Liquid Jade – The Story of Tea from East to West

by Beatrice Hohenegger

This book is perfectly timed for the National Tea Month in August.  Filled with digestible tidbits of interesting facts about tea, it is like the Chinese dim-sums, or the British tea cakes, or the Japanese wagashi, to nibble upon with your perfect cup of tea.

Did you know that, for example:

– Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing in 780CE; it is the world’s first authoritative and comprehensive treatise on tea and is still in print today, more than 1200 years later, not only in China but throughtout the world.

– The virgin maidens who pluck tea for the imperial palace had strictly codified rules, including not allowed to eat garlic, onion or any spices for three weeks before the harvest, least their breath contaminate the delicate scent of tea leaves.  Similarly, the porters carrying such tea used special racks so the tea box would never have to touch the ground.

– A list of appropriate occasions for drinking tea in China, according to the Ming tea manual Chashu 茶疏 by Xu Cishu 许次纾:

In idle moments
When bored with poetry
Thoughts confused
Beating time to songs
When the music stops
Living in seclusion
Enjoying Scholarly pastimes
Conversing late at night
Studying on a sunny day
In the bridal chamber
Detaining favored guests
Playing host to scholars or pretty girls
Visiting friends returned from far away
In perfect weather
When skies are overcast
Watching boats glide past on the canal
Midst trees and bamboos
When flowers bud and birds chatter
On hot days by a lotus pond
Burning incense in the courtyard
After tipsy guests have left
When the youngsters have gone out
On visits to secluded temples
When viewing springs and scenic rocks

心手闲适 披咏疲倦 意绪棼乱 听歌闻曲 歌罢曲终 杜门避事 鼓琴看画 夜深共语 明窗净几 洞房阿阁 宾主款狎 佳客小姬 访友初归 风日晴和 轻阴微雨 小桥画舫 茂林修竹 课花责鸟 荷亭避暑 小院焚香 酒阑人散 儿辈斋馆 清幽寺院 名泉怪石

– German physician Dr. Summer Paulli said in 1665 “as to the virtues they attribute to it [tea], it may be admitted that it does possess them in the Orient, but it loses them in our climate, where it becomes, on the contrary, very dangerous to use.  It hastens the death of those who drink it, especially if they have passed the age of forty years.”

– Tea got a boost in England as, facing the social ills caused by gin consumption, the beverage became “the temperance reformer’s No. 1 weapon” in the crusade against alcoholism.

– The Europeans had no idea what type of plant the tea belongs to, as they had never seen a tea plant.  There were many unsuccessful attempts to bring one back to Europe. One plant fell overboard with a sudden gust of wind, one was eaten by rats; some Europeans were given boiled seeds or other plants by Chinese merchants, in an effort to protect their trade.

– Today, iced tea makes up 80% of the U.S.’s tea consumption, a trend not followed anywhere else in the world. 

– The English word “tea”, Italian , German Tee, and French thé, comes from “tay’, as pronounced in the Amoy dialect in Fukien, where the Dutch set up their trading post.  In Iran, Russia, India and Arabic countries, the word is cha or chai, as prounced in the Cantonese and Mandarin dialect, through the Arabic trrades along the silk road.  The exception is the Portuguese, who got their ch’a from Macao.  As whatever they brought back to Europe they consumed locally, the word was never exported as the Dutch did with their “tea”.

– While recent research shows that the fluoride in tea leaves prevents cavity, the poet Su Tung-p’o had written about strengthening the teeth and reducing dental diseases by rinsing his mouth with tea in 1083 CE.  

– India is the world’s largest producer of black tea, but most of the production is consumed domestically and only 20% is exported.  China exports about 35% of its production.

– Every day, 3.8 billion cups of tea are drunk around the world. 

However, as I read on, the delightful read gets heavier as the history of tea gets bloodier.  The tea tax had partially led to the independence of America.   As Britishs like to sweeten their tea, this created a huge demand for sugar.  In 1800, 30 million pounds of tea and 300 million pounds of sugar were imported to England.  Fifty years later those figures grew to 56 million pounds of tea and 1 billion pounds of sugar.  Where did the sugar came from?  The plantations in the Carribeans. Up to 70% of slave traffic supported the sugar industry. 

With the loss of its American colonies, Britain had lost access to the precious South American silver supply.  To reverse its trade deficit in its tea trade with China and not able to offer anything of interest to the Chinese, the British started promoting… opium.  During the first decade of the 19th century, 26,000,000 silver dollars were imported into the Chinese empire.  As opium consumption rose in the decade of the 1830s, 34,000,000 silver dollars were shipped out of the country to pay for the drug.  The Bengalese opium industry represented 1/6 of the GNP of British India.   Apparently, Queen Victoria never received the letter from Commissioner Lin Tse hsu:

“I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood.  Sine it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries… Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused… You would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want…”

Sorry Lin but the Queen doesn’t read the bible the way she should…  And the sad result was the opium war, in which the British Navy soundly defeated the Chinese army (China never developed a strong naval force as her enemies historically come over land- hence the Great Wall – but not over water) and Hong Kong became a British colony.

Meanwhile, the British suceeded in cultivating tea in India, so that they no longer have to deal with any foreign traders.  As tea growing is a labor intensive enterprise, they recruited illiterate laborers to sign off their lives into slavery condition.  These laborers, shipped from other regions, were underfed and underpaid, and suffered a very high mortality rate due to malnourishment and poor living condition.

I was so disguised when reading this dark side of history.  The irony was, I happened to be drinking a cup of tea called Her Majesty’s Tea.  It was blended for Queen Victoria using tea from Darjeerling and Assam.  Argh!! I felt like pouring the tea down the drain!!!

And have things improved?  Not really in India, as the tea market is controlled by large corporations.  In fact, foreseeing India’s independence, British planters began to set up large ta plantations in Africa, and today more than half of British tea imports come from Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe.  Chinese tea production, on the other hand, is mostly on independent, individual plantations. Not that these farmers and pluckers live in luxury, but at least they are better off.

I was amazed how the ending of this book touched on social and environmental issues, and encouraged people to buy fair trade and organic.  I heard of fair trade coffee a lot, but didn’t really think about it for tea.  This book delivered much more than I expected.  Now I am likely to drink less British tea, knowing its dark history, and be more alert to read the labels!!

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Published in: on July 20, 2007 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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