From the 17th century, Chinese tea began replacing Chinese silk as the most popular export among Europeans. Accordingly, paintings depicting tea cultivation were offered by tea merchants as giveaways for the promotion of tea products. With the adoption of Western perspective techniques in China, a large number of Chinese artists painted scenes from the tea growing industry to help with exports. Among them is the following set of paintings from Guangzhou. The paintings not only reflect the scenery of the ancient trading port of Guangzhou, but they also give viewers a vivid record of the history of Guangzhou’s tea trade as well as tea processing and packaging procedures around Guangzhou in the 19th century. Tea trade paintings offered Europeans a glimpse into the life of a distant and exotic place—China.
Even though you might not think tea a necessity, it was nevertheless such an attractive commodity that since the 17th century many Europeans – including Britain, the Netherlands, and Russia – have been drawn to China. They used different modes of transportation including ships and caravans to import tea from China. Tea became so popular that British exports to China equaled only one-tenth of the cost of tea imported so they also attempted to grow it themselves in their various colonies.
In the 18th century, tea imports soon became the largest single item in Britain’s trading account. When the imbalance between Britain and China widened, Britain sought alternative commodities to pay for the tea imports to compensate for the loss and to bring in a profit. They discovered opium, a highly lucrative commodity. By the 1830s, opium flooded the entire black market in China.
Realizing the damage of opium to the people’s health, a Chinese official in Canton, Commissioner Lin, ordered the confiscation of some 20,000 chests of opium from English ships which triggered the first Opium War in 1840. The two-year war ended with a treaty which caused Hong Kong to be ceded to the British Crown for 150 years and the five Chinese ports at Canton, Amoy(Xiamen), Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai to be opened to foreign traders. The powerful Middle Land was forced to open, and 5000 years of history took an abrupt turn.
In a sense, tea played an important role in the history of the pre-modern world.