Understanding the Tea Industry and Economic and Social Influence of Different Nations

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Almost everyone in the world has had a cup of tea in their life, yet how many people actually think about where the tea they drink comes from, or what tea means to others across the globe? America doesn't have a particularly distinct tea culture, other than that pertaining to the famous sweet tea of the American South (Israel 58). Other nations, however, do have an ingrained cultural and economic dependence on the plain little leaf that took the world by storm. The production and culture of tea has heavily influenced the social climate and economy of nations across the world like Taiwan, China, Japan, India, Morocco, Kenya, and England, by preserving ancient traditions and spiritual practices, shaping nations’ history, influencing social interactions, providing a massive employment reserve, and accounting for a large portion of international trade.

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The continued consumption of tea has helped preserve many ancient traditions, and less aged customs as well, over the vast stretch of human history. In nations ranging from England to Morocco, Australia to Japan, tea based traditions are alive and well thanks to the deep rooted cultural appreciation for tea. In Taiwan, as in much of Asia, the traditional tea ceremony is an iconic part of their heritage which bears a profound symbolic importance. Two particularly symbolic ceremonies are known as the Wu-wo Ceremony and the Perennial Tea Ceremony. In the Wu-wo ceremony, a flexible number of participants drink deeply from separated cups of green tea in silence, letting all thoughts of modern knowledge, wealth, and appearances go in order to focus their minds and hearts on equality, love, and tranquility (Wertz). The Perennial tea ceremony is much more formal. The Perennial tea ceremony consists of four participants who sit in positions corresponding with the four cardinal directions, drinking oolong together from ornate ceremonial teaware. Oolong tea is a semi-oxidized tea that is stronger than green tea, but lacks the bitter tannins of a black tea (Snadely). The four drinkers represent the four seasons; and the cyclical order in which they finish their beverage symbolizes the circle of life (Wertz). In Taiwan, the skillful practice of participating in and hosting tea ceremonies is known as Gongfu, or the martial art of tea, and is considered a highly respected social art (Snadely). Such forms of meditation are common in other oriental nations as well. Tea traditions in China, however, differ slightly from those in Taiwan. In China, the manner in which tea is taken depends largely upon one’s social status. “As a sign of respect, in Chinese society, the younger generation shows respect to the older generation by offering a cup of tea ” (Wertz). Superiors are traditionally served tea by their subordinates however, in modern times, the tradition is occasionally defied when bosses or parents pour tea for their lessers. This often occurs when an employer treats an employee to a meal in order to celebrate a recent promotion or personal event. This should never be expected, though. A person may also serve tea as a sign of regret or submission, effectively making an apology (Wertz). Chinese influence has also shaped traditions in other chinese-controlled countries. In Hong Kong, tea would traditionally be brewed each morning for visitors and the remaining tea would be poured out at night, even if visitors never came. This is where the phrase, “Tea is for pouring away,” came from (Wertz). Similar to Asia, England also has deep traditions centered around tea time, drinking at least one cup a day religiously. Unlike the East, England’s traditions are rarely so symbolic. The British tradition of “Tea for Two” was first practiced in the Victorian era as a way for unwed females to socialize and flirt in public without scandal (Israel 56-57). The tradition of having “private” tea in a public tea house has carried over to today. Taking tea has become an activity iconic of British imperialism and reminiscent of England’s “glory days” for most Brits and the national demand for it has kept it in supply, even in war times. Tea has also become an important part of life for less likely nations as well. The Scots drank tea in bed and read the tea leaves to predict what kind of day they would have. If the tea leaves read badly, they would simply go back to bed, neglecting the daily duties, which were sure to go badly (Israel 51). The island continent of Australia loves their tea as well as the most patriotic Englishman, but they skip the frilly doilies and upper-crust fanfare. In Australia, the traditional preparation for tea mandates a special tin pot, known as a billy, for boiling the water over a campfire. The billy and other tea making materials are kept and carried in a sack called a matilda (Israel 51). The Australian folk song, “Waltzing Matilda”, was inspired by the tea-loving folks down under. In the arid desert-nation of Morocco, only a special blend of gunpowder tea and peppermint is drunk. “Unlike the British, Moroccans do not have a set time of day for drinking tea. Literally, they can drink tea all day ” (Robillard). The Moroccans enjoy their tea with friends and strangers alike, using tea not only as a link to their cultural tradition of hospitality, but as a social device as well.

“Le premier verre est aussi amer que la vie, le deuxième est aussi fort que l’amour, le troisième est aussi doux que la mort” (Robillard). This Moroccan quote, which translates to “The first glass is as bitter as life, the second is as strong as love, and the third is as gentle as death, ” distinctly shows how symbolic tea is to Moroccans’ social outlook on life. They equate the distinct flavors of tea to what they believe are the three most important stages of life, thus showing how important tea is in Moroccan life. Moroccans drink their sugar-laden mint gunpowder tea from keesan, which are ornate glasses, placed on senia, a special type of tea tray made from the sands of the Sahara desert (Robillard). Such finery is not reserved for special occasions but rather used to entertain any friendly passerby to the warm brew and a moment of friendly camaraderie. This highly informal social ritual is such an iconic part of their society that it is even displayed in their art and music. Tinariwen, a Bedouin folk rock band, has a song, “Iswegh Attay”, that relates the scalding bitterness of tea to the trials and hurt in life and the peaceful forgiveness of love to the artfully poetic ritual of Tuareg tea (Tinariwen). To refuse to participate in the friendly interaction would be incredibly rude, unlike in Asia. Tea can have many meanings in society. In Hong Kong, there is a type of drink called Yuangyang, a blend of coffee and tea, that is used as a symbol of conjugal love and to signal desire. It is through the serving of this tea that young people proposition each other (Wertz). In Japan, the name of the game is Tocha, and it is played in Buddhist temples where the players attempt to identify different teas by smell (Israel 39). In England, the popularity of tea has influenced British social life so much that they created Tea-Dances, which are still popular today, to mingle with friends, show off their house, and enjoy their best tea (“Tea Customs”). Tea in England is not only a social function, but the manner in which one enjoys their tea is also divided along social classes. In blue-collar communities high tea is the main meal of the day, between five and six o’clock, and is served with breads, meats, and cakes (“Tea Customs ”). This shows how important tea is in Britain, from the wealthiest aristocrat to the poorest laborer, everyone has time for a “cuppa” in the UK.

The quiet act of drinking tea is profoundly peaceful and, for some cultures, a deeply spiritual event. The Japanese Shinto religion, and most other Japanese citizens, use tea time as a way to keep in touch with their traditional roots and as a spiritual moment, much like praying (Snadely). Tea became a spiritual establishment in Japan in 1191, when a Zen Buddhist monk named Eisai Zenji brought tea seeds back to Japan from China (Penrod). Zen Buddhism emphasises lonely aesthetics and inner reflection, so the monotonous task of drinking tea helped numb and quiet the conscious mind to aid monks in reaching enlightenment. Monks would drink mattcha, powdered green tea, during long meditations to keep their mind clear of the fog of sleep, but now, most people use cha no yu, the Japanese tea ceremony, as a mild form of meditation in their daily lives, much like other people use yoga (Penrod). The Wu-wo Tea ceremony and the Perennial ceremony of Taiwan are also profoundly religious experiences. Complying with Buddhist traditions of inner reflection and tranquility, both rituals lead the participants to focus not on conscious thought or bodily concerns, but instead on nature, life, peace, and other ephemeral principles (Wertz). The Taiwanese people use this particular style of meditation to “. . . better understand the events of their life in the context of an organic and natural world where material concerns and selfish motives do not cloud their view of the truth…” (Snadely). Inner reflection and enlightenment is particularly important to Zen Buddhists, but the Chan Buddhists of China used tea ceremonies as a form of communion where the tea is of a greater symbolic and less pragmatic importance (Wertz). In Morocco, the drinking of tea is less religious but just as spiritual. To Moroccans, tea symbolizes generosity and hospitality (Ettoualy). “Moroccans took tea as a sacred drink, around which they compete with each other to prepare the best cup of tea ” (Ettoualy). Serving tea allows the drinkers to engage in a cathartic ritual with others, regardless of social or political differences, helping to build peaceful relationships and ground the drinkers in a benevolent frame of mind. The peaceful spirituality of Moroccan tea is emphasized by the atmosphere in which it is consumed. Tea is often served indoors, where the guest washes his or her hands in fragrant orange blossom water and is surrounded by traditional Tuareg or Muslim music and the rich scents of incense (Ettoualy). Other times, particularly by the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara, tea is served among the colorful dunes of the desert under the night sky, full of burning stars (Tinariwen). Either way, the setting certainly supplies a highly spiritual filter to the repast and is filled with historical relevance.

Tea, first discovered in southeast Asia, has been brewed and consumed since 2738 B.C.E., when it was discovered by Shen Nung, the Chinese emperor of the time (Ettoualy). Gunpowder green tea first came to Morocco in the twelfth century by the Phoenicians, who conquered the area and ruled for over 800 years (Ettoualy). During this time, the Ottoman Empire was rapidly expanding throughout Arabia. By the time that the Ottoman Empire controlled the entire Middle East and west Africa, Morocco was the only arab nation to be free from their control, instead being ruled by the French (Robillard). The Ottoman Empire was primarily a coffee culture, with tea taking the back seat, so Morocco’s independence from the Ottomans allowed them to keep their precious tea, instead taking coffee in the French manner, as a recreational drink to be enjoyed with bountiful amounts of cream and sinful quantities of sugar (Robillard). Moroccan tea history is, thanks to France’s colonization, largely thanks to Europe. England’s tea history is just as expansive. Before the early 1800’s, all British tea was imported directly from China, but in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, tea popularity skyrocketed. “Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, is reputed to have originated the idea of afternoon tea…” (“Tea Customs ”). The sudden popularity of at-home tea parties increased the national demand for tea exponentially, causing the British Empire to set their sights on India (“Tea Industry in India ”). Citizens from the UK swarmed India in hopes of finding their fortunes in the now profitable tea industry, building hundreds of expansive tea estates, plantations, in the northeast territories and causing high conflict relations with local tribal communities and long established governments (Israel 57). Back home, a manageress of a local Aerated Bread Company shop began serving tea to customers, creating the first British tea shop, allowing women to socialize independently from their chaperones (“Tea Customs ”). This tradition laid the stepping stones for women’s emancipation because now women could have some degree of personal autonomy. Even today, tea has become a tool in the fight for women’s rights. Pier Luigi of Unilever plans to build a tea monopoly in India and use the gained political power to push for Indian women’s rights by insisting of equal wages and representation (“Tea Industry… Hero-Crop ”).

“Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future… said, ‘The tea industry operates in some of the world’s poorest countries. . . ’”(“Tea Industry… Hero-Crop ”). This is certainly true, as the tea industry is perhaps the most prominent in India, a slow developing nation that is still plagued by overcrowding and poverty. India’s second largest employer, the tea industry, employs over 3.5 million workers on over 1,500 tea plantations (“Tea Industry in India ”). This means that, after tourism, the majority of workers are working on the many tea estates in India, providing a huge workforce for the nation’s most productive industry. Just Amalgamated Plantations employs over 30,000 people on 24 plantations (Bearak). This may sound like a national blessing, but the wages and the conditions are horrible. A feudal system of indentured servants toil on the same plantations that their grandparents lived and died on for $1.45 a day, share crumbling huts with three other families, and are denied an education past fourth grade (Bearak). The low wages prevent the working parent from sending their children to off-plantation schools, and as a result, the vast majority of Indian workers are illiterate. Because the children are growing up illiterate and unskilled, there is nowhere else for them to go to work when they are old enough, effectively forcing them into their ancestral position of feudal slave to the local tea plantation. The safety standards are also reproachable. “‘When big people come to visit, they give it to us,’ he said of equipment like gloves and masks to protect from pesticides, ‘but then they put it back in storage, saying that if we wear it every day, it will wear out.’” (Bearak). The overseers limit the workers’ access to protective gear, exposing them to harmful fertilizers and pesticides. Then when the workers get sick, they have to fight to take one sick day. If the workers manage to take a sick day, they must report to the plantation clinic three times to verify their illness (Bearak). Another poor area of the world that has an impressive presence in the global tea industry is Kenya. “The Kenya tea sub-sector has contributed significantly to the redistribution of incomes through creation of new productivity capacity in many parts of the country” (Paul). The majority of Kenyan rooibos, a type of black tea specific to Africa, are grown in highly rural areas, which have the highest capacity for raises in living standards (Paul) This means that most of the sparsely populated countryside of Kenya is covered in tea, but the majority of workers come from poor urban areas. Poor villagers often depend entirely on the money of their meager wages provided by the rooibos plantations and live from paycheck to paycheck.Tea agriculture in Kenya provides millions of urban jobs in agri-based industries and income for rural populations, injecting millions of shillings annually into poorer areas where alternative opportunities for off-farm employment are scarce (Paul). The growing, harvesting, and processing of tea provides an expansive pool of economic resources for the villagers and workers of Kenyan tea estates. China is the worlds largest employer in the tea industry, India coming in second, employing thousands of seasonal workers and even more year long workers (Wertz). Conditions for the workers here are not much better than in India. The workers are underpaid, unprotected, and uneducated, creating a community of poverty that is excluded from popular society. The world's tea-pickers are horribly malnourished and underpaid, but the do work extremely efficiently. They produce the majority of all tea by picking it by hand in dehumanizing conditions.

In 2007-2008, the world’s tea industry was worth USD $470 million, grossing more than any other internationally traded consumable good (“Tea Industry… Hero-Crop ”). Tea is the world’s second most popular beverage, the first being water, and is traded between almost all nations of the world. India is the world’s largest exporter of tea, China following close behind, and produced a 23% share by volume in 2011 (“Tea Industry in India ”). “India’s tea exports are largely in the form of bulk tea, which accounts for 78% of total exports during 2011-2012 ” (“Tea Industry… Hero-Crop ”). This shows how much tea in demand with the rest of the world, since most of the orders are in bulk this means that the majority of orders are for retail rather than personal consumption. Just in the 2011-2012 growing period, Indian tea exports grew to USD $670 million, showing a massive increase in profit and productivity from the USD $470 million of 2007-2008 (“Tea Industry in India ”). Most of India’s exports are to Russia, America, the UK, the entire UAE, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Germany, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, Sri Lanka, and numerous other west Asian countries which account for 25% of exports (“Tea Industry in India ”). Other Asian nations’ dependence on Indian Assam and Darjeeling tea points to the massive control of the market the two Asian giants, China and India, wield. A near monopoly on the continental tea production is apparently not enough for India. The Indian government Plans to export at least 220 million kilograms of tea in 2013 (“Tea Industry… Hero-Crop ”). Other nations in Asia are entirely dependent on India and China’s tea exports because they have neither the economy, not the capital to produce their own sufficiently. Nations like Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Myanmar, Nepal, and Korea import over 90% of their tea from the two mammoth nations (Snadely). Morocco is entirely dependant on China for the import of their Gunpowder green tea, since Morocco is an arid nation and is unsuited to growing their own tea crops. Morocco imports 100% of its tea from the Yunnan province of China (Ettoualy). In today's world market, tea is a major item that stimulates the world’s economy as much as it invigorates the human body.

The caffeine in tea has excited many and the monetary value of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, has inspired nations. Tea has breached cultural canyons that have separated generations. Tea has impacted the cultural history, social identity, religious customs, and economic prosperity of nations across the world like China, Taiwan, India, Kenya, England, Japan, and Morocco, shaping the national personality of each country into unique works of art. Global appreciation for the marvelous tea leaf can be expressed in one exceptionally British statement: “‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’” (Israel 50). This symbolizes how important a good cup of tea is to people in England and around the world as a crucial part of their daily lives, much like other cultures around the world.

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