Tea is poison

I’m currently in Heathrow waiting for my plane to Munich, where I’m going to be giving a (pretty terrible and rough) paper that I’ve been working on regarding early ideas about tea in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I was trying to look at how people thought about tea’s connection with health. It was quite interesting, really, because for anyone trying it for the first time, tea is obviously doing something to your body. It’s not just water – it’s more than that. If you drink a strong cup of tea, it will do certain things to you – and these are effects that are universally noticed.

However, that doesn’t mean people all have the same conclusion when it comes to tea and what it does to your body. Whereas in the very early eighteenth century when tea was still a rare and unusual commodity, people writing about it were still most introducing it, by the mid century it was obvious that tea consumption had become very popular (with mentions of ladies drinking tea in the afternoon, people using tea in copious amounts, etc) worries about tea also increased. You start seeing people writing about it and saying it causes health problems – everything from physical problems to causing neurological diseases. In one instance, an author even claimed he tested and found that tea caused scurvy, which is of course the opposite of the truth (tea in fact cures scurvy with its vitamin C).

Then by the late eighteenth century, people seemed to have started to calm down a bit, and worried more about the economic effects of tea. This is when George Macartney was sent to China to try to persuade the Qianlong emperor to open up trade, only to be rebuffed. You see this anxiety reflected in writings at the time – a lot of pages devoted to the economic health of Britain and how tea was draining it. Tea is not physical poison, but it’s economic poison. People also drank a lot with their tea – adding alcohol in it. So it got mixed up with the whole temperance movement. Not quite tea as a poison itself, but tea as the conveyor of poison, in this case.

It’s only by the nineteenth century that we seem to see that subside as well – of course, things had changed a lot by then. But it’s pretty clear that for almost a hundred years, there were doubts, worries, anxieties, and uncertainties about this drink. Contrast that with today’s unequivocal belief that tea is healthy, in any circumstances, things have definitely changed. Is that really true though? I think, as with anything, tea is best only in moderation. Claims of the cure to cancer are, unfortunately, probably exaggerated.


Comments

Tea is poison — 4 Comments

  1. A nice illustration of how the whole world is illusion, and anything we say about it is only a story.

    Whether tea is poison or panacea is partly a matter of dose, of course. (Paracelsus: The dose makes the poison.) It may also be worth noting that the only physiological/biochemical aspect of tea beyond taste and aroma that most of us can confirm experientially – the stimulating effect of alkaloids – apparently evolved primarily as a poison to predators like ourselves. Who has the last laugh?

  2. When I first started drinking tea (gongfu tea), my mentor, who was a traditional Chinese physician, regarded tea as medicinal. I think this is a common view as well among those who drink tea seriously. So, as with any/most/all (?) natural medicines, it is restorative if consumed in moderation.

  3. Perhaps you have uncovered this in your research. During the years that Russia claimed Alaska as its territory, Aleuts had enforced limits on the amount of tea and sugar men could buy at the Russian America Company posts. This was due to the fact that many would otherwise spend their entire earnings on tea and sugar.

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