Three Flowers of Trade: Ackland Museum Exhibit 2017

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Three Flowers of Trade: A Cultural Brew of Camellia, Poppy, and the Common Garden Rose

By the students in Professor Inger Brodey’s “Global Food Films” course in Spring, 2017 (GLBL 492H)

It is fabled that in the mist of the Sichuan mountains and on the precipice of death, the legendary emperor and Divine Farmer, Shen Nong, discovered tea. Intent on testing the various plants of the forest for medicinal or nutritional value, Shen Nong had eaten many poisonous plants and was on the brink of death when he discovered the healing properties of tea, Camellia Sinensis, which purportedly revived him immediately.

Slowly pots of this brew engulfed the vast Chinese Empire, and in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) the venerable Lu Yu wrote the magisterial Classic of Tea or ChaJing (茶经) that described for all the history, manufacture, preparation, and benefits of tea. Throughout the following dynasties, tea and tea culture developed into a cultural identity and art form that would impress the European travelers who reached the Celestial Kingdom in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Although many European nations imported Chinese tea, Britain’s infatuation with the drink fills our books of history and literature today because of the profound global and cultural impacts of this trade. In an effort to staunch the flow of silver pouring into the hands of Chinese tea merchants, Britain devised a market of their own to right this trade imbalance: opium. In 1776, British opium of the poppy grown in imperial holdings in India entered China and addicted untold millions of Chinese subjects (The Story of Tea 25). The British exchanged a drug for a drug, a flower for a flower.

Concomitant to this exchange of flowers was a cultural exchange that defined the domestic sphere of Imperial Britain. Many of the defining features of the imperial home were born out of this trade. Perhaps the greatest icon of the British home is the chinoiserie porcelain teapot. Looming large and surrounded by matching delicate teacups and saucers, the teapot established the respectability of many households of the period. As women all over the Empire engaged of the ritual of preparing tea, they were at once following in the footsteps of Shen Nong and Lu Yu, but also constructing a distinctly British ritual identity as they added preferred ratios of milk and sugar to their cups and elements such as bread and butter and cakes to the table. As steam from teacups rose over Britain and smoke escaped opium pipes in China, we see a process of transculturation come full circle.

Stepping out of the homes filled with porcelain teapots and other chinoiserie and into the verdant gardens of the Empire plunges us once again into a sea of China-borne transculturation as we stand among strains of orchids and wisteria and the iconic common garden rose. The common garden rose, a hybrid of the Chinese and English rose, among other flowers, ensconced homes in a vibrant greenery redolent of the bucolic vistas of England that were lost with the sweeping forces of urbanization and industrialization (For All the Tea in China 55). These lush, exotic gardens were sources of pride and repose. What was so central to the intimate domestic identity of those in Britain was an import hailing from a distant kingdom.

Thus, we see when this imperial brew of camellia, poppy, and the rose is “taken home,” the imperial household is changed permanently. Viewing the swirling leaves of the three flowers as a representation of the cultural exchange between China and Britain, we observe the way the both the imperial household and the cups of tea we enjoy in the West today were affected by this exchange. So, we invite you to indulge in a “cuppa” of our imperial blend, and perhaps the respite that washed over Shen Nong will visit you too.

 

By Olivia Holder

 
SOURCES: 
Rose, Sarah. For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink. London: Hutchinson, 2009. Print.

Heiss, Mary Lou, and Robert J. Heiss. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed, 2007. Print.

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