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All the tea in China: the political impact of tea
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China is the undisputed homeland of tea and tea drinking. References to Chinese tea dates back 5000 years, including the colorful legend of a wild camellia blossom falling into Emperor Shen Nung's boiled water. Ironically, the extraordinary power of Chinese emperors cannot compare with the political and economic clout of the simple Camilla sinensis bush, better known to the world as Chinese tea.

In ancient China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) the Chinese used tea as a medicinal drink, often mixing it with onion, orange, ginger and other spices. Tea was not affordable for most and often used as gifts and tribute for the emperor.

In the 700's the first tea tax was enacted in China and an extraordinary orphan called Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book about tea. Raised by scholarly Zen monks, Lu spent his life pursuing poetry and literary classics in the Confucian tradition. His learned book on tea gained the Emperor's patronage. Other Zen Buddhist monks later carried his tea service style to Japan, where it evolved into the exquisite Japanese art form still performed today.

By the Song Dynasty (960-1279) teahouses with elegant porcelain teacups had appeared. The Chinese ground their tea into a powder and whipped it into a fine froth. Making tea vessels became an art form with the tea bowls becoming deeper and wider to aid in whipping. The tea had a light green color so artists designed black and blue bowls to enhance the color of the drink. Teahouses, scented teas, tea tasting competitions, and tea events became the rage among the higher classes.

In the early 1200's the Mongols invaded China, ushering in the Yuan Dynasty that lasted until 1368. These Mongolians did not pay great attention to tea service but they did adopt the habit of salting their tea and mixing it with milk; they still consume it in this fashion today. Under the Mongols teahouses continued to be popular places for scholars and poets to meet. .

The elegant Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) witnessed the development of different ways to process tea.  Parching tea by hand in large cauldrons at different heats and for different amounts of time transformed green tea into completely different drinks: black and oolong versions now appeared. Scented flowered teas also rose in popularity among all classes of people. Steeping whole tea leaves rather than crushing and powdering them became the rage. It was during this time that Europeans discovered Chinese tea.

Among the Europeans the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cru was the first to personally encounter tea and write about it in 1560. In 1589 other Europeans read about tea when the Venetian author and Secretary of the Venetian Council of Ren, Gaimbattista Ramusio, credited Asian longevity to their tea drinking. A little while later, in 1597, tea is mentioned for the first time in an English translation of Dutch navigator Jan Hugo van Linschooten's travels, in which he refers to tea as chaa.

Finally, in 1610 Dutch traders brought back green tea from China and marketed it as an exotic medicinal drink. Over one hundred dollars a pound, it was so expensive that only the wealthy could purchase it, which they did, along with elegant Chinese tea porcelains. By 1662 when Charles II wed his bride, the tea-loving Catherine Braganza of Portugal, tea had become so trendy that alcohol consumption in England declined significantly.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to commercially trade for tea. They took their cargo to Lisbon, and then shipped it to France, Holland and other Baltic countries. Portugal was affiliated with Holland at that time; tea became very popular among the Dutch. By 1675 tea had lowered in price and was considered a common beverage. Many drinkers mixed it with sugar and ginger.

Interestingly, tea never really caught on with the French. After about 50 years the French went on to popularize wine, chocolate and coffee. Throughout Europe tea was now served in coffeehouses (coffee arrived before tea) called "penny universities" -- because a poor scholar could buy a pot of tea for a penny and spend the whole day there conversing with other wits.

In 1618 Chinese ambassadors offered dozens of crates of tea to Czar Alexis as a gift; he refused them as useless. But by 1735 Empress Catherine of Russia had sanctioned tea for trade. Over three hundred camels traveled 11,000 miles for sixteen months to fill her first delivery. The Russians quickly adopted the Tibetan "hot pot" to brew their tea: we know it today as the Russian samovar.  By 1900 the first Trans-Siberian railways were in place, causing tea to become cheaper and accessible to the masses. Ordinary Russians quickly acquired the habit of drinking tea with lemon and a lump of sugar stuck between their teeth. Today, tea along with vodka is the national drink of the Russian people.

England was the last European country to start using maritime trade routes in search of tea. In 1600 Elizabeth the First founded the John Company for trade expeditions. In 1773 the John Company merged with the prosperous British East India Company, making it the most powerful monopoly to ever exist in the world. In England tea was now drunk by commoners and nobles alike; by 1654 Chinese tea had definitely replaced ale as the most popular British beverage.

In fact, tea influenced British society so much that English dietary norms changed. The two traditional heavy, massive meals – breakfast and dinner – now added tea to their menu and dinner evolved into two types of afternoon tea service: high tea and low tea. High tea was served in the late afternoon while low tea was served in the mid-afternoon. High tea signified a heavier meal with meat, usually for the working class, while low tea implied gourmet tidbits, cakes and sweets, with the emphasis on presentation and conversation among higher society.

Tea gardens (and later tea dances) became the rage in Europe and America. Ladies and gentlemen took their tea outdoors, listened to bands and socialized. This lenient environment offered the first opportunity for English men and women to mingle freely together in public, and it also allowed people of various social ranks to mix and communicate.

The tip system also evolved out of these gardens: by the waiter's stand stood a wooden box with TIPS inscribed on it. Guests would drop a coin in the box as they entered, "to ensure prompt service" – waiters would run from kitchens to gardens with hot pots of fresh tea whenever they saw a coin enter the box.

English colonists became aware of tea in 1670. Tea was brought to America by Governor Peter Stuyvesant and became the rage in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York). By 1720 the Americans were smuggling Chinese tea into the colonies as contraband and also learning about herbal teas from the Native Americans because the British tea was expensive and highly taxed.

England could not afford to continue paying for tea with gold and silver. To take such large amounts out of the country would have bankrupted the nation. Thus the Opium Wars began with England's declaration that it was "ready to go to war for free trade" – or – "go to war for the right to sell cheap opium to the Chinese in exchange for tea". From 1840 until 1908 the English had the military strength to force their opium upon the Chinese and to try to continue to dominate the world market in tea trading.

But the British encountered problems by trying to bully China, and control and tax tea supplies in the New World. In 1773, a group of US colonists protesting the taxation of tea by Great Britain boarded a ship from the British East India Company and dumped its entire cargo of tea into the harbor. This Boston Tea Party was the start of America's independence from Britain and is also why tea is not subject to import taxes today in the United States.

Moreover, in 1800 three Americans became the continent's first millionaires by initially trading in Chinese tea. Their success also served to break Britain's tea monopoly. T.H. Perkins of Boston, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia and John Jacob Astor of New York all began direct trade with China after the American Revolution of 1789. America's newer, faster clipper ships easily out sailed the English fleet. It is to the great credit of these men that they paid for their tea in gold rather than opium. Pierce founded the Great American Tea Company, which became the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, still existing today as the modern A & P supermarket chain.

In 1834 Prime Minister Grey ended the British tea monopoly enjoyed by the East India Company. He's also known now for a tea flavored with bergamot oil that was named after him.

In 1843, after the war, the Chinese speaking Scottish botanist and adventurer, Robert Fortune, snuck into China and smuggled out some tea seeds. With English assistance tea plantations soon sprouted up on the Indian subcontinent. By the late 1880's many fortunes had been made and lost as the art of tea cultivation was perfected in India. Throughout the nineteenth century the English in India, Sri Lanka and Burma and the Germans in East Africa established tea plantations. China had finally lost her sovereignty regarding tea.

Today, after water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. It is now grown in Africa, India and other parts of Asia. Ireland currently has the highest per capita consumption of tea in the world while modern China is experiencing a rise in instant commercial teas of lower quality among younger people who profess that they have no time to brew tea properly anymore. Chinese tea is still highly esteemed throughout the world. Indeed, the lesson of how one Chinese herb has profoundly influenced world trade is worth examining, especially as China has now taken her place in the international commercial marketplace.

( by Valerie Sartor November 10, 2007)

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