Interview with Junhong Ma, PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Alberta

By Danielle French, Taiwan Studies Research Assistant

Junhong Ma is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Alberta who is conducting research on Taiwanese tea culture. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Finance and an MA in Classical Chinese Literature from Fudan University. 

Snow Valley Trail, Edmonton, 2020

A recipient of the 2021 Taiwan Studies Award, Junhong has been conducting research on Taiwanese tea culture since 2015. We shared a conversation via Zoom where we discussed her journey as an academic, what sparked her interest in Taiwan Studies, and her current research. 

Graduating with a BA in Finance in 2008, Junhong did not set out to pursue academia. However, after some time working in the finance sector, “auditing work was not for me,” she says, she decided to apply to graduate studies at Fudan University in the Classical Chinese Literature Department. While completing her studies on Tang and Song dynasty literature, she had the opportunity to complete an exchange program to Taiwan. In 2012, Junhong arrived at National Taiwan University where she was able to experience Taiwanese culture, including tea culture. Unlike Shanghai, she noticed that in addition to the strong coffee culture, the locals in Taipei were interested in traditional tea. Whereas in Shanghai, she says, “tea was mostly for the older generation, for example, it was common for seniors to pay several Yuan for a cup of tea at the local theater or mahjong place for a couple of hours, but young people went to Starbucks.” As a graduate student, Junhong found that in Taiwan there was an expectation for her to know about traditional tea culture and its rituals. One of her most memorable introductions to Taiwanese tea culture happened because of an accident. Due to an unfortunate fall, Junhong injured her foot and was brought to the doctor by a Taiwanese friend. While being treated, the doctor offered her a cup of Gongfu tea and remarked that as a Master’s student from a well-known university in China she must be familiar with it, but Junhong, embarrassed, says, “I didn’t know anything about it.” 

High Mountain Tea (高山茶),  Muzha, Taipei, 2015

Curious to discover more about the differences between Taiwanese and Chinese tea culture, Junhong applied to the Anthropology Department with University of Alberta and began to work closely with Professor Jean DeBernardi as well as on her own research. Junhong expressed a personal connection to her work, “I realized that we are witnessing a peak in cultural creativity, especially in the tea industry. For my peers, coffee and tea have significant symbolic values. If coffee represents globalization and modernization, the reinvention of tea culture in Taiwan since the 1970s and China in the 1990s is closely related with nationalism and identity formation.” Although her interests are broad, she is particularly interested in the history of Taiwanese tea culture and how it is influenced by cultural exchange, knowledge sharing practices, and its engagement with other countries. As such, she focused on Ten Ren’s Tea in Taiwan and its sister company, TenFu’s Tea in China. In 2015, Junhong spent some more time in Taiwan studying Ten Ren’s Tea and visiting Taipei, Taichung, Pinglin and Yilan, where she interviewed tea business owners and educators. In 2017, during trips to Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces, she visited TenFu’s manufacturing plants, tea school, tea parks and office sites. She notes that one of the most fascinating aspects of Taiwanese tea culture is its engagement with China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. Ten Ren’s Tea, founded in 1953, quickly developed into the largest tea company in Taiwan, but failed during the financial crisis in 1990. This birthed TenFu’s Tea, founded in 1993, its sister company in China, which served as the basis for the modern Chinese tea system demonstrating how the two tea systems are connected. 

Teahouse in Maokong, Muzha, Taipei, 2015

Regarding tea education systems, Taiwan and China participate in extensive knowledge sharing practices. In 2007, TenFu Tea College was founded (now known as the Zhangzhou College of Science and Technology) and began offering a three-year degree program that features both Taiwanese and Chinese instructors with, generally, the former specializing in artistic tea demonstrations and the latter in tea evaluation and the manufacturing process. Although Taiwan’s major tea education organization, Tea Research and Extension Station (行政院農業委員會茶業改良場) offers extensive education programs for tea farmers, they focus mostly on the production process and are not always available to those outside of the tea industry. As such, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, many Taiwanese attended training programs in China to receive certifications in tea evaluation.

Junhong is especially keen to continue to examine the cultural peak in tea through the transfer of knowledge, technology, and communication between Taiwan and China as well as the barriers that exist to further cooperation. In the future, she also wishes to look not only at Taiwan and China’s tea culture, but also the tea industry in other countries in Asia and other parts of the world. When asked about future goals, Junhong replied: “I want to share my findings with the public and facilitate better tea knowledge sharing practices between countries, cultures, and people.”