Saturday, April 27, 2013

For All the Tea in China...

The eighteenth century fascination with East Asia and tea. To quote:
High-class people in the 18th century were obsessed with East Asia. Go to any stately home of the period and you will find any amount of Chinese wallpaper and lacquered cabinets. European well-to-do’s sought to imitate their oriental cousins. They rode in sedan chairs (a sort of European version of the palanquin). They communicated with fans. Even the oh-so-English custom of taking tea, which derives from the period, is a poor imitation of the Chinese tea ceremony.Why the fascination? Because European fleets were making the journey to and from the Far East in order to furnish people with luxuries, and bringing back tales of exotic lands with them.

The big trading powers in the water at the time were the East India Companies: the English and the Dutch (known as the VOC, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). The two countries had already fought each other over the right to control the spice trade in the 17th century, and England had lost. The Netherlands controlled the main part of the spice trade from their base in Batavia (Jakarta). They were also the only Europeans allowed to trade directly with Japan after the Sakoku (closed country) Edict of 1635. They were restricted to the man-made island of Deshima, in Nagasaki harbour, and all other European traders had to go through them. (That’s why if you see any genuine Japanese lacquer-ware from before 1868 – as opposed to the inferior Chinese sort – in an English stately home, you can be sure it was very, very expensive!) England, however, had its company factories in India (where it exerted ever-increasing power), China, and a changing array of places in between. (Read entire post.)

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