The dried leaves of the tea-plant, which is a native of Japan, China, and Tonquin. The history of commerce does not perhaps present a parallel to the circumstances which have attended the introduction of tea into this country. The leaves were first imported into Europe by the Dutch East India Company, in the early part of the seventeenth century; but it was not until the year 1666 that a small quantity was brought over from Holland; and yet, from a period earlier than the memory of but few of the present generation can reach, tea has been regarded as one of the principal necessaries of life among all classes of the community. To provide a sufficient supply of this aliment, many thousands of tons of the finest mercantile navy in the world are employed in trading with a people by whom all dealings with foreigners are merely tolerated; and from this recently-acquired taste, an immense and easily-collected revenue is obtained by the state.
The tea-plant is an. evergreen, somewhat resembling the myrtle in appearance, bears a fragrant yellow flower, and grows to a height varying between three and six feet. It is capable of enduring great variations of climate, being cultivated alike in the neighbourhood of Canton, where the heat is at times almost insupportable to the natives, and around the walls of Pekin, where the winter is, not unfrequently, as severe as in the north of Europe. The best sorts, however, are the production of a more temperate climate; the finest teas are said to be grown in the province of Nanking, occupying nearly the middle station between the two extremes mentioned above; and the greatest portion of what is brought to the Canton market, and sold to the European merchants, is the produce of the hilly, but populous and industrious, province of Fokien, situated on the sea-coast, to the north-east of Canton. It appears to thrive best in valleys, or on the sloping banks of hills, exposed to the southern sun, and especially on the banks of rivers or rivulets.
The tea-plant is propagated from seed, and the holes are drilled in the ground at equal distances, and in regular rows; into each hole the planter throws as many as six, or even a dozen seeds, - not above a fifth part of the seed planted being expected to grow While coming to maturity, they are carefully watered; and though, when once out of the ground, they would continue to vegetate without further care, the more industrious cultivators annually manure the ground, and clear the crop from weeds.
The leaves of the tea-plant are not fit for gathering until the third year; at which period they are in their prime, and most plentiful. When about seven years old, the shrub has generally grown to about the height of a man, and its leaves become few and coarse; it is then generally cut down to the stem, which, in the succeeding summer, produces an exuberant crop of fresh shoots and leaves; this operation, however, is sometimes deferred till the plant is ten years old.
The process of gathering the tea is one of great nicety and importance. Each leaf is plucked separately from the stalk; the hands of the gatherer are kept carefully clean, and, in collecting some of the fine sorts, he hardly ventures to breathe on the plant. Notwithstanding the tediousness of such an operation, a labourer can frequently collect from four to ten, or even fifteen pounds a day. Three or four of these gatherings take place during the season; viz. towards the end of February, or the beginning of March; in April or May; towards the middle of June; and in August. From the first gathering, which consists of the very young and tender leaves only, the most valuable teas are manufactured; viz. the green tea called gunpowder, and the black tea called Pekoe. The produce of this first gathering is also denominated in China, Imperial tea, probably because, where the shrub is not cultivated with a view to supplying the demands of the Canton market, it is reserved, either in obedience to the law, or on account of its superior flavour, for the consumption of the emperor and his court.
From the second and third crops are manufactured the green teas, called in our shops Hyson and Imperial; and the black teas denominated Souchong and Congou. The light and inferior leaves separated from the Hyson by winnowing, form a tea called Hyson-skin, much in demand by the Americans, who are also the largest general purchasers of green teas. On the other hand, some of the choicest and tenderest leaves of the second gathering are frequently mixed with those of the first. From the fourth crop is manufactured the coarsest species of black tea called Bohea; and this crop is mixed with an inferior tea, grown in a district called Woping, near Canton; together with such tea as remained unsold in the market, of the last season.
Owing to the minute division of land in China, there can be few, if any, large tea-growers; the plantations are small, and the business of them carried on by the owner and his own family, who carry the produce of each picking immediately to market, where it is disposed of to a class of persons whose business it is to collect and dry the leaves, ready for the Canton tea-merchants.
The process of drying, which should commence as soon as possible after the leaves have been gathered, differs according to the quality of the tea. Some are only exposed under a shed to the sun's rays, and frequently turned. A drying-house will contain from five to ten or twenty small furnaces, on the top of each of which is a flat-bottomed and shallow iron pan; there is also a long low table, covered with mats, on which the leaves are spread and rolled, after they have gone through the first stage of the process, which we may call baking. When the pans are heated to the proper temperature, a few pounds of fresh-gathered leaves are placed upon them; the fresh and juicy leaves crack as they touch the pan, and it is the business of the operator to stir and shift them about as rapidly as possible, with his bare hands, until they become too hot to be touched without pain. At this moment, he takes off the leaves with a kind of shovel, like a fan, andpours them on the mats before the rollers, who, taking them up by small qnantities at a time, roll them in the palms of their hands, in one direction only; while assistants with fans are employed to fan the leaves, in order that they may be the quicker cooled, and retain their curl the longer.
To secure the complete evaporation of all moisture from the leaves, as well as the stability of their curl, the operation of drying and rolling is repeated two or three times, or even oftener, if necessary, - the pans being, on each successive occasion, less and less heated, and the whole process performed with increasing slowness and caution. The leaves are then separated into their several classes, and stored away for domestic use, or for sale. It was, at one time, supposed that the green teas were dried on copper pans, and that they owed their fine green colour to that circumstance, which was also said to render a free use of them noxious to the human frame; but this idea is now held to be without any foundation, the most accurate experiments having failed in detecting the slightest particle of copper in the infusion.
After the tea has been thus gathered by the cultivator, and cured and assorted by those who, for want of a better name, we may call tea-collectors, it is finally sold to the "tea-merchants" of Canton, who complete the manufacture by mixing and garbling the different qualities, in which women and children are chiefly employed; the tea then receives a last drying, is divided according to quality, packed in chests, and made up into parcels of from one hundred to six hundred chests each, which are stamped with the name of the district, grower, andmauufacturer, and called from a Chinese word, meaning seal or stamp, Chops.
In perusing the foregoing process of drying the tea, our mechanical readers will probably think with us, that it might be much better (or more uniformly) performed by a machine, heated by steam at a regulated temperature, and that full nine-tenths of the labour would thereby be saved. But as such, a proposition to the manufacturers of the "Celestial Empire" would probably be regarded with indignation, and be rewarded, if it were possible, with the bastinado, we shall reserve our suggestions for a fitter object. Those of our readers who may wish for more important information respecting the progress of this important trade, than our limits enable us to give, will find it in M'Culloch's Dictionary of Commerce; to which valuable work we are indebted for some of the materials of this article. We have only to observe, that in the century between 1710 and 1810, the teas imported into this country amounted to upwards of 750 millions of pounds, of which more than 630 millions were sold for home consumption; between 1810 and 1828, the total importation exceeded 427 millions of pounds, being on an average, between 23 and 24 millions a year: and in 1831, the quantity imported was 26,043,223 pounds.