‘Belt and Road’ paves way for tea culture’s global journey

“Belt and Road” initiative is an opportunity to revive Chinese tea culture and the tea industry
By By Zhou Guofu / 04-28-2016 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Ancient Tea Road served as an important gateway for transportation, commerce and communication between ancient China and West Asia.


Synonymous with China, tea is more than a commodity. Throughout the nation’s history, tea has played a significant role in China’s relationship with the world beyond its borders, and it carries with it cultural connotations that reflect Eastern concepts of nature and ethics. The enduring popularity of tea overseas is a sign of China’s discourse power in international society. Chinese tea and tea culture provide economic, social, ecological and health benefit to the world.


History of tea
China is the home of tea, silk and porcelain. Since ancient times, these goods have formed the backbone of China’s trade with other countries. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea was brought to the Western Regions, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Around that time, tea cultivation began in the Korean Peninsula.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Buddhist monk Rongxi introduced Chinese tea to Japan. In 1610, Dutch traders brought tea to Europe for the first time, opening the door for trade between China and Europe. Five decades later, the East India Company began importing large quantities of tea to Britain, where it quickly became a staple. The Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689 between China and Russia officially launched tea trade between the two countries. In 1840, tea trade accounted for more than 90 percent of China-Russia trade.

In the late 18th century, tea was at the center of another episode of world history, this time on the North American continent. American colonists threw tea in the harbor to protest taxes implemented under the Tea Act. This incident, later known as the Boston Tea Party, escalated into the American Revolution.

By the mid-19th century, tea had become so ingrained in British culture that the government resorted to exporting large quantities of opium to China to reverse the deficit caused by the tea trade. After the Qing government banned the opium trade and confiscated a large shipment, the British invaded, starting the Opium War. Short on silver and militarily weak, the Qing government was defeated, and afterward tea cultivation and trade began to decline in China.

Other countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil and Kenya, also developed into important tea-growing areas. At the turn of the 20th century, India surpassed China as the world’s largest tea producer and exporter.

By the 19th century, Chinese tea had spread throughout the world. Through the trading network of the Ancient Tea Road, tea for a long time dominated China’s commodity market and created great value for global economic and trade growth.

Through integration and localization, Chinese tea culture developed into new forms, such as the Korean tea ceremony, the Way of Tea in Japan, the British custom of afternoon tea and the tea culture of Morocco in the Arab world. These regional and national tea cultures around the world have played a wholesome role in enriching the intellectual and cultural lives of local people. Tea drinking has become an indispensable part of the people’s daily lives in many countries and even was once helpful in advancing the Industrial Revolution that started in England.

At present, tea is commonly consumed in about half the countries in the world, making it a leading beverage in the 21st century. As the British anthropologist and historian Alan Macfarlane commented: “Tea is a major reason the great Chinese civilization has thrived. Tea has changed history.” British scientist and Sinologist Joseph Needham said tea should be considered China’s fifth major contribution to the world in addition to the Four Great Inventions.


Domestic industry
The “Belt and Road” initiative is an opportunity to revive Chinese tea culture and the tea industry. It provides a platform for further developing tea technology and a tea economy. It is crucial for the Chinese tea industry to seize the opportunity and tap the potential of the “Belt and Road” initiative.


But currently, the tea industry in China is plagued by a number of problems, such as excess of tea gardens and an abundance of generic brands. The industry is small and scattered while prices are too low on the export market and too high domestically. The first task for promoting the tea culture along the route of the “Belt and Road” initiative is to adapt the tea industry to the “new normal” through industrial transformation and upgrading. This requires coordinated development of domestic and international markets to gain the upper hand in the global tea industry.

In terms of marketing abroad, different types of tea need different strategies. Currently, Chinese tea products can be divided into several major types: refined tea, raw tea, blended tea, tea by-products and tea utensils.

While it may have significant cultural and retail value, refined tea is costly to produce and the industrial scale is small, so this type may encounter some obstacles in going global.

Raw and blended types of tea have the advantage of being cheap to produce and flexible. Based on the consumption habits and market demand of each country, China could develop tea in a targeted way. For example, it is generally known that the European and American people prefer blended teas with flower or fruit flavors, while people from the Middle East and Africa like tea drinks with sugar and spices added. An understanding of this is needed to better adapt Chinese tea to the tastes, habits and culture of tea consumers from different places.

Popular tea, such as raw and blended tea, can reach a wider market and has greater potential for development than refined tea. Britain’s Lipton tea is a good example of popular tea. The success of leading enterprises in China’s tea industry depends on technological research and development for product innovation. Besides, the industrial chain for the intensive processing of tea can be extended to sectors of healthcare products, cosmetics, natural medicines, functional food, natural daily commodities and others. Also, it is crucial to constantly enhance the brand awareness and market competitiveness of tea.


Culture, ‘Belt and Road’
Needless to say, tea and tea culture has become the tie that links the countries and regions along the route of the “Belt and Road.” Blending the philosophical thought of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, tea culture embodies Chinese traditions that stress peace, harmony and civility.


The inclusive nature of tea culture helps to bolster trust, which is conducive to transmitting Chinese culture to the world. The globalization of tea is more about  profit. It is part of a larger project to expand cooperation and share opportunities for development with other countries in the spirit of the Ancient Tea Road. The notion of a contemporary tea culture must be internalized to achieve mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

Concretely speaking, to be better familiar with the main market and general market, traditional market and emerging market of the countries along the “Belt and Road” initiative, China needs to strengthen communication and cooperation with tea-consuming countries along the route and other international organizations, as well as the European Union, the African Union, the United States and Russia.

At the same time, China must fully utilize transportation hubs and channels that serve as centers for freight distribution and logistics, such as the Ningbo-Zhoushan port and the Yixin’ou Railway, a freight line from Yiwu city of Southeast China to Madrid, the capital of Spain.

In addition, reasonable planning and risk control is also important. Cultural activities such as fairs, exhibitions, seminars and festivals themed on “Belt and Road” culture can be organized. Furthermore, the advanced management and marketing techniques of other popular international drinks can provide some valuable lessons. This is the way to tell the story of tea and tea culture, which is expected to spread further along the path of “Belt and Road” initiative. 


Zhou Guofu is president of the China International Tea Culture Institute.