Maritime Tea Route from Hankou (Hankow, Wuhan) to Germany

Wenzhuo Liu

Good news for Chinese readers: this article has been published in the July 2020 <Tea Times 茶博览> tea magazine in Chinese,”中国汉口与德国汉堡的海上茶路” page 54-57. 

Since the 19th century, tea had rapidly replaced silk as the most important and bulk export commodity in China, in the case of Guangzhou (Canton), from 1817 to 1833, the annual average export of tea accounted for 51.1% of the total export value, accounting for 60.8% of the total export value of agricultural products in the same period. German firm Carlowitz & Co (Carlowitz), one of the most famous far east firms had been operating in Guangzhou in 1840’s, which located its headquarters in Hamburg. Another Hamburg firm Siemssen & Co. (Siemssen) opened in Guangzhou in 1846. After the first Opium War in 1842, with the opening of five newly opened treaty ports, Shanghai in the Yangtze River estuary was closest to the origin of tea, the main export goods. Tea from Fujian, Jiangxi and other regions was no longer transported to Guangzhou, but to the intermediate station of North-South sea transportation, Shanghai. Merchants from all countries flocked to Shanghai to increase the purchase of agricultural and sideline products such as tea. Siemsse settled in Shanghai in 1856, it is the first German-funded firm to open in Shanghai. As one of Germany’s largest foreign firms in China, C. Melchers GmbH & Co. (Melchers) from Bremen firstly set foot in China as early as the late Qing Dynasty and set its headquarters in Shanghai, Carlowitz and Siemssen entered Shanghai in 1877 and in 1846, and later Shanghai became the headquarters, all these provided conditions for Germany’s domestic supply of Chinese tea. The second Opium War took place in 1856-1860, China had opened 16 ports from coastal areas to the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, Hankou is located at the core of tea producing areas in Central China and on the golden waterway.

Hankou Tea Tasting Room by Russian social activist Nikolaĭ Apollonovich Charushin in 1875

With the rapid rise of tea’s position in the foreign trade, Hankou replaced Guangzhou for more than 200 years in tea trade, and soon became China’s three largest tea export distribution centers after Shanghai and Fuzhou (Foochow). The annual export volume accounted for more than 40% of the national tea output. Shortly after Hankou opened in 1861, a German named “Mistin?” landed in Hankou for trade, Melchers settled in Hankou in 1862, Carlowitz and Siemssen branches were followed and established in Hankou in 1891 and 1908 respectively. Additionally, other German firms located in Hankou, such as Arnhold & Karberg & Co.

Russian S.W.Litvinoff & Co.‘s Shun Feng Brick Tea company in Hankou

With the signing of the trade contract between the German Customs Association and China in 1860 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the navigation was reduced by about 3500 nautical miles. Although the direct route became shorter, the transportation of tea was more convenient, but only the steamer could pass through, and the sailboat could not navigate this route.

Russian Tokmakoff, Molotkoff & Co.‘s Xin Tai (Hsin-Tai) Brick Tea company in Hankou

German steamship companies established and opened routes from Europe to East Asia, the tea import volume of Bremen port and Hamburg free port was increasing, the tea industry of Hamburg was no longer dependent on the British supply, at this time, the imported tea of Hamburg Port was not only supplied to inland but also exported to other countries. Steamship shipping companies bought local specialties at a low price and sold them to Germany and other countries. Among steamship companies at that time, the Bremener North German Lloyd steamship company was the largest one in Germany, while Melchers from Bremen was its general agent in the Far East, Siemssen was the agent in charge of Hamburg steamship company. Tea imported from Guangzhou and Shanghai was soon replaced by black tea from Hankou in the German tea market, which was more suitable for German tastes.

Simple machine for tea processing in Hankou

Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig (1797—1888) and his wife, who was the Prussian King at that time and later became the German emperor, preferred Hankou black tea sent from St. Petersburg to Souchong tea from Guangzhou, which was the popular tea in the German market then. However, Hankou tea was often not supplied because of its long transporting way from Hankou to St. Petersburg, only tea picked and processed the previous year arrived in Germany. Eduard Messmer seized the opportunity to provide the couple and the Prussian aristocracies with the best Hankou tea in the spring of that year. Henceforth, Hankou tea was called Messmer palace tea and became the favorite of senior social circles.

Tea Shops in Hanzheng Street of Hankou

In 1895, the Qing government agreed to establish the Germany’s first concession in China Hankou. After the British concession since 1861, it became the second concession in Hankou, which further enhanced Germany’s Tea import and export trade in Hankou. In particular, Hankou branch of Arnhold & Karberg & Co. played an important role in the German concession by participating in the affairs of directors of the German concession Bureau. In the 1990s, Germany’s economy was booming and people’s purchasing power was increasing. The development of commerce, industry, science and technology pushed Germany to the front of the world’s industry. In 1912, although Germany’s tea industry still needed a lot of manpower, it had used modern machine production to mix and stir tea, remove dust and pack.

Porters carried tea on the Hankou Wharf

The above conditions promoted the tea consumption in Germany to increase continuously, in the middle of the 19th century, the per capita tea consumption in Germany was only 10 grams per year. Although tea was still a luxury, it increased to 29.7 grams and 30 grams in 1878 and 1880, and to 36.5 grams and 49.5 grams respectively from 1889 to 1891. The corresponding tea import in 1889 was 62200 wooden crates shipped by ship, each case containing 36-45 kilograms of tea, which increased in 1891 Up to 77300 crates, 1893 to 89300 crates. By 1913, Germany’s per capita consumption had increased to 70.2 grams per year. At that time, the East Frisian region of Germany was an astonishing 2 kg, while the highest UK consumption was 2.9 kg.

Hankou foreign leased territory (concessions) in the early 20th century

In 1914, because of the first World War, the English Channel was blocked, eight North German ships with a total of 1790 tons of tea were seized. In 1917, the government of the Republic of China announced the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany. The Hankou Concession was recovered by the Chinese government. The Germans of Melchers and other firms were all recalled back to Germany. All their properties were entrusted to the Dutch Consulate General for custody. The import and export of tea in Germany was interrupted for a while, and the tea shops turned to selling herbal tea and seasoned tea planted in Germany, and the matching herbal tea with caffeine. During this period, China’s share of world tea exports plummeted from 23.99% in 1914 to 16.93% in 1917 and then to 7.57% in 1918. After the end of the war in 1918 and the signing of the Versailles peace treaty, although the German concession had been taken back by China, it did not affect the business of Melchers and other German firms in Hankou. After the war, German tea imports recovered to a certain extent. In 1920, Germany imported 1700 tons of tea, in 1925 nearly 4100 tons, in 1930 more than 6000 tons, but in 1935 it dropped to 4400 tons. In 1931, the per capita consumption of tea in East fricia was about 3- 3.5kg, even more than that in Britain. In 1930, the per capita consumption of tea fell from 93.6 grams to 66.6 grams in 1935. In this period, China’s share of world tea exports only recovered from 6.2% in 1920 to 13.51%, 10.16% and 10% in 1925, 1930 and 1935.

Hankou Yangtze River Beach in the 1930s

During this period, the Chinese government adopted a number of policy measures to recover the Chinese tea industry, even imported German tea processing machinery, however, it did not save the situation of China’s tea export. In 1936, with the material innovation of making tea bags in Germany, 400 double-bag tea bags were mechanized every minute, but in 1939, the tea route blocked again in World War II, Chinese tea faded out of German tea market again, and German tea merchants had to collect blackberry and strawberry leaves to make flower tea and fruit tea like last time. After the end of World War II in 1945, the 80 year history of Melchers and other German firms in Hankou ended.

Map of the Hankou leased territory

PS: After the founding of the people’s Republic of China, Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang were once again merged into Wuhan of Hubei Province, and the municipal government was located in Jiangan District, Hankou. Hankou is now the urban area of Wuhan, which is located in the north of the Yangtze River and Hanjiang River (mainly including three municipal districts of Jiang’an, Jianghan and Qiaokou). Hankou is an important part of Wuhan city the center of politics, finance, commerce and trade, foreign exchange and important transportation hub of Wuhan area have been known as “the most prosperous place in Chu” since ancient times, and it is famous in China and abroad as “Oriental Chicago”.


刘文卓,论中国与德国茶贸易历史,茶誉天下,2021(11), 313-319

Good news for Chinese readers: this article has been published in the July 2020 <Tea Times 茶博览> tea magazine in Chinese,”中国汉口与德国汉堡的海上茶路” page 54-57. 

<Tea Times 茶博览> July 2020

This tea magazine has a history of 27 years, since its predecessor <The House of Tea People 茶人之家> was founded. It is the most influential and professional tea culture journal in China and abroad. As a monthly magazine, published on the 20th of every month, Tea Times is under the charge of China International Tea Culture Research Association, sponsored by China International Tea Culture Research Association, Zhejiang International Tea People House Foundation, co-organized by China Tea Museum and approved by the State Press and Publication Administration. The press review and reading group of Zhejiang Press and Publication Bureau once summarized the characteristics of Tea Times with the words “elegant, broad, deep and beautiful”.

2 thoughts on “Maritime Tea Route from Hankou (Hankow, Wuhan) to Germany

  • Hello, I was wondering if the tea magazine knows anything about a factory compradore named Go Shao Tse who worked for the S.W. Litvinoff & Co. around 1919. That would be my husband’s great grandfather.

    • You can contact the author who has published an article about the history of tea trade in Germany and China. There are records in the literature that multiple German companies operating tea trade in China

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