Today’s blog comes to us from Te House of Tea owner Connie Lacobie in advance of our tea-themed LaB 5555 this Friday, Feb. 8, featuring musical guests The Tontons! Steep yourself in the culture of tea from 7 to 8 p.m. before you hit the dance floor by reserving tickets here.
Tea was first discovered in China about 4,000 years ago, but it was not until 400 to 600 A.D. that was tea heavily demanded and mass cultivation started to fit market demand. The Chinese used tea as a medicinal drink mixed with onion, orange, ginger and other spices. It was considered a precious gift to the Emperor and nobles only. Around 479 A.D., Turkish merchants began trading tea around the Mongolian borders.
In the 700s, tea was introduced to Japan by Lu Yu, who wrote the first definitive book about tea. This tome, The Classic of Tea, attracted the interest of Zen Buddhist monks in Japan, and tea began its journey to the East. From the 600s to the 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 was transported via horse, donkey and camel caravans.
During the Yuan Dynasty under Mongolian Emperors, tea was a common drink. But even though Marco Polo had ample contact with the dynasty, he did not bring back tea to Italy and the country missed its chance to earn a fortune. After the Mongolian reign, whole leaf steeping was widely used in favor of matcha, and black tea and oolong tea processing began.
A few hundred years later, toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, European missionaries started to land in Asia to spread Christianity to the East. When they returned west, they brought back new knowledge about the benefit and pleasure of drinking tea.
It wasn’t the tea-loving Brits who first encountered the beverage, however. The first European known to encounter tea was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz, who documented his experience in 1560. Dutch traders became the first Europeans to bring tea back to the west, and they profited immensely from 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 it the most common beverage drink in England — even above alcohol. As demand increased from the west, annual tea trade was recorded in British diplomat Harry Parkes’ Report on the Russian Caravan Trade from China. Russian Caravan Tea (lapsang souchong) was documented as having been exchanged for small furs, like squirrels. Teas began traveling annually through Kiakhta, Mongolia to Russia via the Silk Road, then from Russia to the west. The Dutch started to compete against the Portuguese in the tea trade, which motivated 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. The company used India as a base to extend its ambitious influence to China, where it introduced and encouraged opium sales. Not long afterward, the Qing government attempted to crack down on opium use and smuggling in Canton and other southern provinces. However, because China had less military prowess and technology at its disposal, China lost most struggles during these “Opium Wars,” and ultimately lost Hong Kong to the English in 1842. Following that, China was scrambled by eight different European countries, with each occupying one or more provinces.
Can you believe the tea trade could lead to the scramble for China and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty?
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.
This included the New World, where the English, being envious of Dutch success in the area, decided to try to monopolize the tea market in New England. They passed The Tea Act in 1773, which led to Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution.
Imperialism in the 1900s even brought tea to Africa, where plantations were established in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi. Even today, tea is the second-most common beverage, second only to water, because of its history and reputed benefits.
LaB 5555’s featured musical guests, The Tontons
Learn all the political and social implications of the tea trade at LaB 5555 this Friday and then dance it out to the music of local favorites The Tontons — and be sure to check out their new single, out this month!