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Rare Photos Capture China's 19th Century Tea Trade  September 1, 2018 – 10:45 am

For over three centuries, the art of processing and preparing tea has been an integral part of Chinese culture. In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch India Company introduced Chinese tea to Europe, creating a global market that remains today. In this series of rare photographs from Baker Library's collections, the steps in processing raw tea leaves for export are beautifully illustrated, and describe techniques that are now part of China's rich history.

by Robert Gardella

At the time these photographs originated in an unspecified location in late-nineteenth-century China, the Chinese had been cultivating tea (Camellia sinensis) and processing it for almost two millennia. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, after decades of false starts and ceaseless experimentation, British entrepreneurs in India and Ceylon, and the Dutch in Java successfully initiated plantation cultivation, pioneered the mechanized processing of black tea, and launched vigorous advertising campaigns to foster corporate sales worldwide. Until the rise of Thomas Lipton and other British companies, which promoted the consumption of teas from colonies of the United Kingdom, teatime was synonymous with the consumption of China teas, regardless of whether it took place in London, Melbourne, St. Petersburg, or Boston. They were manufactured—in the original sense of the word, "made by hand"—in one or another skillful permutation of the stages depicted here.

Chinese methods of processing and enjoying tea were reinvented over the centuries. As late as the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), powdered teas were gourmet extravagances, which gave rise to the varieties central to the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu). Tastes changed decisively in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) to favor types of loose, whole-leaf teas like those of the present day. No longer beaten to a froth in bowls and drunk out of them, tea was now brewed or steeped in teapots (another innovation of this period) and sipped from cups. By the middle of the eighteenth century (the mid-Qing dynasty), the three major classifications of contemporary Chinese teas had emerged—the fully fermented black teas (hongcha) favored throughout the former British Empire, semi-fermented teas (gingcha), such as the oolong so popular in North America, and unfermented green teas (lücha), which secured a following in more limited markets, such as North Africa. As evident in the nomenclature, the degree of fermentation or oxidation allowed in tea processing largely determined the nature of the output. Whether done manually or mechanically, the manipulation of newly picked leaves activates their oxidation, and firing or drying halts the process at the desired point.

Chinese methods of processing and enjoying tea were reinvented over the centuries. — Robert Gardella

No expatriate tea plantations existed or could arise in China in the 1880s, since the treaty system established four decades earlier precluded typical colonial modes of direct foreign investment. In telling contrast to Indian or Ceylonese latifundia, tea growing in late-nineteenth-century China was traditionally a village enterprise, a form of commercialized agriculture carried out in a frequently haphazard manner and on a highly fragmented scale. As tea picking commenced over the spring and summer months, peasant households gave their raw leaves a rough form of processing simply to convert them into a marketable commodity that could withstand spoilage. This crude tea, or maocha, was bought up by tea-processing workshops (variously known as chahao, chachang, or chazhuang), where the handicraft skills of the Chinese tea makers portrayed in these photos came into play. These were smallscale establishments, employing a dozen to several dozen workers operating on a seasonal basis. Judging from the images, the production process must have involved black or oolong teas. In either case, one of the photos displays a team of western "expectorators" at work evaluating the final product. While indigenous Chinese agriculture and manual processing techniques supplied the finished commodity, the decisive matters of quality control, shipping, trade, finance, and marketing tended to remain the privileged domain of foreign tea-exporting firms until well into the twentieth century.

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Robert Gardella is professor of history at the United States Merchant Marine Academy.


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