Believe it or not, there was a time when Chinese innovation didn’t consist of ripping off Silicon Valley tech companies. China is credited with being the birthplace of the four of the most important inventions in the world: paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. The Europeans used the latter two to navigate to new lands and meet new people – to slaugh-ter and colonise, of course. A fifth invention that has enormously shaped the modern world is tea. While the people of the British Isles are among the world’s largest tea consumers per capita, Westerners have only been drinking tea for a comparatively short amount of time; the first record of tea consumption was in China in the 10th century BCE, and gradual-ly spread over the centuries to other Asian countries like Japan. Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is native to where southwestern China meets northern Burma, a delicate herb that precipitated the rise and fall of empires.
The introduction of this salubrious shrub to the Europeans had an enormous influence on history. Although clearly not native to the British Isles, tea has become an indelible part of British culture. It came to have a negative association in the American colonies, as the settlers there became increasingly resentful of ‘taxation without representation’ in the British parliament. Things came to a head on 16 December 1773, when Bostonian revolutionaries clambered aboard British vessels and dumped 342 chests of tea overboard, an important act of political protest that would lead eventually to the American War of Independence. Founding Father John Adams famously declared tea a ‘traitor’s drink’, and to this day coffee is a much more popular beverage in America. The legacy of the Boston Tea Party continues to live on in the United States today: the name of the libertarian Tea Party movement, which seeks to reduce the role of government in America, is a homage to the revolt against unjust British tyranny. Incidentally, the teabag itself is an American innovation, and members of the Tea Party movement, which include Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachmann, are often referred to as ‘teabaggers’… just a fun fact if you ever need more reasons to not take these crazies seriously.
So how did tea get to the West from the East? Until the 15th century, Europe was in relative terms a technological and intellectual backwater compared to China, India and the Middle East. The West was dependent on trade from the Silk Road for goods from the East, like pepper from India and silk from China. The many middlemen that handled these products during their journey from Asia to Europe meant that they were much more expensive by the time they reached the Europeans. The rise of the Ottoman Empire consequently hampered trade routes and greatly increased the cost of imports from the East. Desperate for a way to circumvent the aggressive Ottomans, the Spaniards and Portuguese tried sailing westward – and thus ‘discovered’ America. Tea was introduced to Europe by the Portuguese, who arrived on the island of Macao in southern China in the 16th century, and proved to be particularly popular in the rapidly spreading coffeehouses across Britain.
Great Britain, as an ascending empire, believed it had a responsibility to spread free trade across the world (code for taking whatever they wanted from others). Unfortunately for the British, the China they encountered when they arrived was a wealthy but insular and self-sufficient country. The British had nothing to offer them that they wanted, so in return for tea the Chinese demanded an exorbitant amount of silver. The Chinese government also forbade the purchase of tea plants by foreigners so that they could maintain their monopoly. To combat this, the British eventually acquired precious tea plants through underhanded methods. One particularly infamous example is that of Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist who somehow managed to successfully disguise himself as a Chinese merchant and fool locals into believing he was the real deal. The plants were harvested in large quantities in the British colony of India, thus ending the Chinese monopoly.
Drinking tea may seem elegant and refined, but the beginnings of British tea culture were barbaric to say the least. Tea was originally only affordable to the upper echelons of British society, as the monopoly that the East India Company had on tea meant that prices were artificially high. This led to tea smuggling, encouraged by commoners who could not otherwise afford to buy tea legally. To maximise profits, smugglers would often mix tealeaves with other questionable leaves and additives. As well as often fatally poisonous leaves, ash and sheep dung are also purported ‘additives’. This moderated tea must have tasted like shit (lol), but many commoners were happy to drink it anyway because of the prestige that came with drinking tea. The British government finally stepped in and reduced taxes on imported tea, making it affordable for ordinary Britons.
Meanwhile in China, the Emperor was of course enraged by Great Britain’s trickery. But it didn’t end there. The British finally discovered something that the Chinese did want: opium. An increasing amount of the population became hooked, and soon enough they were desperately trading anything the British wanted in exchange for the drug. To fight the social disruption that opium was causing, the Chinese government tried to wage a War on Drugs, with as much success as the United States is having today. The Emperor sent a letter of protest to Queen Victoria, who was now literally the head of an international drug cartel, but to no avail. Finally, some government officials confiscated and set fire to 20,000 boxes of opium (perhaps it was just one magnificently gigantic hotbox gone wrong… not that I know what a hotbox is). After more months of hostility, the British eventually decided to attack China in 1840, thus causing the first Opium War that stun-ningly resulted in 20,000 Chinese casualties at the expense of a paltry 69 British lives. To add further insult to the injury, the British declared that the Chinese were responsible for the war in the first place and demanded they pay Great Britain war reparations, and also decided to take Hong Kong, which they only returned in 1997. I guess you could call it a… brewsing defeat.
The aggressive manner in which Great Britain went about trying to get their mitts on tea from an unwilling China led to escalating trade tensions that resulted in war, culminating in the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ for China, from which it is still recovering. The prestige of the Emperor was irreparably damaged, and thousands of years of imperial rule collapsed in 1912 to be replaced by the weak Republic of China regime before being over-thrown by the communists. The country stagnated for many decades afterwards, but today is blossoming and becoming ever more wealthy and powerful – not to mention nationalistic and aggressive. Of China, Napoléon Bonaparte once said that “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” It seems like the West has failed to heed this advice, and have instead awakened the Chinese giant with a particularly bitter brew.