Pretence for Prattle

Steven Shapin

During the four centuries of its presence in British life, tea has made the transition from the exotically novel to the domestically ordinary, from a drug with possibly potent psychoactive powers to the mere ‘cup that cheers’, from a focus of social ritual to a casually taken and often solitary drink, from control by a quasi-state monopoly to a series of branded products largely dominated by multinational firms, from an artisanal to an industrial product. The idea of tea was once tightly linked to the idea of China; by the 18th century, its consumption was coming to be identified with the idea of Britishness. In 1863, the Birmingham grocer whose son founded the Typhoo brand boasted that ‘the great Anglo-Saxon race are essentially a tea-drinking people’. Tea was once a luxury reserved for the elite, then – mainly through changes in the management of trade and taxation – it became the most democratic of drinks. Centre stage in scenes of social intimacy, tea was also for centuries a focus of political economy, the conduct of government and the practice of international relations.

During these transformations, tea has retained distinct identities: it’s a botanically specific plant (Camellia sinensis), a desiccated product manufactured from the leaves of that plant, a drink made by infusing the dried leaves in hot water or an occasion of its consumption – a drink taken by almost everyone but that still has powers of regional and class distinction. There’s ‘afternoon tea’, ‘cream tea’, ‘high tea’ or ‘tea’ as the evening meal; bags v. loose, ‘builder’s tea’ with three sugars in a mug v. weak Earl Grey in ‘Royal Doulton with the hand-painted periwinkles’. The giving of tea can be an emotional gesture (‘tea and sympathy’). Tea-taking in its various modes is still – as cigarettes once were – a prop for playing the role of oneself or for playing one’s part with others.

Tea arrived in 17th-century Europe at the same time as two other important exotic drinks – coffee and chocolate – and, while their social and cultural trajectories diverged, all three shared several characteristics which Western commentators struggled for some time to understand and to normalise. They were each consumed hot (Europeans were not accustomed to taking hot drinks on a routine basis); they had an unfamiliar astringency or bitterness; and they were understood to be psychoactive and (mildly or strongly) addictive. Each was at once a new drink and a new way of being, and it was the new ways of being rather than the new chemicals contained in them that changed the culture. Each came to Europe from a different end of the earth: coffee from Arabia, chocolate from Mesoamerica, tea from China. Each travelled to Europe along channels carved out by violence and novel economic institutions; and each bitter drink cried out for sugar – and was therefore bound up with the institution of slavery.

It’s a story of great scope. The genre of ‘The Food/Drink/Condiment that Made the Modern World’ (salt, spices, maize, cod, oysters, refrigerated beef, the battery chicken, the Big Mac) has become a cliché, and many performances of this sort are shallow, overstated or merely cute. But in the right hands, telling the history of foodstuffs and foodways responds to current calls for histories of wider scope: histories of the longue durée; of global exchanges and contacts between cultures; and of the relations between human doings, things and the environment. Empire of Tea is an important example, sometimes brilliantly told, worth standing alongside Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power (1985) as a history of modernity told through one of its consumable commodities.

When Europeans first encountered it in the early 17th century, all the tea in the world came from China and Japan (which had learned about it from China). Travellers and traders in China wanting to understand what tea was, what effects it had, and how it should be used, saw that it was highly valued; that it came in different varieties, with different characteristics and prices; that drinking tea was part of the rhythm of everyday life; that its consumption was governed by elaborate ritual; that the emperor and court indulged; that its equipage (fine porcelain pots and cups) was central to tea-ritual; and that tea was considered to have marked and pleasant psychological effects. It was a sociable drink – a mild stimulant both to the mind and to conversation. Some Europeans in China fell under its spell: they tried it and they liked it, and a few saw its potential as a profitable trade-good – something new to add to the cargos of silks, spices and porcelain carried back overland to Russia and on the ships of Dutch and English trading monopolies.

China tea, in china teapots, poured into china cups: this is still a scene of ‘blue willow’ domesticity whose original Oriental exoticism has been effectively erased from collective memory. Coffee, and the culture of the coffeehouse, attracted more comment in the decades following its introduction in the 1650s, but it was tea that won out in Britain.[*] The historical trajectory of that domestication was, however, neither easy nor uncontested.

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[*] I wrote about the history of coffeehouses in the LRB of 20 April 2006.

[†] Jenny Diski reviewed Green Gold in the LRB of 19 June 2003.