The history of tea in Taiwan begins with the Dutch East India Company, also known as the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie). Established in 1602, the VOC was granted a monopoly on all forms of trade from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straights of Magellan. During its 200-year history, it played a major role in the European colonization of Asia by establishing trading posts from South Africa to Japan.
As part of its charter, the VOC was granted sovereignty over any lands it possessed. From its base in Batavia (present-day Jakarta), it controlled the entire Indonesian archipelago, Ceylon, as well as regions of India and Japan.
Taiwan had been to known to Europeans since 1542, when Portuguese explorers discovered a beautiful island they named Ihla Formosa. The VOC, after being expelled from nearby Penghu by Chinese Ming forces, arrived in Taiwan in 1623, and used the island as a base for trade with Japan and China.
The Dutch quickly saw that Taiwan was a profitable source of products such as deer hides, sugar, and rice. To protect these trading interests, the VOC built two forts from which they administered the island. They established a tax system, built schools and churches, and instituted rules and regulations governing almost every aspect of life, including tariffs, land ownership, and agricultural production.
The VOC encouraged Chinese immigration, employing migrants to farm sugar cane and rice. And traders from Fujian province supplied the Dutch with Chinese tea.
The VOC Governor's Report of 1645 mentions that wild tea was found growing in the central mountain region of Taiwan.
The Dutch were expelled from Taiwan in 1662, but it wasn’t until 1683 that Taiwan came under Chinese control, at which time it became a prefecture of Qing Dynasty China.
Because of civil unrest and rebellion during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, Taiwan was viewed as a threat. It was feared that rebels could use Taiwan as a base for building a resistance army, so Chinese migration to Taiwan was restricted, and those few immigrants were barred from Taiwan's central mountain regions.
Despite these restrictions, many Chinese came to Taiwan. Most of them were single men who eventually married aboriginal women. By right of marriage, these men could travel in the mountains of Taiwan, where wild tea trees could be found. A record from 1717 reports that wild tea was found in Chu Lo county – present day Chia Yi county.
But it wasn't until the early 19th century that tea cultivation began in Taiwan. Seedlings from the WuYi district in China were planted near Jiufeng in northern Taiwan. This tea was for local consumption or for trade with China.
China had severe restrictions on foreign trade, and these restrictions also applied to Taiwan. But as a result of the first Opium War of 1839 – 42, China was forced to open five ports to foreign trade. In 1860, Taiwan's Danshui and Kaoshiung ports were also opened.
This paved the way for new industries to be established in Taiwan. Shortly after 1860, a Scotsman named John Dodd saw the commercial potential in Taiwan tea, and provided loans to farmers in north Taiwan to increase their production of tea.
Dodd and Company began exporting Taiwan tea in 1869, with shipments to England and New York. Formosan oolong tea (as it was called) was well-received in the USA, increasing the prestige of Taiwan tea and encouraging other exporters to set up shop. Tea exports grew from 180,000 pounds in 1865 to more than 16 million pounds in 1885. By the end of the 19th century, tea was Taiwan's primary export.
The Japanese Era – 1895 to 1945
The First Sino-Japanese War (1894 – April 1895) was fought between Qing Dynasty China and Meiji Japan, primarily for control over Korea. During the war, Japan occupied the Penghu Islands off the west coast of Taiwan, cutting off Taiwan from the Mainland.
As a result of this occupation, China was forced to cede control of Taiwan to Japan. Taiwan forces tried to resist this cession by declaring Taiwan an independent republic. Within 5 months, however, the Japanese had defeated the Republican forces and gained control of Taiwan.
The Japanese increased the production of black tea, while continuing exports of oolong and baozhong tea. The primary markets for Taiwan black tea were Russia and Turkey.
In 1926, the Tea Research Institute of Taiwan was established. The institute aimed to explore agricultural methods to maximize tea yields, and to develop new tea varietals specifically suited to Taiwan. Several of these varietals remain popular to this day.
During the Japanese era, Taiwan tea was promoted world-wide at international fairs. Primary markets for Taiwan tea exports included Japan, the United States, Britain, Hong Kong, and Russia.