The History of Tea: Steeped In Legend,

Admired In Politics, Enjoyed around the World…

The history of tea is as long and complex as its multitudes of flavors and types. It’s a history infused with legendary tales of spirituality and ancient mysticism. In modern times, it has become the subject of evidence-based science touting its healthy powers. The rich history of tea lends a fascinating angle to the enjoyment of this beverage today.

Tea began its incredible journey to popularity in China. It has been widely consumed as part of traditional medicine on the Asian continent for centuries. There are documentations of tea as early as the 1st century, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that it made its way to the western world. Join us, for a journey through the historical roots of this delicious elixir.

Legendary Origins of Tea

The story of tea begins thousands of years ago — in 2737 B.C.E, when a Chinese emperor discovered the tantalizing drink on accident. According to Chinese lore, Emperor Shen Nong discovered tea when stray tea leaves drifted into his boiling pot of water. He was intrigued by the infusion of the leaf and water and began to research its potential. This simple incident marked the beginning of a centuries- long love affair with tea.

The origin of tea is steeped in tales and legends all across the Asian continent. In India, tales tell the story of ancient Prince Bodhi-Dharma whom they credit with the creation of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The story tells of the prince’s sorrow at his failure to meditate for nine years without sleep. In his grief, he ripped his eyelids off and tossed them to the ground. The tale claims that this act sowed the tea seeds of the first tea plant.

The History of Tea Begins in China

The legends associated with tea have been spread far and wide, but pinpointing the exact origins of tea has proven difficult. The tea plant is thought to originate in the Yunnan province of China. Additional evidence shows the possibility of native tea plants in Tibet and Northern India as well. Since its discovery, tea became integral to life in many Asian societies. Tombs from the Han Dynasty — which ruled from 206 B.C.E to 220 A.D — have been unearthed with containers for tea drinking.

It wasn’t until the reign of the Tang Dynasty in 600 to 900 A.D. that tea truly began to gain popularity. It was during this time period that the idea of the tea ceremony was also established. Tea became such an important part of Chinese culture that the Tang rulers declared it the national drink of China.

Much of this cultural integration of tea can be attributed to the Buddhist monk Lu Yu. He began to research tea’s uses and health benefits. He also created proper techniques for brewing and consuming. As a spiritual leader, he connected the beverage to religious Buddhist thought and integrated it into spiritual ceremonies. It was used to promote the ideals of Buddhism including harmony, spirituality, and contemplation. The Sung Dynasty, which followed the Tang Dynasty became known as the romantic period of tea. It was during these years, from 960 to 1280 A.D. that tea drinking was memorialized in poetry, art, religion, and politics.

Tea Makes Its Way to Japan

A Japanese monk named Saichō introduced tea to Japan. He discovered the beverage during his studies in China during the early 9th century. Japan’s first tea cultivation started with seeds brought back by Saichō and other Buddhist monks during this time period. However, it wasn’t until the 13th century that tea plantations grew large enough to attract a true following in Japan.

The Japanese put their own spin on tea drinking by brewing the beverage differently than their counterparts in China. The Chinese typically brewed the leaves in hot water or chewed on the leaves themselves. In Japan, tea leaves were ground into a fine powder and consumed with boiling water using a bamboo whisk and chawan bowl. This fine tea powder is known today as matcha green tea. This tea culture is commonly known as the Japanese tea ceremony. It consists of proper brewing techniques, tea accessories, and presentation of matcha green tea.

Processing of Tea Leaves

Up until the rule of the Ming Dynasty, tea consumption consisted simply of soaking the tea leaves in water. The Ming Dynasty developed much of the tea production process that is still in use today. The tea leaves were harvested from the plant, dried, rolled, and then heated in iron woks to complete the oxidation process. This rolled tea variety emerged in Japan in the 17th century after a Chinese monk brought it with him on his travels.

Afterwards, the Japanese merchant Soen Nagatani revitalized the production process by steaming instead of firing the leaves. This cultural production difference is still prevalent today, with most Chinese green teas featuring pan fired leaves and the Japanese varieties featuring steamed leaves. Today, this type of Japanese tea is known as sencha green tea.

Tea Moves West

Silk road routes
A map showing the routes of the old silk road

References to tea in the western world began to appear in the 9th century. Tea didn’t gain popularity in the west though until the 17th century when global trade began to take off. A Portuguese missionary brought tea back to Europe during his missionary work in China. The Dutch East India Company delivered the first major shipments of tea from the east in 1610. During this time period, tea also made its way to Russia via the Silk Road.

At this time, tea was still considered a luxury. It grew in popularity in major cities including London and Paris, but was mostly restricted to aristocratic classes. The exotic origins of tea made drinking this beverage alluring and a mark of importance and stature in society.

Almost 50 years later, tea began to overtake coffee as the drink of choice in coffee houses in Britain. Thomas Garraway established the first successful British tea shop selling tea leaves imported by the Dutch East India Company. The drink skyrocketed in popularity after the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. The Portuguese princess adored tea and began the tradition of afternoon tea consumption that is a staple of modern English tradition.

British Tea Powerhouse

As the love for tea grew, the British East India Company became a powerful competitor to the Dutch East India Company. The first stronghold of tea production for the British was on the island of Macau. By the early 18th century, the British East India Company had monopolized the tea trade with China. Trading hubs were established in Bombay and Bengal and the company exerted its influence over politics and military affairs.

The British wanted to begin their own tea production to reduce the reliance on Chinese tea plantations. Plans were set into motion and experts were brought from China to begin harvesting tea in India. By 1823, the British and local Indians were cultivating black tea in the Assam and Darjeeling regions of the Indian subcontinent. Tea estates rose to prominence and soon the tea plants covered large swaths of rolling hillsides. Production ramped up and the British East India Company soon had enough tea plantations to end their reliance on Chinese trade.

Tea in America

Dutch traders in New Amsterdam first introduced tea to America. However, the British East India Company delivered a large majority of tea during later years. While the British East India Company ruled the tea trade for many years, its success was tempered by rising tension in the American colonies.

Image of the Boston Tea Party
An image of the Boston Tea Party

As wars and disputes spread the company thin, leaders reacted by imposing large taxes and duties. The American colonies were unhappy at the European-led taxation and revolted in what is known as the Boston Tea Party. Protesters, some disguised as Indigenous Americans, destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company. To protest British Parliament’s tax on tea. The demonstrators boarded the ships and threw the chests of tea into the Boston Harbor. The idea of ‘no taxation without representation’ was born during this era and led to the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776.

By 1850, the British East India Company began to lose prominence and suffered financial losses. Americans repealed the Navigation Acts, which previously required all tea to be shipped straight from England. They began importing tea directly from China using clipper ships and a new tea culture emerged.

Initially, tea in America was bought largely at major auctions where the leaves were sold to the highest bidder. Starting in 1903, patents were issued for handmade tea bags that made it easier to consume the beverage. Thomas Sullivan, a tea merchant from New York is credited with developing the first commercial-grade tea bag. Iced tea also became a popular drink in the early 20th century.

At the 1904 World Fair, iced tea made its debut after unusually hot weather made the hot version unpopular. The tea merchant dumped some ice into the brewed tea and a superstar was born. Iced tea accounts for close to 80% of American tea consumption today. Popular in the South as sweet tea, this beverage is a regular favorite at barbecues and on porches across the country.

Tea Today

In the modern world, the tea industry has exploded with flavors and varieties. Tea is no longer restricted only to varieties from the tea plant. There are tea infusions made from roots, herbs, spices, and flower petals. There’s a taste for everyone with options running the gamut from spiced teas to herbal tisanes. This popular drink has become a staple in traditional medicine and modern cultural engagements.

Tea is consumed in Britain as part of political and social engagements. Popular with everyone including the royal family, it’s a staple of everyday life. In America, tea houses introduce new tea drinkers to different varietals. It increasingly replaces coffee as a caffeinated alternative that doesn’t induce the jitters. In the east, it’s as popular as ever. Tea is often served with each meal in China, India, and Japan. Each nation prides themselves on centuries of techniques and processes that make their tea drinks unique.

Scientific research continues to show the health benefits of regular tea consumption. Daily cups of tea can help to streamline the digestive system, boost immunity, and even fend off deadly disease such as cancer. With thousands of flavors and aromas, it’s safe to say tea will continue its popularity for centuries to come.

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