The United States fascinated by Chinese tea and ‘bone china’

The independence of the United States in 1776 meant the independence of the American economy. The United States, liberated from British colonial rule, was freed from the British trade system. The US became able to trade independently. During the early years of trade with China (1784-1831), the United States was most attracted to four products: tea, silk, porcelain, and nankeen (a kind of light yellow cloth made in Nanjing, China). The first U.S. merchant ship, "The Empress of China," returned home with 300,000 pounds of tea (about 180,000 kg), 864 pieces of cotton fabric, 96,200 pounds of porcelain (57,720 kg), 490 pieces of silk, and 2,100 pounds of Cassia trees (1,260 kg). Since the 1830s, Chinese textiles lost popularity due to the rapid industrialization in the US. The American cotton products were exported back to China, but the sales were low.

However, tea and porcelain remained popular for a long time. Tea was a favourite drink in the West before coffee was distributed. In 1785, about a million pounds (approximately 450,000 kg) of tea was imported, and in 1840 it reached 19 million pounds (8.6 million kg). Tea was the best tax source for the government and the added tax was often the source of political conflict and clash.


The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor", lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party

When 10% tax was added on the tea imported to the United States, Americans protested

Britain suffered a huge fiscal deficit due to the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) in the continental Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. Collecting more tax was inevitable and it scapegoated the United States. When 10% tax was added on the tea imported to the U.S., Americans protested. After two years of boycotting, arguing "no taxation without representation," the Boston Tea Party (1773) was staged with 342 boxes of tea dumped into the sea at the Boston Port. It was the trigger of the American Revolutionary War.

Porcelain was a symbol of wealth in the upper class in the United States. A farm house owned by President George Washington was filled with 302 porcelain plates imported by the “Empress of China.” Ironically, Chinese painters forged his portrait and 200 imitations were sold by an American merchant in Philadelphia. With the lawsuit made by the original author Gilbert Stuart, the U.S. court banned the sale in 1802. It was the first legal action officially taken by the U.S. regarding China's violation of intellectual property rights. It reflects that the America’s fight against ‘fake’ products by China have been longstanding.

Jaewoo Choo

Jaewoo Choo is a professor of International Politics at Kyung Hee University, South Korea, and Director of China Research Center, Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

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Qing export porcelain with European Christian scene, 1725–1735.

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