Tea, with an Ecological Approach

Orientalism in Tea Marketing Language


Mariko, one of the newest tea reviewers on RateTea, whom I met through Tumblr, recently shared a tea review which provoked so much thought, that in the middle of writing a reply comment, I decided that I’d rather make it into a post here.  Mariko writes:

I have to admit to being a little biased against this tea based on the name alone. What is this, the East India Trading Company? Are we still living in the Age of Imperialism? Come, now.

As a side note, the East India Company has relaunched, but that’s a whole other topic; an Indian, Sanjiv Mehta, bought the rights to the name in 2005 and relaunched it, describing feeling a “huge sense of redemption” in buying the rights to the name.

The Offending Tea

The tea in question is called Oriental Treasure Green Tea, and is sold by Bentley Tea, a brand of the Boston Tea Company.  In an ironic twist, this company has roots in opposition to British Imperialism and the East India Company.  The Boston Tea Company was founded by people who salvaged crates of tea that had been thrown overboard in the Boston Tea Party.

A can of Oriental Treasure Green Tea from Bentley's Tea

The tea in question.

I had a similar reaction as Mariko to the tea’s name. I tend to react pretty negatively to things labelled with terms like “oriental treasure”.  I have come to associate the term “oriental” with the sort of patronizing attitude that Western society took towards eastern societies (very broadly, anything from the Middle east through east Asia, sometimes even including North Africa) for quite some time, often described nowadays as Orientalism.  A key book in this movement is Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1979).  This book, which is somewhat controversial, argues that much of the scholarship on the regions described as “the East”, is tied to Western imperialism, and is based on a false view of these cultures and people as inferior.

I think it would be good for marketing language to avoid evoking associations of imperialism, racism, and a condescending attitude towards Eastern cultures.

I don’t think everyone necessarily has these same associations though.  Our world is incredibly vast and diverse, and I am continuously reminding myself that not everyone has come into contact with the same circles as I do, nor will they necessarily be aware of the same sorts of social issues that people in my circles tend to be aware of.  I see the term “Oriental” in business and marketing a lot less now than when I was a kid some 25ish years ago, but I still do see it, including being used by Asian companies and Asian-American owned businesses here in the U.S.  And I hear the term used occasionally by older Americans.

Other Teas Labelled “Oriental”

A number of tea companies still use the term “Oriental”.  The most common reference is in the style of oolong, oriental beauty, although I’ve seen the Chinese name “Bai Hao” used more for this tea in circles of tea connoisseurs and companies catering to a more knowledgeable customer base.  Outside bai hao oolong, the term “oriental” is uncommon in the tea world. A RateTea search turned up only a handful of teas other than that oolong which contained the word “oriental”.  Incidentally, many of them are sold by Asian companies.

A dark loose-leaf oolong tea, with curved leaves

Oriental beauty Oolong tea, from Life in Teacup, also frequently described by the Chinese name “Bai Hao”.

I do think though that the negative associations with the term have been increasing, and I think there are valid reasons behind the concern that there is a certain latent racism, imperialism, or other negative sorts of cultural biases underlying the term.  For this reason, I think it would be a good idea for marketing professionals within tea companies and working with tea companies, to be conscious of these issues, and probably to avoid this term.  Alienating even a small segment of customers through your choice of tea names is not a great marketing strategy, and it’s likely that this segment will only increase over time.  The potential range of choices for a tea name is almost boundless, and I think it’s easy to come up with names that are both more descriptive, and evoke more universally positive connotations.

What do you think?

  • Are you familiar with the concept of Orientalism as described here, or is it a new concept for you?
  • How did you react to the name of the tea in question here?  Do you react negatively to the term “Oriental” in general?
  • Do you find it ironic that a company that grew out of a reaction against British imperialism is now using terminology that has come to be associated with such imperialism?

Author: Alex Zorach (teacology)

I am the founder and editor of RateTea, and am also a co-founder at Why This Way. I am committed to sustainability in every aspect of my life. I like describing my approach to life as "ecological" because it is both scientific and holistic.

11 thoughts on “Orientalism in Tea Marketing Language

  1. I was thinking about this post and the term “oriental” while riding on the train this morning, and found my reaction interesting! I was initially thinking about the term in Latin, how Orient means East. The definition made sense to me at first, because most Asian countries are Eastern. Then it dawned on me how Euro-centric the idea of “Orient” as “East” was… Asian countries are East of Europe, not so if we were to be standing in California. From California, Asia is more Occident or West. The idea of Asia as Eastern was so ingrained in my head that I didn’t think twice of it until I really sat down to think about it!

    I also really think that valuable information is lost when calling a tea “oriental”… the term seems too generalizing — when I see a tea, I want to know what place its from and to learn more about the culture.

    Thanks for writing this, I find the topic thought-provoking!

  2. Is Boston Tea the company that makes Boston Harbor Tea? That stuff is also offensive to me, being a blend of Indian and Ceylon teas–none of which existed at the time of the real Boston Tea Party. The tea that got dumped was all Chinese in origin, of course.

    • No! That tea is actually made by the Davison Newman & Co. Ltd. of London. The connection of that company and tea, is not the tea blend, but rather the company itself… Davison Newman is a very old company, and from what I’ve read, it actually sold some of the tea that was dumped not in the original Boston Tea Party, but rather, in a second “Boston Tea Party” on March 7, 1774, where more shipments of tea were thrown overboard. The company is still in existence…whether or not it is true continuity, or just owning the rights (like the East India Company), I think the connection there is more historical than an attempt to be true to the style of tea actually consumed in those days.

      In the U.S. you can buy this tea through Mark T. Wendell, which also has a little blurb about the company.

      I also am not crazy about teas that seem to have gimmicky names without being true to the original style. But…I don’t think I have the same sort of icky association as I do to the name “Oriental Treasure”. There are far more companies that sell fairly generic tea blends, with various gimmicks and marketing schemes…and this seems one of the milder of them, especially if there’s a genuine historical connection to the company!

  3. A tea friend and I were just touching on this topic of “Oriental” romanticism in tea and its dangers. It’s a thought-provoking topic.

  4. I only recently discovered the tea Oriental Beauty, and I also perceive the negative connotation. I think my prejudice against the word “oriental” comes from the fact that many older Americans do refer to Asian peoples as Orientals. Though I have read that it is acceptable, politically correct, to say Oriental when referring to things like furniture . I actually just received a package labeled Oriental Beauty Supreme in the mail today from TaiwanTeaCrafts.com. That is the name they are selling it under, most likely believing it to be the more commonly known name to “westerners” and we do seem to be the target market. As for Bentley’s Oriental Treasure, I find that more confusing than off putting. As a “tea adventurer” I like the idea of getting Asian grown teas from a more direct source . . . but then I know nothing about Bentleys. Anyway, it is a thought provoking topic and it’s good that we do question the intent of the tea manufacturers when they brand their products like this. If I didn’t know better, I might think that the East India Trading Company had a nice exotic ring to it.

  5. My Japanese mother who is in her eighties, still uses Oriental referring to Asians. She talks about about mixed race Asians as being “oriental looking”.
    I find it a little awkward, but she’s old and I dare not correct her. My siblings and I never use the term and maybe she will pick up on our example.
    But when my Caucasian mother in law uses the word Oriental, I find it more offensive, not that she uses it in a pejorative way. I’m not too sure why, but it stings a little and she is a dear person.
    While oriental conjures up negative stereotypes, I have no issues with the word ORIENT. it evokes positive thoughts of Asia and the mystery and wonder of it.
    Its funny that those two letters AL change things.

    • This is interesting, I think what you say makes sense though. A lot of these words have really different definitions depending on the context, like who says it, and what they’re referring to.

      Thanks for sharing how you feel about these words! I think it really contributes to the discussion, to hear different perspectives like this!

  6. I agree that calling it Oriental Beauty would not appeal to more sophisticated tea drinkers, as origin information is highly valued. Was this name just a gaffe or was it thought through. Or worse….
    Thanks for this thought provoking post

    • Yeah, this makes sense and fits with what others have been saying…even if the term isn’t offensive, it’s vague, and it is missing an opportunity to highlight whatever makes the tea special, like the cultivar, processing method, and region of origin.

  7. Orientialism is a term still actively used in the art world, as I discovered on a recent visit and discussion with docents at the NC Museum of Art. Mostly in context of the art movement of the same name, but also there are many “Orientalists” in the field.

    Personally, I don’t like the term, especially in the name of my teas, but I think the flavor is still going to be the real determination if I enjoy the tea!

  8. Interesting entrance into thinking about how language works.

    Of course the word is from a Western point of view, because it has a Western origin. Although I don’t remember what it is the Chinese have their own word for westerners/non Chinese. Of course from their point of view.

    Remember that the word arose before the Americas became western-based countries.

    Since it were the Westerners that did the exploring and trade forcing I can understand why their word spread over the other languages. If it were the Chinese that did the exploring and discovered Europe we might have used more of their words. (loan words)

    Language works by association. That is if you give me a word I associate meaning to it as I have learned it. That is how we communicate. Unfortunately these associations can be negative. (by the speaker and/or listener) Mostly due to a negative history or (abuse) use of the word by people who have no good intentions at that point.

    If I look around me I see the word orient(al) mostly uses as:
    1) the word in western languages for things/people from that region
    2) “commercially” due to the positive associations most people have with the word (of course good enough for the seller)

    Including Asians expressing themselves in a Western language.

    I don’t recall a case where it was used in a negative sense, but that might be due to my small world or bias.

    The use in the tea name is clearly of the second type.

    Question: if Europeans are called Westerners. What then is the centre….

    When it comes to tea names I’m usually put off by such western beautiful names, because I think it just gives the impression that the tea is better than it actually is.

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