• Neil Padilla

Steeped to Perfection Part 3: Tea and Humanity

One day, the Buddha was tired after many days of meditation. He saw a green leaf on a shrub near him and plucked it. He chewed on it and felt refreshed. 

There are many stories about the origins of tea and we actually discussed a few legends associated with its naming in the previous blog. Today we will be discussing how tea has influenced our civilization as a whole. 

This is part three of your lesson as a tea alchemist. 


You can visit part 1 and part 2 as well.


Let’s begin...

In the beginning 

Another legend about the discovery of tea tells of how the divine farmer and inventor of agriculture Shennong accidentally poisoned himself 72 times. Before the poisons could end his life however, a leaf fell into his mouth. He chewed on it and it revived him.

In some legends, Shennong is the legendary emperor Shen Nung who is said to have discovered many medicinal properties of plants and had been worshipped as a god for the many gifts he gave the Chinese people including the wonders of tea as far back as 2737 B.C.

One story goes that one day while resting with his army under a tree, Shen Nung, who preferred to have his water boiled before drinking had one of his manservants do the task. While the waiter was boiling a dead leaf from a wild tea bush landed in the water and caused the water to brown.  It went unnoticed and he drank the resulting brew, which he found delicious and refreshing. 

This and many legends surround this simple yet exquisite drink. Scientifically, however, the Camellia sinensis may have originated in southern China possibly caused by the hybridization of unknown wild teas. Tea drinking may have begun in the region of Yunnan region when it was used for medicinal purposes. Evidence suggests however that it was initially consumed as a vegetable or cooked with porridge. It started to be consumed as a drink around 1500 years ago.



The then-standard of tea preparation is to heat tea, grind it up and pack these into cakes which are then added into water. This was called moa cha or matcha. Ancient Chinese developed their own tea culture at the time and even made art on matcha foam the same way artists would do it on coffee these days.


Like a Tidal Wave

Tea was then introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century with the first recorded shipment of tea by a European nation was in 1607 when the Dutch East India Company took a cargo of tea from Macao to Java. Two years after, the Dutch bought the first assignment of tea which was from Hirado in Japan to Europe. 

In many ways, we have to thank the Dutch for doing that. Their trade eventually brought tea to Portugal where Catherine of Braganza resided. She then took tea-drinking to the British court when she married Charles II in 1662.


She won the hand of Charles II and was to be the new Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland. When she arrived, her dowry consisted of spices, money, riches, and caskets labeled Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas

Theory suggests that this was later abbreviated to T-E-A. 

Tea has only been used in the country as a form of medicine but the Portuguese at this time had been importing tea to Europe since the beginning of the seventeenth century. Catherine had grown up drinking tea as her preferred beverage.

The ladies of the court were of course intrigued by this use of tea and followed suit. Soon enough Catherine’s fondness made it fashionable in England. 

Tea influenced a number of historical events as well. 

the Tea Act of 1773 provoked the Boston Tea Party. This Act allowed the British East India Company to sell tea from China in American colonies without having to pay a majority of taxes. Americans strongly opposed the taxes in the Townshend Act as a violation of their rights. Demonstrators, some disguised as Mohawk Indians, destroyed an entire shipment of tea [342 chests of it] sent by the East India Company.


This grew into the American Revolution and we all know how that turned out for the British. 

Their loss in the Revolution cost the Empire much of its national treasury and one of its much-valued colonies. The loss of North America left the Empire needing a new source of revenue and they saw vast opportunities in China. 

At this point, China has, for the most part, remained distant from the expansion of various countries and territories and the wars they fought in order to acquire goods and resources. Tea was part of the three main exports of China back then along with silk and porcelain. Although the British saw China as a potential source of revenue, the Chinese had other ideas. They saw the foreigners as a potentially dangerous and destabilizing influence. This led them to impose strict and then even stricter restrictions on how trade was done between the two empires.  During the middle of the 18th century, all international trade in China has been restricted to the Port of Canton. By 1792, the demand for tea has increased so much that import tariffs on tea would account for as much as 10 percent of the British government’s entire revenue. Because of the huge demand for this product, it has become a major driver of economy. Because of China’s monopoly, however, it left them at a huge trade deficit as huge amounts of silver were used to trade for the wonderful brew. 

Developments in other British frontiers like those in South America and India have brought the empire close to bankruptcy all because of their tea addiction. There was only one thing to do: it was time to send an official British envoy to the Chinese court. 

Talk about getting off on the wrong foot…


George Macartney was just created Earl Macartney in the Irish peerage in 1792. He was then appointed as the first envoy of Britain to China. No longer were they going to allow merchants and other functionaries to represent the empire. 

The Macartney Embassy to Beijing was a large British delegation that took voyage on a 64-gun man-of-war called the HMS Lion. It was reluctantly accepted by the Hong – officials in charge of trade relations but the British East India Company explained that the gifts the embassy brought would be ruined by such a long journey from Canton to the capital. They were then allowed to go upriver to Beijing and then to the Emperor. 

It must be brought to your attention at this point how incredibly different and yet similar both courts were. Both were governed by an absolute monarch who’s divine right it is to oversee his people and no one, absolutely no one was above himself. George Macartney did not see it this way. Believing that Britain is the most powerful nation in the world, and whatever ceremony he participated in must present George III and the Quinlong Emperor as equals.


It is customary for everyone in the Chinese court to kowtow, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one's head touching the ground, to the emperor. This was a known tradition to the British. The kowtow was required not only when one meets the emperor, but also when receiving edicts from his messengers. At this point, the Portuguese and Dutch merchants in Canton had been following the ritual. 

The British regarded the act as slavish and humiliating, avoided kowtowing to the emperor's edicts by leaving the room when such messages were received Macartney refused to participate in this tradition. In fact, he even suggested that if he were to do that, then an officer in the Chinese court should do the same to a photo of his King. In the end, he acquiesced to genuflecting as he would to George III. 

While The goals of the mission included the opening of new ports for British trade in China, the establishment of a permanent embassy in Beijing, the cession of a small island for British use along China's coast, and the relaxation of trade restrictions on British merchants in Canton. The Chinese rejected all these.


An excerpt of the letter of response from the Quinlong Emperor to Charles III in relation to the Macartney’s Embassy.


Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things.  I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures. 
… It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter. 

One must keep in mind that it was not the act of kowtowing nor the Chinese’ strict adherence to tradition that caused the failure but rather on the two nation’s conflict in world view. With each of them believing that they are the most important culture in the world, both were not open to see the benefit they can gain in working together. This failure caused the British to find other means in order to avail of tea.  Along came opium.  === 

This ends our third lesson on Tea. Next time we’ll discuss one of the greatest impact this beverage has had on the world stage. 

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