The Semiotics of Bubble Tea

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

Milk Tea
Bubble Milk Tea

Rather than writing a a straightforward review of Paul Manning’s wonderful The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking (winner of last year’s Sapir Prize), I thought I’d instead engage with the book by endeavoring to apply Paul’s ideas and analytic techniques to a context which is more familiar to me than post-soviet Georgia: contemporary tea culture in Taiwan.

For those who don’t know, bubble tea is a sweet milk tea, often served cold, filled with chewy tapioca balls one drinks up through an extra-large straw. It was first invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and soon became a global sensation. It is now even available at the McDonald’s run McCafé shops in Germany.

The McCafé ad campaign (embedded above) strikes me as a bit offensive, but it serves to highlight the global spread of Taiwanese-style milk tea. I think it also reflects the association between the drink and an exotic Asian (post)modernity. Here, however, I intend to focus on the semiotics of milk tea in the Taiwanese context; using milk tea to look at attempts to develop a uniquely Taiwanese form of modernity.

Before we get to that, first a little bit of semiotics. One of the joys of Paul’s Peircean approach to semiotics is that it takes seriously the “materiality of the sign.” That is to say, the physical aspects of signs matter, not just what they symbolically represent.

The example Peirce gives is the word ‘man’ written in different media: from ‘semiotic’ perspective, insofar as we are interested only in the capacity of these different written forms to convey the word ‘man’, it hardly matters whether the word is written with ink on paper, chalk on a slate, a marking pen on a wall, or scrawled with a knife in a desk. But from the perspective of a janitor trying to clean up a classroom, or an administrator trying to determine whether the inscription counts as proper use of the classroom or vandalism, the differences in the material realizations of the sign make a good deal of difference, and these various ‘material’ differences can take on a material and semiotic life of their own subsequently.

If various material differences can take on a semiotic life of their own, then something like the difference between black and oolong teas1 needs to be taken seriously when talking about the semiotics of drink. Not just the taste, but the technology and labor of production and consumption matter as well. One of the main differences between oolong and black teas is how long each is fermented, with longer fermentation tending to make teas both more bitter and more highly caffeinated. Traditionally oolong teas are made from whole leaves from a single origin, not chopped and blended like English style black teas.2

Photo by Dimitri Fedorov.
Photo by Dimitri Fedorov.

The drinking of oolong teas in Taiwan is simultaneously fetishized and informal. Frequently, when visiting someone’s home, you will be served tea in a quick and efficient manner from a tea set that contains a kettle for boiling water, a pot for brewing, a decanter pot, and small cups for drinking. A more formal version might also include special smelling cups into which tea is first poured and then emptied, leaving behind only the tea’s unique fragrance. There is a considerable expertise involved in knowing how to rinse the tea, how long each tea should be brewed, how many brewings can be had from a pot before the leaves must be changed.

The production of bubble milk tea couldn’t be more different. Milk tea in Taiwan is only rarely sold in a cafe with seats and tables. It is primarily sold on the street and served in paper cups sealed with an air-tight plastic seal. The sealing machines are a marvel of modernity that can seal hundreds of cups in an hour.

The straws are sharpened at one end so that you can puncture the seal without making a mess. This means that milk tea is not designed as a social drink like coffee or traditional Chinese teas (more about those in a bit), but is designed to give one a quick pick-me-up while working or shopping.

In its modernity, milk tea shares much in common with the martini, discussed in Paul’s chapter on gin. While not an exact match, there are three broad similarities between the two. First of all, like gin, the production process of milk tea, “involves the progressive removal of what could be called ‘natural’ sensuous qualisigns.” That is to say, whereas the drinking of oolong teas emphasizes the original tea leaves, with the technique of brewing subtly crafted to the particular sensuous qualities of each type of tea, milk tea seeks to hide the bitter quality of black tea in “vast concoctions of milk, cream, and . . . syrups.”3

Secondly, Paul discusses how the martini glass evokes aesthetic modernism. Here, however, there are slight differences, as the disposable plastic milk tea cups, with their printed labels, strike me as more postmodern than modern. And whereas Paul sees technique as important in the mixing of a martini (“the making of the martini is a connoisseur performance that focuses on the ritual of the mixture process . . . ‘the martini rite’”), the mixing of milk tea is entirely mechanized. The video below shows how it works. Although milk tea is made in a classic cocktail shaker, a machine does the actual shaking:

Third, Paul discusses how cocktail parties where martinis were drunk, unlike the formal dinners of a previous era, “accentuate the participant as an unattached individual whose gender and marital status is irrelevant.” Similarly, one can see a contrast between the drinking of oolong tea in the living room, served by the family patriarch, with milk teas served on the street by anonymous (often young and female) workers. The individualism of milk tea has even created concerns about its environmental impact. A recent news story I saw on TV reported on offices that sought to reduce environmental and economic waste by making large vats of different flavored teas for the workers. One of the workers interviewed pointed out how difficult it was to meet everyone’s individual tastes.

Recent developments, however, are slowly changing how Taiwanese think about milk tea. While milk tea was originally identified as a modern, westernized, product — I remember one tea shop in the early aughts that had a (non-functioning) URL instead of a name — now there is a kind of retraditionalization taking place. Many tea stalls now offer milk tea made with oolong teas. Near my office is one tea shop whose flagship product is a “Tieguanyin Latte,” a drink made from a strong, highly fermented, oolong tea, fresh milk (as opposed to powdered creamer often used in milk teas), and served without tapioca balls. Nor is this retraditionalization limited to their teas. The front page of the website shows their typical storefront, replete with red Chinese lantern, wooden benches, and other signs of traditional nostalgia.

Retro Modern Tea Stall
Retro Modern Tea Stall

This same attempt to brand Taiwanese modernity as grounded in historical nostalgia with a hint of the jazz age can also be found in the recent Taiwanese film Twa Tiu Tiann 大稻埕, a kind of Taiwanese Back to the Future.

In part this derives from the nationalist desire to define Taiwanese modernity (and past) as different from that of China, but it also reflects a dissatisfaction with the mechanized individualism of modern life. It also tastes really good.

  1. If I had more space I’d talk about green teas as well, but maybe that will have to wait for another post. 
  2. It should be mentioned that in Taiwan one can get whole-leaf black teas that are slightly slightly less fermented, allowing them to be drunk more like an oolong, without milk or sugar. 
  3. Paul gets this quote from this Markman Ellis piece on Starbucks. 

5 thoughts on “The Semiotics of Bubble Tea

  1. Hmm, I know this was meant to engage more with Manning’s new book, but you could easily turn this into a full paper. There’s still a number of gender and food safety issues associated with Bubble Tea to examine, not to mention the whole (brief?) history of milk in Taiwan and China. If you’re interested, might give Veronica Mak’s work a read, not sure if she has any articles out yet. A close friend owns a shop here in Chengdu and I’ve always wanted to look into its sudden popularity here a bit more. We should trade ideas over a cup some day…sadly I can only do the fruit drinks…caffeine and milk are my two mortal enemies 🙁

  2. Not denying the Peircean semantics has a lot going for it, and Peirce lived and wrote before any of the anthropology cited here. But we shouldn’t forget that the materiality of symbols has long been a topic of anthropological discussion. It was a central theme for Levi-Strauss, who recommends in the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked that anthropologists pay close attention to “the logic in tangible qualities.” Victor Turner writes a lot about the sensory pole of symbols where material references to blood, milk, semen, etc., supply the emotional charge added to the concepts that the symbols convey. Mary Douglas critiqued the Sausurrean view of symbols as arbitrarily attached to meanings in Natural Symbols. Re Taiwan, in particular, and southern China more generally, the literature on popular religion is full of discussion of the significance of things like bones vs flesh, even vs odd numbers of incense sticks, silver vs gold spirit money, food offered raw or cooked, whole or cut up and ready to eat, the textures and colors of funeral garments.

  3. I second Eddie’s comment and would love to pick up this conversation on drinking semiotics in East Asia more Kerim, great post! As Rex is on my doctoral committee at Manoa and I’m studying wine here in mainland China he recently had me pick up Manning’s book as well, which I was unaware of and I’m I’m working on connecting it with my fieldwork, so this is a particularly insightful piece.

  4. I’d also add that Megan Tracy has a very good piece in American Anthropologist from 2013 analyzing milk safety and branding in mainland China from a partially semiotic standpoint utilizing ideas of sterility combined with terroir.

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