How did tea get to the other parts of the world?

Tea is one of the three most popular drinks in the world - together with beer and coffee. Around 2 billion people drink tea as a habit every day, and over 160 countries have tea trading in their own country. China was the only country which exported tea worldwide from the beginning. But as tea plantation gradually emerged in other countries, tea trades became much easier and widespread. Together with soaring demand, different kinds of tea plants were being explored and appeared in the markets.

China's export of tea played a critical role in spreading tea and the tea drinking culture to the world. How did this all happen? Let's find out.

Tea trades worldwide

Tea was found in southwestern China some 2,000 years ago (Read more in "How do we know the Chinese drank tea first?"), and Sichuan was the first area to have tea trades. At first, people used other items or products to exchange for tea. The first tea trading in the world was believed to have been done with the Middle East countries.

Tea gained cultural prominence, popularity, and national status long before Lu Yu published the Classic of Tea. The Tang dynasty saw the imperial courts establishing the "directorate of tributary trade" to oversee tea trading, and the imperial tea factory to supply the imperial courts with royal tea. Because of tea's development and status in China, it was also carried as gifts when delegates visited other countries, or given to dignitaries when they visited China. This has helped to spread tea to the world.

Historical records have shown that China was already exporting tea to elsewhere in Asia in the 5th century. At that time, tea was used to exchange with the Turks. When Princess Wencheng was married to Tibet in 640 A.D., she also brought tea with her, spreading the tea drinking culture to the Tibetans. China started trading with Japan by the end of the 6th century. And later centuries saw Chinese tea spreading farther and farther around the world.

1. Chinese tea exported to the European countries

The history of world tea trades started in the 17th century. Different kinds of tea were imported to some of the European countries, such as Holland, Britain, France, Russia, etc. and further to the American continents.

In 1607, Hollanders started transporting tea to the West via Java from Macau, and selling them to the other European countries and the American continents. From this time, tea trades between China and the West started. By the end of the 17th century, British East India Company started exporting large amounts of tea back to Britain, making it the largest importing country of the time.

The amount of tea exported to the other countries reached its peak in 1684 when the Qing Government discontinued the boycott. Until the 18th century, tea culture in the West had been growing rapidly and it brought a huge flow of money to the markets for those countries.

2. Chinese tea exported to Russia and United States

Apart from the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States were also among the biggest tea importing countries at the time. Tea trading between the Chinese and the Russians started after an agreement was signed in 1689. And after the American War of Independence (1775 - 1783), the Americans started having tea imported directly from China as well.

Tea was such a popular and important commodity that it was even a subject of political and trade controversy. Click here to read more about an "Act" that changed the world.

3. New tea being exported

Since the 17th century, places like the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, North Africa, and North America had established world trade in tea with China. From then on until the 18th century, China was the largest tea provider in the world.

Things started to change around the mid 18th century, when the British began looking elsewhere for places to plant tea. It was a result of the surging demand for tea and Britain’s trading deficit with China. (As Britain's products where not demanded by the Chinese, the British imported more from the Chinese than it exported to them; this created a trading deficit for the British. And it finally led to the outbreak of the Opium War.)

Holland and Britain brought in tea and tea technique from China and found fields for tea planting in their Asia colonies, such as India and Sri Lanka (Why these 2 places? You can probably find out more about tea's growing habitats in "Where did tea come from? - Growing Habitats"). From the beginning of the 19th century, they no longer needed to rely on China's tea exports; and China had since lost its leading position in world tea trading.

An "Act" that changed the world

In 1773, in an attempt to reduce the massive stockpiles of tea held in the warehouses of the financially-troubled British East India Company, the British Government issued a "Tea Act", which authorised the British East India Company to transport and trade tea directly with the British colonies.

Since most of the colonies drank smuggled tea at the time, the Act exempted the British East India Company from paying import duties; making its products as competitive as those smuggled. This abused the business advantages in those colonies.

The North-Americans, former colonists of Britain, were particularly upset about the Act. They set up "anti-tea" events and societies in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

Things took a huge downturn on 16 December 1773, when Boston citizens dumped all 382 tea chests from the 3 ships carrying tea from Britain into the harbour. This caused the famous "Tea Incident" (also known as the "Boston Tea Party").

In retaliation, the British Government implemented other measures upon the North Americans. But that only intensified the colonists' frustrations against Britain. The American War of Independence broke out 2 years afterwards, leading to the establishment of an independent United States of America.

Although not entirely responsible for causing the war, what resulted of the Tea Incident were often considered to be some of the contributing factors leading America to independence.

After independence was won, the first trade the Americans discussed with China was tea. After this, tea trades between the 2 countries increased rapidly and tea became one of the main commodities to be imported to America from China.

Development, prosperity, and decline of Chinese tea trading

Chinese tea had been traded for over 150 years. According to its development process, we could split it into 3 stages:

1. The first stage (1840 ~ 1886)

This was the period when production and trades for Chinese tea rose, the area for tea production enlarged, and the amount of production increased. From statistical records, the total amount in production for the whole of China was around 50,000 tons and the total amount of tea exported was 19,000 tons in the 1840s.

By 1886, the total amount of tea produced and exported reached 250,000 tons and 134,000 tons respectively - a 500% and 700% increase since 4 decades ago. At the time the total amount of tea exported accounted for 62% of all of China's exports.

The rise in tea trade was mainly because the demand for tea by foreigners was growing rapidly. The signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 also forced the Qing government to open 5 ports for trade, which, together with the advent of fast transport boats, prompted tea trade's seaward development. But the rise in tea trade was also because China needed to balance its trade deficit.

By around 1842, China was importing opium in vast amounts. In order to pay for the imports, the Qing government enlarged its export of silk and tea to bring money into China. These actions in turn increased tea selling.

2. The second stage (1887 ~ 1949)

This was the period when Chinese tea trade began to decline.

Since the Dutch and the British began planting tea in their colonies (around 1886), China's leading position in tea trading was eroded - and later even replaced. During that time, places such as Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka became tea markets of the world.

This was partly because these new tea makers were using machines to make tea. They were more efficient and more competitive than China, not just in quantity but also in quality - China was still producing tea with old methods at the time.

Gradually, the British and Americans took away the black tea market from China; Japan took away the green tea market. All these factors minimised Chinese tea's competitiveness in the world and phased China out of the world market.

Apart from that, wars continuously loomed in China, including The War of Resistance against Japan and the Chinese Civil War. These slowed economic development in China. Tea gardens were deserted. In 1949, for example, the amount of tea produced was only around 41,000 tons, whereas for tea exported, 9,000 tons. It was not until after 1950 when Chinese tea selling resumed.

3. The third stage (1950 ~ now)

After the new Chinese Government was established and the political environment stablised, Chinese tea production recovered with the support of the new government.

From 1950 to 1988, China (including Taiwan) expanded its tea plantation fivefold from 3,170,000 acreages to 16,300,000 acreages. The amount of tea produced was increased from 75,000 tons to 569,000 tons - an increase of more than 7 times. The total amount of tea exported rose almost 8 times from 26,000 tons to 206,000 tons. China broke the record in the total amount of tea produced in 1976, with 258,000 tons; and in 1983 it broke the record in the total amount of tea exported with 137,000 tons.

By the time of this writing, China holds around 45% of the total tea production area of the world and remains in a leading position.

As for its share of the tea market, China has increased its share from 11.9% in 1950 to 23% in 1988. China has also increased its total tea export from 6.5%, of all of China's export, to 20%. These have been the result of a stable government and its staunch support for tea development.

From China to the world

In addition to the above, some other incidents from different dynasties also helped propagate tea to the rest of the world:

To Japan

  • After Japanese scholar-monk, Eisai Zenji (1141 - 1215), visited China during the Southern Song dynasty, he took tea seeds back to Japan in 1191, and promoted the popularity of Chinese tea drinking. His work, Kissa Yōjōki (Tea drinking is good for the health), written in Chinese and was the first book devoted to tea in Japan, gives an account of tea production methods, the whipped tea method prevalent in the Song dynasty as well as the beneficial effects of tea on the health. From that time on, tea in powdered form was used to make tea in Japan. Thanks to Eisai's influence, the custom of drinking tea became popular among the general population, paving the way for the later establishment and prosperous development of the Japanese tea ceremony.

To Inner Asia

  • When the Mongolians invaded westward during the Yuan dynasty, they spread tea drinking to middle Asia, Arabia, and India.

To Southeast Asia and Africa

  • During Zhenghe's expeditions in the Ming dynasty, he introduced tea to Southeast Asia and East Africa.

To Russia

  • When China sent ambassadors to Russia in 1618 (Ming dynasty), they carried tea leaves as gifts for the Russian Czar; introducing tea to Russia.

Tea Horse Road

Most of us are familiar with the "Silk Road", a network of land trading routes which connected northwestern China to Europe since the Han dynasty. With its recent popularity, you may have heard of the "Tea Horse Road" as well, another network of land trading routes that also connected China to various parts of Asia and Europe before seafaring became commonplace. Historically, the "Tea Horse Road" is no less important than the "Silk Road"; and because of their respective locations, the "Tea Horse Road" is sometimes referred to as the "Silk Road of the south".

The "Tea Horse Road" has obtained its name as Chinese tea and horses were the main products traded along the route (together with medicine, salt, cloth, and skins, mostly carried by mules).

Historians have traced the origins of the "Tea Horse Road" back to the Tang dynasty, when tea was being transported out of Yunnan to Beijing, Tibet, and other Southeast Asian countries. The "Tea Horse Road" was further developed during the Song and Ming dynasty, and remained a key trading route for Pu'er tea and other commodities until the Qing dynasty.

Like the "Silk Road", the "Tea Horse Road" was not a "road" per se, but a network of routes radiating out of Yunnan's Pu'er County.

Map of Tea Horse Road
Click here for a map of the Tea Horse Road

Among these routes were the:

  • Guan Ma route, which ran from Pu'er, to Kunming, and further to other provinces within mainland China. It was used for transporting imperial tea to Beijing;
  • Guan Zang route, which ran from Pu'er to Xiaguan, Lijiang, Shangri-la, and into Tibet; and from Tibet to Nepal and other countries.
  • Jiang Lai route, which ran from Pu'er to Jiangcheng, in to Lai Chau of Vietnam, and on to Tibet and Europe;
  • Dry Season route, which ran from Pu'er to Simao in Yunnan, and on to the Lancang River, Menglian, and Burma;
  • Meng La route, which ran from Pu'er to Mengla in Yunnan, and on to northern Laos and Southeast Asia.

In its more than 1,200 years of history, the "Tea Horse Road" served not only as a trading route, but also a bridge connecting different races - such as Han and Tibet - politically, economically, and culturally.

Today, the "Tea Horse Road" is a hot spot for tourists. History aside, the "Tea Horse Road" is located near "The Third Pole of the Earth" and "The Roof of the Earth", and is where many minority groups are located; making it a spot of many attractions.