Mules & Clipper Ships: All the Tea in China (and How It Found Its Way to Cups Around the World)

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: February 17th, 2011 | Updated: August 9th, 2014 | Comments

We've written a lot here on the Ancient Tea Horse Road and the importance it held and still holds today for the western and southern regions of China, but there was once another route that was equally important and perhaps even more lucrative: the Great China Tea Run of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that supplied the West with tea out of Guangzhou. The Ancient Tea Horse Road is seeing a slight revival these days and interestingly enough so is the Great China Tea Run: once it was mule caravans and sailing ships that transported tea across mountains and oceans, now it's planes, trains and cargo ships. The West loves tea again and even though it might seem like a novelty to us today, tea drinking was once the public's number one pastime, leading despots and monarchs to impose ridiculous taxes and imprison distributors in the name of "social stability".... While the Ancient Tea Horse Road had bandits and muleteers, the Great China Tea Run had tea smugglers and the great clippers of the the mid 19th century: the fastest sailing ships ever built, made to make the run from Guangzhou to New York and London in less than 90 days. The Clipper Era only lasted from 1840 to about 1870—they replaced the ponderous ships known as East Indiamen after the British East India Company lost its monopoly on the tea trade, but were then quickly replaced themselves by steam-powered ships. Nevertheless, the Clipper Age provided such great excitement for the tea lovers of Europe and America that those two decades have their place in tea drinking lore. The English addiction to tea became unbreakable in the late 17th century. So serious were the lower and upper classes about their tea that even after a 119% tariff on tea mandated by the restored King Charles II, English merchants and pirates linked hands with the Dutch merchants and pirates (their hated enemies at the time), and both made fortunes on the black market with tea. Sanity was restored in the late 18th century after the tax was reduced to double digits, ushering in an era of legitimized tea trade with an emphasis on speed, not guile. By this time, merchants from all western nations were operating out of southern China. There were thousands of Chinese in the American West and great friendships developed between the hustlers and officials of the East and West—so much so that one of the greatest clipper ships ever built, the Huoqua, was named after a popular Chinese merchant in Guangzhou, Wu Ping Chien, a fabulously rich businessman who dealt with the European and American merchants. The dockworkers on both ends understood and respected the market demand—and the profits to be won if that demand could be met—so crews came up with many ingenious ways to store their cargo for the long trip back. Clippers were built for speed, so they lacked the cargo capacity of their Indiamen predecessors operated by the East India Company back when they had a monopoly. There are tales of Chinese and English crews devising methods together which would enable the Chinese to load the cargo as tightly as possible and the English crew to unload them as quickly as possible. [callout title=Great Chinese Teas] There are five great Chinese teas: White, Green, Oolong, Black/Red and Pu'er. Of course there are others as well, that don't quite into one or another category, such as Yellow Teas, Flavored Teas, Flower Teas, Bitter Teas and certain deviations from the classic varieties like Yak Butter Tea. The most famous and arguably the best teas come from the eastern coast of China: whites, oolongs and greens from Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces and also from Taiwan. Hangzhou is famous for its green teas, known collectively as Dragonwell tea (Lóngjǐng Chá, 龙井茶) although several different varieties of that tea are grown and processed there. Sichuan also has excellent green teas, although they are less well known than the Hangzhou variety. Yunnan, of course, is home of the famous pu'er variety brick tea, a favorite amongst many tea lovers. This province also has excellent black teas as well, called Dian Hong (Diān Hóng, 滇红).[/callout] The Great China Tea Run was one of the most anticipated and talked about events of the year (just read this account from the Great Race of 1866). Great fortunes were wagered on the winner and the quality of the tea it would deliver. Back then, just like today, there was much debate about the medicinal qualities of tea. There was a general acceptance of the idea that tea was pleasurable and prolonged one's life and gave energy, but exactly how this was done and with what side effects provided enough room for debate. Early in England, the king and his nobles worried publicly about the effect tea would have on the  "working classes." Tea was considered a possible route toward sedition, because of the communal nature of tea drinking. Certain alchemists claimed tea produced depression and lethargy in the working masses, which greatly worried their masters. As the Enlightenment tore the clothes from the king, so also did the debate about tea become a local and personal issue, as opposed to a government-mandated one. Throughout history, enterprising entrepreneurs and enamored customers did everything in their power to meet over a cup of tea and haggle one out. Even when outside forces collude: such as the East India Monopoly or the King’s Tea Tax or even the Revolution last century which removed tea from the tables of most Americans for 50 years, the tea trade still manages to thrive. And its thriving again today, bringing people together over a steaming pot to haggle and conspire.... If you're visiting China and make it to Hangzhou, be sure to visit the splendid China National Tea Museum just outside the city. Set in the midst of its own tea plantation and a beautifully designed garden, the museum features informative exhibits (well explained in both English and Chinese) as well as a chance to taste authentic teas prepared in traditional ways in the museum's own tea house. For more information about China's teas, check out these links:

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