Jan '02 Issue

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China's Downfall

By James Norwood Pratt

A stretch of Canton waterfront eight hundred yards long by forty yards deep was as much space as the Yellow Emperor would allow Europe's eager traders. And for 150 years it was as he commanded. From 1685 to 1834 the transactions completed on this waterfront accounted for well over a quarter of all profits earned by the English East India Company, the IBM or General Motors of its day. Tea comprised 70-90 percent of all China's exports.

John Company's monopoly dealings with China, Inc. changed the world. These changes occurred not fortuitously, but in consequence of the same momentum which was inexorably creating a world economy. The resulting changes were never foreseen or intended, nor were their consequences understood. Just as opium was to alter China, tea and sugar, both "far-fetched and dear bought," changed dietary and consumption patterns in Europe. True, relations between the tea and opium trades, or between sugar and slavery, must not be thrown together and labeled historical "causes" or "consequences" as if, in themselves, they explained anything. Long-range trends and tendencies in human affairs seem clear to us only in hindsight-yet how strange it is I still think to discover the tea plant among these major forces shaping history!

The brilliance and duration of Chinese civilization are simply unparalleled in human history. Most people know only about China's printing, porcelain and gunpowder. We forget that China was between four and seventeen centuries in advance of the rest of the world in inventions ranging from iron and steel making to pumps, mills of all kinds, canals, irrigation and other water management, textile machinery, harness, crossbows, paper, plows and bridges of different kinds, ship sails, rudders and watertight compartments, magnetism, compasses and gimbals-not to mention purely intellectual arenas like medicine, astronomy, biology and the like. Tea, which was known in China for four thousand years before it was first tasted in the West about four hundred years ago, is only one item in a long list of China's contributions to humanity. But tea was to be the one among all China's gifts that produced her downfall.

China was exporting only 9 percent of her tea output on the eve of the First Opium War in 1840. Forty years after being thus "opened up," by the 1880s peak of overseas consumption, China exported some 30 percent of her tea, according to estimates of the distinguished scholar Robert Gardella. After the peak year of 1886, exports steadily collapsed as British colonial capitalism created more and more of a world market for a single, standardized product-black tea, grown for the most part in India and elsewhere outside of China. Chinese peasants could not compete with plantation cultivation and mechanized production. The country already suffered the mother of all drug problems and a huge population of addicts. The drain of silver to pay for opium had brought on domestic inflation, with misery and famine growing from year to year as a result. Faced with political violence and then hopeless unemployment on top of all else, the sons of the Yellow Emperor were forced to emigrate, people leaving Fujian Province alone at a rate of seventy to one hundred thousand a year. The world's most ancient and refined society disintegrated, scattering refugees throughout the world's Chinatowns as product and judgement of China's experience of the tea trade.

From the first, European people had only wanted more of all China could provide and, after 1610, more and always more of "the China herb." The demand had grown and kept on growing, century after century, until China basically lost sovereignty following the wars over opium. Once China had been "opened to free trade," the tea trade peaked in 1886 and then rapidly declined. China's tea had been instrumental in creating a world economy from which China now began to be excluded. Little more than a century after China's "opening" by force, Mao Tsetung managed to restore her long-standing isolation.

It was on Wednesday, 22 October 1958, exactly three hundred years after China tea had first been tasted in London and twenty years after its last appearance in the auctions, that China tea came under the hammer again in Mincing Lane and, for the first time, the producers themselves sold their tea in the West. In its Communist version, China, Inc. was more ponderous than ever but at least it sold tea again, and following the Nixon trip of 1972, even sold it to the U.S. By 1990, China was exporting about ninety thousand metric tons of green tea, of an annual production well over three times as much. Green tea is thought to make up some 20 percent of all the tea the world produces and drinks, and almost all of this is produced and drunk in China and Japan. In its more ratified forms, green and kindred teas are capable of vastly greater refinement of taste than any black. With the recent growth of a truly international marketplace, these ratified green teas are no longer restricted to China (or Japan) but available increasingly to tea lovers everywhere. At the dawn of our new millennium tea more than ever offers the opportunity to expand one's culture by exploring the tastes of others.