The History Of Tea

The history of tea spreads across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years, with the tea plant Camellia Sinensis native to the southern Himalayan region of north-east India & Burma, flourished in China, and was introduced into Indian subcontinent by the British who acquired this habit from the Dutch. The earliest tea drinking is thought to date back to China’s Shang dynasty, in which tea was consumed as a medicinal drink. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the third century AD in a medical text written by Chinese physician Hua Tuo, but it first became known to the Western world through Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the early sixteenth century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the seventeenth century and the British introduced commercial tea production to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea.

Tea from Yunnan.

Camellia sinensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree in the flowering plant family ‘Theaceae’ and its leaves and leaf buds are used to produce the popular beverage of tea. Common names include tea plant, tea shrub and tea tree. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, dark tea and black tea are all harvested from one of two major varieties grown today, however Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation, with black tea being the most oxidised and green being the least. Kukicha (twig) tea is also harvested from Camellia sinensis, but uses twigs and stems rather than leaves. It seems that Camellia sinensis originated around the intersection of latitude 29°N and longitude 98°E, the point of confluence of the lands of South-west China, Tibet, North Burma, and North-east India. The plant was introduced to more than 52 countries from this centre of origin. There are some myths associated with tea, as in one popular Chinese legend the Emperor Shennong was drinking a bowl of just boiled water because of a decree that his subjects must boil water before drinking it. Some time around 2737 BC, a few leaves were blown from a nearby tree into his water, changing the colour and taste. The emperor took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavour and restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote. A similar Chinese legend states that Shennong would chew the leaves, stems, and roots of various plants to discover medicinal herbs. If he consumed a poisonous plant, he would chew tea leaves to counteract the poison. The earliest physical evidence known of tea comes from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han, indicating that tea was drunk by Emperors of the Han dynasty as early as the second century BC. China is therefore considered to have the earliest records of tea consumption, with possible records dating back to the tenth century BC. It should be noted however that the current word for tea in Chinese only came into use in the eighth century AD, there are uncertainties as to whether the older words used are the same as tea. The first record of cultivation of tea also dates it to the Han dynasty when tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain, near Chengdu. From the Tang to the Qing dynasties, the first 360 leaves of tea grown here were picked each spring and presented to the emperor. Even today its green and yellow teas are still sought after. Teas produced in this period were mainly tea bricks which were often used as currency, especially further from the centre of the empire where coins lost their value. In this period, tea leaves were steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake or brick forms. Then the production and preparation of all tea changed during the Song dynasty. The tea included many loose-leaf styles, to preserve the delicate character which was favoured by court society and it is the origin of today’s loose teas and the practice of brewed tea. A powdered form of tea also emerged. Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea.

An illustration of the legend of monkeys harvesting tea.

The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-thirteenth century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. By the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stopped the oxidation process which turned the leaves dark and allowed tea to remain green. In the fifteenth century oolong tea, where the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying, was developed. But Western taste preferred the fully oxidised black tea and the leaves were allowed to ferment further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently sloppy practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, which yielded a different flavour as a result. Tea production in China was a laborious process, conducted in distant and often poorly accessible regions and this led to the rise of many stories and legends surrounding the harvesting process. For example, one story that has been told for many years is that of a village where monkeys would pick tea. According to this legend, the villagers stand below the monkeys and taunt them. The monkeys, in turn, become angry, and grab handfuls of tea leaves and throw them at the villagers. There are products sold today that claim to be harvested in this manner, however no reliable commentators have observed this first-hand, and most doubt that it happened at all. For many hundreds of years the commercially used tea tree has been, in shape, more of a bush than a tree. ‘Monkey picked tea’ is more likely a name of certain varieties than a description of how it was obtained. In 1391, the Hongwu emperor issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a ‘tribute’, and as a result, tea production shifted from cake tea to loose-leaf tea and processing techniques advanced, giving rise to the more energy efficient methods of pan-firing and sun-drying. The last group to adopt loose-leaf tea were the scholar officials, also known as literati who were government officials and prestigious scholars in Chinese society, forming a distinct social class and who were reluctant to abandon their refined culture of whisking tea until the invention of oolong tea. But by the end of the 16th century, loose-leaf tea had entirely replaced the earlier tradition of cake and powdered tea.

Japanese tea ceremony.

In China, during the Sui dynasty (581 AD to 618 AD), tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks and the use of it then spread. Tea later became a drink of the religious classes in Japan and it became a drink of the royal classes when the Emperor Saga encouraged the growth of tea plants. Seeds were imported from China, and cultivation in Japan began. Then in 1191 a Zen priest named Eisai introduced tea seeds to Kyoto and some of the tea seeds were given to the priest Myoe Shonin, which became the basis for Uji tea. Green tea became a staple drink amongst cultured people in Japan, a brew for both gentry and the Buddhist priesthood alike. Production grew and tea became more and more accessible, though still a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper classes. The tea ceremony of Japan was introduced from China in the 15th century by Buddhists as a semi-religious social custom and the modern tea ceremony developed over several centuries by Zen Buddhist monks. Both the beverage and the ceremony surrounding it played a prominent role in feudal diplomacy. In 1738, Soen Nagatani developed Japanese sencha, literally ‘simmered tea’ which is an unfermented form of green tea. By the twentieth century, machine manufacturing of green tea was introduced and began replacing handmade tea. Later, tea was introduced by Buddhist monks to Korea, where the ‘Day Tea Rite’ was a common daytime ceremony, whereas the ‘Special Tea Rite’ was reserved for specific occasions.

A conical urn-shaped silver-plated samovar used for boiling water for tea in Russia and some Middle-Eastern countries.

The earliest record of tea in Western world is said to be found in the statement of an Arabian traveller, that after 879 the main sources of revenue in Canton were the duties on salt and tea. Marco Polo records the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea taxes. In 1557, Portugal established a trading port in Macau and word of the Chinese drink “chá” spread quickly, but there is no mention of them bringing any samples home. In the early seventeenth century, a ship of the Dutch East India Company brought the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China. Tea was known in France by 1636 and it enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Paris around 1648. The history of tea in Russia can also be traced back to the same century. Tea was first offered by China as a gift to Czar Michael I in 1618. The Russian ambassador tried the drink but he did not care for it and rejected the offer, delaying tea’s Russian introduction by fifty years. By 1689, tea was regularly imported from China to Russia via a caravan of hundreds of camels travelling the year-long journey, making it a precious commodity at the time. Tea was appearing in German apothecaries by 1657 but never gained much esteem except in some coastal areas. Tea first appeared publicly in England during the 1650s, where it was introduced through coffee houses and from there it was introduced to British colonies in both America and elsewhere. Tea was first introduced to Europe by an Italian traveller, who in 1555 published ‘Voyages and Travels’, containing the first European reference to tea, which he calls “Chai Catai”. Meanwhile Portuguese priests and merchants in the sixteenth century made their first contact with tea in China, at which time it was termed “chá”. The first Portuguese ships reached China in 1516, and in 1560 Portuguese missionary Gaspar da Cruz published the first Portuguese account of Chinese tea, then in 1565 Portuguese missionary Louis Almeida published the first European account of tea in Japan.

A Tea Garden in Assam, India.

Commercial production of tea was first introduced into India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea and the British, using Chinese seeds, plus Chinese planting and cultivating techniques, launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export. Tea was originally only consumed by Anglicised Indians, it was not until the 1950s that tea grew widely popular in India through a successful advertising campaign by the India Tea Board. Prior to the British, the plant may have been used for medicinal purposes as some cite the Sanjeevani plant as the first recorded reference of tea use in India. However, scientific studies have shown that this plant is in fact a different plant and is not related to tea. Commercial production of tea in India did not begin until the arrival of the British East India Company, at which point large tracts of land were converted for mass tea production. The Chinese variety is used for Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kangra tea, whilst the Assam variety, clonal to the native to Assam, was used everywhere else. The British started commercial tea plantations in India and in Ceylon, only black tea was produced until recent decades mostly in India, except in Kangra (present-day Himachal Pradesh) which produced green tea for exporting to central Asia, Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.

Kangra, a tea-growing region in India, known for its green tea production.

In fact, India was the top producer of tea for nearly a century but was then displaced by China as the top tea producer in the 21st century. It also seems that Indian tea companies have acquired a number of iconic foreign tea enterprises including British brands Lipton, Tetley, Twinings and Typhoo. Most of the Indian tea garden owners have focused on exports to markets like Europe and Russia, whilst very few have focused on building their own brands such as Makaibari, Dharmsala Tea Company, and a few others. Even so, India is the largest consumer of tea worldwide but the consumption of tea in India remains a modest 750 grams per person annually. Recently consumption of green tea has seen a great upsurge across the cities, and regions such as Kangra, which were known for their green tea production historically, have seen a resurgence of their green teas in the domestic market. Other countries also produce tea, such as Iran, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Australia and Africa. Taiwan is famous for the making of oolong tea and green tea, as well as many western-styled teas. Bubble tea or ‘Zhen Zhu Nai Cha’ is black tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk and tapioca. Since the island was known to Westerners for many centuries as Formosa, short for the Portuguese Ilha Formosa, or ‘beautiful island’, tea grown in Taiwan is often identified by that name. The drinking of tea in the United States was largely influenced by the passage of the Tea Act and its subsequent protest during the American Revolution. Tea consumption sharply decreased in America during and after the Revolution, when many Americans switched from drinking tea to drinking coffee, considering tea drinking to be unpatriotic. It seems Canadians were big tea drinkers from the days of British colonisation until the Second World War, when they began drinking more coffee like their American neighbours to the south. During the 1990s, Canadians begun to purchase more speciality teas instead of coffee. In South America, the tea production in Brazil has strong roots because of the country’s origins in Portugal, the strong presence of Japanese immigrants, and because of the influences of Argentina’s culture. Brazil had a big tea production until the 1980s, but it has weakened in the past decades. The first record of tea in English came from a letter written in 1615 by Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, writing to a merchant in Macao requesting ‘the best sort of chaw’. But a traveller and merchant who came across tea in Fuji in 1637, wrote, “chaa – only water with a kind of herb boiled in it’. In 1657, Thomas Garway, a tobacconist and coffee-man was the first to sell tea in London at his house in Exchange Alley, charging between 16 and 50 shillings per pound. The same year, tea was listed as an item in the price list in a London coffee house and the first advertisement for tea appeared in 1658. In 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.” It is probable that early imports were smuggled via Amsterdam or through sailors arriving on eastern boats. The marriage of King Charles II in 1662 to Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza brought the tea drinking habit to court. Official trade of tea began in 1664 with an import of only two pound two ounces for presentation to the king, which grew to 24 million pounds per year by 1801. Tea was traded in significant amounts by the 18th century, when tea was being sold by grocers and tea shops in London. By the 1720s black tea overtook green tea in popularity as the price dropped, and early on British drinkers began adding sugar and milk to tea, a practice that was not done in China. By the 1720s European maritime trade with China was dominated by exchange of silver for tea. As prices continued to drop, tea became increasingly popular and by 1750 had become the British national drink. A fungus reduced coffee production in Ceylon by 95% in the nineteenth century, thus cementing tea’s popularity. The escalation of tea importation and sales over the period 1690 to 1750 is mirrored closely by the increase in importation and sales of cane sugar, as the British were not drinking just tea but ‘sweet’ tea. As a result, two of Britain’s trading triangles converged, the sugar sourced from Britain’s trading triangle encompassing Britain, Africa and the West Indies and the tea from the triangle encompassing Britain, India and China. In China, the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the MaCartney Mission’s request for trade in 1793, saying “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Tea had to be paid in silver bullion, and critics of the tea trade at this time would point to the damage caused to Britain’s wealth by this loss of bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. Although opium use in China had a long history, the British importation of opium increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837, and usage of the drug became more widespread across Chinese society. The Qing government attitude towards opium, which was often ambivalent, hardened because of the social problems created by drug use and took serious measures to curtail importation of opium during 1838 and 1839. Tea had therefore become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire, and the banning of the opium trade and thus the creation of funding issues for tea importers was one of the main causes of the ‘First Opium War’ a series of military engagements fought between Britain and the Qing dynasty of China between 1839 and 1842. The immediate issue was the Chinese enforcement of their ban on the opium trade by seizing private opium stocks from merchants at Canton and threatening to impose the death penalty for future offenders. Despite the opium ban, the British government supported the merchants’ demand for compensation for seized goods, and insisted on the principles of free trade and equal diplomatic recognition with China. Opium was Britain’s single most profitable commodity trade of the 19th century. After months of tensions between the two nations, the British navy launched an expedition in June 1840 and by August 1842 had defeated the Chinese using modern and technologically superior ships and weapons. The British then imposed the Treaty of Nanking, which forced China to increase foreign trade, give compensation, and cede Hong Kong to the British. Consequently the opium trade continued in China. Twentieth century nationalists consider 1839 the start of a century of humiliation and many historians consider it the beginning of modern Chinese history. But, whilst waging war on China was one of Britain’s tactics, it also began to use India for growing tea. After tea plants were smuggled out of China, plantations were established in areas such as Darjeeling, Assam, and Ceylon. As an attempt to circumvent its dependence on Chinese tea, the East India Company sent a Scottish botanist to China to purchase and bring out of China tea plants, which were then taken to India, although it was the discovery of native varieties of tea plant in India which proved more important for the development of production there. Tea remained a very important item in Britain’s global trade, contributing in part to Britain’s global dominance by the end of the 18th century. To this day, tea is seen worldwide as a symbol of ‘Britishness’, but also, to some, as a symbol of good old British colonialism.

This week…
If you ever think mythology is boring…
Just remember that Cerberus, the hellhound and guard dog of the Underworld, comes from the root Indo-European word Ḱerberos, which evolved into the Greek word Kerberos, which got changed to Cerberus when it went from Greek to Latin. Ḱerberos means ‘spotted’.
So Hades, Lord of the dead, literally named his pet dog ‘Spot’.

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