Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A historical meditation for Tea Day


Ahh, I do love a hot cup of Ahmad of London green tea at ten in the morning. And despite being (unapologetically) a left-Eurasianist, I’m still enough of an Anglophile to celebrate Tea Day in April rather than in December. My Anglophilia of course came before my Eurasianism, so I suppose it wouldn’t be quite kosher to blame Konstantin Leont’ev, Prince Trubetskoi or even that incorrigible lover of everything British Prince DS Mirsky for that. But I think I’ve made my point.

According to legend, tea was discovered by accident, in 2737 BC. The divine Emperor Shennong, who was also a skilled herbalist and physician, preferred to drink only water which had been boiled and thus cleansed of any impurities. It happened one day that the retainer whose job it was to boil the Emperor’s water left the cauldron unattended for a few minutes, and a dead leaf from a Camellia plant growing wild fell off an overhanging branch into the cauldron, turning the water a bright orange-yellow. The retainer, who realised almost too late that the water had been left boiling, rushed back to fetch the hot water but failed to notice the leaf which had fallen in. When Shennong tasted the water he praised his retainer and asked how the drink came to be so refreshing, which is how he came to discover the properties of tea.

For a long time, up until the Han Dynasty, the herb was treated strictly as medicinal – and it was grown mostly on the southwest border of the empire, in what is now Sichuan and Yunnan. It gradually grew to be used recreationally from the Jin Dynasty into the Tang Dynasty, when its first mention as a recreational drink is recorded by Lu Yu in the Classic of Tea, written around the year 760 AD. One reason for this shift was that the process of brewing strong tea became simpler. Instead of the laborious process of steaming, pressing and moulding tea cakes from the first flush, it was discovered that the same taste could be gotten by simply sun-drying or roasting the leaves. The price of tea plummeted and it became available to a wider number of people, and could be drunk socially instead of simply as a medicine reserved for the ruling class.

Naturally, around this time as well, the tea trade began in earnest, along both the Northern and the Southern overland routes. Chinese tea came into demand both from Tibetan highlanders and from Turco-Mongol nomads, who bartered for it from the Tang Emperor under the tributary system. Tea would reach Korea through the tributary system by the 640s, and Japan by 805. The Arab world also became aware of tea at this time, with an account of Chinese tea and salt taxation being given in the report of an Arabic traveller in Guangzhou in the year 879. The cultivation and harvest of tea leaves was kept under strict state control, precisely on account of its tributary value. There were even regulations to the effect that the tea bushes could be tended only by unmarried maidens, and the diets of these nubile young tea-gatherers were also regulated so that the oils from their skin would not damage the flavour of the leaves. The tea that was traded to the tributary states tended to be of a lower quality than that consumed domestically, and also tended to be shipped in bulk for convenience.

Shennong’s brew of course has a long-standing appreciation in both the English-speaking world and the Russian-speaking world, to the point where it was among the staple goods of trade along both the Maritime Route (a trade dating back to the Song Dynasty) and the Siberian Tract (dating back to the Yuan Dynasty). Speaking personally, my own tea-drinking habits were indelibly formed in Saimasai in Kazakhstan, where the custom is to serve black tea with whole milk and sugar, on a dastarhan usually decked out with copious quantities of pastries, cheese, fruits and sweets, and of course naan with butter and jam. (I later got spoiled by bottled Unif Premium Assam Milk Tea, delicious when chilled and readily available in your average chaoshi in Baotou…)

Ahem. At any rate, black tea largely arose as a result of this expanded trade. Raw green tea, even sun-dried or roasted, tended to spoil. As a method of preservation, tea traders on all three routes began to crush, roll out and oxidise the tea leaves in a controlled environment, only afterwards allowing them to dry, producing a stronger flavour and a deeper colour – and also a product that could be shipped over long distances and long travel times without spoiling. It was in this form that tea was introduced to Europe by a Portuguese Jesuit, Jasper de Cruz, in 1560. It goes without saying that the subsequent European thirst for tea was one among several reasons that the colonial European powers began to violently muscle their way into the Indian Ocean and prey upon trade on the Maritime Route through the fortified-port system. The destruction of the old Indian Ocean-centred tributary world system, and the creation of a new capitalist one centred in the Atlantic, thus had a great deal to do with the tea trade.

But don’t think I’m going to go all puritanical in some sort of self-flagellating leftist paroxysm over this history, even as I acknowledge it. Tea is something to be deeply enjoyed and thoroughly appreciated – and the variety and the methods of brewing make the preparation and drinking of tea a thoroughly-enjoyable pastime. In our house – having both Chinese and American drinkers – we drink loose-leaf, tea balls, bagged tea and matcha; and the favoured brands are Maiskii, Taylors of Harrogate (particularly Yorkshire Tea – that’s the good stuff) and of course Ahmad (both the house green and the Earl Grey), though Twinings, Bigelow and even certain parts of the Unilever mega-conglomerate also have a welcome. At any rate, a happy Tea Day to all – please do enjoy an extra cup or two!

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