What Emoji Tell Us About the History of Tea

From ancient China to 20th-century America, the aromatic beverage has undergone a dramatic evolution

Illustration of tea emojis in front of a map of trade routes between Asia and North America
Green tea's enduring popularity is reflected in the "teacup without handle" emoji (left). The "hot beverage" emoji (right) takes its cue from another tea tradition: black tea. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Background map via Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin

When searching for a tea emoji on most text messaging apps, a range of options appear. One shows what looks like green liquid in a white bowl. Another features a saucer and a cup filled with a darker liquid that doubles as coffee.

These emoji’s designs allude to the long history of tea, tracing how this centerpiece of a cherished Asian tradition grew into a global beverage. For most of recorded history, the word “tea” referred to green tea from China and later Japan—illustrated by the emoji officially called “teacup without handle.”

“The whole world was drinking Chinese green teas quite late,” says Erika Rappaport, author of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. Black tea, on the other hand, “is almost a 20th-century phenomenon,” she adds. It’s represented by the second, more generically named “hot beverage” emoji.

A cup of black tea brewed with leaves grown in China
A cup of black tea brewed with leaves grown in China Drew Jemmett via Unsplash

The origins of tea

The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is indigenous to a region spanning present-day China, India, Myanmar and Cambodia. All types of tea are derived from the same plant. But different methods of processing the plant’s leaves produce different types of teas, with the level of oxidation affecting the color and flavor of the resulting beverage.

To make green tea, manufacturers dehydrate, heat and shape the leaves, preventing oxidation and preserving the plant’s original color. At the other end of the spectrum, black tea leaves are fully oxidized, changing hue from green to a darker brown. Oolong tea, which can appear green or black in color, is a distinct variation that falls somewhere in the middle, with leaves undergoing partial oxidation.

Popular lore suggests the mythical Chinese Emperor Shennong accidentally discovered tea in 2737 B.C.E. By 350 B.C.E., tea was established enough to warrant a mention in a Chinese dictionary.

A drawing of the Camellia sinensis plant
A drawing of the Camellia sinensis plant Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Initially a medicinal beverage, tea became a daily drink by the third century C.E., with elite members of Chinese society viewing tea drinking as a leisurely pastime. By the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty, China’s tea culture was flourishing, giving rise to tea ceremonies and social events, as well as art and literature inspired by the drink. The Chinese monk Lu Yu wrote the first treatise on tea, titled The Classic of Tea, around 760. Over the next few centuries, green tea was enjoyed by all sectors of Chinese society, and tea became a cornerstone of China’s trade with other countries.

To the east of China, in Japan, elite citizens started drinking tea in the eighth century. But wider domestic cultivation and appreciation of tea only came to the country in the late 12th century, when Buddhist monk Eisai popularized the drink. While studying Zen Buddhism at a monastery in China, Eisai learned of a beverage the other monks drank to help stay alert for meditation: green tea. “Tea is the most wonderful medicine for nourishing one’s health,” Eisai wrote in a treatise on tea. “It is the secret of long life.”

In Japan, matcha—a green tea made from powdered leaves—is often served in a small bowl during a traditional tea ceremony. This drinking vessel, known as a chawan, originated in China but took on a new form in Japan between the 13th and 16th centuries. Today, its enduring popularity is reflected in the “teacup without handle” emoji. The “hot beverage” emoji, meanwhile, takes its cue from another tea tradition: black tea, which gained a foothold in the West through trade between Europe and Asia.

A 17th- or 18th-century illustration of tea preparation
A 17th- or 18th-century illustration from the Japanese Scroll on the Comparative Merits of Sake and Rice shows a figure preparing tea at top right. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tea comes to the West

In the early 17th century, Portuguese and Dutch traders returning from Asia brought green tea back home, where it quickly gained traction as a curative beverage. Tea enjoyed similar prominence in the Americas following its introduction by colonial powers and their trading companies, including the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

“There is this long history of green tea … being the go-to tea in the United States,” says Robert Hellyer, author of Green With Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups. By the 18th century, Europeans and Americans were primarily drinking green or oolong teas known by colonial trading names like hyson, singlo, bohea, congou and souchong.

The U.S.’s founders were no strangers to tea. George Washington enjoyed drinking Chinese green teas out of porcelain tea bowls. Writing to his tea supplier in 1794, Thomas Jefferson stated his preference for “young hyson, [which] we prefer both for flavor and strength.” All 342 chests of tea dumped overboard during the Boston Tea Party in 1773 were imported from China by the EIC. The three tea ships targeted by the Patriots held 265 chests of oolong tea and 75 chests of green tea.

A 19th-century lithograph of the 1773 Boston Tea Party
A 19th-century lithograph of the 1773 Boston Tea Party Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary and historical observers alike often incorrectly identify bohea, congou and souchong as black teas when they were, in fact, oolong. “The English phrase ‘black tea’ has been in continual usage from the 18th century to the present, but it has not always referred to the same drink,” says Andrew Liu, author of Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India.

As tea expert Bruce Richardson explains, “European and American tea merchants didn’t really know the difference between green, black or oolong, or where it came from. Merchants just took anything that they could possibly get because there was this unquenchable thirst for tea in Europe and America.”

The rise of black tea

In China, green teas are traditionally made from young tea leaves harvested at the beginning of spring. By the 18th century, green tea was the most valuable and delicate variety exported from China. But the finest Chinese teas never made it to European or American markets.

Oolong tea
Oolong tea Minato via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

By the time merchant ships arrived in Canton (the port known today as Guangzhou) in the winter, the Chinese had already drunk the best of their wares. “So they would go back and just pretty much strip the bushes just to have enough tea to fill up those chests,” says Richardson. Bohea, then, “was the common cheap tea that was oxidized longer than green … and travels much more easily.”

Britain’s taste for tea led to a trade imbalance with China, which would only accept silver as payment for its exports. Eager to gain the upper hand, British merchants started smuggling opium into China illegally. As more of China’s citizens became addicted to opium, its government sought to enforce a ban on the drug, attracting the ire of the British and launching the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. China lost both of these armed conflicts, allowing Britain to reassert its dominance in the trading arena.

Around this same time, the EIC in India and the VOC in Indonesia decided to become not just traders but also producers of tea. In the 1830s, when the EIC cleared land in Assam, India, to grow tea plants, it was trying to make oolong tea similar to the bohea and congou varieties imported from China. But the imperial Chinese government closely guarded the means of production, preventing European attempts to grow and cultivate tea.

An 1843 painting of the destruction of Chinese war junks by an East India Company steam ship during the First Opium War
An 1843 painting of the destruction of Chinese war junks by an East India Company steam ship during the First Opium War Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lacking the knowledge the Chinese had honed over centuries, the British and Dutch allowed their tea leaves to fully oxidize, producing a drink that “was essentially a new product that had hitherto never been seen or drunk by anyone,” writes George van Driem in The Tale of Tea.

“Although tea makers in southern China produced and consumed oolong teas for years before the entry of European traders, true black tea did not appear until the late 19th century, at the behest of foreign tastes,” says Liu. “In other words, the Chinese had sent out oolong to the world, and in response, the world asked for teas that were even darker—black tea.”

According to Rappaport, early black tea tasted terrible, so the British had trouble selling it. “They heavily advertised … these plantation-grown black teas not because people loved black tea then but because they’re grown in India and therefore ‘British,’” the historian explains.

As demand for black tea grew, the EIC sought China’s help to increase production and improve the quality of its wares. With demand for green tea declining and pressure from Europe mounting in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the Chinese agreed. “You need to think of black tea as a co-product between the British Empire and China and Asia,” says Liu. “What the East India Company was attempting in Assam became an incubator for growing black tea and produced the prototype for a black tea they then asked China to make more of for their global market.”

Tea pickers in Assam, India, in 1913
Tea pickers in Assam, India, in 1913 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To produce black tea on an industrial scale, European growers started importing indentured laborers from other provinces of India into Assam, Darjeeling and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), forcing them to work under conditions similar to slavery. As Rappaport says, “Black tea represents … the way in which the British Empire colonized the land, labor and taste” of the territories it occupied.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the EIC and other companies in British-controlled India and Sri Lanka embarked on a concerted campaign to change drinking habits in the West by boosting black teas and denigrating green and oolong Chinese teas. “European and American advertising was imbued with imperial ideology that produced notions of racial difference and white supremacy,” writes Rappaport in her book. She tells Smithsonian that black tea also appealed to working-class Britons because it “seemed to be stronger, so you could use less tea and make it go further by continually pouring hot water in and make the tea last longer.”

In 1866, Britain imported 96 percent of its tea from China. By 1894, this number had fallen significantly, with India and Sri Lanka supplying 88 percent of the tea consumed in Britain.

A hand-colored print of workers at a tea plantation in Japan in the late 19th century
A hand-colored print of workers at a tea plantation in Japan in the late 19th century Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tea in the U.S.

The U.S. took longer to embrace black tea than Great Britain, in large part because of the newfound popularity of Japanese green tea in the mid-19th century. Transported from Edo Bay (now Tokyo) to San Francisco via steamer in just 18 days, the beverage readily outperformed Chinese varieties of green tea, says Richardson.

In 1905, 40 percent of tea imported into the U.S. came from Japan. Chinese green, oolong and black teas accounted for another 45 percent of imports, while black teas from India and Sri Lanka made up the last 15 percent. By the mid-20th century, however, America was predominantly a nation of black tea drinkers.

“Identifying a single factor behind the national move from green to black [tea] is challenging,” says Hellyer, but “as with so much of the American experience,” racism played a role. The same types of advertising campaigns that popularized black tea in Britain “used racial suspicions to sow seeds of doubt about Chinese and Japanese green teas,” he adds. World War II also contributed to the shift in taste, with the conflict cutting off trade with both China and Japan.

Japanese matcha tea
Japanese matcha Cyclonebill via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Today, black tea is the most popular variety in the Western world; in Japan and China, green tea continues to dominate. Other types of tea, including oolong, white, yellow, pu’er and herbal, boast dedicated fans but have yet to reach the heights of black and green tea.

When tea was first introduced to Europe and North America, its appearance mirrored the “teacup without handle” emoji, much as the drink is still enjoyed in Asia today. As the global tea trade ramped up in the following centuries, tea in Europe and the U.S. came to look more like the “hot beverage” emoji.

Whatever one’s personal preference, the diverse range of emoji representing tea (other variations include images of bubble tea and a teapot) speaks to the drink’s enduring appeal. As an American merchant once wrote, “No other production of the soil has, in equal degree, stimulated the intercourse of the most distant portions of the globe; nor has any other beverage … so commended itself to the palates of the people … or become so much a source of comfort, and a means of temperance, healthfulness and cheerfulness.”

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