Archive → September, 2014
Those of you of a certain vintage may remember the days when afternoon tea actually meant stopping what you were doing, and with family, friends or colleagues enjoyed a pot of freshly brewed tea.
Tea in those days was the loose-leaf variety and the rule of thumb was one teaspoon for each drinker and one for the pot. How things change. In the 1960s tea bags made up less than 3 per cent of the British tea market. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, tea bags account for a whopping 90 per cent. We can safely say that Australia has followed this tea bag trend.
In an age of constantly looming deadlines and the pressures of multitasking, who has the time to engage in the luxury of an afternoon tea? The tea bag, along with the rise and rise of fast foods, epitomises our descent into the mire of convenience. Yes, tea bags certainly are convenient. But what have we lost along the way?
Think about it like this. What does the tea bag represent beyond convenience? It is the material representation of the atomisation of the workplace in which individuals no longer have time to partake in what was once an important national pastime. Go to kitchen. Put tea bag in cup. Add hot water, milk and sugar (in whatever order you so desire). Return to work station.
Dear tea drinkers, where is the sociability?
I’ve been researching Chinese tea culture for years. I’ve come to the firm conclusion that among the many treasures that Chinese civilisation has given to humanity, tea has to rank up there alongside the compass, gunpowder, paper-making and printing.
Tea has literally changed the course of world history. Its popularisation during the 19th century in many rapidly urbanising Western societies is credited with increased life expectancy due to the simple act of boiling water, which in turn reduced the impact of water-borne diseases such as cholera.
Any society that has encountered the humble leaf of the Camellia sinensis plant soon succumbs to its intoxicating alchemy. In short, they get hooked and just can’t get enough! Chinese dynastic governments realised this early on and attempted to use the tea trade as a way of ‘controlling the barbarians’.
This worked for many centuries until they encountered the British, a different kind of barbarian. The old bag of tricks didn’t work. The British East India Company got its tea through the nefarious trade in opium. And when it lost its monopoly on trade with China it literally stole tea plants and tea production knowledge to establish the first industrial scale tea plantations in India. The Chinese tea monopoly was broken and has never fully recovered.
The great irony is that, 170 years after the Opium War (1840), the company with the largest market share of tea in China is Lipton. This is a slap in the face for the tea industry, which is struggling to find the scale to match the might of foreign companies such as Lipton. What makes it more painful is that Lipton is only a small part of a much bigger multinational corporation, Unilever. This truly is a lesson for the Chinese tea industry in the sheer power of contemporary consumer capitalism.
However, with China’s rise and growing confidence—China has a strong sense of anything is possible, the kind of attitude that comes with rapid economic growth and optimism such as was evident in the 1950s and 1960s in the post-war United States—a new generation of Chinese tea entrepreneurs and tea scholars is raising the flag of Chinese tea nationalism in an effort to fend off the current wave of foreign penetration into the tea Chinese market.
Part of my current research involves working with these tea activists, some of whom have joined ranks to set up a ‘Revise China through tea’ (茶叶复兴) movement, a new branch—excuse the pun—of Chinese tea/product nationalism. I have transcribed an interview with one of the rising stars of this movement, Dr Zhou Chonglin, on this blog. Dr Zhou rose to public fame in China after the publication of his first book, The tea war, which was a reassessment of the Opium War through the lens of tea.
One of the trends that Zhou and his tea comrades attack is the growing pressures of modern life in which the drinking of tea in the traditional leisurely fashion is seen as a luxury rather than as part of everyday life. The critique of this modern affliction of being time poor is highly reminiscent of the slow food movement that has developed in Italy and spread to many corners of the globe. The slow tea movement is now taking shape in China and I was honoured to be invited to draft a kind of manifesto.
We should all make slow tea’ a part of our daily routine. Indeed, the research on the health benefits of green tea, for example, conducted at the University of Western Australia, seem to implore us to do so. Most importantly, I believe that tea is one of the best windows into Chinese culture and forms of sociability. Now excuse me while I go and put the kettle on ….