The Social History of Tea

Posted: September 4th, 2013

CONTENT: can you add an introduction with thesis statement

The Social History of Tea






The Social History of Tea

Tea is the most common beverage consumed mostly in the morning. Other definitions of tea include the plant scientifically referred to as Camellia Sinensis, or the dried leaves and buds of the tea plant. Over a million people in the world, consume tea on a daily basis. It is intriguing to note that just like many other phenomena, the discovery of tea was accidental. Tea is one of the most grown cash crops in Africa and Asia. The global magnitude of the preference for this beverage has caused huge impacts in economic, physical and cultural fields. In particular, tea production, distribution and consumption have caused both positive and negative consequences in the world and which are addressed in this paper.

Geographical Origins and the spread of tea to other regions

According to Wang (2001), China was the first country to have grown, produced and drank tea. This single fact is what made China a big player on the social setting back then. Tea plays a crucial role in the Chinese culture. To them it is more than just a drink but also a way of exercising their culture, philosophical views and aesthetic views. The tea plant Camellia can be traced back to the hills of southern China and Assam. In modern times, the two main flavors above have been crossbred to come up with different flavors of tea (Dr. Baruah, 2008). The arrival and expansion of Buddhism in China in the third and fourth centuries is what is credited with the spread and popularity of tea (Schlosser, 2001). This is because the ancient monks believed that the drink contained a chemical that enhanced mental alertness and meditation. This thus led to high demand for tea in the fourth century that led to its cultivation to meet the demand.

Evidence of commercial, public teahouses started appearing during the tenure of the Tang dynasty. According to Hopley (2009), factors that aided the spread of tea in China included growth in population and the rapid consumption of tea during the Tang and Song periods. Production and consumption later spread to Japan in the late 6th Century by the Buddhist monks who were traveling to China. The Monks brought back with them seeds for planting back home. Just like in Japan, tea drinking was mainly practiced by the elite in society, monks and the samurai homes. The good relations between the Japanese and the Chinese, to a large extend, can be attributed to the existence of tea (Allen, 2003).

Tea then found its way to other markets during the postclassical period. Trading tea with horses between the fields of Lhasa in Tibet and Southern China became common. From Tibet, it was then taken to Nepal and Ladakh in Northern India. This is where consumption was mainly for religious practices and the elite in society (Mintz, 1986). Its consumption finally spread to the West from the Islam occupied Central Asia. It was also in the Islam states that tea started being consumed with sugar. Sweetened tea thus served as the main serving drink in social settings replacing wine and other alcoholic drinks (Mintz, 1986). According to Dr. Baruah (2008), North Africa and the Middle East did not adopt the culture of tea taking until later on when the British Empire popularized it.

The Russians encountered tea in the seventeenth century. This was after the eastward expansion of the Muscovite stat that brought the Russians into contact with the Ming Empire. As part of the diplomatic process, Chinese tea was brought to entice the Russians. This saw the signing of many treaties, which later led to the development of a caravan between Northern China and the urban centers of Russia (Wang, 2001). The main items of trade between the Russians and the Chinese were Chinese silks, porcelain and tea while the Russians brought in their furs for the exchange. At this time, tea farming had spread to significant parts of the world.

Relationship to colonialism and globalization

The European demand for tea is considered as one of the greatest contributors of imperial expansion. Most of the occupants of Europe switched to preferring tea in the seventeenth century, and this demand was met by huge imports of tea from colonies of Britain in Asia and Africa. Among the first products to collect revenue for the British was the imposition of taxes on tea and other commodities that slowly segregated the natives into the role of servitude. The revenue earned for these taxes was used to entrench colonialism in America, Africa and Asia where Britain had colonized. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 is one such example of a resistance to the colonial rule of the British as well as their taxes. Colonists revolted against the idea of the Tea Act that violates their right to be taxed by their own people.

The tea history contributes to a greatly to globalization both positively and negatively. Tea has contributed directly and indirectly to the increased trade, emerging Europe’s prosperity, war and migration. The British used revenues from tea to fund the Franco-English war that was because of American colony revolutions. The pursuit of fertile lands to plant more tea by the British caused the massive relocation of tens of thousands of laborers to work in the farms. This caused ethnic tensions among the traders, laborers and the indigenous population. This relocation can be cited as the cause of the civil wars in Sri-Lanka that left many dead, injured and homeless. However, this capitalistic aggression by the British was among the reasons for the development of agricultural production, industrialization and prosperity within Europe and the rest of the world. The quest for distribution and consumption of tea has raised many entrepreneurs into billionaires; many businesses have been formed on the trade of tea, for example, restaurants and hotels, which provide individuals with income.


Cultivation, Harvest, Production and Distribution

The tea plant is evergreen with thick leaves, which are dark green in color, and with a strong, thick stem. There are currently about 200 different species of the tea plant. The tea plant requires a hot and moist climate in temperatures ranging from 10-30 degrees centigrade and with an annual rainfall average of about 2000mm. It also sprouts best in altitudes between 600 and 2000 meters above sea level.

After maturity, tealeaves are picked by either hand or machine. The distinction between green tea and black tea comes about during the processing stage. While black tea is made by fermenting the tealeaves, green tea does not include the fermentation process. The first stage ensures that over 60 percent of the moisture is eradicated from the leaves while the second drying is to stop the oxidation process. After the drying, the tealeaves are rolled to release the liquids that may have remained trapped in the leaves. This is done to prepare for the nest stage that is the fermentation process. Fermentation leads to the blackening of the tea that causes its distinct flavor. The fermentation process takes about three hours during which currents of humid air are blown over the leaves (Mulky & Sharma, 1993).

Social consequences of Tea

The production and consumption of tea, as well as the commercialization of this product, has had several impacts on society. The conditions of the labor force that created this great wealth for many tycoons do not benefit much from the tea business. The capitalism behind tea has prompted employers in tea farms, factories and shops to oppress their labor. Most workers live in adverse conditions. They do not have access to proper sanitation or housing. The perpetuation of job insecurity alongside low labor wages has had long lasting effects of impoverishing many individuals.

The gender discrimination that has been perpetuated in these tea establishments is also a grave consequence. Tea establishments prefer hiring female to male workers, as women are easier to manipulate. Therefore, many female workers are paid poorly; do not receive any healthcare or pension benefits and work for extra hours. The state does not also provide labor protection for domestic workers. This is because of the liberalization that most countries have adopted in which the state takes a lesser role in controlling tea firms. All these impacts have lowered the standards of living for many third world citizens who are the main producers of tea.

Tea was also used to bring out the different classes of people in society. For example, the Japanese, Chinese and Korean societies were divided based on the clergy and normal people. This rift was brought about by the fact that only the clergy in society were to take tea. Therefore, this means that tea also served as a distinguishing factor between the clergy and the poor thus coming up with two different social groupings. Tea was also viewed as a source of prestige. This is because it was considerably more expensive than other normal beverages such as coffee. This was mainly due to the global demand for tea that saw its value skyrocket (Martin, 2007).


In his book, Schlosser notes the rage with which fast foods have taken over the American food industry. The rate at which American citizens are consuming fast foods in the 21st Century is typically the same rate at which Europeans were consuming tea in the 17th. At some point, tea changed majority of the dietary pattern in England. The desserts that were washed down with tea were included after every meal and gave rise to the increasing trends of obesity in Europe. This new, addictive obsession with tea created a new generation of people who based their principles on exploitation of foreign labor, individual’s greed and poverty to make their own riches.


Allen, L. S. (2003). The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.

Dr. Baruah. (2008). The tea industry of Assam: origin and development. Mumbai, India: EBH Publishers.

Hopley, C. (2009). The History of Tea. Harpenden, UK: Remember When.

Mair, V. H., & Erling, H. (2009). The True History of Tea. London: Thames and Hudson.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. Westminster, London: Penguin Books.

Moxham, R. (2009). A Brief History of Tea. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Mulky, M. J., & Sharma, S. (1993). Tea: culture, processing, and marketing. Oxford: Oxford & IBH Pub. Co.

Rose, S. (2009). For all the tea in the world, how England stole the world’s favorite drink and changed history. New York: Viking

Schlosser, E. (2001). Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wang, L. (2001). Chinese Tea Culture: The Origin of Tea Drinking. Subang Jaya, Malysia: Pelanduk Publications.

Wild, A. (2005). Coffee: A Dark History. New York, NY: W.W Norton.

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