Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West
Traveling from East to West over thousands of years, tea has played a variety of roles on the world scene – as an ancient health remedy; an element of cultural and religious practices; a valuable and contentious commodity in history, politics, and international trade; a wide-ranging theme in the fine and decorative arts.
And yet, how much do we really know about this marvelous plant and its impact on humanity? Behind this most serene of beverages, idolized by poets and revered in spiritual practices, lie stories of treachery, violence, smuggling, drug trade, international espionage, slavery, and revolution.
Detail from an early manuscript on the medical benefits of drinking tea, France, 1687
Liquid Jade explores tea in all its historical and cultural aspects. Entertaining yet informative and extensively researched, Liquid Jade tells the story of western greed and eastern bliss. China was the first to recognize tea’s invaluable health properties. Taoists celebrated tea as the elixir of immortality. Buddhist Japan developed a whole body of practices around tea as a spiritual path.
Tea Bowl and Verse on the Theme of Tea, Japan, nineteenth century (Private Collection, Los Angeles)
The translation of the verse is: The pine breeze fills the tea bowl with moon and stars. One sip awakens you from the long dream sleep.
Then came the traumatic encounter of the refined Eastern cultures with the first Western merchants, the trade wars, the emergence of the English East India Company and its ubiquitous role in the development of colonialism.
Scottish spies crisscrossed China to steal the secrets of tea production. An army of smugglers made fortunes with tea deliveries in the dead of night. In the name of “free trade” the English perpetrated one of the most immoral acts in history by importing opium into China in exchange for tea, causing unimaginable human grief and bringing the country to its knees.
Opium Smokers, China, 1901
The exploding tea industry in the eighteenth century had an involuntary but powerful impact in reinforcing the practice of slavery in the sugar plantations. And one of the reasons why tea became popular in the first place is that it helped sober up the English, who were virtually drowning in alcohol at the time.
During the nineteenth century, the massive consumption of tea in England also led to the development of the large tea plantation system in colonial India – a story of success for British Empire tea and of untold misery for generations of tea workers.
Coolie children plucking tea, Ceylon, 1903
Liquid Jade also depicts tea’s beauty and delight, not only with myths about the beginnings of tea or the lovers’ legend in the familiar blue-and-white porcelain willow pattern, but also with a rich and varied selection of works of art and historical photographs, which form a rare and comprehensive visual tea record in and of themselves.
The book includes engaging and lesser-known topics such as the exclusion of women from seventeenth-century tea houses or the importance of water for tea, and answers questions such as: “What does a tea taster do?” “How much caffeine is there in tea?” “What is fair trade tea?” and “What is the difference between black, red, yellow, green, or white tea?”
The Tea Gardens, England, 1788 (Courtesy of the Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee)
Connecting past and present, Liquid Jade explores the world of tea today and discusses how organic and fair trade practices can begin to address the damage of hundreds of years of labor as well as soil exploitation. According to the author: “If the reading of Liquid Jade will do nothing else but turn readers into more socially conscious consumers, I consider that history will have served a purpose.”
Chinese tea porter, England, nineteenth century
© 2009-2010 Text and images Beatrice Hohenegger, All Rights Reserved