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Why Our Founding Fathers Adored Chinese Tea

Donald Trump has painted China as the ultimate antagonist, despite the fact that it has long supplied Americans with their caffeine fix. Even George Washington was particularly fond of China's premium green tea.

Chinese steel may have a bad connotation in today's political circles, but for early Americans, buying Chinese was preferred.

China gets a bad rap in the US nowadays. According to a 2015 Pew Survey, just 38 percent of Americans have a favorable view of China. "CHY-NA," à la Republican nominee Donald Trump, has been painted as the ultimate antagonist—for stealing our jobs and devaluing their currency to incite exports. With negative rhetoric at a high, perhaps now is an apt time to cool the vitriol and be reminded of how, once upon a time, China provided our founding fathers with the most important beverage of colonial times.

"It makes me cringe when I hear people talk about China taking our jobs, because we've treated the East so badly throughout history," Bruce Richardson, tea master for the Boston Tea Party Museum, says.

Chinese products, which also included hand-printed wallpaper and ceramics, were adored as status symbols for early American colonists and the British. Chinese loose-leaf tea became the highest ranking of these goods and by 1765, it had so much clout that it represented up to 90 percent of the imports of the powerful British-owned East India Company.

Even back then, America imported more from China that it exported.

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Colonial teas at the Boston Tea Party Museum. All photos by the author.
boston-tea-party-museum-ship_30351275002_o A ship docked outside the Boston Tea Party Museum.

In early colonial times, Darjeeling tea did not exist, nor was Earl Grey invented yet. Tea bags weren't conceived until 1904. Blended teas were virtually unheard of in the colonies, and unlike the India-sourced black teas of today's Western tea service, all teas were Chinese loose leaves and came to the West via a port in modern-day Guangdong province.

As a bachelor, George Washington had beautiful tea sets made from China, which, according to Richardson, was a sign of good taste and training. John Adams and John Quincy Adams were both avid connoisseurs. Thomas Jefferson was a fan of green tea, presumably produced in the Anhui province of China. Paul Revere made silver tea pots.

Tea became such a prized product that on December 16, 1773, 342 chests of it were thrown into the Boston Harbor to protest the British.

That's how tremendous of a role the drink played: The British thought they could capitalize on the colonists' thirst for tea and the Americans were furious because they knew that if the market was saturated with cheap tea, people would not be able to resist it. And so they dumped it all overboard.

Those 342 chests contained five different types of Chinese tea: bohea, congou, souchong (all black teas), hyson, and singlo (all green teas). Of course, those names are all bastardized Anglicized versions of Chinese; they do not resemble the Chinese language in any way.

"We Westerners have a hard time with language," Richardson jokes. "It was long trip from Canton. A lot of rum came from the sailors' mouths."

Bohea is a butchered version of the word Wuyi — a mountain in the Fujian province of China. It's a black tea and was the cheapest variety of the day. Congou is a derivative of the word gong fu, or kung fu, which simply means "discipline." It got its name because it reportedly required more technique than the other teas to make. Souchong, known today as lapsang song, was a smoky black tea made from large tea leaves. Hyson, a green tea, was reportedly the favorite of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In fact, it was so desired by the English that it was taxed higher than the other teas. Hyson was picked in the early spring and had a slight curl to it. Lastly, there was singlo, which also hailed from Fujian and was produced south of the Wuyi mountains.

The tea protest paved the way to the war that led to American independence. Once the Americans were free from the British, however, they launched their own expeditions to China for tea. The money made off of this trade gave birth to the first American millionaires, who started vast shipbuilding businesses. Years later, in a cruel twist of irony, those very ships were eventually used to transport indentured Chinese laborers to the sugar and tobacco plantations in Latin America to mine guano.

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Both the British and Americans sourced their tea from China.

On the British side, the thirst for tea was so unquenchable that it caused a national silver shortage.

"They needed to figure out some way to trade with China and not send silver over," Richardson says. "So they used opium from India. It led to the [First] Opium War and that's the great stain on the British reputation." Americans aren't exempt for this part in history; we started trading in opium from Turkey.

For the West, tea from China was the drug of choice and opium was used to finance the growing addiction. Today, the dynamics have completely shifted.

In America, Chinese products are now considered cheap and corrupt; in China, Western products are king. On the tea front, China is now a growing market for Western tea companies. According to Richardson, the Chinese have been buying heavily from Twinings Tea—a tea company founded in the 1770s and whose founders were on the board of directors of the East India Trading Company.

"So many Chinese folks these days just want the Western packaging," Richardson says. "They are now shipping tea from China back to China."

It's a sobering reminder that the dynamic between China and the States is not as simple as some of the current rhetoric makes it out to be, and that the trade of Chinese products to our country was what made America both a great and a terrible force to be reckoned with.