After water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world. It is beloved by consumers in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and it comes in a bewildering array of varieties: from the cheap sachet of finely ground English black tea to fermented bricks of pu’er from Yunnan province. This beverage also has a fascinating place in the global history of science and capitalism. At the turn of the first millennium, it was prized as a medical concoction in southwestern China, and it became a ubiquitous beverage throughout the Chinese empire during the Tang Dynasty, when its spread coincided with the rising popularity of Buddhism. By the fifteenth century, the preparation of modern loose-leaf tea began to emerge, while the seventeenth century witnessed its ascent as major export commodity for the early Qing Empire, becoming enmeshed in a global circuit of bullion, commodities, and people. Then, during the 19th century, tea became absolute staple in Europe, especially among industrial workers in England, who sweetened the drink with cane sugar imported from the Caribbean. Anxious to stop hemorrhaging bullion to China and eager to assert its imperial self-sufficiency, the British empire fought two Opium Wars that severely weakened the Qing. Around the same time, English capitalists also began to export Chinese workers and knowledge to newly acquired colonial possessions in the Assam region of what is now Northeastern India. It was this aggressive push to begin cultivating tea as a British export commodity in South Asia that gave rise to the global competition between British India and China referenced in the title of Andrew B. Liu’s book: Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India
(Yale University Press, 2020).
Liu’s book offers a fascinating new history of this ubiquitous beverage, leveraging its production, consumption, and global circulation to offer a fresh and compelling account of capitalist accumulation. Liu challenges past economic histories premised on the technical “divergence” between the West and the Rest, arguing instead that seemingly traditional technologies and practices were central to modern capital accumulation across Asia. He shows how competitive pressures compelled Chinese merchants to adopt abstract industrial conceptions of time, while colonial planters in India pushed for labor indenture laws to support factory-style plantations. Together, these stories point toward a more flexible and globally oriented conceptualization of the history of capitalism, one that explicitly highlights global competition and coerced labor as a driving force in economic development.
This interview was conducted by Lukas Rieppel, a historian of science and capitalism at Brown University. You can learn more about his research here, or find him on twitter here.