How the Chinese Fell Back in Love With Black Tea
Autumn has arrived, and for the vast number of tea-drinkers in China today, this can only mean one thing: From now until spring next year, their beverage of choice will no longer be the green tea now reaching the end of its shelf life. Instead, the nation will opt for oxidized variants such as oolong or black tea.
Oxidized teas are more mellow and less astringent than green tea. When drunk with milk and sugar, black tea also has a number of health benefits for those cold winter days, warming the stomach and providing the body with important nutrients.
For centuries, Chinese people were not particularly fond of black tea. Although it is well-known that tea plants are native to China, black tea tends to be seen as a foreign import. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that China, a nation that has been drinking tea for more than 2,000 years, only came up with a Chinese term for “black tea” (hongcha) less than 200 years ago. While in English we say “black tea,” the corresponding term in Chinese literally means “red tea.”
From the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, most European countries imported their tea leaves from China. According to one of the Dutch East India Company’s inventories for 1716, China primarily exported green tea at this time, as well as small quantities of an oxidized tea called “Bohea,” a transcription of the local name of one of eastern China’s most famous tea-producing areas: Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province.
While Chinese people traditionally prefer green tea, the British generally prefer Bohea teas, which have a relatively high level of oxidation. This type of tea contains more tannins than green tea, giving it a fairly bitter taste. However, as water in the London area is relatively “hard” — it has a higher concentration of dissolved minerals — it staves off some of the acridity of black tea and produces rich flavors, fragrances, and colors.
After the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married into the British royal family, drinking tea became increasingly popular among the English nobility, and the quantity of tea imported by Britain continued to increase. After the 1730s, British society’s demand for Bohea tea drastically increased, surpassing the demand for green tea. This, in turn, encouraged the denizens of the Wuyi Mountain region to increase their output. Although the word hongcha didn’t yet exist in Chinese, China’s fully oxidized teas — such as pekoe, Lapsang souchong, and congou — were already high on lists of top British imports.
Prior to the Opium Wars, the words “black tea” and hongcha did not appear in any of the English to Chinese dictionaries written by the Protestant missionary Robert Morrison. The term most commonly used to refer to the wholly oxidized, deep-colored tea was still “Bohea tea.” From 1840, British merchants in China began to use the more descriptive term “black tea” instead of “Bohea.” The definition of “black tea” also gradually expanded to include both fully and partly oxidized teas.
At the same time that the English term “black tea” grew in popularity, the characters for hongcha began to appear in the records of Chinese merchants at Shanghai’s recently opened port. Two Shanghai publications that belonged to China’s first wave of Chinese-language newspapers, Shanghai Serial and Shanghai Xinbao, also began to use the word hongcha. Although there is no hard evidence to back up this theory, it is highly likely that the word was popularized by foreign trade workers and members of the tea industry. If “black tea” is rendered in Chinese as “red tea,” it is perhaps because, in Chinese, the colors “red” and “green” are seen as complete opposites — rather like the shades black and white. After 1860, hongcha was confirmed as the official translation of “black tea” in customs documents.
Although black tea originates from China, it has been produced, consumed, and popularized throughout the world. Britain’s thirst for Chinese tea precipitated a massive trade deficit with the Qing empire and eventually led to the First Opium War. Meanwhile, British tariffs and regulations concerning the trade of tea in North America helped spark the Revolutionary War. Ultimately, in order to satisfy the growing consumption of tea, Britain could no longer depend solely on imports from China. As a result, tropical regions in Asia such as India, Sri Lanka, and Java began to cultivate tea leaves.
Having become the world’s beverage of choice, black tea — along with other imports such as coffee, milk, soda water, and ice cream — finally succeeded in seducing Chinese consumers at home. During the early 20th century, the most popular travel guide to Shanghai under Nationalist rule listed black tea as one of Shanghai’s cultural symbols. Today, black tea is still largely the drink of choice for Shanghai locals, unlike the neighboring provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, where it is customary to drink green tea. Along with shikumen buildings and qipao dresses, black tea is an integral part of Shanghai’s international culture.
China’s black-tea drinking culture has been deeply influenced by the West. After World War II, the British people’s passion for black tea was somewhat dampened by the continuation of the wartime rationing system well into the 1950s, an era that also saw new competition in the form of American fast-food and coffee culture.
It was only in the 1980s that Britain’s love for black tea was truly reignited. New teashops sprung up across the nation, and a number of important books on tea culture were published. In the early 1990s, the U.K. Tea & Infusions Association even invited the most famous models and fashion icons of the time to act as ambassadors for black tea. This resurgence in black tea’s global popularity has even influenced nations that have traditionally tended to consume green tea, such as the United States, Japan, and South Korea. And finally, over the last few decades of economic reform, the black tea movement has returned to its place of origin: China.
A diverse range of black teas from overseas have taken the mainland Chinese market by storm, including British-style honey and lemon tea, American iced tea, Hong Kong-style “silk stocking” and “yuenyeung” teas, and Taiwanese bubble tea.
As high-quality black teas from the Wuyi Mountains have risen to fame, Chinese people have also re-embraced drinking black tea on its own, with boiling water. The production, dissemination, and consumption of black tea over the last two centuries can almost be thought of as a “world tour” beginning and ending in China. Perhaps more so than any other beverage, black tea has stood the test of time and connected cultures across the globe.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
Correction: Black teas generally undergo a process of oxidation, not fermentation.
(Header image: UIG/VCG)