Tea Drinking during the Qing Dynasty
During the Qing Dynasty, black tea became the most wanted commodity in the world.
Yet another change was in the wind for the Celestial Empire. With the death of the last Ming emperor, tribal banners fluttered over China as Manchu tribesmen claimed power and announced the beginning of their Qing dynasty (1644–1911), also known as the Manchu dynasty.
The non-Chinese Manchu rulers, like the Mongol rulers before them, drank coarse dark tea made from black tea and added fermented mare’s milk to it. They brought this style of tea drinking with them to the imperial court, but the Han Chinese never converted to drinking tea with milk nor developed a taste for black tea.
Tea was important to the Manchus, and they declared that it was as important to people as “salt, rice, vinegar, soy sauce, oil, and firewood” were. At the Qing imperial palace, located in the Forbidden City, the imperial kitchen operated two tea kitchens—one for the preparation of Manchu milk tea and another for Han green or “clear” tea.
The first Manchu emperor, Kangxi (1661–1722), forged a peace treaty with Russia that quelled Tartar rumblings on China’s northern border with Siberia. The treaty reinstated an exchange of goods and materials that flowed between China, Siberia, and Mongolia by camel caravan.
Border tea, China’s major export to these other regions of the Far East, was still being compressed into a dense tea brick of poor quality leaf and twigs, which could also be scored and broken for use as currency by these outsiders. These long and arduous treks across Central Asia took as long as eighteen months to reach their destination, and consisted of two hundred to three hundred animals traveling across the desert, each carrying approximately six hundred pounds of tea.
The West Comes in Search of China’s Teas
The Manchus were in power when trade with Europe turned China into the most important trading country in the world. Although the Portuguese were the first traders to enter the Far East, and the first to bring tea, spices, and porcelains back to Portugal, it was Dutch traders who first created the habit of drinking tea in the West in the early seventeenth century.
The Dutch established a trading center at Batavia (known today as Jakarta) on the island of Java and from there consolidated their purchases from Indonesia and China for the long trip home. Chinese tea men faced the challenge of producing tea for the Dutch that would endure the long voyage back to Holland without rotting or spoiling in the damp conditions aboard the ships. In their trial and error, the Chinese hit on the notion that for this purpose tea needed to be allowed to darken, then fired and bake-dried in a way that green tea was not.
Black Tea during the Qing Dynasty
Over time the Chinese refined and perfected the production of black tea, and for many years these teas were produced in the Wuyi mountains of northern Fujian Province. From here, the tea was sent downriver to the trading port of Canton.
In 1610 the first shipment of Chinese tea reached The Hague, and wealthy patrons were dazzled by it. The Dutch embraced tea with a fervent passion, and they laced it heavily with milk based on reports from Dutch traders that this was how the Chinese emperor took his tea. Because the emperor at the time was the Manchu emperor, these reports were based on information that was only true for him; Han Chinese emperors never did nor never would add milk to their tea.
Nevertheless, Dutch physicians lauded tea as a curative and necessary medicine. The Dutch also purchased such fine and delicate Chinese goods as lacquer objects, porcelains, spices, and silks, while continuing to send home greater quantities of tea. Soon they had enough tea to ship quantities of this invigorating beverage from Holland to their colony of New Amsterdam (New York) in North America.
The first record of Dutch tea in the Massachusetts colony appeared in 1670, when Benjamin Harris and Daniel Vernon advertised the availability of black tea. In 1674 New Amsterdam passed from Dutch hands to English rule and was renamed New York. By 1682 tea had been introduced to the city of Philadelphia by the Quaker William Penn. After the Dutch adopted the tea habit, members of the French upper class began to drink tea as well.
Passion for Tea during the Qing Dynasty
In Paris the Marquise de Sevigné, a cultured woman of letters, extolled the way that her friend Mme. de la Sablière drank “tea à la Chinoise” (or tea with milk). Tea reached Germany about 1650, and was first mentioned to have appeared in Scandinavia in 1723. But it was not until 1658 that the first public sale of Dutch-traded Chinese tea commenced in London at Garraway’s Coffee House.
Like their fellow explorers, the English went mad for tea, which was touted as a healthful curative. Tea became fashionable in the coffee houses, and the drink joined coffee and hot chocolate as one of the new temperance beverages that appealed to the privileged class of professional men and “literati.”
When in 1662 Charles II wed Princess Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess and tea drinker, tea became the fashionable beverage for English ladies. This opened the way for the rapid rise of the social traditions of “teatime.” Like the Dutch, the English added milk to their tea. They also added lumps of sugar, which England imported in vast quantities from the West Indies. Sugar added another boost to the energizing effects of tea, and a cup of black tea with cream and sugar defined the English style of twice-daily tea drinking.
With trade opening in the Far East, the English desired trading rights there as well. Dutch seafaring dominance barred the English from establishing a territory in any place other than India, however. Admitting defeat to the Dutch monopoly, England set up trading stations in India, the country that would later, under the hand of the English, become the largest and most powerful tea-producing country in the world.
A Monopoly on Tea during the Qing Dynasty
By 1669, England granted a group of merchants a monopoly on English trade in the Far East. These men had made large sums of money with a company called the Levant Group, which had organized an overland trade route with India. This newly formed company was known as the John Company and was established as the lawful English East India Company.
The John Company sent regularly scheduled shipments of Chinese tea to England from their base in India. But this tea was still being purchased from Dutch traders in India and was brought to England aboard company ships. The English were desperate for cheaper prices and more direct purchasing, but it was not until 1684 that the first English East India Company ships arrived at the port of Whampoa, downriver from the Chinese port of Canton, and gained official clearance from the Chinese to purchase tea directly.
Although the Europeans continued to arrive in China in ever-increasing numbers, the Chinese remained wary of the “barbarian outsiders” and would not allow them entry onto Chinese soil. The port of Canton was off-limits to foreigners, who were made to stop their ships at the anchorage of Whampoa, some sixty miles down the Pearl River from Canton. Here, the Hong merchants would greet each arriving vessel and escort only the captain upriver to Canton to conduct business.
For the next 150 years the English East India Company had exclusive import rights to bring Chinese tea to England and set the prices of tea sold to the Crown. But other adventurous traders and merchants, anxious to join this race to the riches, protested the monopoly.
In 1834 the Crown broke the monopoly, and almost instantly dozens of independent traders sprang up in London. A frenzied race across the seas to the port of Canton began, with the sole intent of purchasing as much tea as possible, as cheaply as possible.
With the trade monopoly ended, the English East India Company was desperate to find a place where it could grow tea and control all aspects of production. Their problem was thus: trade with China was no longer exclusive, and the Dutch controlled Indonesia. What remained was India, which, while solidly under English rule, had no established tea industry. The English, wishing for a better solution, had to settle for what it had: India.
The Boston Tea Party
On December 16, 1773, a band of sixty American patriots known as the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawk Indians and under cover of night boarded three sailing ships that were docked in Boston Harbor.
These ships: the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, had arrived in Boston with cargoes of precious tea from the British tea merchant Davison, Newman, & Co. for the colonists. Frustrated and angry over years of taxation imposed on them by England for such items as tea, sugar, glass, paper, coffee, and wine, the colonists rebelled in 1767 by boycotting English goods.
The Crown’s reason for the taxation was to offset the cost of shipping these goods all the way across the Atlantic to the “colonies.” The colonists felt that they did not have a say in matters of the Crown and that they would receive no direct benefit from these tax payments.
Colonial merchants also supported this boycott, and they began to smuggle “contraband tea” from Dutch traders. Dutch traders had at one time supplied tea to the colonists before they lost control of sales to the colonies to the English in 1674. The Dutch, who were happy for the boost in business, imposed no tax on the colonists.
If you want to read more about the history of tea check out “History of Tea: From Food to Medicine”