By the end of the 18th century, Britain had become the most powerful nation on the planet. The British Empire covered a huge amount of territory in such places as New Zealand, Canada, India, and Australia. Tea, Standage argues, linked all these areas together.
In this chapter Standage arguably deals with subject matter he’s most comfortable with—the economic history of Britain. Once again he focuses on the Western world, emphasizing the famous British fondness for tea.
Tea was invented in China, supposedly by the Emperor Shen Nung. The Emperor considered tea a medicinal brew, capable of waking people and curing them of depression. Tea is an infusion of dried leaves and flowers from the bush Camellia sinensis, which is native to the Himalayas. It’s believed that this plant was first widely popularized in China by Buddhist monks in the 6th century BCE. Likewise Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, considered tea an important part of a balanced life. His example, along with that of Shen Nung and the Buddhists, may have helped to make tea China’s defining drink.
As with coffee, Standage begins by studying the history of tea outside of the West, but we still understand that this history is a preamble to his real focus: the history of tea in Britain, and how it relates to imperialism. It’s also interesting to note that tea was celebrated for its medicinal properties from the very beginning, just like beer and wine.
Like many other drinks, tea was used as a form of currency in China: it was popular and commonly consumed to the point where anybody would accept it as a valuable thing. Tea became so popular during the Tang Dynasty that it was heavily taxed. In spite of taxes, tea remained popular in the succeeding Sung Dynasty, which lasted until the 13th century.
Despite taxes, tea remained popular, a sure sign of the strong, “inelastic” demand for the drink. (A few centuries later, the tea tax might have resulted in a revolution like the one in America).
Tea drinking was also popular in Japan. Japanese tea drinking ceremonies were complex, almost mystical rituals that took many hours to complete. The tea had to be ground perfectly, boiled at the right temperature, and stirred the proper number of times. The culture of tea drinking in Japan became so complicated that tea-masters had to educate the young in the subtleties of the beverage.
In Japan, tea became less and less of a medicine and more of a component in ritual. The point of drinking tea was no longer just to enjoy its medical benefits, but also to master the art of performance, poise, and self-control. These qualities would be practiced in a tea ceremony and then applied elsewhere in life (like Socrates’ idea of drinking wine in the symposium). As usual, though, Standage doesn’t linger on the history of his beverages outside of the West.
Tea reached Europe in the 16th century, when European sailors first arrived in China, then the most populous nation on the planet. Europeans were dazzled by Chinese sophistication and power: the Chinese had invented gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press. Indeed, Chinese sophistication exceeded Europe’s in almost every way. Nevertheless, Europe struck up a productive trading system with China—Europeans brought tea, along with rice and silk, back to their homes from China. Tea wasn’t popular in Europe in the 17th century because it was expensive. Still, many doctors recommended it for its medicinal properties.
In spite of the (perhaps inevitable) Eurocentrism of his book, Standage readily acknowledges that there’s nothing inherently more impressive about Europe than other continents. Indeed, for thousands of years, China was far more sophisticated and powerful than Europe—things like paper and gunpowder wouldn’t reach Europe for centuries, and only then because China allowed them to be traded with foreigners.
For various reasons, Britain became the nation most heavily associated with tea. The British began their world-famous love for tea in the 1660s, when King Charles II celebrated his marriage to Catherine of Portugal by serving tea—then a highly exotic beverage—at his wedding. Court poets wrote volumes about the merits of tea. Later on, the British East India Company, a large corporation backed by royal authority, began trading in tea with Holland. Gradually, tea shifted from an elite beverage to an everyday one—by the 1700s, commoners drank tea almost every day.
Interestingly, Standage doesn’t go into a great amount of detail about why the British came to love tea more than almost any other nation. Certainly, tea was viewed as a novelty, and an exotic foreign beverage at that. But this would only explain why tea was popular in the Western world, not Britain specifically. Perhaps the best answer is that Britain had the largest and most powerful navy in the world beginning in the 17th century, and this meant that the country could acquire more tea and pass it on to its people. Or it might just be as simple as an idiosyncrasy of taste.
In the 1730s, England became filled with tea gardens—public spaces where women and men could drink tea together. The tea garden was popular with women in part because it provided a gender-equitable alternative to the coffeehouse. Tea consumption trickled down through English society, to the point where, by the late 18th century, all foreigners visiting England were struck by the country’s love for the drink.
As with the coffeehouse and the symposium, the tea garden was an important drinking space, defined as much by those who weren’t allowed inside it as by its loyal members. Men and women enjoyed tea together, however, making the tea garden different from the coffeehouse (but still exclusive in its own right). This might reflect the slowly growing egalitarianism of Western society (a theme which will continue in the chapters on Coca-Cola).