Ta Diplomacy in The Age of “Fire and Fury”
By C. Naseer Ahmad
Washington, DC

In an era marked with alarming language of “fire and fury,” it is useful to add a bag of tea to boiling water and let it steep for until reason gives diplomacy a chance to percolate for an amiable situation. As a beverage, tea lubricates good conversations, without the hangovers that come along with alcoholic concoctions.
“The role of tea in many of the great decisions affecting the world at large is grossly understated,” wrote Jim Thomasson on December 1, 2014—for teacups with saucers a vintage teacups vendor, which conveys ideas like “where there is tea, there is hope” or “is there anything more wonderful than the culture of tea?”
At first glance, these words might seem trite or clever marketing tricks. But, when you think about the examples provided by Thomasson, they are substantive as well as sound. “Henry Kissinger used it to open the door to China for Nixon.” Students of history will know the tremendous impact that opening had on world economy and the peace dividends it brought.
Just as powerful and delicious case of tea diplomacy, cited by Thomasson, is the meeting between Nelson Mandela and General Constand Viljoen, who was the anointed leader of South Africa’s far right heading “the white freedom struggle.” Thomasson informs us that “expecting a savage brute, a fearsome Communist with little regard for human life, Viljoen was amazed by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail (“Do you take sugar in your tea, General?”), by his keen knowledge of the history of white South Africa and his sensitivity to the apprehensions and fears white South Africans were feeling at that time.”
During their discussions, Mandela acknowledged the white South Africans were “more skilled in the military arts than black South Africans; but against that, if it came to race war, black South Africa had the numbers, as well as the guaranteed support of practically the entire international community.” Mandela emphasized that there could be no winners and the general did not disagree. This tea diplomacy brought about a peaceful transfer of power in a country that once possessed nuclear weapons.
Thomasson presents an interesting question: “Why is tea so useful in matters of diplomacy?” And then he provides a lucid argument that one can’t quibble over: “tea has been accorded as the beverage that encourages eloquence. There’s a certain element of peace and tranquility associated with tea, its flavor, and aroma. And that’s why it is hard to imagine a quarrel erupting over a cup of freshly brewed tea.”
Among the recent incidents where contentious arguments were settled over tea was the court battle over allowing women to the inner sanctum of the iconic Haji Ali Dargah mosque in Mumbai, India in November 2016 “after a Supreme Court order granted them equal access, sparking hope for other cases of discrimination against women.” According to a Reuters International Report, members “of the Haji Ali Dargah Trust, which had argued it would be a ‘grievous sin’ to allow women near the tomb of the 15th century Sufi saint housed within the mosque, welcomed women from across India on Tuesday with tea.”
The “element of peace and tranquility associated with tea”, as described by Thomasson need not be reserved just for resolving grievances. Life offers bountiful opportunities to rejoice and to celebrate. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation’s news service took note of “Spain’s royals on state visit to Britain to cement ties before Brexit,” as reported by Reuters International on July 12, 2017. The story mentioned that the “Spanish royals will have a private lunch at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday with Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales’ London residence Clarence House and a state banquet.”
Noticeably absent from the afternoon tea at the royal place in London was the furiously ill-fated Spanish Armada. Empires rise when there is a momentum in their favor and fall when centrifugal forces work against their interests. Both Spain and Britain had once mighty empires, quite often entangled in both fire and fury. A historical glance will shed light on the impact these empires had on world events, culture, and tastes.
The “afternoon tea” culture that developed across many lands are associated with the British Empire. Writing for the Financial Times, Lucy Lethbridge in her book review on the “Hungry Empire”, by Lizzie Collingham explains that “a cup of tea is never just a cup of tea—it is a history of trade, exchange, land-grab, agricultural innovation and economic change.”
Lethbridge notes that the author “examines how the vast trading networks of the first English empire of the 16th to 18th centuries underpinned the development of a new class: financiers, industrialists and merchants whose wealth, based on trade rather than land, gave them the political and economic clout to challenge the dominance of the landed aristocracy and thus paved the way for the Industrial Revolution and the British empire of the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Perhaps, no one can ignore the most famous “Boston Tea Party” and its role in the birth of United States of America. In this context, historians remind us that while tea has helped facilitate diplomacy, it also became associated with the American War of Independence. But, this was not the only war over tea.
Writing for the Good Life Tea, Aubrey Simonson on March 14, 2017, states that the “American revolution was not the only war fought over tea. Britain also fought two separate wars with China in the 19th century, over trade disputes about obtaining tea.”
China looms large nowadays not only in the Asia Pacific region but also in global affairs. Therefore, it is instructive to learn about the true history of the celestial beverage that found its origins in the “Middle Kingdom.”
Professor Victor H. Mair, a world-renowned Sinologist and Erling Hoh provide an authoritative account of the “True History of Tea.” The authors begin the wonderful book by describing the tea as the “Leaf of Awareness” in the Prologue.
To read the 18 fascinating chapters, the readers will certainly need some fire on the stove to bring water to the boiling point for several cups of tea. There is little to be furious about in this book.
Each chapter of this book is colorful, full of flavor, and yet relevant to modern times. For instance, Chapter 6: “Buying Peace with the Celestial Beverage—the Tea and the Horse Trade” describes the tussle between the farmers who cultivate the land and the pastoralists who seek pasture for their animals. The conflicts that were troublesome for centuries manifest in different form between diverging interest groups today.
Chapter 13: “Approved by Physicians—the Advent of Tea” provides an exciting account of the intense competition between global powers—such as the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company—of their respective eras. The readers will find about the vigorous rivalry between coffee and tea in both England and France from different angles. One of the most interesting medical opinions came from a Dutch physician Nikolas Dirx in 1641: “Nothing is comparable to this plant. Those who use it are for that reason, alone, exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age. Not only does it procure great vigor for their bodies, but it preserves them from gravel [aggregations of crystal formed in the urinary tract] and gallstone, colds, ophtalmia, catarrh, asthma, sluggishness of the stomach, and intestinal troubles.” Of course, both history and life would have been very boring if such a bold declaration was not met with spirited challenges, of which there were many, by medicine men.
The authors of the book True History of Tea provide a captivating narrative of both the different flavors and the cultural traditions associated with tea around the world through various historical periods. None of the accounts presented provide any evidence of an irrational action following sipping tea that impulsively led to a bloodbath.
In an era when temperance is in great demand, some sagacity along with ‘Pudding à la U.S Grant’ and tea might avert some tragedies—perhaps just like Nelson Mandela and Viljoen were able to accomplish in preventing a war in which everyone would lose a lot.
Photo by Kowit Phothisan.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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