With the bubble tea and the chia-mocha-frappa-what have yous that have taken root in the cities, we easily forget that it really is just water strained through a moist blob of plant refuse. Tea has long been a culturally and historically relevant object, in virtually all areas of the globe now. Not just the beverage to accompany crumpets, tea pressed along several events that drastically changed the political and economic face of the planet.
Originally discovered in China, the legend is that the Emperor Shen Nong had decreed to his citizens that they must boil water before drinking it for sanitation and medicinal reasons. The story holds that one of two things happened that sparked the teamaking epiphany. The first is that the Emperor was boiling water and tea leaves fell from a tree overhead, and after a light boil the monarch noticed a pleasant aroma rising from his water. The other is that he was boiling the water with Camilla branches and somehow the leaves got into his water. Incidentally, there is also a legend about the Buddha discovering it (as told by the Buddhists) where the proto-Buddha Indian ex-prince, Siddhartha made a pilgrimage to China. He promised to not sleep for his entire trip, and when he finally slipped and slept, when he woke up he tore off his eyelids in shame, casting them onto the ground. They wormed into the ground and out sprung tea trees! Full of wonderful spices that Siddhartha strained through water and made into the first energy drink.
Legends aside, what is known is that tea formed a minor part of the local diets until around 800 BCE~ when a manual was written to standardize tea cultivation. Prior to this writing, tea was largely used by the wealthy/gathered locally for medicinal purposes. Standardization and discovery of other tea plants led to the Chinese public drinking larger quantities of it during the Tang dynasty. Japanese priests studying in China slowly brought tea back to Japan, where it took root in Zen Buddhist practices as a meditation aid.
When the British trounced the Spanish Armada in 1588 they got involved in the Silk Road trade and the East India Company was formed. The company was given a de jure monopoly of the Asian trade in England, but when men are told to not do things, they inevitably do them. Smugglers and black markets sprung up to enter into the trade with China, and tea found a new market with the British. When the British tea market truly took off (it was the safe version of gin, a whole different episode of British fad-craze history), the East India Company began to fund its purchases of tea from China with opium from India (another British holding that the EIC had heavy control of). The opium was brought into China in mass quantities, and the growing number of addicts concerned the Chinese government. Opium was banned in 1799, but English (and American) traders continued to smuggle it into the country. In 1839, a Chinese official seized a large quantity of British opium in a warehouse and had it publicly burned to show that the government ban on opium had teeth. British demands for reparations on their illegal smugglings were met with refusal and the Brits shelled the coasts of China until the Chinese empire was forced to surrender trade rights in 1842 during the treaty of Nanking. These rights allowed virtually tariff free import of British goods into China as well as granting British citizens exclusive rights and privileges in China. By 1844, France and the United States also found a way to weasel their way into the treaty and gain trade rights.
Speaking of the United States, tea finds a special location in the formation of the nation. More than simply an organization where Americans protest governmental principles in a pseudo-libertarian way, the actual Boston Tea Party was the culmination to a long series of events and rumblings between the colonies of America and the British Empire. During the French-Indian Wars, British attempts to take French holdings in Canada would be supported by American merchants and American levies. Several bungles through the process led to American distrust of British troops (they never seemed to show up at the places they were supposed to) and the British distrusted Americans (the merchants refused to equip and ration troops who were not guaranteed to succeed). To finance the massive cost of the war, Parliament organized the Stamp Act, which would tax consumer products of a huge variety. Protests by the colony led to a repeal of the Stamp Act, but Parliament decided to keep the plan of taxing the colonists to refill their atrophied treasury. The Revenue Acts of 1767 placed a tax on specific important commodities, among them, tea. Colonists boycotted the process and began to smuggle the items in through Dutch traders, leading to the British repeal of all parts of the Revenue Acts except a three cent tax on tea, meant to buoy the failing East India Company. Americans met the tax with a broadside response, burning warehouses, tea ships and forcing the reloading of tea back onto British ships; with one exception: a certain Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts. Hutchinson found a way to get his two sons positions as East India trade company sales reps. It was in his best interest to reinvigorate the East India Company, so Hutchinson decided to meet the protests in Boston with equal force. He blockaded the port in Boston to prevent the tea ships from leaving the port, with a British trade law in mind that would force the ship to be unloaded after 20 days in the port. While his plan seemed iron-clad, Samuel Adams and a handful of patriots decided to avoid the offloading by dressing as Native Americans and marching to the boats. They hopped aboard, making certain to cause no damage to anything except the tea, bashed open the boxes with tomahawks and chucked the product into the bay.
Oddly enough, the British Empire reacted poorly to American brand hooliganism and set about punishing Boston with the Coercive Acts of 1774. More and more stringent laws and holds were placed on the colonies after the Boston Tea Party made their way to the harbor, attempting to wrest the control of the colonies from unruly colonials demanding representation in their taxation. The rest is history.
Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, how a product from China makes it to England, then to America, then forms a nation in America while destroying an Empire in China.
Citations, while the kettle steeps:
“All the Tea in China” is an Australian term:
The EIC made sure American Tea Parties need no crumpets: