The Serious Business of Chinese Tea

China, being basically the cradle for the birth of the tea boom seen around the world, has had its fair share of political turmoil that either centered around or thoroughly involved the object of my blog’s affection. I thought that because a large focus of the class I’ve been doing this for is politics, a look at the issues surrounding the plant and the coveted drink in the span of China’s long lifetime was worth exploring for a little while.

In the last blog, I mentioned the monk Lu Yu, who was around to see the first tax to be enacted on tea in the 700’s during the Tang Dynasty. His meticulousness in defining many aspects of tea and the art form surrounding it spawned the numerous ceremonies involving tea that are found around Asia today, most notable of which grew in Japan thanks to traveling Zen Buddhist monks who had learned from him.

The Song dynasty saw a rise in teahouses, which, as already discussed, became a common rendezvous point for commoners and upperclassmen alike to gather, allowing a blending in the culture. Even the Yuan dynasty, brought about by Mongol invasions saw a rise in tea establishments that achieved the same goal. The finesse and elegance that tea called for in those times made it even more popular with higher classes, which was something that gathered the attention of the Portuguese traveler Jasper De Cru, who was allegedly the first European to discover and experience tea. This discovery lead to subsequent European encounters, which opened up a demand for trade in tea, starting with high class citizens of multiple European classes who loved the drink and coveted it for the alleged medicinal properties that it was marketed for at the time.

tea clipper

The 16th and 17th centuries saw a marked increase in tea trading with Europe, especially with the Portuguese, Dutch, and Russians. Later, England joined the fray and became Europe’s largest consumer and trader as the drink pushed its way into everyday life and remained there to modern day. Trade comes with inevitable conflicts, though. Because the British had such an appetite for tea and at one time had a load of silver to spare for the trade, they accepted extensive tariffs imposed by China and ended up in a silver deficit. To continue to fund the trade, England began pushing China to trade tea for opium which was produced in England’s colonies, which lead to the Opium War in the 1840s because a large number of citizens in China had become addicted to the substance. The Qing dynasty banned the trade because of the negative health effects and the amount of resources being spent on it, but Britain began the conflict to force the issue, gaining Hong Kong and a number of other rights such as free trade as a result of their victory on two fronts.

This led to other conflicts outside of China such as the Boston tea party in America, but this had little to do with the political climate of China. Instead, it is worth noting that some of America’s first millionaires became rich from the tea trade with China. In more modern times, though, China has lost its status as the world’s main tea exporter as a result of the colonial times and the projects in growing tea in those colonies that became more lucrative than was first imagined. Main tea exporters today tend to include India, Ceylon, and some African countries.

 

An interesting article here gives more information about the decline of tea exports from China and explains this more in depth. Regardless, China is still regarded as having some of the highest quality tea in the world, and I hope to visit and try some someday.

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