There is a lot of talk about things like fair trade and minimum wages for tea drinkers. Yet, only about 300 years ago a system of forced servitude for creating “tribute teas” ended. At one time about 3 million Chinese were indentured to cultivate, harvest, and process these teas for the Emperor and his court. The best teas in the land were mandated away from the tea garden owners and those who took time to produce the finished products. The system had endured for about 1,000 years, starting in 700 A.D. Thankfully, free trade with Europe helped end this horrible system but preserved those high-quality teas.
The practice of gongcha (the Chinese term for these teas) appears in the chronicle Hua Yang Guo Zhi, written by Chang Qu around 4th century which states that around 1,000 B.C. people in the ancient Bashu states offered tea as a tribute to the Emperor. However, at that time it was strictly voluntary, a sort of honorarium. Tea was an important crop during the Song Dynasty (between 960 and 1279 A.D.), the height of the mandated tribute tea era in China. Tea farms covered 242 counties. This included expensive tribute tea and tea from Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.
So what ended this system that amounted to forced servitude? Free trade. (Yes, free trade, not “fair trade.”) It supposedly started around 1,000 years ago and was building up even more around China. Teas were going to Burma, India, and Tibet along the famous Ancient Tea Horse Road. In 1610 the Dutch arrived and heated up that trade by introducing tea to the Netherlands, France, and here in the Western Hemisphere. It was the beginning of the end of tribute teas, with wealthy customers willing to pay a premium price for these premium teas and the workers rebelling against what was regarded as a burdensome tax on their labor as well as propping up the feudal system in place there. The system petered out in the 1700s.
Personally, I would like to see the term “tribute tea” dropped in favor of just calling these “premium” teas as a way of removing that aspect of these teas’ history where workers plucked and hauled and spread leaves out to wither and all the other laborious steps needed to make these teas.
© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text