The History of Tea

The History of Tea

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Tea Time
Bread and water can so easily be toast and tea.
~Author Unknown

When you think of drinking a hot cup of tea, you can’t help but feel rather British. Although tea did not originate in Britain, it certainly found a home there. At a time when the world was speeding up, the shuffle of the Industrial Revolution was embraced by some, avoided by others, and left some scrambling to find their place. Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, cleverly explains tea’s journey across the world and back and its lasting impact on all. As the Lipton tea company so perfectly claims, “Tea can do that”.
Tea’s roots in China stem from the Himalayan jungles on the border of India and China. The Buddhist monks of this region found the tea bush to have “invigorating and healing effects”(177) and it was helpful with meditation, concentration and fatigue. When they began migrating to China in the 6th century BCE, they brought tea with them (178). The Chinese claim that the first cup of tea was brewed around 2737-2697 by Emperor Shen Nung (177).
Tea would not become a domestic drink in society until the 1st century BC and cultivation for mass quantities didn’t occur until the 4th century. During this period, known as the Tang Dynasty, China found itself the wealthiest and most populated nation in the world, in part due to their openness to outside influence. It was also during this time that tea found itself as the drink of choice by the nation (179).
There were many reasons why tea was such a preferred choice. It was safer to drink then water of this time, which was filled with bacteria. These bacteria caused Cholera, Typhoid, and Dystery. The Chinese found by drinking tea they could greatly avoid their risk to such illnesses. In addition, tea greatly reduced infant mortality since the health properties of tea could be passed on to newborns with breast-milk (179). The health benefits of tea certainly gave it a popularity boost while increasing longevity.
Tea also had a major economic impact in China. At the turn of the 7th century, the tea trade in China was growing. Tea was even used as a currency at this time (180). The first tax on tea came in 780.

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It was during this time that authors, such as Lu Yu, were inspired to write books on the importance of tea in society. His book “Classic of Tea”, explained the cultivation, preparation, and serving of this hot beverage (180-181).
The social impact of tea was enormous in China. Tea tasting and the ability to distinguish between different teas was considered in high regard. In fact, it was considered quite the disgrace if you could not properly make and serve tea. Special “tribute teas” were served to the emperor annually (182). The preparation and consumption practices and etiquette of tea became even more elaborate as China moved into the 14th century. “Tea came to be seen as a form of spiritual as well as bodily refreshment” (183) to the people of China.
This prosperous tea drinking society had a distinct advantage to their western neighbors when they arrived in the 16th century. They had superb weapons and very modern inventions, such as the magnetic compass (184-185). This arrival by Europeans, marked the beginning of an onset of imperialism by rivalries from Europe, Russia, and the United States. This would cause China to take a xenophobic view on outsiders and resistance to foreign trade. “Rampant corruption, withering economy, soaring opium consumption caused a once mighty civilization to crumble” (212).
Britain reached China by sea in the 16th century. Tea was first considered a novelty when it arrived in Europe (185). Although it arrived before coffee, its popularity was slower growing thanks to the unstable supply and resulting high prices (186). Just as in China, tea started out as a medicinal drink in Britain. Dutch doctor Cornelius Bontekoe voiced: “We recommend tea to the entire nation, and to all peoples! We urge every man, every woman, to drink it every day, if possible, every hour” (186-187).
At the beginning of the 18th century teas was costly and hardly anyone in Britain could afford to drink it. It had to be imported from China and was very expensive. People began using a process of adulteration of tea to increase their supply without draining their pocketbooks. Adulteration is the process of cutting the tea leaves with another substance such as sawdust, flowers, or ash “so that the amount consumed was far greater than the amount imported (188).
When the Dutch East India Company dissolved in 1795, the playing field was busted wide open for the British East India Company to gain full control over foreign sea trade. The British East India Company were very powerful and they soon exerted their new superiority by establishing trading posts in China (192). This allowed Britain to directly import tea and other goods from China and allowed prices to drop. The British East India Company enacted many laws in their favor, including bans on adulteration and imports from neighboring European countries (192).
Tea had similar social impacts in Britain as it had in China. Tea Gardens and Tea Parties were elegant and a great place to socialize, especially for women who were not allowed to enter coffeehouses during the 18th century (193). A proper tea service in Britain was not complete without fine porcelain and even finer conversation.
By the end of the 18th century, tea was affordable enough to be consumed by all, even the poor. They sought out tea as a warm illusion of a hot meal (196). It moved up through the working class, fueled by the Industrial Revolution. Factory workers were issued tea breaks and helped to subdue hunger pangs on long shifts. “Factory workers had to function like parts in a well-oiled machine, and tea was the lubricant that kept the factories running smoothly” (200). The caffeine helped to keep the mind sharp with the tedious work that specialization methods required at factories (202).
The British East India Company had strong political power and they used this to protect their monopolies on trade in both China and the America. In 1773 they enacted the Tea Act, which gave Britain the right to ship tea directly from China to the America. In addition, it gave them exclusive right to all sales on tea in America (204). The colonies of America were no longer under British rule and they were not happy about the monopoly on trade that Britain was exerting. They boycotted British goods and refused to pay taxes as a matter of patriotic principle (204). They perhaps showed this best with the Boston Tea Party and other forms of opposition to coercive acts by Britain in the wake of the Revolutionary War (206).
In China, the British East India Company was having trouble in China as well. China’s refusal to trade tea for British goods had become a problem for them. It led them to turn to more illegal forms of trade in the form of opium (208). Both Chinese and British merchants went to great lengths to keep the illegal smuggling of opium under-wraps but it did not go unnoticed. As the import of opium into China increased, leaders sought out to ban opium trade and destroy stashes. They carried out these plans and burned both Chinese and British stocks of opium (210). This enraged Europeans who felt that the Chinese had no right to seize and destroy their property and led to the European declaration of the Opium Wars of 1839-42. It was a one-sided fight with the European superiority of weapons. They forced China to sign a peace treaty and open the ban on opium trade (211-212).
Britain was rightfully concerned about their reliance on China for tea and they began searching for a suitable place to cultivate their own supply. They found India to have the appropriate climate for growing tea (215). If Britain was successful not only would they gain a more reliable supply of tea, but they would also be providing many new jobs to Indian workers (213) and providing a new enterprise that would be hugely profitable to both the British and Indian economies (234).
The British East India Company used imperialistic methods to control the ever-growing tea industry in India. They allowed local entrepreneurs to set up tea plantations on rented land. The East India Company would profit off rental fees and taxes (217). It was a slow-going process of trial and error to adequately establish tea plantations in India. It was the Industrial Revolution that helped the plantations in India take off as machines cut production costs dramatically (218). In a matter of years, Britain tea demand shifted from China to India, which in turn had devastating effects on China’s economy (219).
Tea had reach and power in China, Britain, and India that was both innovated and destructive. It started as the drink of leaders and later served to be simply the drink of man in these nations. It came to the aid of workers during the changing times of the Industrial Revolution. It caused dispute between governments, institutions, and peoples who disagreed with a fair duty to be placed on tea. It took new roots in nations like India, giving them new economic life and reminding them of the imperialistic control they are under by Britain. Tea has certainly been involved in a fair share of conflicts over the 17th and 18th centuries but still continues to warm the hearts and souls of its drinkers.
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