Tea is immensely, ridiculously popular. Today, it is the second most drunk beverage in world after water, but its popularity and the West’s efforts to control its market resulted in the decline of China.
Tea is native to China, and its fabled first use dates back to an emperor in (exactly!) 2732 B.C. In 200 B.C., the character for tea first appeared, picturing man and nature in harmony. From then until 700 A.D., tea spread rapidly in popularity throughout China, where it was used for healing, religious purposes, and leisure.
Europeans’ first contact with Chinese tea was in the sixteenth century, when Portuguese and Italian explorers tried it for the first time. By the seventeenth century, tea drinking had become popular with the Portuguese nobility, and Catherine of Braganza, the daughter to the Portuguese king, introduced tea to the British after she married King George II. Its immediate popularity lead Britain to also begin trading heavily with China for its tea.
However, the British, and particularly the state run British East India Trading Company, were unhappy with the terms of trade. China held a global monopoly on tea, no one else at the time could make their exact product in large exportable numbers. That meant China could control the price of their tea and set it at whatever they liked. The British East India Company were unhappy about this and went to great lengths to try to take control of the tea market away from China, including having a Scottish spy smuggle a tea plant out of China in the 1800s (more on this next time). To make matters worse, the British were not trading anything themselves to China, so they had a trade deficit, where they were importing more than they were exporting and, in a sense, “losing money” to China. While this is often not a bad thing, the British at the time wanted to change that, and they soon found the perfect commodity to trade back to China.
This commodity was opium. The British East India Company first started auctioning opium in Chinese ports in the 1790s, which was difficult because the trade of opium into China had been illegal for some time. China had experimented with opium for medicinal uses for centuries, to poor results, and was instead at the time more concerned about the public health risks of recreational addiction. The British East India Company then implemented a complex international credit lending scheme to smuggle opium into Chinese ports, with the knowledge and encouragement of the British state. The public health effects were immediate, and by 1799, the Chinese Emperor Jiaqing implemented shipping regulations to try to stop opium from entering China. The regulations were unable to stop the British East India Company’s network of smugglers, and, by 1838, the emperor sent Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton (Quangzhou) where he confiscated by force and destroyed all the opium in the southern port.
This move, reminiscent (and yet opposite?) of the very recent Boston Tea Party, angered the British, which had come to rely on the opium trade to pay for many of its state debts, racked up over past decades from conflict. The British immediately provoked the Opium Wars, and they, with their industrialized weaponry, stood at an easy advantage. The Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking in 1848, which formally opened Chinese borders to opium, unilaterally fixed low Chinese tariffs on the said opium, and cede Hong Kong to Britain. The United States and France quickly followed suit with similar trade treaties, also called the “Unequal Treaties.” These unequal trade laws saw the beginning of China’s “Century of Humiliation,” which ultimately ended in armed conflict, the end of dynastic rule, and, eventually, the social unrest and class conflict that would lead to the Communist Revolution.