The Politics of Tea

The Politics of Tea

:Tea a drink infused with fragrant leaves – a shapeshifter that can adopt many forms. Hot, cold, sugary, milky. A symbol of tranquility,  commonly ascribed to one’s grandmother. And, today, remarkably benign.

Politics;  affairs involving the governance of a country, and scrambles for power. It’s steely countors glint menancly, inscribed with terms such as “dominance,” or “machinations,” words that leave little room for the gentle warmth of  tea.

To most, the two terms are disjointed, and tend to clash; tea perceived as a tool of rejuvenation, but rarely one of power.  Yet the substance has emerged from a history steeped within political affiliation – a sweeping tale closely intertwined with taxes, debate, and the constant tussle for power.

This epoch begins in the garden of Emperor Shen Nong, when several leaves drifted into his pot of boiling water, brewing a substance he henceforth harboured an undying love for. Undying in the literal sense, as tea wares have been known to be found nestled within the tombs of emperors to ensure a afterlife not lacking in refreshment.

Following the Emperor's serendipitous discovery, leaves were then cultivated in small, dispersed pockets, their rarity and corresponding cost limiting the market to court nobles and the wealthy elite. For the first several centuries, the beverage thus functioned as a discrete display of wealth, correlating consumers to powerful figures and rulers who, throughout history, have demonstrated a defining particularity for tea. Japanese Emperor, Hideyoshi, for example, regarded tea in a sacred light allowing tea somalia's to wield much influence and entrenching the substance within regal afflitian. Today, tea retains much of this legacy, ascribed with a degree of poshness and cultural sophistication that can elevate consumers on par with royalty, such as notorious tea drinker Queen Elizabeth II of whom’s regalia includes both crown as well as a cup and saucer.

Nuances in tea rituals can emit a powerful statement, and tend to root each method within a particular country. In India, for example, one might indulge in tea thick with milk, sugar, and masala chai. Americans, conversely, opt for tea bags, or, even more cutting edge, iced tea served on-the-go . Each discrete refinement reflects the culture where they were developed, serving to demarcate national and cultural boundaries.  

The history of tea is also heavily blemished by taxes; the first hint of dissension brewing along the silk road during the 16th century. Dutch merchants brought leaves to Europe, where the beverage’s alluring composite of exoticness and addictive flavour attracted manifold consumers – as well as  taxation. At over 100 percent, these tariffs barred Britain’s lower class from revelling in their favorite beverage, breeding protest and, for those unquenchable many – criminal activity. Smuggler gangs and rampant tea adulteration had sprang up before Prime Minister William Pitt reduced the taxes in 1784, reducing the masses boiling outrage to a mere simmer almost overnight . Yet the economic snarl of tea does not end here; over many centuries, the British East India company had coiled its tendrils into tea plantations, monopolizing the colony  of India to yield tea and profit, as well as assert their dominance. Adding sugar, prompting slavery. Some of Britain's well established imperialism begin to decay during the American Revolution, when the tea act was perceived as an deliberate blow to American independence. This strong backlash is demonstrated, most notably, in the Boston Tea Party, when patriots clustered aboard a incoming British ship and dumped it’s load– tea– into a watery grave. This act incentivized not merely revolution, but a ripple pool of political movement, such as the “tea party.” This conservative group, active chiefly in 2010, advocates reduced government involvement in spending, regulation, and, of course, teazes.  

Tea is indisputably steeped in tradition, ascribed with lavish parties, posh accents, and dainty china, each characstic to Britain. This legacy is indebted to the peckish Duchess of Bedford, who introduced afternoon tea in 1840 as a scrumptious snack, served in between lunch and dinner. Stately tea rooms then bloomed across the country, populated by wealthy ariticats who, bedecked in jewels and fine gowns, used the occasion to assert their prominence in society. The nature of these meetings, however, was not new, for centuries tea rooms have been used as a backdrop to converse and exchange ideas. From the unification of Japan in the 1500s,  where conquests were largely plotted whilst sipping green tea, to lunch hour in Sudan, when workers of all variety flock to tea stands to discuss political matters. The suffragette movement, too, used afternoon tea as leverage; notorious activists such as Alva Vanderbilt-Belmont hosted equality teas and tea fundraisers. Within these decadent drawing rooms, the “Vindication of the Rights of Women” was drawn up, perhaps inspiring Californian entrepreneurs to develop a tea brand dubbed “Votes for Women.” Tea facilitates conversation, and, due to the ascribed comfort, tends to smooth relations – a gesture of comradeship that can be handy in political engagements. This is most recently exemplified by President Trump’s call on Buckingham Palace, where he met the Queen for a prolonged afternoon tea.  Thus, as much as it divides countries, tea also unifies.

Tea is an evasive concept, proclaiming wealth, or comradeship, breeding dissent, or unification, its uses are numerous and vary century to century, country to country,  person to person. Yet tea, in any given context– from the American Revolution to Trump’s tete a tete with Queen Elizabeth– can be perceived as a understated, but immeasurable tool of power.

By Clara Chalmers



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