Tea History Shines into the Future

This blog post was written by guest Jimmy Burridge, who also wrote an earlier piece on tea and climate change. While his plant research has more to do with beans and seeds, today he explores how the history of the tea trade influences the present and may shine light to reveal future trends in tea. Thank you, Jimmy! 

 

Knowledge of history grounds us in the present, allowing us to appreciate where we are and how we came to be. It can inspire and direct future action. 

This article grows from an interest in how the cultivation, processing and drinking of tea intersects with economic, political and social history. The focus is on Japan but intersections with events and processes in India and China are particularly relevant. The article concludes with a reflection on how diversified tea cultivation can play a part in responding to the climate crisis, while providing cultural and spiritual benefits.  

 

Daruma doll; Photo by Jimmy Burridge

Seeds Germinate

Sometime after Daruma’s discarded eyelids grew into tea bushes and Eiasi shared tea seeds with a few lucky people, tea drinking became part of both commoner and elite life in Japan. In the earliest days, monks grew and drank tea ritualistically and as a meditation aid. By the 13th Century, tea had become integrated into elite ceremonies, where it was sometimes used as a party game in which guests would guess where a particular tea was grown. Tea culture, in the form of the matcha ceremony, developed through the 14th and 15th centuries and served as a backdrop for politics and the demonstration of status and wealth. 

During this time royal tea collectors would travel through the territories collecting tribute tea used for matcha ceremonies. Trade of tea among commoners was limited, with most drinkers growing their own tea and consumption being localized. The earliest commoner tea likely was similar to modern minimally-processed folk teas, such as bancha. Later, techniques to dry and roll tea leaves in iron woks were adopted from China and used to produce tea, similar to modern kamairichas.  

Ancient tea gardens would have been hardly recognizable to us today. While monastery gardens may have had sole plantings of tea bushes, commoner tea gardens were probably mixed with annual crops and semi-managed woodlands, used for collection of firewood or other forest resources. Tea bushes were grown from cross-pollinated seed, which gave rise to diverse varieties with different growth habits, growth rates and flavors. They were hand-picked and processed in small batches, likely using the same tools the family would use for cooking food.

A root of modern steamed sencha is frequently traced to Soen Nagatani, who in 1738 developed a process of steaming and hand rolling using a special heated table, known as the “Uji method”. This type of tea was of higher quality than the typical banchas, yet when compared to matcha, its lower price and the fact that fewer utensils were needed for its steeping and presentation, made it accessible to non-elite people. An important part of the popularization of these new types of tea may have been itinerant tea vendors, such as the well-known Basho (or Baisao), who wandered around Kyoto from around 1735 selling cups of tea. 

Empire & Industry

The period of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s was transformative for making tea into the globally traded commodity that it is today. Key developments in finance, labor supply and marketing enabled its global influence. While significant amounts of tea had been traded internationally since the late 1700’s, originating primarily from China, several seminal events from this period provide context for subsequent developments. 

 

poppy flower-Jimmy BurridgeThe flower of the poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). The history of tea as an international commodity is very much tied up with the extract of this flower. Photo by Jimmy Burridge. 

 

The Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), involved principally British forces and the Qing Dynasty of China. The war stemmed from the British Empire seeking to exchange opium, produced in its Indian colonies, rather than trade silver for products like silk and tea, which were then resold for handsome profits in Europe and the Americas. These wars forced China to open its ports to foreign traders and accept opium in exchange for tea and other products. As British traders gained a foothold in the tea industry they demanded “cost efficiencies”, meaning cheaper tea, the effects of which were transferred from the buyers and the warehouses to the tea factories and the tea farmers via a complex financing system.

But as tea became more popular the British realized they could produce tea more profitably in their Indian colonies, notably Assam. From the 1840’s British colonial tea production in India became characterized by land seizure and forced labor on vast plantations, which enabled it to produce more tea at a lower cost than China. Following this “innovation” in labor supply, tea produced in India became even more competitive in the 1880’s thanks to mechanized drying, rolling and sifting equipment. British tea companies also pioneered the use of disparaging, at times racist, advertisements to question the hygiene and quality of non-Indian produced tea.

Under orders from the US government, US Commodore Matthew Perry arrived off the coast of Japan in 1853 with an intimidating fleet of military gunboats. This was a clear echo of the British bombardment of China during the first Opium War and an explicit threat that if Japan did not open itself to trade with the US, the US would use military force. The Tokugawa shogunate was forced to negotiate trade deals, market reforms and the opening of ports. The hardship and disruption to traditional power structures brought on by these reforms catalyzed resistance and led to what is known as the Meiji Restoration. Beginning in 1869, the leaders of the Meiji Restoration sought to unify control over Japan, modernize the country, industrialize the economy, assert State authority over all four main islands and engage with the outside world on their own terms. 

Even after Emperor Meiji gained near total control, several samurai rebellions (notably the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877), challenged the transformations imposed by the new state. Unwilling to pay the annual stipends of the samurai class, yet needing to pacify them, the Meiji government attempted to reintegrate some of the old elite class by distributing land in Shizuoka with which to start tea plantations. While most samurai did not turn out to be skilled farmers, the area is well-known today for its tea production.

Many indebted and desperate small farmers in this period of intense global competition were convinced by foreign “experts” to accelerate and cheapen harvesting and processing and then use artificial colorants to make the resulting poor-quality tea appear green. In spite of this, high-quality tea continued to be produced to supply Japan’s growing national demand for high quality tea. One positive outcome of this period was the further development and spread of the specific shading and steaming requirements for gyokuro tea starting around 1835, with additional innovations in 1841, further refining the “Uji method.”

Even though the Meiji Era (1868 - 1912) had dramatic effects on the economic, politically and social networks of Japan, tea exports remained relatively stable and moderate between the 1880’s and 1930’s, as manufacturing was the primary focus of Japan’s Industrial Revolution. In fact, rural populations suffered due to changing tax structures and rising debt, and many migrated to urban areas where factory jobs could be found. Japan was first to introduce tea scissors (imagine a hedge trimmer with a bag attached) around 1915. Thereafter tea drying, sorting and rolling machines enabled the tea industry to continue despite a shortage of labor. 


Sencha rolling machines for the final step shaping the leaves into straight needles. Photo by Ian Chun

 

The second dramatically transformative transition in Japanese tea production took place following World War II. Similar to the Meiji Era, the Japanese government was forced to impose financial and political reforms to modernize the agricultural sector. Japanese agricultural research institutions developed, tested and aggressively encouraged the adoption of modern, more vigorous cultivars with faster growth rates as a means to increase production and support rural economies. Many farmers were obliged to accept these new cultivars along with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides as conditions of receiving needed loans. A post-war flux of urban migration was followed by the release of the first tea harvesting machines in the 1960s. Hosting the 1964 Olympics was an opportunity that Japan’s agricultural reformers used to establish widespread plantations of uniformly pruned rows of single varieties, which remain emblematic of Japanese tea fields today.

 

New Roots Grow

Beginning in the 1990s significant amounts of tea farmers transitioned away from farming systems dependent upon chemical fertilizer and pest control. Organic farming methods were rediscovered and adapted to modern conditions. The rising demand for high quality organic tea, mechanization and additional technologies such as frost-damage prevention fans and automatic shading have enabled Japanese tea producers to further specialize in high quality and organic tea. Thanks to these innovations, areas that had previously not been known to produce high quality tea are now producing very high quality, organic tea. 

Since at least the early 2000s, prefectures began organizing cooperatives and branding their tea with the prefecture name, with an eye towards increasing awareness of the region and building a sort of brand-prefecture loyalty. Simultaneously, a tea culture began emerging that recognizes influential climatological and soil characteristics as “terroir,” as is typical with wine.

More recently, a “farm to cup” strategy has surfaced (for which Yunomi is a leader), following similar movements in food, chocolate and coffee. This movement allows consumers to associate a name and face with a tea but also know something about the specific farming system, cultivar and processing techniques that make a tea unique. The terroir concept has thus been deepened to differentiate teas within the same region.

 

Future

Many people recognize how the climate crisis is related to transportation, energy production and how we grow and distribute food. Tea farming systems should be part of the response to the climate crisis. Indeed, since the specific taste and aroma elements of terroir are dependent upon climatic factors, farmers must again adapt their farming systems. Timing and duration of shading could help respond to daily maximum temperatures. Timing and frequency of pruning and fertilization could balance changes in tea plant growth rates. Use of fans could be increased to prevent damage from cold temperature. 

Terroir is also heavily influenced by soil. The soil is a living system whose function depends on temperature and moisture sensitive micro-fauna and microbes. Encouraging healthy and resilient soil biomes that build soil organic matter, fix carbon and help maintain unique elements of terroir is an exciting opportunity to combine ancient practices with modern science.

Some of the most progressive farming systems make use of the ancient practice of chagusaba, using locally produced mulches as both weed control and nutrient sources. Some also integrate animals, such as goats, for weed control. Diversification could be further increased by intercropping tea bushes with trees for lumber, or fruits like citrus and plum. The patchy shade provided by the tree canopy would increase chlorophyll and theanine content, which is what the Uji shading system mimics. 

Intercropping and the use of natural mulches add diversified income on an annual and long-term basis, contribute to cycling of deeply available nutrients, sequester carbon, build soil and may help preserve terroir. Diversified farming systems with healthier soils may help mitigate extreme weather events, reduce harm to the environment and contribute to the health and recovery of natural systems, ranging in scale from the soil microbiome to waterways and even to migrating birds. Tea farming system diversification is thus an effective response to the climate crisis and contributes economic and agro-ecologic resilience in the face of climate and shocks. 

Some also see the factors causing the climate crisis as related to a crisis of connection. Such advocates claim that we are not connected to each other; or to the world upon which we depend, which in turn does not adequately reinforce life-giving relationships. Mixed and rotational farming systems involving managed forests, such as those that were typical in pre-Industrial Japan, could be adapted to make space for the intangible cultural benefits of forest products like forest bathing and foraging of matsutake mushrooms. The unique cultural role of matsutake gathering and gifting highlights the critical, but non-economically quantifiable cultural, social, and spiritual facets of human stewardship of natural areas. 

A revitalized sense of stewardship could create and renew space for nature-linked spirits, including kami and kodama. This way of connecting to the natural world and our ancestors may help us as we seek belonging and direction in these times of crisis. In this way, undeniably modern and highly diversified tea farming systems could help us move forward in a good way, living well with the earth.

 

 

REFERENCES

  • Ashardiono, F., Cassim, M. 2014. Climate Change Adaptation for Agro-Forestry Industries: Sustainability Challenges in Uji Tea Cultivation. Procedia Environmental Sciences 20, 823-831.
  • Hane, Mikiso. 1982. Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan. Roman & Littlefield, 2nd edition.
  • Kato, Kumi. 2008. Addressing global responsibility for conservation through cross-cultural collaboration: Kodama Forest, a forest of tree spirits. The Environmentalist 28, 148-154
  • Liu. A. B. 2020. Tea War: a history of capitalism in China and India. Yale University Press.
  • S. Ahmed et al., “Effects of extreme climate events on tea (Camellia sinensis) functional quality validate indigenous farmer knowledge and sensory preferences in Tropical China,” PLoS One, vol. 9, no. 10, 2014, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109126.
  • Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press.
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