A stirring cup

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What makes tea heady? Subterfuge, revolt and political discussion

The 2014 elections will leave behind a pleasant taste in the mouths of tea sippers. Never before, and possibly never after, has the heady brew occupied the spotlight in the run-up to the polls.

The modest drink may have made its electoral debut only now, but it has long been an ingredient of political action. The history of tea is sprinkled with incidents where the beverage became a symbol of rebellion and change. Two seminal political events demonstrate this.

First, the less-known, which played out in China.

The Song dynasty, under which tea and tea culture flourished, was subjugated by Mongolian invader Genghis Khan. The Mongol masters – known as Yuan dynasty – destroyed the culture and habits of the Chinese people, which included tea drinking. A mass uprising by the native Chinese was coordinated by messages hidden in tea cakes made for the Festival of the Autumn Moon, and circulated via teahouses. This movement had the desired effect, leading to the rise of the Ming dynasty, which had a more evolved tea culture.

Restating a 1773 event almost all of us first encountered in the pages of a history textbook, a throng of American colonists in Boston destroyed a huge consignment of tea from the East India Company, to protest a tea tax passed by the British parliament. Disguised as American Indians, they seized chests of tea and flung them into the Boston Harbour. The incident became an iconic event, a symbol of political protest.




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