. There was a little time for understanding unless there is a practical need such as national security and market expansion.

Is it possible for the two civilizations to reach such a balanced equilibrium as Kakuzo envisioned? Could the “jewel of life” be regained through restoring the balance of the East and the West in modern days? When will “Nikuka reappear and help us fix the grand devastation”? Kakuzo does not offer us a clear answer. So let’s have a sip of tea or a bite of beef. Meanwhile, let's keep pushing the boundaries of our understating through constant questioning, and laugh at our own ignorance. 

P.S. The Beefeaters is a short satirical piece written by Kanagaki Robun. It mocked the peculiarities of Japanese society in the process of modernization during the Meiji period.