Faculty Profile

Katharine Burnett

Katharine Burnett

Launching a Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science


February 22, 2016 — It all started with a modest little teapot.

Associate Professor of Art History Katharine Burnett, an expert on Chinese art and culture from the 17th century forward, is fascinated by everything about tea—from its taste to its health benefits, to its global impact on cultures around the world. Now, she has the opportunity to translate her fascination into an exciting new initiative at UC Davis.

Applying her expertise in humanities research and her leadership as the director of East Asian Studies, Burnett is spearheading efforts to establish the Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science at UC Davis.

The journey began with her love of 17th century zisha ware (“purple clay” ware) teapots from Yixing, China, and her desire to write about their place in Chinese culture. “Their form can range from the elegant to the whimsical,” said Burnett, shown holding one of the pots from her collection. According to Burnett, at the end of the 16th century, Chinese teapots “suddenly become small,” coinciding with a new sense of the importance of the self in Chinese culture.

During her research, she started thinking more about all things tea and how the campus might provide the kind of innovation and leadership around tea that it provides for wine and beer. Citing tea’s global popularity and growing strength as a commodity on the world market (with sales expected to top $3.8 billion in the U.S. by 2017), Burnett argues UC Davis is uniquely suited to be “a global innovator” in the field.

With a focus on transdisciplinary research, teaching and outreach that will span agriculture, the humanities, social sciences, health, and cover such broad topics as culture and economics, the campus can become the world’s leader in tea-related studies, according to Burnett. “No other institution anywhere is even attempting to create a holistic research center like this,” she said, “and no other institution is as well suited to try it.”

To date, the Office of the Provost has joined with the deans of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, and Social Sciences to provide seed money for three years. Burnett is launching the first Global Tea Initiative colloquium, "The Basics of Tea: Tea and People," featuring speakers on tea cultivars, the importance of water in growing and brewing tea, and the role of tea in East Asian cultural practices. “We need to continue the conversation, not only on campus but with other top research institutions around the world,” said Burnett.

Her vision includes a teahouse in the Arboretum, Chinese and Japanese gardens, endowed professorships, courses and workshops, symposia and peer-reviewed research publications.

“It’s thrilling that the campus is sharing this vision and being so supportive in making it happen,” said Burnett.

For more information on the Global Tea Initiative for the Study of Tea Culture and Science and how you can help support it, contact Charlene Mattison, assistant dean of college relations and development, at (530) 754-2225 or cmattison@ucdavis.edu.

— Reported by Donna Justice, director of marketing and communications for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science.