Tim Keirn, California State University, Long Beach

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Tim Keirn, California State University, Long Beach
After water, tea had become the world’s most consumed beverage by the early twenty-first century. Of regional significance in China and Asia since postclassical times, the consumption and production of tea spread globally in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This spatial diffusion of tea was both reflected in and contributed to important global processes in the early modern and modern periods that included the comodification of long-distance trade, industrialization, imperialism, corporate globalization, and environmentalism.

The natural history of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has its origins in the hills of southern China and Assam. Historically, tea has been valued not only for its flavor but also for its caffeine that is produced as a natural pesticide and makes up to close to four percent of the content of the younger leaves of the plant. Botanists recognize two main varieties of the tea plant. The more delicate tasting Camelia sinensis sinensis is indigenous to Southern China and in particular the Yunnan region. Camelia sinensis assamica grows wild in Assam, and the wetter and higher terrains in Southeast Asia, and has an earthier flavor than the former variety. Both easily cross-pollinate and this has facilitated considerable hybridity and an expansion of plant varieties and flavors in modern times. In the wild, the tea plant can in fact grow over hundreds of years to the size of large trees, but under cultivation plants have been pruned to the size of a shrub or bush both for the ease of harvesting (i.e., even today most tea is picked by hand) and to proliferate younger and more highly caffeinated leaves. The great diversity in the strength and taste of different types of tea is also a consequence of the differing historical methods of drying, rolling, and processing, as well as a reflection of the differing means of packaging the tea leaves in loose, powdered or bricked forms. The means for controlling the natural process of oxidation of the drying of tea leaves has lead historically to the production of three predominant types of tea -- all of which originally emanated from China. Loose-leaf green tea (minimally oxidized) was associated with the earliest cultivation. Black teas that were fully fermented and oxidized originated during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); semi-fermented Oolong teas originated in the Fujian region in the seventeenth century and spread to Taiwan where they have become most closely associated since the later eighteenth century. Over time, the significant variation of plant types and methods of production has resulted in a great range in the tastes and potency of tea, and this diversity has facilitated significant cultural and product identification with types of tea that has facilitated its spread as a commercially-traded and globally-consumed commodity

The exact antiquity of tea in China is shrouded in myth. There is prehistoric evidence that tea leaves were chewed in medicinal mixtures, and perhaps applied to wounds. The first unambiguous textual references to the consumption of tea as a beverage date to early Han times, and this early usage was linked with the fortifying and purifying qualities that resulted from its stimulant properties and the boiling of water in preparation. The spread and popularity of tea drinking was associated with the arrival and expansion of Buddhism in China during the third and fourth centuries CE. The caffeine in tea provided mental alertness, and enhanced meditation and the reading of scriptures for Buddhist monks. Demand for tea in the fourth century outstripped the supply of leaves that could be gathered; consequently tea was deliberately cultivated for the first time. By the eighth century, tea was now identified as cha, and its ritual and refined preparation and tasting became closely associated with both Buddhism and elite culture in China. In the hills of Southern China, especially in the Sichuan and Yunnan regions, monasteries were centers of tea cultivation, and small-scale peasant proprietors produced tea for both the purposes of trade and taxation. During the late Tang dynasty, the first commercial public tea houses appeared and these would be important sites of Chinese social life until the Communist Revolution. By the time of the Sung Dynasty, tea drinking had become a homely activity in urban and some rural households. Population growth and the impact popular consumption and tastes in the Tang and Song periods massively expanded the tea trade within China, and stimulated significant expansion in cultivation, innovation, and diversity in Chinese tea production. The drying, powdering, and bricking of tea facilitated its movement as a trade good. Moreover, the origins and development of Chinese porcelain manufacture and trade were informed by elite tastes for teas as color and decorative styles were designed to compliment the hues of tea. During the Ming period, the development of easily transportable and cheaper black teas, and the taste for loose-leaf varieties, further expanded consumption and the simplification of brewing tea, which in turn inspired a significant consumer market for decorative teapots and tea-sets.

As part of a broader pattern of sinofication, tea production spread from China to Japan in the late sixth century. Buddhist monks traveling to China brought back tea culture and. by the ninth century, tea seeds for cultivation. For most of the postclassical era, tea drinking and intricate ceremony were closely associated with Buddhist monasteries and samurai households. Tea cultivation in Japan expanded although consumption (as in China) was mainly a privilege of elites. However, by the time of the Tokugawa, tea drinking in Japan had been significantly popularized and socially extended. Commercial tea rooms and the street vending of tea spread in this period and were a consequence of both the importation of cheaper Chinese loose-leaf varieties and also the vibrant consumerism of early modernity in Japan. Tea was also associated with similar patterns of sinofication in Korea. Buddhist monks from Tang China initiated the drinking of green tea in the seventh century. In the eighth century, embassaries of the Silla monarchs brought back tea seeds from China for cultivation. Like in China and Japan, distinct Buddhist and elite tea ceremonies and etiquette developed, and broader and more popular forms of tea consumption took place in the early modern period.

During the postclassical period, Chinese tea was also traded and consumed across large parts of Afroeurasia. The ‘Tea-Horse Road’ developed between the tea fields of Southern China and Lhasa in Tibet where tea was traded for horses. From Tibet, tea found its way to Nepal and to Ladakh in Northern India. The warmth of tea, and its nutritional value when boiled with dairy products, generated significant demand in these colder higher elevations where vegetables were scarce. Chinese tea was also traded along routes that developed between Yunnan and Burma and eventually to other parts of Southeast Asia where tea drinking also became initially associated with Buddhist religious practices. Chinese brick tea also found important markets in Central Asia along the Silk Roads. Tea was traded from sites of production in Southern China to Changan (Xian) and purchased by caravan traders and transported by Bactrian camel to Central Asia and beyond. Consequently, tea became the most important trade item in exchange for strategically valued horses from the Mongol and Turkic peoples on China’s western frontiers. In turn, tea drinking and tea-houses proliferated in the oasis towns and caravanserais along the Silk Roads and became an established part of the cultural and social fabric of Central Asia. It was here in Islamicate Central Asia that as tea consumption spread west, it made its first important contact with sugar produced in the Islamic Mediterranean. Sweetened tea served as an important substitute for wine in the Islamic world where alcohol was forbidden and in regions like Russia where grapes could not grow. From Central Asia, the drinking of sweetened tea spread to Islamicate Anatolia, Persia and the Middle East and North Africa by the fifteenth century but --with the exception of Egypt-- remained of secondary importance to the consumption of coffee that was considerably less costly. It was the aggressive British marketing of Chinese, Indian and Ceylon teas in the latter half of the nineteenth century that popularized tea drinking in North Africa and the Middle East, and it was at this time that Tuareg and Berber traders brought tea from Morocco to and across the Sahara.

In the seventeenth century another Eurasian overland trade route developed that was informed by the trading of tea. In the seventeenth century, the eastward expansion of the Muscovite state brought the Russians into direct contact with the western frontiers of the Ming Chinese Empire. Chinese samples of tea were brought to Russia as part of the process of diplomatic engagement between these polities. Through a series of treaties in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, trade relations were established and a 1600-mile overland caravan trade developed between Northern China and the urban centers of Russia. Chinese silks, porcelain and increasingly tea were exchanged for Russian furs. By the late eighteenth century, tea had become fashionable at the court of Catherine the Great, and by the mid-nineteenth century tea drinking had spread to other classes throughout Russian society. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Chinese tea was increasingly transported by sea to the Black Sea port of Odessa. The opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early twentieth century ended the camel caravan trade in tea between Russia and China. Despite the promotion of the tea-planting in Georgia, Russian demand for tea always outstripped supply, and today the Russian Federation is the world’s largest importer. Russia also developed distinct tea-drinking customs, and in particular the use of the metal samovar (‘self boiler’) in the brewing of tea. The use of the samovar spread throughout much of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East and Turkey, and Tula near Moscow became the center of its manufacture. It was from Russia that tea-drinking and use of the samovar became popular in Turkey in the later nineteenth century. Ataturk promoted tea-cultivation in the process of nation building as an alternative to the consumption of imported coffee. By the second half of the twentieth century, Turkey was a net exporter of tea, and currently is the world’s fifth largest producer.

Throughout this period of the overland tea trade, the Chinese state valued and recognized the strategic importance of tea. Under the Tang, the Office of Tea and Horses was established to manage the trade, and some form of imperial regulation of tea continued until 1911. The export of tea plants from China was prohibited. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, Japan and Korea were the only significant producers of tea outside China – little of which was exported. During the Ming, Chinese production met both Asian and early European demands for tea, while at the same time coping with expanding domestic need as tea consumption became much wider and socially spread, and tea houses and domestic tea-drinking continued to proliferate. The organization of Chinese tea production into the twentieth century remained essentially unaltered with an absence of scale and horizontal integration as innumerable peasant producers sold to peddlers and through them tea was exchanged through a market hierarchy of agents and merchants.

European demand for tea would serve as an agent in imperial expansion and the continued global diffusion of tea production. The first European references to tea appear in sixteenth century Venetian travel literature and geographies. The Portuguese had established a trading presence in Macao by 1557 but appear to have had little interest in tea. In 1610, it was the Dutch East India Company that brought the first commercial consignment of Chinese green tea to Europe. By the 1660s, tea was well established amongst the wealthy in the Netherlands as an exotic drink with medicinal benefits, and instigated demand for tea set and tables, sugar bowls and other material and status-enhancing accoutrements that were associated with the culture of tea drinking. It was the Dutch who introduced tea to France, Germany and Britain in the seventeenth century. The first porcelain works in Europe were established in Meissen in Germany in 1709 as an alternative source for ‘chinese’ teapots and teawares. In Britain, tea was drunk in coffee houses in the late seventeenth century but on a much small scale because it was considerably more expensive than coffee.

As a consequence of a convergence of global forces, demand for tea, particularly in Britain, expanded dramatically in the first half of the eighteenth century. The fashion of tea drinking was associated with rising luxury consumerism and contemporary fascination with chinoiserie, and complimented by the expansion of sugar production (and with it Atlantic slavery). Tea drinking, and the material goods associated with its consumption, became a means for demonstrating status and sophistication. English pleasure gardens, like Vauxhall Gardens that open in 1732, became tea gardens and were popular especially with women who were excluded from the coffee houses. Moreover, teashops --such as that first started by Thomas Twining (1717)-- began to proliferate and catered to the sale of tea to women for brewing in the home, and took advantage of the relative ease of preparing tea when compared with coffee. Tea in this sense contributed to the growing importance of middle-class domesticity in eighteenth-century Britain. In the early eighteenth century, consumption of Chinese black teas soon outpaced demand for green teas. Black teas travelled better and consequently bore the cost of transportation more competitively, and the relative bitterness in taste when compared with green teas was offset by its consumption with both sugar and milk. Prices for both sugar and tea dropped precipitously in the eighteenth century and this was both a reflection of expansions in supply in the volume of trade and the intensity of the plantation system, but also in the social extensions of demand for both commodities. By the middle of the eighteenth century tea consumption had far surpassed that of coffee.

The British East India Company first began to import tea to London in 1669 and controlled the Chinese tea trade. While initially tea imports were a lucrative part of the private trading activities of company employees in Asia, the growing profitability of tea meant that company banned this private commerce in 1686 in fear that it would undermine official trading activities and the incomes of shareholders. In 1721, the East India Company secured a government monopoly of all tea imports into Britain. In 1716, the Company secured trading privileges in Canton from the Qing Emperor and this provided significant leverage in procuring greater volumes of tea at lower prices. Soon the value of tea imports from China outstripped that of silk and by the 1760s tea made up 60 percent of the East India Company’s total trade, and the tax on tea imports provided close to ten percent of British government revenue. The virtual doubling of Chinese demand for silver in the early eighteenth century facilitated the purchase of tea and porcelain tea wares. By 1760, 90 percent of British purchases in China were made with Mexican silver.

British demand for tea continued to expand at exponential rates in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Official imports of tea rose from annual six to eleven thousand tons between 1700 and 1800. The price of Chinese black tea at the end of the century was one-twentieth its cost at the beginning and benefitted from the efficient shipping of tea in East India Company ‘tea wagons’ and eventually the sleek clipper ships of the early nineteenth century. Smuggling and adulteration of tea was prolific so actual consumption was far greater than that indicated by import statistics. Inspired by the growing inspiration of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and the desire to diminish smuggling, Pitt the Younger slashed tea import duties by 119 percent in 1784 and contributed greatly to the trajectory of declining tea prices and growing demand in the late eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, tea (and sugar) had become an affordable luxury and a staple of the working-class diet. Working class tea consumption was also facilitated by its ease of preparation (and tea leaves could be re-used) and the benefits of its purification properties through boiling in the deteriorating hygienic environments of expanding industrial urban settings. Tea drinking was promoted during the Industrial Revolution by factory owners for it facilitated alertness and concentration, and also by middle-class temperance movements as an alternative to alcohol and drunkenness.

By 1800, tea was the largest export from China to Europe and the vast majority shipped and controlled by the British East India Company. Imperial rivalry in the eighteenth century witnessed British expansion in Asia at the expense of the French and Dutch in particular, and in 1796 the Dutch East India Company was abolished. As the sale price of silver in China fell relative to its purchase price in the late eighteenth century, the British East India Company increasingly exchanged Bengali opium for tea. While the Qing Emperor had outlawed opium in 1729, Company shipments of opium to China increased two hundred and fifty times over between 1780 and 1830. The Company trade in opium was by stealth, and the drug was exchanged offshore to Chinese merchants for silver that was the ‘official’ medium for tea purchases. While the British East India Company monopoly was abolished in 1834, the British government continued to promote the interests of private British traders in these activities. The opium-tea trade and practices not only integrated British activities in South and East Asia, but it also resulted in the outbreak of the First Opium War (1839) and the establishment of a British imperial beachhead in China. The role of tea in the profligation of empire in Asia is in some ways ironic, as colonial demand for tea, and opposition to tea duties and the monopoly of the British East India Company, played a significant role in instigating the American Revolution and the end of empire in a considerable part of British North America.

In the nineteenth century, to meet rising demand (as per capita consumption rose five times over across the century) and to lower costs, the British were largely responsible for diffusing tea cultivation beyond China, Japan and Korea. The British were also motivated by concerns of the rising economic and political price of purchasing tea in China through opium exchange as this drug trade violated some Victorian sensibilities in the metropole. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the East India Company periodically experimented with establishing tea cultivation in India. In the 1820s, Assam was annexed by British India soon after tea was discovered there. However, the incentive to promote tea production was offset by the profitability of the Company’s monopoly in the trade of Chinese tea. With the loss of this monopoly in 1835, a concerted effort was made by the Company to promote the establishment of tea plantations and profit through the leasing out of land and taxing the tea produced upon it. In 1840, the Assam Company was established by London merchants and took up a pre-eminent role in the early development of the Indian tea industry and took up the majority of leases and experimental tea gardens in Assam prior to the abolition of the East India Company in 1858. Initially, tea cultivation in Assam was undertaken with Chinese tea seeds and migrant Chinese labor (thought to have the appropriate skills), but profitability was not sustained until the 1860s when the indigenous Assam tea seeds were sown and cheap Indian and Nepali indentured coolie labor was exploited. The black tea boom in Assam spread in the 1870s to other parts of India as new tea companies were established -- most notably in Darjeeling. As similar tea boom took place in the British Crown Colony of Ceylon in the 1880s and 1890s although on a different organizational scale than in India. In Ceylon, smaller-scale proprietors, who originally had been coffee planters, initiated most of the tea cultivation, and migrant Tamil labor (some of which was seasonable) from Southern India provided the bulk of the work force. By 1900, the tea economy in Ceylon was considerably consolidated through the economic power of tea agencies and importers such as that of Thomas Lipton whose company became synonymous with Ceylon tea.

In South Asia, tea was cultivated for the first time on a large colonial scale of production using largely servile and impoverished forms of migrant labor from India, Nepal, and China. Cultivation was rationalized to exploit economies of scale. While the picking of tea leaves was still done by hand, the processing and packaging of tea was more highly mechanized and the industrialization of production reduced costs considerably, as did improvements in transportation with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the use of steamships. Between 1870 and 1913, the production cost of South Asian tea fell by 75 percent, and Chinese total production and export of tea fell by over 80 percent over the same period. South Asia had become the leading global producer of tea. The South Asian market for tea was slower to develop and because of its relative expense, tea remained an elite drink during most of the British Raj. In 1881, the Tea Association of India was established to market tea drinking. Tea consumption expanded in Indian urban and industrial settings in the early twentieth century, and was well established in the Indian military and national railway after independence in 1947. By the 1960s, an Indian mass market for tea had been established and today India is the number one consumer of tea in the world, and the world’s second largest producer.

By the 1920s, it is estimated that 75 percent of the worlds’ tea production took place within the British Empire and was marketed through British tea companies. At the very end of the nineteenth century, British tea companies also established plantations in East Africa, and production expanded quickly in Kenya, Tanganyika and Nyasaland after World War I. British tea plantation acreage in Kenya increased up to independence in 1963. Kenya is currently is the world’s third largest producer and greatest exporter of tea. As a consequence of land reforms and development agency efforts since independence, small-scale proprietors as opposed to large estates produce the majority of tea in Kenya.

In the twentieth century, innovations in tea marketing and manufacture, many of which derived from the United States (e.g., iced tea, tea bags, and freeze-dried tea), continued to expand the global market for tea. To meet North American demand for cheaper quality tea, tea plantations were developed in Argentina and Brazil. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the early twentieth century, tea trading and manufacturing became increasingly consolidated and larger British business concerns (e.g., Brooke Bond, Lipton and Tetley) controlled a considerable share of global traded production. Much of this market share was achieved through extensive investment in advertising and rationalizing and consolidating retail supply chains. By 2000, consolidation had accelerated to such an extent that the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever (purchaser of Brooke Bond and Lipton) and the Indian conglomerate Tata (purchaser of Tetley) controlled close to 25% of global tea production.

The twentieth century expansion in the global market for tea is also a consequence of continued expansions in productivity and reductions in price. In the twentieth century, the increases in tea cultivation have come not from expansions in acreage but from significant gains in productivity from technologies associated with the Green Revolution (e.g. chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and plant varietal cloning and hybridity). With the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s, there has also been an important increase in demand for green teas (viewed as healthier than black teas consumed with sugar and milk) and more recently for those produced organically. The revival in global taste for green tea – in conjunction with more recent capitalist transformations within the Chinese economy and society – has informed the dramatic expansion of Chinese tea production in the last decades of the twentieth century where once again China is currently the world’s largest producer and second greatest consumer of tea. What has remained constant in the global history of tea is the poverty of those who harvest it. In contemporary times, increase in demand is still outpaced by growth in supply and inter-governmental efforts since World War II to reach agreement to restrict output to sustain prices have had only limited success. Recent attempts to channel consumers towards fair-trade brands have impacted only a small fraction of global production. Tea in the twentieth-first century is still mainly picked by hand, and the decline in price is still to a large degree born by the immiseration of labor in the developing world that produces it.


FAOSTAT, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, http://faostat.fao.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=567&lang=en#ancor

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