Connecting Tea & Tigers

So far, we have seen the journey of tea and tigers as important symbols in Asia. The two symbols have transcended all physical and social boundaries across Asia.

Tea was a colonial cash crop for much of its history, but also acquired value beyond this: a marker of social standing, a superior lifestyle, and a pleasing personality. Tigers emerged as a symbol of man’s quest to conquer nature. They signified power and control, as well as resistance, especially in imperial contexts. The two symbols have transcended physical and social boundaries across time throughout Asia. This section explores what messages they convey together.

This cover illustration depicts a tiger who is seen ‘trespassing’ on a tea plantation in colonial India. In the image, both tiger and tea appear as sites of British colonisation in the Indian subcontinent. The British planter is protecting his investment (i.e., the plantation) against the ‘intrusion’ of a tiger on ‘his’ property. Simultaneously, he is pushing the Indian worker back, projecting himself as the saviour. The portrayal of double-edged control is stark: the human against the non-human and the coloniser against the colonised. Tea and tiger form the axis on which colonial power is asserted. After independence, the British sahib (plantation owner) left the subcontinent. However, the local (brown) sahib has taken over that vacant position, renewing the relations of subjugation and power at the tea plantations.

Jacket Cover Illustration, Philip R. H. Longley, Tea Planter Sahib (Auckland, NZ: Tonson Publishing House, 1969)

The Lipton Tiger Tea advertisement extends the colonial associations of tea and tigers. The ad presents the man as a hunter who, after consuming tea, is strong and powerful enough to combat a ferocious tiger! Tea and tigers are not just symbols of colonisation in independent India, as shown in the advertisement. Rather, they interact to create the image of an invincible and energised man, no longer colonised but asserting his masculinity.

Wagh Bakri tea is a popular tea brand, started in 1934 by a company that operated in the Indian subcontinent. The name of the brand includes the Gujarati word wagh for tiger, here symbolising the powerful or elite. It suggests that both royals and commoners (bakri) drink this tea. A community of tea drinkers has been imagined around a common choice of tea brand despite the difference in status between people. Tea has become an object that must be appreciated by everybody in order to rejuvenate.

Wall advertisement for Wagh Bakri tea painted on side of a house in Usmanpura neighborhood of Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India Deccantrap, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In East Asia, tea and tigers are not frequently used in tandem to create any imagery but there are some exceptions. This Edo period teapot brings out the significance of tigers in Japan in the eighteenth century even though they were not indigenous to the land. Both tea and tigers were introduced during Japan's interactions with China and Korea. Tea was first imported from China into Japan but it then acquired a Japanese identity of its own. Beyond its colonial history, tigers were soon adopted as a symbol of discipline in Zen Buddhist art, popular with the samurai elites. Tigers and, in particular, tea became symbolic of a unique national identity, despite their non-Japanese origins. They have gradually come to be seen as symbols of Japanese people’s perceived cultural refinement and orderliness.

Teapot with a tiger, birds and floral scrolls, Japan, Edo period (1600–1868), 18th century / Public Domain / Rijksmuseum)

Today, brown sugar boba tea has become popular in Taiwan and other parts of East Asia. It even has stores in the United States of America. The company that sells it is known as ‘Tiger Sugar’, and it started in Taiwan in 2017. The tea is famous for its presentation, along with its taste. The brown sugar syrup drips down the sides of the cup, resembling the tiger’s stripes, and lending the drink its name. The cups carry a text: ‘brave as a tiger’, which reminds the tea consumer of the tiger’s power. It is a commercial use of a historical symbol.

Brown Sugar Boba Tea by Tiger Sugar. / Personal Collection, Li Yen

(Left)Xing-ji Temple Emperor Baosheng Surgical Tenth Lot; (Right) Xuejia Ciji Temple Emperor Baosheng’s 86th Medicine Lot / National Research Institute of Chinese Medicine, Public Domain

In times when medical resources were limited, people in East Asia would go to temples and pray to the gods for healing. While there, they would draw ‘medicine lots’ to determine which medicines they should take. On these two medicine lots from temples in Taiwan, we can see that both tiger bone and tea leaves are listed as ingredients. Even though Western medicine has become mainstream in East Asia, people still regard traditional Chinese medicine as an important part of healthcare. In China, traditional medicine is used by both official and private citizens, and is considered by many to be more effective than Western medicine – a reflection of Chinese nationalism.

So, we’ve come to the end of our journey through tea and tigers in Asia.

What have we discovered?

We have seen that the meanings of tea and tigers, and the meanings of national symbols in general, have shifted across time and space. Colonialism, gender, age, spiritual beliefs, globalisation, and nationalism are just some of the factors that have played a role in these shifts.

Tea and tigers are especially interesting because they have very specific national meanings in Asia, but they also link Asia together in their widespread prevalence. They both shape how Asia presents itself to the world, and how the world views Asia.

There is a Chinese proverb that says ‘every medicine has its side-effects’ (是藥三分毒) – a warning not to take medicines recklessly. Perhaps the same could be said for national symbols. They can be positive, helping to represent and unite people and cultures. But used without caution, they can help to sow conflict and division.

Rethinking symbols has given us the opportunity to think about what shapes us – on a personal, local, national, and international level. And so we hope that, wherever you are in the world, digging into tea and tigers has deepened and nuanced the ways that you think about Asia, nationhood, and identity.