The Opium-fuelled History of Chinese Tea

The history of tea is closely connected to the trade in opium during a particularly dark chapter of England’s colonial past.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British were importing large amounts of tea from China. They wanted to trade with other goods but the Chinese did not want to trade, preferring to just be paid in cash for their tea shipments, explains Beatrice Hohenegger, author of Liquid Jade: A History of Tea from East to West.

It was this historical aspect that first captured Hohenegger’s interest, leading to a career in researching the history of tea. She also curates a museum show about tea culture and the history of tea for the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).


Drawn to tea through opium

China was an old culture with inventive technology and Hohenegger says that the Chinese didn’t need anything from the British. This disparity led to a serious trade imbalance between the two countries, which the English wanted to rectify.
“The English started looking for an item they could sell to China that would fix this trade imbalance and this item, believe it or not, was opium. They were not the first ones to do this. The Dutch did it too, but the English were the ones who turned a fairly small business into a huge drug empire.

They started setting up opium plantations and processing plants in Northern India and they were shipping the opium to China through independent traders. It became a huge, huge business.”
While tea may not have been the direct cause of the resulting Opium Wars, it was the trigger for the trade imbalance that fuelled it. “In the larger historical context at the time, this was when you could characterize China as a waning empire. It was an empire that had lost touch with the rest of the world. The Chinese kept thinking they were the center of the world when all sorts of other things were happening in Europe.”
“At the time, the English had become the most powerful economic and military power in the world. The English were in expansionary colonial mode and were not used to being told no. The Chinese, on the other hand, thought of the English as mere little merchants who were supposed to kowtow in front of the Emperor. They were definitely on a collision course.”
It was her initial interest in the dark history of Chinese tea, particularly in the Opium Wars, that set Hohenegger on her pursuit of the full interesting story, including just how people first discovered tea.


A brief history of tea

The origins of tea as an agricultural crop are Chinese. As a crop, it is at least 2,000 years old. By some accounts, it is even 3,000 years old or more,” speculates Beatrice Hohenegger.
She recounts a famous Chinese legend about the beginnings of tea. “According to the legend, Shennong, one of the mythical fathers of Chinese civilization, was, among other things, a herbalist. One afternoon, his servants were boiling water because they already knew that only boiled water was safe for drinking. The wind blew some leaves into this water and the water colored.”
Because Shennong was always experimenting with different kinds of herbs, he thought he would try this concoction. He liked it, found it refreshing and interesting, and decided it was a good beverage to give to his people. That’s the beginning of tea.


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