The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 13, 2002

Reading the tea leaves, literally
Jaswant Kaur

The Story of Tea
by E. Jaiwant Paul.
Roli Books, New Delhi. Pages 128. Rs 225.

The Story of TeaIT is small, yet powerful; mildly bitter, yet widely accepted. Without it, life does not seem to tick. Without it, the early news-hour may lose its relevance and the leisurely evenings their pace. Well, it is nothing but a cup of tea—the official tonic of the babus and a wake-up call for most of us.

Popularly known as cha or chai in India, this bittersweet concoction—virtually the lifeblood of almost one half of the world population—is as old as civilisation itself. Legend says that tea originated in China nearly 5,000 years ago. However, the earliest evidence, which the present-day scholars believe in, is found in 350 BC in Erh Ya, an ancient Chinese dictionary.

The Story of Tea traces the history, myths and rituals associated with early tea growing and drinking. It also deals with the modern methods of manufacturing and processing tea, its tasting, blending and auctioneering and marketing in packaged form with reference to Brooke Bond India.

Besides, the author narrates one interesting anecdote after another related to its popularity, emergence of tea ceremonies in Japan, rise of coffee houses in London, ritual of afternoon tea, the Great Tea Races, auctioneering of tea in Mincing Lane, the practice of tipping, etc.


Spread over 10 chapters, the book captures the journey of tea from the tea gardens of China to the roadside Indian dhabas.

The author says tea was originally used as a medicinal herb and was popular only among the Chinese and the Japanese.

China, the only tea producer, was always reluctant to open up with outsiders—the Europeans whom the Chinese termed as barbarians, as they posed a constant threat to their culture.

Trade was, thus, restricted to the single post of Canton and a small group of 13 merchants called Co-hong was allowed to deal with the foreigners (and there was no contact between the Chinese government and the Europeans!).

While the demand for tea increased, trade became all the more difficult. Various efforts of the British for obtaining trade agreements did not produce any tangible results. Moreover, the Chinese government was not ready to accept anything that Britain offered in return except silver bullion, which could cost Britain its treasury reserves.

Only solution the British found to ward off the crisis was to smuggle opium into China. Money came but the Chinese government grew angry and ordered Britain to curb the menace.

In order to relieve themselves of the trade restrictions, the British and the French forces jointly attacked China. The Chinese government was forced to sign the Treaty of Tientsin, opening China to European trade. Tea started coming in good quantities and its popularity added another weapon to the British armoury, which started viewing it as an additional source of revenue. Tax was, thus, imposed on tea. It kept on increasing year after year, and in 1773, it reached a whopping 64 per cent of its value. Furthermore, a duty of 3 pence per pound was imposed on its imports to American colonies, which outraged America who was importing a million pounds annually. Tempers ran high and British products, including tea, were boycotted.

It was around this time that attempts were made to grow tea in India, which was by no means an easy task. The early tea producers in India had little idea of growing or processing tea. And the first Indian tea imported to England was "burnt and rather harsh" but competitive with the Chinese brands.

Later on, tea was grown on well-organised plantations and Indian teas soon established themselves in the international market. Similar plantations appeared in Sri Lanka. The Chinese tea paled miserably in comparison with the Indian and Sri Lankan tea.

While China lost its monopoly, India emerged as the largest producer and Sri Lanka the second largest. Today Chinese tea is nowhere on the international scene. The book, an extraordinary attempt, records all the major developments regarding tea and preserves them all for eternity, lest they become a faded memory.