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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Judgments of Taste: the concept of Derrida's "Frame" applied to Puerh

The thing, and the nature of the thing. A cake is mighty tasty.
I received an email from a reader posing the following philosophical question with regard to Judgment of Taste in tea, specifically puerh tea because that is the usual focus of my blog. Thus, consider the following question:

Question: What is the Frame of puerh tea drinking?

Definition of Frame: an aesthetic experience of a painting is a “frame,” limited to only the painting, minus the effects of architecture, lighting or anything outside of the painting.

Limit: a limitation is proposed on the notion of the frame for tea, taken from wine tasting. That is, wine tasters spit the wine to eliminate the effect of drunkenness, likewise removing the drunkenness effect of the tea is also proposed.

For me, addressing this issue for my email friend, who is a philosophy professional, requires taking a look at who invented this idea of the frame, and how it got applied to a painting on the wall, before I can consider a “tea equivalent.”

Kant identifies a “gap” between aesthetic judgment and teleological judgment. Or, to paraphrase, a gap between the abstract, reasoned consideration of the qualities, pleasure, or merits, or a “taste” of the “thing” versus the nature, or purpose, of the thing. So, the aesthetics of the thing versus the purpose of thing creates a gap. For example, if we judge the aesthetic merits of a fork, we also have the nature or purpose of the fork which is to pierce food to carry to the mouth. Kant’s gap between a specific fork’s merits and the purpose is what Derrida calls the “frame,” at least for the purposes of his discussion in his paper “The Parergon” For him, the frame is defined as “the limit between the inside of the object and the outside of the object (Derrida, p. 12).”

In “The Parergon,” [concept which means the state of neutral observing], Derrida is careful to interpret Kant’s judgment of taste as “not a judgment of knowledge, it is not ‘logical,’ but subjective and therefore aesthetic relation to affect (aesthesis). Every relation of a representation, even a sensible one, can eventually be objective, but never pleasure or displeasure. Certainly aesthetic representations may give rise to logical judgments when they are related by judgment to the object; but when judgment itself is related to the subject [person judging], to the subjective affect…it is and can only be aesthetic (Ibid, p. 11).” So, in questions of judgment of taste, both Kant and Derrida put to bed the notion that aesthetic judgments are objective. They are not. As noted, logical conclusions certainly may arise, such as “this wine contains 30% alcohol content,” or “this tea contains theanine.” But logical statements such as these are not the same as statements like “the roast is balanced,” or “the kuwei lingers long” because these statements are subjective experiences. My tongue is not and will never be your tongue.

Let me stop here for a second. I want to be clear that no true philosophical discussion of aesthetics of anything, or judgment of taste, is acceptable as logical or objective. Unless you want to go with a non-traditional, non-western philosophy which does not separate objective from subjective, and I don’t know of one that is not inherently theological. Otherwise, we must accept that judgment of taste is subjective. Aesthetics are subjective. Maybe you can invent a new philosophy where judgments of taste are objective without that philosophy relying on theology (leaps of faith in a divine being). But right now I’m writing in a world which has, over the millennia, defined judgments of taste as subjective.

What I really want to say, though, is that we shouldn’t feel bad about the subjective nature of judgments of taste in tea, we need to embrace them, celebrate them. The experience of purely subjective pleasure is the dancing in the moonlight moment, let us dance together and feel. What we are after in judgment of taste are the moments of harmony with other people tasting together. And together we might reach an agreement that makes tea or wine tasting competition possible.

All of this lies outside the scope of my emailer’s question. But because we still have disagreement amongst tea people whether judgments of taste in tea are objective or subjective, I felt I needed to repeat much of this before coming up with my own thoughts on the question at hand. Also, I assume most readers are not familiar with Kant or Derrida, even though one can hardly get through university these days without the latter shoved down one’s throat which, in my case, can certainly corrupt my tea drinking palate just by sheer repetition. And I think the subjective versus objective “fogginess” in the tea world corrupts many an argument on tea forums, and results in enthusiastic posters feeling put down, as more subjective than others, when really everyone is equally subjective in judgments of taste. The great equalizer here is that we are all subjective, so let us enjoy it and embrace a diversity of opinion while we can, and leave the need for agreement to the formal competition setting! Only in that environment do tea tasters declare the need for a winner, and recently MarshalN dealt rather handily with the "confusions of the aged" in the competition setting.

The nature of the thing.
"Sugar"...err...now oolong jar, by rmoralespottery, Etsy
To regroup, I have looked at where the idea of Frame came from, and clarified some foggy issues of the subjective nature of taste. Now I can start to take a look at what might be considered a Frame for puerh tea. Let’s consider the wine tasting example to see if it contains any clues that might apply to puerh tea.

In considering wine, my email writer notes that wine tasters spit out the wine in order to avoid the drunkenness effect to purely consider the taste experience. Thus, the wine is judged minus the alcohol content and effects from that content. This seems reasonable to me with wine. However, the nature of alcohol is that it will produce drunkenness 100% of the time, even if the quantity one must drink to obtain a drunken state will vary with the individual. Tea on the other hand, produces drunkenness from the theanine/caffeine combination in only certain individuals, and not in 100% of cases.

Should tea drunkenness be removed as a variable in aesthetic judgments of puerh tea? Increasingly, many of us, myself included, point out specific teas which seem to produce a greater effect of tea drunk. I’ve made jokes about seeking tea drunk teas, because my incontinent and lonely old lady self finds a good tea drunk a substitute for companionship and whatever else my psychology might lack. But I separate my comedy side from my thinking self now when considering a serious matter like this email question.

What do you think, is the tea drunk effect a good criterion for judging a puerh tea? I think the effect of theanine/caffeine “drunkenness” should be removed from judgments of taste, as it is in wine. Puerh tea tasters in settings like the Menghai Taetea factory taste and spit, they must spit because they are drinking so many cups of tea per day they cannot possibly swallow it all. But if the tea drunk effect varies so much that some people get it and some don’t from a particular tea, the effect is unreliable. I know that some people comment to me that a tea I got fairly tea drunk from didn’t affect them at all, and those persons felt somewhat disappointed when their experience wasn’t the same.

Is tea drunk the same as wine drunk? Aside from the unreliable nature of tea drunk, perhaps the reason the” drunk effect” is removed from wine tasting is to remove any impact upon their judgment of other characteristics. When you feel like saying “hell yeah, gimme another glass of that,” the brain is happily drunk and might judge other flavors or aging traits as better than perhaps they might seem when sober. Removing the “drunk effect” is the same as limiting the frame to exclude euphoric or psychedelic effects from the brain or, in other words, to remove the affected Brain from the Frame when judging wine.

Not a tea fountain, but maybe it could be.
Ceramic cat water fountain by ebifountains.com
Removing the brain from the Frame is to limit the Frame to the tongue/mouth/throat, nasal, esophagus and possibly the stomach for wine or tea tasting. So, with tea this means the Frame is defined as the experience of anything oral or olfactory or esophageal or gastric. Looking at Chinese tea terms, we have several that don’t necessarily translate into English well, but nevertheless are defining. These terms are those of the olfactory, tongue and mouth, throat, and also body.

For nose and mouth effects, several terms are used. Xiang Wei 香味is the smell of the dry leaves, fullness of fragrance. Ku Wei 苦味 refers to bitterness, or lingering bitterness or fullness of bitter taste in the mouth on more than just the areas on the tongue normally detecting bitterness, the whole mouth or throat too. Se Wei 涩味refers to the “astringent” effect of tea, a dry-ish, tingling in the mouth, or “dry mouth.” Tian Wei 甜味 is all about sweetness in the mouth after swallowing.

Throat effects are referred to as Hui Gan 回甘which is a returning sweetness that follows bitterness in the throat, or coolness in the throat that follows even when the tea is very hot. With puerh tea, some people consider lingering cool effects or flavors at the back of the throat, as well as in the esophagus and stomach as characteristics to look for in aging. Finally we have Chaqi 茶气, this illusive effect which is more than tea drunkenness, but rather an effect on the body, such as tingling in the spine, neck or scalp. This is different from Cha Zui 茶醉 which means tea drunk.

I don’t use these terms very often in my writing, not because I lack understanding of them, though perhaps I do, because to understand them fully requires a deeper understanding of the history of the characters and their drawing than I possess. Characters are pictures that evolved into more abstract and quickly written forms throughout the millennia. I do believe we can understand these terms through long experience drinking puerh tea. But what I’m after as a writer is finding the place for puerh tea in my local experience, and in creating a discussion in English within my own culture. This does not, and should not exclude the Chinese terms. I’m merely reflecting a beginning movement within my culture to accept puerh tea as a part of my life, as it is where I live. My writing is nothing more than a bookmark in internet tea discussion, one which will evolve as long as more people around the world drink puerh tea from Yunnan, China. Just as people around the world drink champagne, and we now distinguish sparkling wine from champagne because many cultures are creating their own wines that mimic French champagne. While we likely won’t grow puerh tea successfully in North America, we will evolve in our discussions over time, and as a more mutual understanding of tea terms evolves, we can use them without creating confusion or requiring pages and pages to explain.

The nature of the thing. Red. House finch?
And, at the same time, I believe that in serious academic or competition discussions of puerh tea, these are the terms that need to be used. They are necessary not only because they evolved from the culture where puerh tea is produced, but because some languages, like English, lack terms of our own. We need to string together several words or more to convey the full meaning, or even write pages and pages to describe the full meaning these terms hold so succinctly.

Thus I say to my email friend, I believe the Frame for judgments of taste of puerh tea, if such a Frame is assumed to exist, must include all of the above terms, with the possible exception of Chaqi 茶气 and Cha Zui 茶醉 because these vary too much among individuals. Or maybe we need to split the frame into areas of the body. The Frame for Puerh Tea is Olfactory, Mouth/Throat, and Body/Mind. From here we can create other variables for what we consider a “good” puerh tea like processing, aging and the like.

How about you, how would you define the Frame for puerh tea? Does this popular Derrida metaphor work for Judgments of Taste with tea, or can you propose something else?


I apologize for any errors in philosophical definition, as I am not a scholar in philosophy. My degrees in philosophy and theology are at the undergraduate level where I carried a Theology major and philosophy minor, my doctorate is in another field. Feel free to comment or borrow anything from this post without attribution. I only feel brave enough to write about this stuff because of one of my undergraduate professors the late, great classical languages scholar Fr. Ivan Havener, OSB, who once wrote me “theology is not a sacred cow for scholars.” Oh yes, I saved that postcard.

I want to thank my friend Mr. C. Thi Nguyen for the wonderful email.


Derrida, J. & Owens, C. (trans). “The Parergon,” October Vol 9 (Summer 1979), Boston, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 3-41. Stable URL http://www.jstor.org/stable/778319. Translation from the French of the four-part essay Derrida, J. “Parergon.” La vérité en peinture, Paris: Flammarion, 1978, with parts originally appearing in Digraphe 2 and 3 (Paris: Galilée, 1974).

Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Judgment” (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790). Take your pick of editions. I use my dad’s old Great Books Kant edition from the early 1960s that is hardly a decent scholarly edition today, and not worth citing. 


  1. Interesting, as usual. Personally I don't really buy the idea that qi or drunkenness vary from person to person more than any other quality of the tea. It's certainly possible, but I don't really see the evidence. I suspect that if a person misses out on qi that was expected, that would be more of a downer than say missing some fruit notes or bitterness or whatever, which may cause it to get talked about more.

    And anyways, as a drinker and purchaser, I find the idea of separating out the qi or drunkenness from the tea quite absurd. Does seem to make sense if you want to define tea based on frame, but to the regular puer drinker that doesn't seem very relevant.

    And if you went so far as to actually spit, then there goes the finish (I assume?), and a lot of good puer is finish heavy.

    Really interesting to think about all the same.

    1. Can I forward the messages I get from people saying "I didn't get any qi off of that." Maybe you can paste in the above to reply...j/k

    2. I think no one who tried a certain Naka will ever have the idea that the Qi can / should be separated from drinking Pu. It probably wasn't intended for the ordinary Pu-drinker, for whom the whole experience will count and analysis isn't the main interest.
      But if you want to see what can be put into objective terms, it is very difficult to find an objective approach to Cha Qi and Cha Zui. Opinions vary so drastically here.

  2. Wow, this is an ambitious article. Very interesting, thanks!
    I think it's a good idea to set aside Cha Qi and Cha Zui, because I witnessed too that different teas affect people differently.
    I mean, why not mention and describe them, but under the pretext that it is an additional note.

    What we'd need now would be someone who is familiar with Asian and to some degree Western culture, and who would produce detailed explanations for these terms. Explanations which would take into accound the history and background which is required to understand them to a reasonable degree, and which also would be understandable for Westerners who are not too familiar with Chinese philosophy.
    If we had that, things might get quite interesting!

    1. I've dealt with these terms in the past from my own admittedly western perspective, and other bloggers have done so from a greater understanding of the literature and language in Chinese.

      However, if these terms are to develop common usage and understanding, tea drinkers need to talk about them as often as possible in their own language as well. Concepts have a formal understanding as well as a bit of vernacular, both are useful.

    2. Hm, maybe, if detailed explanations of these terms were available in one place / one list of links, it would be possible to make them more well-known in the tea scene?

    3. Social media moves so fast nowadays. My post here which defines these terms in a basic way will fall behind other posts. Bloggers who have posts still available have stopped blogging. Reddit discussions die out once they are off the first page. New people start drinking puerh every day, I think it will take a number of years for discussions to evolve.

    4. Some good news! A tea pal has started a wonderful new blog focusing on puerh education, aguywithagaiwan.com

      This writer has a clarity which I think most people will appreciate.

  3. Depending on how one defines the Frame for reading Derrida, this discussion of how to Frame pu-er drinking might be but a palimpsest for the more fundamental underlying question, Do you spit or swallow? But I'll play along anyway. Very nicely done essay. Some thoughts. As we know, the Chinese simply do not make a fundamental distinction between mind and body. Indeed, 'heart' (心), the typical locus (symbolic or otherwise) of aesthetic/subjective feelings/judgements, is often translated as 'mind', which in the Western episteme is the locus of Rational/objective thinking. This makes it problematic, to my 'heart-mind', to exclude this or that (e.g., 茶氣/醉) from the pu'er (or any tea) tasting/evaluating/drinking Frame. At least if you wish to include (meaningfully) Chinese in your 'culture' of pu'er drinking/discussion. I've spent hundreds of hours in tea drinking sessions with Chinese and Taiwanese. 茶氣/醉 are routinely part of the conversations. Sure, they're elusive concepts. But they're inescapable components of Chinese tea culture. I think it's therefore best to work with them. A final note: For serious Chinese tea drinkers, a serious tea session requires a relatively empty stomach (at least some time before the last meal, which should not have been a massive Chinese banquet). Moreover, there's no snacking during a serious session. In more casual sessions, some 下茶 are fine. But not in serious sessions. Food in the belly affects/interrupts 茶氣/醉 . As does how well rested one might be. Mahjong

    1. I don't dispute your interpretation, however you are missing a crucial point here that we are looking at how to discuss these concepts meaningfully in the west using western languages for which concepts translate poorly or not at all. Sitting in tea sessions in Taiwan or China are experiential for those who do so, but I'm referring to developing concepts in tea tastings amongst people here, not in China or Taiwan. We need language concepts useful to people within their own experience.

      Puerh is attracting more and more people every year who will only ever drink it in their own settings. They will develop conversation and concepts about it in their own language whether we object or not. Even as I suggest that Chinese terms be used I am aware they will not be largely adopted.

      At the same time, western goods, literature, lifestyle and even western tea conventions are adopted in China. Do we insist they must visit our countries and use our language to describe their experience? I think we have insisted on this in the past and made huge mistakes in doing so.

  4. Well, I certainly understand your point. But I cannot help but sense what might be a 'midwestern' sensibility jumping off the page. There's just too sharp a binary (East/West) at work in your reasoning, one that slips too easily from the Imperial/Colonial era to the 'Prairie Home Companion' present. Where I live, here in CA, I hear as much Mandarin walking the streets as I do English. Tea shops here aren't just visited by Westerners; indeed, Asians and Indians might make up a majority of the clientele. I'm an Italian-American, born and raised on the east coast, and I speak Mandarin and talk Chinese tea talk. And I'm not alone on this score. You seem like you want to have your pu-er and hunker down with it too. Why wouldn't 'people' (wonder how you define this) today find it fascinating to tinker with Chinese terms?