How has East Asia influenced life in the UK – China

In early 2021 the School of East Asian Studies ran a creative writing competiton for students in years 10, 11 and 12 in the UK. We asked entrants to write an essay that addressed the following question ‘How has East Asia influenced life in the UK?’.

Prizes were awarded in line with out four main undergraduate degree programmes

  • Chinese Studies (Chinese culture, society and politics)
  • Japanese Studies (Japanese culture, society and politics)
  • Korean Studies (Korean culture, society and politics
  • East Asia Studies (East Asia as a cultural, social and political region)

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Winning entry
How has East Asia influenced life in the UK – China
Written by Joanna Karlinska

Songyang tea fields

Compromising of: China, Japan, Mongolia, North and South Korea, and Taiwan – East Asia has had a significant influence on the whole globe, especially the United Kingdom. In this essay, I will focus on the cultural and economic impact that China specifically has had on life in the UK.

Tea – the most iconic British drink, which is considered the epitome of British culture, has originated in China. According to ‘The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide’, Tea originated in the Southwest of China during the Shang Dynasty (Heiss, 2007). Originally Tea was consumed for its medical properties before being popularised in the West by Portuguese priests and merchants (Bealer, 2002). The first instance of tea being sold was in 1657 London, when Thomas Garway started charging between 16 to 50 shillings per pound of tea (Bradley, 1912). Despite this, and the fact that the first advertisement for Tea was in 1658, it was the marriage of King Charles II that popularised Tea in Britain. He married the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, who made drinking tea fashionable amongst aristocrats. The official tea trade started two years later, in 1664. The British East India Company had a monopoly on the tea trade in Canton, alongside the Chinese Cohong (Bragg, 2004), which made tea be seen as inherently British. Furthermore, as prices of tea fell but the connotations of wealth and respectability remained, it became more widespread in the middle class. The British government made a lot of money by taxing tea and further encouraged its consumption. Today, tea is seen as quintessentially British, with approximately 100 million cups consumed daily nation-wide (Association, UK Tea & Infusions Association).

Not only has a Chinese beverage rooted itself in British culture, but Chinese cuisine has done the same. In the early 1880s, many Chinese students and seamen came to Liverpool and London, bringing with them new recipes and dishes (Centre, 2011). Dishes that were previously mainly found in China started to become more popular in the UK, with ex-Chinese seamen starting to sell food from Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Shantou, and Hainan on Liverpool streets. The International Health Exhibition in South Kensington made Chinese food a part of its ‘restaurant’ in 1884, introducing the cuisine to a wider western audience. Although the first recorded Chinese restaurant opened in 1908, Chinese cuisine started becoming more popular after World War Two (Sukhadawa, 2017). Returning service personnel from Hong Kong (Sukhadawa, 2017), and people moving from China to the UK, started running their own restaurants. This combined with the low capital that takeaway restaurants provided for many self-employed families resulted in hundreds of Chinese restaurants springing up over the decades. As a result, iconic dishes like the Chinese cake and the Peking duck became more popular amongst the mainstream consumers. Furthermore, in 2003 a Chinese restaurant called Hakkasan gained a Michelin star (Foster, 2003), elevating Chinese cuisine in the eyes of the UK citizens. Currently, there are over 4000 Chinese restaurants in the UK, and their presence has been ingrained in British culture as the go-to takeaway food; during the Covid 19 pandemic a YouGov survey found that 25% of Brits reported Chinese food as their favorite takeaway food (Ibbetson, 2021).

Alongside the rise in Chinese Cuisine’s popularity, the population of people with a Chinese background has also risen. According to the 2011 Census of England and Wales, the Chinese ethnic group makes up 0.7% of the British population (Gov.uk, 2011). A lot of these people are students, with 120,385 UK students coming from China in 2018/19 (Universities UK, 2018/19). The number of Chinese students in the UK has more than trebled since 2006 according to the National Institute of Economics and Social Research. This influx in Chinese students has contributed greatly to the British economy, with their total tuition fees adding up to £1.7 billion a year (Harper, 2020). Furthermore, the increase in people with a Chinese background has also influenced language in the UK as Mandarin has become one of the top five foreign languages to learn in the UK (Wang, 2019), with 400,000 people expected to be learning Mandarin by 2020 (en.people.cn, 2017).
A rise in Chinese students isn’t the only thing influencing the UK economy, as Chinese companies are involved in UK businesses and infrastructure. China has risen from UK’s 26th biggest export market in 1999, to the 2nd biggest (Harper, 2020). In 2018 these exports were worth £23.4 billion (Harper, 2020). Also 2.8% of abroad UK businesses operate in China (Office for National Statistics, 2015), which has significantly contributed to the UK economy. However, the impact of imports from China can be seen much more clearly in day-to-day life. When checking a label of a product, it has become expected to see the label “Produced in China”, which is the result of approximately 11% of goods being imported from China (Office for National Statistics, 2015). China is just behind Germany in the import of total goods, which means that many of the products we use in our daily lives rely on Chinese companies and factories.

The export market isn’t the only thing boosting the UK economy; there are about 800 Chinese companies in the UK (Bevan). This is significant as these companies employ over 71000 people. The impact of this can be seen clearly in the case of British Steel; the Chinese company, Jingye Group offered to buy the collapsing company (British Steel) for £50 million, in the process saving 3,000 jobs (BBC News, 2020). Moreover, there are about £8.63 billion worth of Chinese investors in the UK (Williams). Many of the investments are in infrastructure: China General Nuclear Power (CGN) has party financed the building of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset; CIC (China Investment Company) has an 8.7% stake in Thames Waters and a 10% stakes in BAA Ltd. (the firm which owns Londons Heathrow Airport); the CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) owns a stake in the UK’s North Sea Oil production (Harper, 2020). As a result of this variety of investments, Chinese companies are providing the money needed to improve UK’s infrastructure and production, which in turn helps UK companies generate more income and employ more people, further boosting the economy. Huawei – a Chinese technology company – is an example of this effect. About 4 million brits alone own a Huawei phone. That, coupled with the many investments in telecoms and infrastructure allowed the company to stimulate a £1.7 billion contribution to the UK in 2018 (Logan, 2018). Besides this, Huawei has also supported 26,200 jobs across the UK, which in turn generated £470 million in tax revenue (Logan, 2018).

China is considered a global superpower; it has one of the biggest military forces, the largest population, and one of the fastest-growing economies. Its influence can be found everywhere in the UK, whether it’s something as clear as the influx of Chinese take-aways and products from China, or something more subtle – like the billions of pounds worth of investments boosting the UK economy. Even tea – something that is considered a British symbol – has originated in China.