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Author Study: Lisa See Curated by Emilie Zhang '20

This is a Libguide dedicated to Chinese-American author Lisa See, her works, and the intricate aspects of Chinese culture within them.




  • the main protagonist of the book
  • a girl raised in a rural parts of the Yunnan province, grew up picking tea with her family
  • part of the Akha tribe
  • secretly sets her daughter, who she names Spiny-Thistle on the steps of an orphange when she conceives the baby before marriage
  • because of her exclusive sensitivity to tea, worked hard and was admitted to a tea college in a larger city
  • made a living for herself and found love with Jin after a failed marriage with San-pa


  • mother to Li-yan
  • is the mid-wife of the Akha village they lived in, which meant she had the highest status out of all the women
  • strict enforcer of traditional rules and societal standards
  • (this includes a rule that parents who give birth to twins must be exiled from the tribe, house burned, child killed)
  • yet she helps Li-yan secret her daughter away
  • full of old wisdom and remains the elderly, stoic figure throughout the novel


  • met Li-yan when they were children and they shared a pancake that San-pa stole
  • got engaged to Li-yan hoping she would get into college, but she fails the entrace exams
  • gets exiled after their marriage and brings Li-yan to Thailand where she finds out he is addicted to drugs
  • is killed by a tiger when he attempts to save Li-yan who was running away from him and their marriage (a crime punishable by death)


  • Li-yan's childhood best friend
  • her father was the wealthiest man in the village
  • after Li-yan establishes a tea shop that sold natural, homegrown pu'er tea, ci-teh offered to take over when Li-yan went on a honeymoon with Jin
  • began selling fake tea with the packaging of homegrown tea which made headlines, causing the store to close
  • rallies the members of their village against Li-yan in attempts to control the tea supplies


  • sister-in-law to Ci-teh
  • gave birth to twins
  • was exiled with her husband, Ci-teh's brother, and followed him to Thailand
  • Ci-teh's brother is not mentioned again
  • Li-yan meets her when she first arrived to Thailand with San-pa, discovering that Deh-ja had been living alone in a hut built with her own hands
  • Li-yan meets her again on the steps of the orphanage Spiny-Thistle was left on and brings her to America with her


  • daughter of Li-yan and San-pa
  • she was abandoned by Li-yan (if Li-yan hadn't made such a decision, she herself would have been exiled)
  • is adopted by an American couple and renamed Haley
  • only thing left from her Chinese heritage is an old tea-cake that A-ma gave her
  • struggles with her unidentifiable identity and eventually is admitted to Stanford University
  • on a research project to uncover the scientific health benefits of tea, reunites with her long-lost mother


  • a man with riddled childhood, he is gentlemanly, kind, considerate, and rich
  • is set up with Li-yan through his mother, whom Li-yan befriended
  • loves Li-yan, and is ultimately the "perfect husband", fostering "a perfect marriage"

Tea Master Sun

  • the Tea Master at the tea college in Yunnan that Li-yan was admitted to
  • he introduced Li-yan to the shop she began running, and taught her everything she needed to know about tea
  • one of the people that greatly impacted Li-yan and changed her life


The story begins small, plunging us into the immersive detail of a single grueling day picking tea with the young girl, Li-yan, her mother, A-ma, and the rest of their ethnic minority Akha family…What makes life bearable for the Akha is their belief system, which infuses every aspect of their daily lives. The full sweep of their practices is flawlessly embedded in See’s prose…The hardships that confront Li-yan in her life are as compelling as the fog-shrouded secret groves where she and her mother cultivate a special healing tea. I could have hung out here in remote China forever, but See has wider ground to cover, including Chinese adoption, the international fine tea market and modern Chinese migration to the United States… A lush tale infused with clear-eyed compassion, this novel will inspire reflection, discussion and an overwhelming desire to drink rare Chinese tea.
Helen Simonson, The Washington Post 




Unlike Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane takes place from 1988 to 2016. The biggest infusion, then, is not history, but culture. Li-yan grows up in the Akha tribe, and that influenced everything about her life. Because she is able to eventually move up the social ladder and later enter a privileged life with the help of her husband, the stark contrast between the Akha village and modern civilization is all the more clear. 





We are a people who like to roam, traveling from place to place, using the traditional practice of slashign and burning forests to create fields to plant, and then moving on when the gifts of the earth have finished being used for crops. But during the last few generations, it's become hard to claim new land on Nannuo [Mountain] or on any of the tea mountains in Xishuangbanna prefecture, so we--and other--have stayed. Permanent, A-ba says, even though the idea is against our natures. Still, our home, like all structures in Spring Well Village, was built to be temporary.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane



1. Clothing

China boasts 56 different ethnic minorities and each one has its unique culture and clothing. One similarity, however, is that in many ethnic minorities, women wear a customized headdress that represents something of their social status. Unlike the more widely known Miao women who traditionally wear tall silver decorations, however, the headdresses of Akha women is characterized by colored balls or silver balls woven together "like a meadow of wildflowers". 

We Akha have our own style of dress. So oo do the Dai, Lahu, Bulang, and the other tribes who live here with us. Everyone wears work clothes, but every headdress, scarf, and cap is decorated, according to the traditions of that clan and the individual taste and style of each woman or girl.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


The picture above depicts a young girl from the Miao ethnic minority

The picture to the right depicts an elderly Akha woman

Today, the women and girls in our household are gathered around the fire pit on the women's side of the house to do needlework...First Sister-in-law and Second Sister-in-law have their heads bent together in private conversation. Puffy colored balls on the ends of wires wound with embroidery thread grow from First Sister-in-law's headdress like a meadow of wildflowers. Second Sister-in-law's headdress is fringed with a string of hollow silver balls about the size of peas that swish across her forehead like bangs
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane


  • the embroidery and decorations on the headdresses provided evidence for a woman's social status and personality
  • in the book, clothing represents the culture, identity, and roots of Li-yan
  • Li-yan clothes herself in blouses and modern clothing in the cities of Yunnan and in America, but when she returns and finds A-ma still donned in traditional Akha clothing, she is relieved and instantly reminded of the Akha ways
  • when modernization hits Spring Well Village, everybody else converts to modern clothing except A-ma, who symbolizes forgotten and neglected traditions and cultures


[Third Sister-in-law's] needlework is considered to be the most excellent in Spring Well. Her headdress is covered with embroidered and appliqued designs of different creatures with special meanings: a frog and a monkey at play to show harmony; a bird with a worm in its mouth to signifty her maternal love; and a butterfly whose head is embroidered to look like a lavender and yellow crab. Because she is so good at her handiwork, she can show off her expertise and creativity just for the fun of it.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane



2. Food

Akha food often involves cooking with various types of leaves, such as bamboo, banana, and others. Here, we enjoyed a whole fish (yellow croaker, a river fish) seasoned with copious amounts of herbs and chilis and wrapped in a large leaf. The fish is grilled over charcoal before being served.
Jen, "Tiny Urban Kitchen"


  • because Li-yan grew up in relative poverty, hunger was a constant friend
  • detailed descriptions of food crop up occasionally, providing cultural insight but also comparing the modern day to the times of the past
A-ba stands up, signaling that breakfast is done. I lift my bowl to my lips and slurp down the last of my broth. A few bitter mountain leaves slip into my mouth along with the fiery liquid. Chili flakes burn their way to my stomach. For as long as that heat lasts, I'll feel full.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
That night, A-ma and the sisters-in-law prepare a meal unimaginable when I was a child: pork four ways (crispy skin, barbecued ribs, braised belly, and meatballs in clear broth), a soy-sauce roasted goose, biter melon with scrambled egg, rice, and a fruit plate.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane 



  • Li-yan life was changed because of tea; Haley was reunited with Li-yan because of her unique tea cake; Li-yan supported her entire family through selling tea
  • the mountainous areas that Li-yan grew up in is famous for beautiful tea terraces and entire tribes of tea-pickers


  • the Akha people typically make their living as tea-pickers
  • tea has a great role in this novel, both as a plot device and as a symbolic item


We reach First Brother's tea terraces at last. I move slowly between the tightly packed rows of bushes, scanning the outer-most branches for the bud and two, maybe three, leaves that begin to unfurl as the sun's rays warm them. I gently nip the tiny cluster between my thumbnail and the side of my forefinger above the first joint. My thumbnail is stained and the little pad of flesh callused. I'm already marked as a tea picker.
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane



3. Religion

The religion and beliefs of the Akha people permeate their lives. It's in how they cook, what they eat, and how they dress. It tells them what to do when they're pregnant, what signs are propitious, and whether or not one with the zodiac of a horse should marry that of a pig. For example, because Li-yan unknowingly took a bite of a pancake that was stolen by San-pa, a ritual had to be done to cleanse both children.


Second Brother returns with the ruma, who wears his ceremonial cloak--which is heavily decorated with feathers, bones, and the tails of small animals--and carries a staff made from a dried stalk of tule root. He is our intermediary between the spirit world--whether inside spirits like our ancestors or outside spiritis who bring malaria, steal the breath from newborns, or devour the hearts of beloved grandfathers--and the world of human beings in Spring Well. Tonight he's here for me. 
Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane