Little Big History: Tea

Question: Discuss the cultural, political and economic impact of tea on
China up until the 20th century.

Tea has played a significant role in China’s cultural, political and economic development for millennia. According to Chinese folklore, tea originated in Southern China during the Shang Dynasty in 2737 BC. Legend has it that one day a servant was boiling water for the Emperor to drink when dried leaves from a nearby plant fell in. The Emperor was intrigued by the brown substance and upon tasting it, found it very refreshing. Although this legend may not be accurate, physical evidence such as an ancient bronze teapot dating back to the Han Dynasty prove that tea has been an integral part of Chinese culture and tradition for thousands of years.  As tea spread to neighbouring Asian countries and eventually the world, it became a major trade commodity and source of income for not only the government but also several Chinese citizens. Foreign interest in tea enabled China to gain recognition and develop trade relations with superpowers such as Britain and Europe. Unfortunately, the widespread adoration of tea was detrimental at times as it caused conflicts such as the Opium Wars in the 19th century.

Before it became a widely enjoyed beverage, tea started out as a medicinal drink in China. Around 760 BC, Chinese writer Lu Yu wrote ‘Cha Jing’ (The Classic of Tea) in which he stated, “Tea tempers the spirit and harmonizes the mind; dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue; awakens thought and prevents drowsiness; lightens and refreshes the body and clears the perceptive faculties.” Originally, only wealthy and high-ranking individuals could afford to drink tea which gave it an exotic and extravagant reputation. This alluring air helped spark widespread interest in the drink and farmers began to produce greater amounts for a wider market. Eventually tea became accessible and ubiquitous amongst all social classes. As tea became increasingly integrated into Chinese culture, it influenced Chinese tradition, literature, society, belief systems, art and philosophy. During the Tang Dynasty tea allegedly surpassed the cultural importance of alcohol. It was used in situations which were previously reserved for liquor such as social gatherings, playing board games and listening to music and tea became increasingly represented in art and literature. The beverage was also popular in Buddhist monasteries as the caffiene enabled monks to meditate for long periods of time.  It was incorporated into daily life and people often dedicated time each day to drink tea and socialise.

The cultural and social importance of tea augmented China’s agriculture, market and economy. The tremendous demand for the drink lead to thousands of agricultural opportunities and paved the way for farmers and the government to profit from the commodity. It became a livelihood for thousands of Chinese citizens and was a source of income for farmers and labourers. Records from the Tang Dynasty state that tea was produced in eight provinces in Sothern China with over 8000 grades of tea recognised by flavour and quality. Through globalisation, tea began to spread to neighbouring Asian countries resulting in interaction and trade and soon, signs of cultural and political influence surfaced all across Asia. Tea was so highly valued that it was turned into bricks and used as currency or to pay tributes. It was often gifted to emperors and was even preferred over metallic coins in some parts of Asia. Tea first arrived in the west in 1610 when Dutch traders brought home green tea, marketing it as an ‘exotic medicinal drink’. It gained reputation and popularity throughout Europe before spreading to England in the 1950s. In England, tea consumption increased from 40 000 pounds to 240 000 pounds between 1699 and 1708. As the demand amplified China placed heavy taxes on tea which prompted Britain to look for other areas to source the leaves. When the British realised that Indian climate conditions were suitable for tea plantations their dependence shifted from China to their Indian colony which lowered Chinese tea earnings.

Foreign interest in tea was hugely beneficial for China as it paved the way for intercommunication and overseas relations. Trade links were not only profitable for China’s economy but also beneficial for its political standing in the world. Through tea, China gained recognition from world powers such as Britain and Europe. Unfortunately the high demand for Chinese commodities, including tea proved to be destructive for China as Britain began to illegally import Opium into the country in exchange for the luxuries. The Chinese government was alarmed by the vast quantities of Opium entering the country and the devastating impacts it was having on citizens. Hundreds of thousands of people and about 10% of China’s population became regular users with China consuming around 95% of the world’s opium supply. Officials ordered a ban and destruction of opium provisions which eventually lead to the Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860. Both the wars were overwhelmingly won by the British with an estimated 50 000 Chinese soldiers dead or wounded. The victory enabled the British to gain and wider access to China’s market and increased trade privileges. As Karl E. Meyer states in the New York Times, “a century of humiliation began with this war in which Westerners sought to enforce a deadly drug upon an Asian people and then imposed an unequal treaty which pried open their country.”

Over the years tea became a livelihood, innovation and important part of the day to day lives of millions of people. Chinese author, Lin Yutang wrote a book, ‘My Country and My People’ in which he recorded “they have had plenty of time to drink tea and look at life quietly over their teacups, and from the gossip over the teacups they have boiled life down to its essence.” Tea played a significant role in China’s economic development, cultural heritage and political standing. At times, the popularity of tea proved to be harmful for China as it stirred conflicts such as the Opium Wars but over time, tea’s benefits unarguably outweighed any negative impacts. As Xu Guangqi once stated – “Tea is a divine herb.”


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