Taking History Personally: Tea, Selfhood, and the Story of Empire
Tea plants—and the drinks we make from them—carry so many meanings.
In my childhood, tea meant two different things: milky, toffee-hued warmth drunk from a white porcelain mug with one set of grandparents, and golden, floral heat doled out into tiny cups during dim sum with the other set.
For us, as for many, tea meant comfort, refreshment. It was through drinking tea that I learned to love bitterness: the astringent liquor at the bottom of my teacup, unsweetened, coating the back of my throat. My Welsh nan taught me how to warm the teapot, how to add the right amount of milk depending on who was drinking it, and how to carry the full cups on a little enamel tray with the image of Princess Diana on it. Tea, in her household, was an act of care, a way of saying welcome. It was the interlude in conversations where a person didn’t quite know what to say.
On my mother’s side of the family, tea was drunk amid noise: loud lunchtime conversation, in clinking cups that I learned how to pour for my Taiwanese elders when I was still a small child. I learned never to let the cups run dry, learned to flip the lid of the teapot when I needed more hot water.
I never really thought about these two teas as the same thing: as the product of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. And I never considered the many centuries of that plant’s movement across our world—and how its twin cultural histories were written in my own body.
With toothed leather-green leaves tapered to a point and tiny white flowers, the tea plant grows in the wild as a shrub or a tree from the Himalayan foothills to the southwest of China. Look at the Chinese word for tea, 茶 (“chá”), and you can see it: the leaves growing atop a mountain farm. In 1753 the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, famous for formalizing plant nomenclature, classified the plant, though he’d never seen it in the field, as Thea sinensis (Chinese tea), later going on to divide this classification into Thea bohea (black tea) and Thea viridis (green tea). But these two are one and the same plant, now commonly called Camellia sinensis, a modest species among the showier camellias. It has been cultivated in Asia for its young leaf buds for some five thousand years but has only been documented in European records over the past five hundred.
And I never considered the many centuries of that plant’s movement across our world—and how its twin cultural histories were written in my own body.
Tea enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity in Britain after its introduction in the 1650s. Less than a century later, tea was more popular than beer. It came to signify something quintessentially English—it was served at breakfast and in the afternoons, and it was taxed enormously and thus fuelled funds back into the workings of empire, largely through the East India Company.
But without a knowledge of how to actually process tea, Britain was reliant upon its trade with China—a trade it secured through steadily supplying opium in return. But by the mid-nineteenth century, foreign travel and trade in China were tightly restricted following the Opium War. Instead it was hoped that tea could be produced in colonized land in Assam—largely through indentured labor—thus circumventing altogether the need to trade with China. Acquiring plants would be simple enough; the British had for some decades secured seeds of moderate quality, which they’d planted with very modest success. But high-quality seeds and the actual skills needed to transform them into tea as we know it remained knowledge the British lacked.
European botany in this period is rich with plant hunters painted as swashbucklers, adventurers, and frontiersmen, often obscuring the local networks of experts, guides, and laborers who helped them secure the plants they then “introduced” to the West.
In 1848, the British East India Company sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to China. He was tasked with securing both an adequate supply of quality tea plants as well as the knowledge of how exactly they needed to be processed. Ignoring Chinese imperial bans on foreign incursions into the country, Fortune journeyed inland through Anhui and Zhejiang.
In Fortune’s record of the period, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, he writes of disguising himself: “My servants now procured me a Chinese dress, and had the tail which I had worn in former years nicely dressed by the barber. . . . To put on the dress was an easy matter, but I had also to get my head shaved. . . . I then dressed myself in the costume of the country, and the result was pronounced by my servants and boatmen to be very satisfactory.” Dressed and coiffed to pass as Chinese, as though no one would notice the difference, Fortune journeyed farther into China than most Europeans had before, observing the methods for picking, drying, and processing tea leaves on his way. At the end of his journey, he hired a number of Chinese specialists to travel to Assam and pass on their skilled trade.
In one popular history by Sarah Rose, Fortune is framed as a spy or even a thief, though this framing is contested. Alistair Watt, in a biography of Fortune, implores readers not to interpret Fortune’s plant transfers within the framework of our present-day thinking about intellectual property or biopiracy—with the skill needed to produce tea as proprietary knowledge—but to view his journeys as part of a period when plants moved in all directions around our world, both from and to imperial powers.
But to me, these framings all fall flat. I cannot bring myself to romanticize Fortune as a swashbuckler or see his actions as innocuous. For we know from even the very recent past that reimagining and reassessing histories of empire are essential acts of decolonizing our cultural narratives. As historian Lucile Brockway once wrote, these were circumstances in which “a corps of trained botanists [were] supported by the state and ready to cooperate with the government in removing from a weaker nation a desirable plant for development on British soil, under British control.”
I am trained as a historian, but the more I read of Fortune, the more I take this history personally. Sometimes I feel silly about that, which I know I shouldn’t. I am mixed race—British, Taiwanese, with my grandparents born in China—yet I have never passed as wholly one or the other. So every time I read about Fortune, every time I find a new framing or defense of his work, I come back to the notion that one day, before setting out, he sewed a queue into his hair and disguised himself in Mandarin dress. As if Chineseness were merely a costume that could be donned.
There’s a famous saying that what we call tea in a language depends entirely on the workings of trade during the period of empire: “Tea if by sea, cha if by land.” If your culture first received tea via trade routes from Fujian in the south of China, your language likely calls it something like “te”: thé, Tee, tea. If trade over land brought you tea, you likely call it something like the standard Mandarin 茶 (“chá”): chai, shay, cha. The very notion of movement, of trade and empire, is written into this plant. But our knowledge shifts depending on who’s doing the storytelling.
The other day my Mandarin teacher asked me to read a dialogue about buying boba milk tea. When it came time to translate it, she seemed surprised at my fluency in this one exchange: I knew every word for ordering tea, even though my Mandarin in most other areas is rather poor. I confessed that it was one of the first things I forced myself to learn by heart: as if knowing how to order zhēnzhū nǎichá, less ice, half sugar, was a marker of my own belonging in my mother’s culture. I realize this sounds ridiculous—completely “overseas Chinese” of me. But a kind of strictness and longing to make tea mine, somehow, is something I’ve been unable to shake.
But our knowledge shifts depending on who’s doing the storytelling.
When I was growing up, my mother and I would visit Toronto’s Chinatown, and she would venture out of the way to buy tea at Ten Ren, a famous Taiwanese brand. She’d stand for what felt like hours chatting with the salesperson, choosing teas that she barely even drank. I think perhaps it made her feel closer to home just to have them around.
And the more I moved countries and homes myself, the more my mother’s tea shopping began to make sense to me. Last year, when I moved back to the UK after many years abroad, I couldn’t find the loose-leaf jasmine tea I like, and it bothered me, irrationally. Everything at the Asian supermarket came in bags. Bags! I called my friends and moaned about it. Even though every afternoon, my husband and I made cups of milky “British” tea from tea bags exactly an hour after lunch. Why was I so picky about that one thing, and only in that one context? I had a sense of how it should be, a fixation on authenticity. I can only say that tea somehow plays on our sentiments, on our rituals and expectations.
When I think back to the words I use for tea—both words, tea and 茶—I’m struck by my inability to choose. By the way I hold the movements of this plant in my bones. I cannot think of tea without acknowledging the legacies of my own cultures and their empires and without wonderment at how we’ve asked a simple plant to hold so many stories at once.
Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Banff Mountain Book Award, the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, and the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and co-editor of the essay collection Dog Hearted. Jessica has a PhD in Environmental History and Aesthetics and is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review. She teaches creative writing at the University of Cambridge.