Tea Trade

Tea Trade and its Political Impact on East and West

Tea, an Eastern Discovery

Tea was first discovered in China about 4000 years ago, but not until 400 to 600 AD was tea heavily demanded, and mass cultivation started to fit market demand.  Chinese used tea as a medicinal drink, mixed with onion, orange, ginger, and other spices.  It was a very precious gift to the Emperor and nobles only.  Around 479, it was written that Turkish merchants started trading tea around the Mongolian borders.  

In the 700s, tea was introduced to Japan by Lu Yu, who wrote THE CLASSIC OF TEA, the first definitive book about tea ,which attracted the interest of Zen Buddhist monks in Japan.  Tea began its journey to the East.  Around 600s to 900s, between the Tang Dynasty and Sung Dynasty, matcha green tea powder was the most commonly used and traded tea to India,Turkey, and Russia, and it was transported through horse, donkey, and camel caravans. 

During the Yuan Dynasty, under the Mongolian Emperors, tea was such a common drink, but even though Marco Polo had ample contact with the dynasty, he did not bring back tea to Italy.  Italy missed her chance to earn a fortune.  After the Mongolian reign,  whole leave steeping was widely used instead of matcha,  and black tea and oolong tea processing began.  

The West Enters the Picture

A few hundred years later, toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, European missionaries started to land in Asia to spread their Christianity beliefs to the East.  They carried back to the West their, earnings about the benefit and pleasure of drinking teas. It wasn’t the English, though, that first encountered tea.  Who then?? The first European known to encounter tea was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz, and he wrote about tea in 1560.  Dutch traders, though, became the first Europeans to bring tea back to the west, and they made a fortune selling this exotic beverage.  The Portuguese and the Dutch collaborated in the tea trade from China, carrying the valuable merchandise to other European countries.

In 1662, Charles II married Catherine Braganza of Portugal, who loved tea and made tea the most common drink in England, even above alcohol.  As demand increased from the west,  annual tea trade was reported in the “Russian caravan trade from China”, by Harry Parkes. Russian Caravan Tea (lapsang souchong) was documented to be exchanged for small furs like squirrels and such.  Teas began traveling annually thru Kiakhta, Mongolia to Russia thru the Silk Road, then Russia to the west.  The Dutch started to compete against the Portuguese in the tea trade, which stirred up the English empire to join an alliance with the Portuguese.  

Queen Elizabeth I appointed the East India Company to control all trading business with the East.  They used her colony, India,  as their base to extend their ambitious influence to China.  The Company introduced and encourage opium sales to the Chinese.  They sold them in silver and used those silver to purchase tons of teas back to England.  It was their sneaky way to get their feet in China.   Not long afterward, the Qing government sent Lin Zexu to crack down on opium use and smuggling in Canton and some other southern provinces.  However, due to less military prowess and technology, China lost much of their struggles during these “Opium Wars”, and ultimately lost Hong Kong to the English in 1842.  This marked the official welcoming of those aggressive Englishmen to China.  Following that, China was scrambled by eight different European countries and each of them occupied one or more provinces as their territories.  

Can you believe Tea trades could lead to the scramble for China and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty?!

Tea and Colonialism

As the demand for tea continued to grow, the English spread tea plantations to their colony in India.  Nearly every region touched by the English Empire was influenced by tea.

Moving our focus to the New World, the English, being envious that the Dutch were successful in the tea business in that area, decided to try to monopolize the tea market in New England, given exclusive monopoly rights and subsidies to the East India Company.  They passed the Tea Act in 1772, which led to Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution.

Imperialism in 1900s even brought tea to Africa, plantations being established in Uganda, Kenya, and  Malawai.  Even today, tea is the second most common beverage, beside water, because of its history and reputed benefits.