Originally, all tea came from China. In the course of many centuries, tea moved to all corners of the globe by way of trade, and sometimes by smuggling. In the course of the past centuries, tea became a truly global product. There is probably no country in which tea is not available.
Tea looks like an inconspicuous hot beverage but it has influenced world history in many ways. Wars have been fought because of tea and social problems discussed in terms of tea. It has traversed different religious affiliations and cultural contexts, and in many parts of the world, it has superseded the consumption of other stimulants and become a national drink.
Wherever tea arrived along its journey across oceans and deserts, it was first consumed as a medicine, then praised in songs and poems and sometimes also discarded as a useless exotic brew that would do nothing good than emptying the pockets of the poorer population. Most of the time, however, the criticism from authorities could not convince people to refrain from taking tea. This was so in England, in northwest Germany, in Morocco, and the Sahara. In the various cultural contexts and historical constellations tea became subject to particular interpretation and appreciation. These understandings of the beverage are culturally specific in the different places and often the contemporary concerns of a society are reflected in them.
In China, tea has been cultivated for centuries in family gardens. In the course of the different ruling dynasties, specific methods of tea processing have been developed. At first, tea was consumed as medicine, food and beverage only in southwest China. The introduction of Buddhism by Indian travelling monks contributed to its dissemination to the eastern parts of the country, as tea enhanced meditation.
Soon tea also became a trade good. To preserve the tea leaves and enable them to be transported across longer distances, they were processed into tea cakes. In the seventh century, tea was introduced to Tibet when a Chinese princess, Wen Cheng took along tea cakes in her dowry. Subsequently, more tea was exchanged against horses from Tibet and Mongolia. In the following centuries, tea in the form of tea cakes was regularly transported on the terrestrial silk road with packing animals, mainly camels, to central Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East as far as Egypt. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), tea was no longer cooked and consumed as a soup, but ground from tea cakes, which were prepared in a complex process, and steamed in hot water and taken as a drink.
During the Tang dynasty, the different tea producing regions of China had to deliver tea as a tribute to the court. During that time, Korean and Japanese monks came to China to study Buddhism and took tea seeds with them back home. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), the method of preparation of tea changed from cooking to infusing. Ground powder from tea leaves was put in hot water and stirred with a tea brush. During that time, tea competitions, tea banquets and parties took place at the court, and were promoted by scholars and monks. Poets also praised the qualities of tea in their writings. Japanese monks brought again further tea seeds and the method of preparing tea from ground tea powder to Japan.
In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), tea cakes were replaced by loose tea leaves, which were infused in boiled water. Tea was preferably prepared and taken in beautiful natural environments, at waterfalls, springs or mountains. The entire tea equipment was transported along and tea became a medium for people to harmonize with nature.
The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) brought further variations to the methods of tea preparation, popularity and commerce. The rulers of the Qing dynasty were Manchus from the north, who were used to take tea from tea cakes. Both the infusion method and the cooking method were used at the time. At the court there were separate kitchens for green tea and for black tea. These rulers received more than thirty different varieties of tribute tea from the tea-producing regions. During this time, tea entered the common peoples’ lives, and tea houses were established all over the country. This was also the time when European traders arrived at the coast and began to purchase silk, porcelain, and tea in the late sixteenth century. Green tea reached Europe only from that time onwards, in wooden boxes, on the maritime silk road. After the Portuguese, soon also Dutch, British, Prussian, Danish and Swedish, and later on American sailing ships came to Guangzhou, which was called Canton at the time. After the first opium war (1840-1842), Shanghai became the most important port for the export of tea. The Dangui Tea House that was opened in 1867, functioned at the same time as Shanghai’s first public theatre which staged the Peking Opera, thus combining performance art with tea consumption. It consists of a big hall with high walls, and an elevated stage. Tea is served from white porcelain tea pots and bowls.
The Portuguese and British mostly imported green tea, but the Dutch and Germans rather acquired black tea. The British got to know about tea at first from the Dutch traders, but considered this black tea as a bitter medicine. It was only after the Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza married Charles II in 1662, that green tea was introduced to the court as a pleasurable beverage. And henceforth, the British began to order increasing quantities of green tea with the British East India Company from China. Only in the nineteenth century, when the British produced their own tea on Indian plantations, they reverted to black tea.
When Queen Anne at the beginning of the seventeenth century was urged by the population to free British sailors and fishermen who were held in captivity by the Moroccan Sultan, she thought that some of the best tea, together with fine pieces of Chinese porcelain and copper kettles to prepare it, would soften the heart of Sultan Ismail and rescue the captives. The Sultan, however, took the porcelain and the tea with pleasure and began to like the beverage. But he did not release the prisoners.
Subsequently, the tea ceremony was established at Sultan Ismail’s court. His followers created an entire ministry of tea for regulating tea matters. The next Sultan constructed the port town of Essaouira to be able to better control the trade with foreign countries, especially Europeans, and also the tea trade. He endowed particular merchants with the monopoly on the import and export business. The majority of these traders were Jewish. They quickly established trading networks in
England and southern Morocco, and also contributed to the dissemination of the tea-taking in the country and to the south.
Through them, Saharan caravan traders got to know about tea and its strengthening qualities that helped them support the long and tedious journey across the big desert to the West African Sahel. These traders showed the tea to their agents in the trading towns who again showed it to the local rulers and to their guests and customers. For more than a century, however, tea-taking remained in the Sahelian trading towns until it gradually gained more and more West African consumers (more on this in the section “The West Africa Exhibition”).
Green tea arrived in the Sahel in the early nineteenth century. During roughly the same time, British colonialists discovered wild tea trees in the northern mountainous regions of Assam. These trees were considered too wild to be cultivated. Robert Fortune was sent undercover to China to smuggle tea seeds and plants as well as the knowledge about tea processing out of the country. And soon tea production began in India. The British established plantations, and produced mostly black tea for auction in London. In the course of the nineteenth century, the quantities produced in India overtook
the exports of China, being of high quality and less expensive.
The British established an exploitative capitalist plantation economy in India, that has often been compared to the slave labour in the Caribbean for sugar. Tea and sugar were taken together in Europe, in Morocco and the Sahel. In the twentieth century, Britain continued this approach in Eastern Africa where it also produced black tea.
China could not compete with British black tea production. Hence, China rather specialized for export on green tea. Still in the 2000s, 72% of China’s tea exports were green tea (LongJing Tea Museum, Hangzhou). Almost all the green tea that is traded to West and North Africa has been produced in China. This trade forms part of a growing South-South trade that largely takes place beyond the attention of Western observers.
In contrast to the North-South trade, that is strongly associated with exploitation, cheap labour, social suffering and displacement, in China, tea has never been produced in such large-scale plantations. In China tea is produced in decentralized family gardens and small plantations. There it is harvested, rolled, dried and roasted to stop fermentation. From the family gardens the dried leaves are transported to the factories where they are selected according to their quality, weighed and packaged. From there the green tea goes directly to the Chinese ports where big container ships carry it to West Africa in 45 days.