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Rare Photos Capture China's 19th Century Tea Trade

For over three centuries, the art of processing and preparing tea has been an integral part of Chinese culture. In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch India Company introduced Chinese tea to Europe, creating a global market that remains today. In this series of rare photographs from Baker Library's collections, the steps in processing raw tea leaves for export are beautifully illustrated, and describe techniques that are now part of China's rich history.

At the time these photographs originated in an unspecified location in late-nineteenth-century China, the Chinese had been cultivating tea (Camellia sinensis) and processing it for almost two millennia. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, after decades of false starts and ceaseless experimentation, British entrepreneurs in India and Ceylon, and the Dutch in Java successfully initiated plantation cultivation, pioneered the mechanized processing of black tea, and launched vigorous advertising campaigns to foster corporate sales worldwide. Until the rise of Thomas Lipton and other British companies, which promoted the consumption of teas from colonies of the United Kingdom, teatime was synonymous with the consumption of China teas, regardless of whether it took place in London, Melbourne, St. Petersburg, or Boston. They were manufactured—in the original sense of the word, "made by hand"—in one or another skillful permutation of the stages depicted here.

Chinese methods of processing and enjoying tea were reinvented over the centuries. As late as the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), powdered teas were gourmet extravagances, which gave rise to the varieties central to the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu). Tastes changed decisively in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) to favor types of loose, whole-leaf teas like those of the present day. No longer beaten to a froth in bowls and drunk out of them, tea was now brewed or steeped in teapots (another innovation of this period) and sipped from cups. By the middle of the eighteenth century (the mid-Qing dynasty), the three major classifications of contemporary Chinese teas had emerged—the fully fermented black teas (hongcha) favored throughout the former British Empire, semi-fermented teas (gingcha), such as the oolong so popular in North America, and unfermented green teas (lücha), which secured a following in more limited markets, such as North Africa. As evident in the nomenclature, the degree of fermentation or oxidation allowed in tea processing largely determined the nature of the output. Whether done manually or mechanically, the manipulation of newly picked leaves activates their oxidation, and firing or drying halts the process at the desired point.

Chinese methods of processing and enjoying tea were reinvented over the centuries.
— Robert Gardella

No expatriate tea plantations existed or could arise in China in the 1880s, since the treaty system established four decades earlier precluded typical colonial modes of direct foreign investment. In telling contrast to Indian or Ceylonese latifundia, tea growing in late-nineteenth-century China was traditionally a village enterprise, a form of commercialized agriculture carried out in a frequently haphazard manner and on a highly fragmented scale. As tea picking commenced over the spring and summer months, peasant households gave their raw leaves a rough form of processing simply to convert them into a marketable commodity that could withstand spoilage. This crude tea, or maocha, was bought up by tea-processing workshops (variously known as chahao, chachang, or chazhuang), where the handicraft skills of the Chinese tea makers portrayed in these photos came into play. These were smallscale establishments, employing a dozen to several dozen workers operating on a seasonal basis. Judging from the images, the production process must have involved black or oolong teas. In either case, one of the photos displays a team of western "expectorators" at work evaluating the final product. While indigenous Chinese agriculture and manual processing techniques supplied the finished commodity, the decisive matters of quality control, shipping, trade, finance, and marketing tended to remain the privileged domain of foreign tea-exporting firms until well into the twentieth century.

Dan M. Etherington and Keith Forster, Green Gold: The Political Economy of China's Post-1949 Tea Industry (Hong Kong, 1993); Robert Gardella, Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937 (Berkeley, 1994); James Norwood Pratt, New Tea Lover's Treasury (San Francisco, 1999); and William H. Ukers, All About Tea, 2 vols. (New York, 1935).

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Excerpted with permission from "Tea Processing in China, circa 1885—A Photographic Essay," Business History Review, Winter 2001.

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Robert Gardella is professor of history at the United States Merchant Marine Academy.


Tea Processing in China—circa 1885

The images in this essay, all part of the Tea Industry Photograph Collection, appear courtesy of Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

To see larger versions of the images, and to read more about them, click on the images below.

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Figure 1. Crudely or roughly processed tea leaves (maocha) from the countryside arriving at the tea-processing firm and being weighed and inspected. All photographs circa 1885.

Figure 2. A crew of workers engaged in rolling tea leaves in a large, shallow bamboo container, thus breaking leaves to express their juices prior to fermentation or oxidation.

Figure 3. A team of skilled workmen pan-firing teas in large woks, a refining process that halted the fermentation or oxidation of the leaf.

Figure 4. Tea leaves undergoing charcoal drying in a tea-processing firm's premises.

Figure 5. A tea taster's room with three Chinese employees presiding over long rows of matched cups of brewed tea and dishes containing leaf tea—the tea taster's or "expectorator's" vessel (amounting to a glorified spittoon) is the hourglass-shaped device at lower left.

Figure 6. Western tea tasters (chasi or "charees") exhibiting their hard-earned expertise; a minimum of five to six years of experience was necessary to acquire the palate and perception to evaluate Chinese teas for the export trade.

Figure 7. Packing finished tea into wooden chests, often lined. Here, the tight packing is ensured by the dark-clad worker at center who is stamping tea into a chest.
Figure 8. A train of porters with carrying poles lugging tea chests to the shipper; the colorfully decorated tea chests often became valuable collectibles in themselves after the tea reached its intended market.