Image of teapot and cup and saucer
A cure for gross humors and dispelling of vapors. Alison’s tea-ism. Photo ©

Alison Baily.

September 2019

Alison Baily, British Council policy expert and hopeless tea addict, reviews an exhibition on the story of tea. She looks at the rich and surprising history of the nation’s favourite beverage – and what it reveals about cultural contact and infusion.

For All The Tea in China

When you ask people around the world what they know about life in the UK, it won’t be too long before they mention tea. We are a nation of tea drinkers (though latest fashions may have encouraged a preference for a smooth flat white or skinny soy latte) and our love of drinking tea has become integral to Britain’s international brand. We’re known around the world for making a good strong cuppa, and our habit of adding milk and sometimes sugar in a way which completely alters the natural taste of the tea leaves is regarded by many as one of our distinctive if slightly bemusing eccentricities. The very English ritual of afternoon tea has spread across the world. Research conducted in 2018 for the British Council by GfK Social and Strategic research revealed that ‘afternoon tea’ was one of the top three things associated with England by young people overseas. 

The very English ritual of afternoon tea has spread across the world. Research conducted in 2018 for the British Council by GfK Social and Strategic research revealed that ‘afternoon tea’ was one of the top three things associated with England by young people overseas

The British thirst for tea has had a significant role in shaping international relations down the years, and still plays a role in our cultural links with countries today. This fascinating story was the subject of a recent exhibition, ‘A Tea Journey’, at the Compton Verney Art Gallery, in Warwickshire. Britain is of course a relatively recent convert to the tea leaf, which arrived for the first time in the mid-seventeenth century from China, where it had been part of mainstream culture at least a thousand years before. The exhibition showcases a journal containing one of the first European accounts of tea, from an ambassador of the Dutch East India company. He describes China as being famous for an herb called tea or cha which locals use ‘to make their liquor’ either for social gatherings in the ‘palaces of the grandees’, or to use as ‘a cure for gross humors and dispelling of vapors’.

Due to its high cost, tea was at first a luxury item consumed only by the British nobility. It became particularly connected to women and the home, and its use in high society gatherings helped create new tea-drinking rituals and stimulated a fascination with East Asia. This spurred a whole range of cultural activity, from demand for Chinese porcelain to the production of decorative silverware for the tea-table, and the incorporation of Chinese styles into local arts and fashions (chinoiserie). Tea became a status symbol for the super-rich of Regency England and the exhibition included a number of family portraits showing aristocratic families drinking tea, with an array of opulent accoutrements to signify their wealth. 

By the end of the 18th century, tea drinking had made its way into mainstream society. Britain now experienced a huge appetite for tea among its rapidly expanding urban population. As one observer related: “the use of tea was so intermingled with our habits and customs that it would not easily be dispensed with”. The problem for Britain’s East India Company was its dependence on China for its tea imports. Britain resorted to smuggling opium into China to pay for the tea, which quickly led to the opium wars and a Chinese embargo on tea exports to Britain in 1839. The need for alternative supplies of tea shaped the British Empire’s activities in India and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Tea plantations were established there using cuttings from Chinese tea plants, and the first consignment of Indian tea arrived in London from Calcutta in 1838. India’s tea drinking habit was one of the legacies left behind after the British Empire left in 1947, after which it became one of the world’s major tea consuming nations.

The tea trade’s other most infamous appearance in history is, of course, its role in sparking the American War of Independence in 1775. Boston residents launched their boycott of East India Company tea in response to the British Chancellor of the Exchequer’s imposition of high import taxes on tea in 1770. As well as throwing British tea into the Boston harbour, Americans refused to drink black tea, replacing it with herbal and fruit teas grown in their own gardens. According to American tea historian Bruce Richardson, these teas became known as ‘Liberty Tea’, and became a special sign of protest against the English at social gatherings, with some even brewing the tea in their very own dedicated ‘Liberty Teapots’.

‘Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the Eighth Century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The Fifteenth Century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion… …it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’

While Britain’s thirst for tea may have created its fair share of acrimony down the years, that’s by no means the full story. Just as it connects people in everyday social gatherings, it can also be said to do the same internationally. Sharing a cup of tea with visiting guests is an important part of hospitality culture from Britain to Japan, Russia to Turkey, the Middle East and beyond. Tea also has a ceremonial and social function in British culture which will look familiar to anyone from Japan, China, India and other major consumer countries. The ritual of drinking tea provides a space for connecting with people as well as a window into understanding their culture and society.

Image of a Whittard's special blend tea box
Cultural storm in a teacup: British Council 40th Anniversary in China special blend. Photo ©

British Council, adapted from the original.

‘Humanity Has So Far Met in a Teacup’

This was the thesis behind ‘The Book of Tea’, written by one of the great cultural relations pioneers of the late 19th century, Japanese intellectual, Okakura Kakuzo. Having lived in the United States for decades, Kazuko despaired that Americans and other Westerners still failed to understand East Asian society and culture, and harboured prejudices towards citizens of China, Japan and Korea. At a time of Great Power conflict in East Asia, he feared that if such attitudes went unchecked they could translate into further hostilities and war along the lines of the Russo-Japan war of 1904-05. It was while attending the high society gatherings in Boston at the turn of the 20th century that he noticed parallels between the Japanese tea ceremony and Anglo-American afternoon tea rituals. Despite the many differences, he observed a common ‘Worship of Tea’ and commented that “strangely enough humanity has so far met in the teacup”. This inspired him to write The Book of Tea, drawing on the role of tea in East Asian society to explain its key spiritual and philosophical concepts, as part of his mission to encourage a better appreciation and understanding of its cultures. It’s opening gives an irresistible taste of what is to come: ‘Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the Eighth Century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The Fifteenth Century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion… …it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’

And what about tea’s role in international cultural relations today, particularly in fellow tea drinking nations like China? British Council Director in Shanghai Matt Knowles observes that tea has the same ubiquity in British and Chinese life, even if the way we drink tea is quite different: “Tea in China is always there, it’s a constant of daily life. There is a tea for every season, and it is usually made by pouring hot water into a cup of healthy loose leaves. While a rapidly increasing number of coffee shops are boosting the popularity of the flat white, the longest queues in town are still for innovations in tea; from bubble teas and new fruit infusions to Japanese matcha with a dollop of salted cream. China like the UK takes great pride in a quality cup of tea. The real connoisseurs might appreciate the qualities of the location where the tea was grown (altitude, elevation, soil…) and the way in which the leaves were prepared (fermentation, baking, storing…). The rest of us are left with a sense that there are many more layers of tea culture to discover”. Tea is a special link between the UK with China, which the British Council recently highlighted this as part of its anniversary celebrating 40 years in China. Working with British tea company Whittard, it produced a special ‘anniversary blend’ which is reported to have gone down very well with local tea-drinkers. 

As tea drinking grows in popularity many other parts of the world, it creates benefits for the UK’s soft power, thanks to Britain’s cultural and historical connections to the beverage. From ‘English tearooms’ in Germany to afternoon tea in Dubai, the spread of English tea customs around the world and the social experience which comes with it help build connections with the UK. At the same time, the British tea palette is developing beyond the traditional builders tea, to encompass quality teas previously reserved for specialists, such as white, oolong, green and rooibos tea. As we do it gives us an opportunity to increase our understanding of cultures and societies where they’re consumed and produced. As Okakura Kakuzo would say, these days you really can find all of humanity in a teacup. 

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Advisor, British Council

Follow Alison’s ‘Lady Grey’ tea blog at: @travelswithmyteapot

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