The History of Tea
The Legendary Origins According to Chinese mythology, tea was discovered in 2737 BC by Shen Nong, also known as Yan Di or Shen Nong Shi – (2,852-2737 B.C.), the second of the three Chinese Emperors of the San Huang Period, (3,000 – 2,700 B.C.).
He was a scholar, the father of agriculture and the inventor of Chinese herbal medicine. His edicts required that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution.
One summer day while visiting a distant region, he and the court stopped to rest, and his servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from the nearby bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid was infused into the water.
As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing. The tree was a wild tea tree, and so, tea was created.
The Chinese Influence
The original English pronunciation of the word tea was “tay” and can be traced back to around 1655 when the Dutch introduced both word and beverage to England.
The pronunciation “tee” also originated in the 1600’s but only gained predominance after the late 18th century.
Both words may have come from the Malay “the” and from the Chinese Mandarin character “cha” pronounced “t’e” in the Amoy (Xiamen) dialect.
The word was used to describe both the beverage and the leaf. The Japanese character for tea is written exactly the same as the Chinese, though pronounced with a slight difference.
Tea is first mentioned in Chinese writing in 222 AD as a substitute for wine, and in a circa 350 AD Chinese dictionary.
By the third century AD tea was being advocated for its properties as a healthy, refreshing drink and the benefits of tea drinking, but it was not until the Nobility of the Tang Dynasty (618 AD – 906 AD) made tea fashionable, that tea became China’s national drink.
As the demand for tea rose steadily, Chinese farmers began to cultivate tea rather than harvest leaves from wild trees.
Tea was commonly made into roasted cakes, which were then pounded into small pieces and placed in a china pot. After adding boiling water, onion, spices, ginger or orange were introduced to produce many regional variations.Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture.
In 780 A.D., Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book on tea, the “Ch’a Ching”. He was orphaned and raised by scholarly Buddhist monks in one of China’s finest monasteries.
However, as a young man, he rebelled against the discipline of training. In mid-life he retired for five years into seclusion. Drawing from his vast memory of observed events and places, he codified the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China.
The vast definitive nature of his work projected him into near sainthood within his own lifetime. Lu Yu is known as the “Tea Saint”.
The book inspired the Zen Buddhist missionaries to create the form of tea service that would later be introduced to imperial Japan as the Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu.
The spread of tea cultivation throughout China and Japan is largely accredited to the movement of Buddhist priests throughout the region.
960-1280 Sung Dynasty
Tea was used widely. Powdered tea had become common. Beautiful ceramic tea accessories of dark-blue, black and brown glazes, which contrasted with the vivid green of the whisked tea, were favored.
Emperor Hui Tsung wrote about the best ways to make whisked tea. A strong patron of the tea industry, he had tournaments in which members of the court identified different types of tea. Legend has it that he became so obsessed with tea he hardly noticed the Mongols who overthrew his empire. During his reign, teahouses built in natural settings became popular among the Chinese.
1206 – 1368 Yuan Dynasty
Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan conquered Chinese territories and established a Mongolian dynasty in power for more than a century. Tea became an ordinary drink, never regaining the high status it once enjoyed.
1368-1644 Ming Dynasty
People again began to enjoy tea. The new method of preparation was steeping whole leaves in water. The resulting pale liquid necessitated a lighter color ceramic than was popular in the past. White and off-white tea-ware became the style of the time.
Indian legends credit that the practice of tea drinking was begun in honor of Bodhidharma (ca. 460-534). Bodhidharma was a monk and the founder of the Ch’an (or Zen) sect of Buddhism. Born near Madras, India, he traveled to China in 520.
The Indian legend tells how in the fifth year of a seven-year sleepless contemplation of Buddha he began to feel drowsy. He immediately plucked a few leaves from a nearby brush and chewed them, which dispelled his tiredness. The bush was a wild tea tree.
The Japanese Influence
Buddhist monks introduced the ritual drinking of tea into Japan from China in the sixth century.
It wasn’t until 1191 that tea really took hold in Japan with the return from China of the Zen priest Eisai (1141-1215). Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan, introduced powdered tea and tea seeds that he brought back with him from China.
The tea seeds were planted by his friend the priest Myoe (1173-1232) at the Kozanji temple in the hills northwest of Kyoto.
As a result, he is known as the “Father of Tea” in Japan.
Tea was elevated to an art form with the creation of the Japanese ritual tea ceremony (“Cha-no-yu”), a ritual for the preparation, serving, and drinking of tea. The ceremony became institutionalized during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333 AD) when tea was taken by Zen Buddhist monks to keep them awake during meditations.
The word Chanoyu, or Cha-no-yu, means hot water for tea –cha, tea (from Middle Chinese) + no, possessive particle + yu, hot water.
Chanoyu is an expression of Zen Buddhism, and its formalities are derived from the simple and practical manners of the Buddhist monks’ daily activities in monasteries
Each art form in Japan is represented by a “way” that is a tradition and a way of life pertaining to the respective art form. Popular “ways” in Japan include the way of flowers, the way of incense, the way of calligraphy, the way of poetry, the way of the sword, the way of self-defense, and Chado, the way of tea. Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, is the vehicle through which Chado is manifested.
Several prominent tea masters contributed to the development of Chanoyu.
The tea master Sen Rikyu (1522-1591) developed WABICHA or the style of tea that reflects a simple and quiet taste. From Zen traditions Rikyu established the four guiding principles of Chanoyu: wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquility).
A special form of architecture (chaseki) developed for “tea houses”, based on the duplication of the simplicity of a forest cottage. A separate tea room (“cha-shitsu”) in Japanese homes is constructed so that one enters on your knees to show humility. The cultural/artistic hostesses of Japan, the Geisha, began to specialize in the presentation of the tea ceremony.
Europe Learns of Tea
While tea was at a high level of development in both Japan and China, information concerning this then unknown beverage began to filter back to Europe. Earlier caravan leaders had mentioned it, but were unclear as to its service format or appearance. (One reference suggests the leaves be boiled, salted, buttered, and eaten!)
The first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was the Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560. Portugal, with her technologically advanced navy, had opened up the sea routes to China, as early as 1515.
The Portuguese developed a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon, and then Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland, and the Baltic countries. Dutch sailors on the ships encouraged Dutch merchants to enter the tea trade.
Holland was politically affiliated with Portugal then, but when this alliance was altered in 1602, Holland, with her excellent navy, entered into full Pacific trade on her own.
East India Company, Dutch, 1602–1798, chartered by the States-General of the Netherlands to expand trade and assure close relations between the government and its colonial enterprises in Asia. The company was granted a monopoly on Dutch trade East of the Cape of Good Hope and West of the Strait of Magellan.
From its headquarters at Batavia (founded 1619) the company subdued local rulers, drove the British and Portuguese from Indonesia, Malaya, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and arrogated to itself the fabulous trade of the Spice Islands.
A colony, established (1652) in South Africa at the Cape of Good Hope, remained Dutch until conquered by Great Britain in 1814. The company was dissolved when it became scandalously corrupt and nearly insolvent in the late 18th century, and its possessions became part of the Dutch colonial empire in East Asia.
Tea became very fashionable in the Dutch capital, The Hague. This was due in part to the high cost of the tea (over $100 per pound), which immediately made it the domain of the wealthy.
The Netherlands epitomized the height of fashion in tea serving by 1666 and every well to do home had it’s own exclusive tearoom. The Dutch were the first to add milk to both tea and coffee.
Slowly, as the amount of tea imported increased, the price fell as the volume of sale expanded. Initially available to the public in apothecaries along with such rare and new spices as ginger and sugar, by 1675 it was available in common food shops throughout Holland.
As the consumption of tea increased dramatically in Dutch society, doctors and university authorities argued back and forth as to the negative and/or positive benefits of tea.
Known as “tea heretics”, the public largely ignored the scholarly debate and continued to enjoy their new beverage though the controversy lasted from 1635 to roughly 1657.
Throughout this period France and Holland led Europe in the use of tea.
As the craze for things oriental swept Europe, tea became part of the way of life. The social critic Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Seven makes the first mention in 1680 of adding milk to tea.
During the same period, Dutch inns provided the first restaurant service of tea. Tavern owners would furnish guests with a portable tea set complete with a heating unit.
The independent Dutchman would then prepare tea for himself and his friends outside in the tavern’s garden.
Tea Travels to America
In the 1600s tea became popular throughout Europe and the American colonies.
By 1650 the Dutch were actively involved in trade throughout the Western world. Peter Stuyvesant brought the first tea to America to the colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (later re-named New York by the English).
Settlers here were confirmed tea drinkers. And indeed, on acquiring the colony, the English found that the small settlement consumed more tea at that time then all of England.
1773 The Boston Tea Party, protesting high taxes that England levied on tea, began of the American colonies’ fight for independence. Under cover of night, colonists dressed as Native Americans boarded East India Company ships in Boston Harbor.
They opened chests of tea and dumped their contents into the water. This was repeated in other less known instances up and down the coast.
1840’s Clipper ships, built in America, sped-up the transportation of tea to America and Europe, livening the pace of trade.
Some ships could make the trip from Hong Kong to London in ninety-five days. Races to London became commonplace; smugglers and blockade-runners also benefited from the advances in sailing speeds.
Two major American contributions to tea drinking were:
in 1904, when Richard Blechynden created iced tea for the St. Louis World Fair and
in 1908 when Thomas Sullivan invented tea bags in New York, sending tea to clients in silk bags, which they began to mistakenly steep without opening.
Tea Arrives in England
Great Britain was the last of the three great sea-faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes. This was due in part to the unsteady ascension to the throne of the Stuarts and the Cromwellian Civil War.
The first printed reference to tea, calling it chau, was a 1598 English translation of “Voyages and Travel of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten”, originally published in Holland.
Linschoten, a Dutch explorer, sailed around South Africa to Goa. The account of his travels and tea drinking customs of India stimulated future Dutch and English expeditions to the East Indies.
The first samples of tea reached England between 1652 and 1654. Tea was referred to as the China drink, tcha, chaw, tay, tee, and tea and was at first regarded more as a medicine than a fashionable drink.
By 1657 tea was being served at Garraway’s coffee house for such cures as cleaning kidneys and “overcoming superfluous sleep”.
When tea was introduced in England a pound of tea cost the average British laborer the equivalent of none months wages, and was the drink of Royalty. Teacups were small!
As in Holland, it was the nobility that provided the necessary stamp of approval and so insured its acceptance.
Tea became a society drink for ladies when in 1662 Charles II married, while in exile, the Portuguese Infanta Princess Catherine of Braganza 1638–1705) born in Vila Viçosa, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal.
She was married to Charles in 1662 as part of an alliance between England and Portugal.
Charles himself had grown up in the Dutch capital. As a result, both he and his Portuguese bride were confirmed tea drinkers. When the monarchy was re-established, the two rulers brought this foreign tea tradition to England with them.
Elizabeth I had founded The John Company (East India Company) by Royal Charter on December 31, 1600 to challenge the Dutch-Portuguese monopoly of the East Indian spice trade.
The spice trade had been a monopoly of Spain and Portugal until the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) by England gave the English the chance to break the monopoly.
When Catherine de Braganza married Charles she brought as part of her dowry the territories of Tangier and Bombay. Suddenly, the John Company had a base of operations.
In 1612 The East India Company, which was officially named “Governor and company of Merchants of London Trading with East Indies” defeated the Portuguese in India and won trading concessions from the Mughal Empire.
With the approval of local Indian rulers, the East India Company established trading posts in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, and began trading in cottons, silks, indigo, saltpeter and tea.
Some notable dates in tea history:
1717 Thomas Twining converted Toim’s Coffee House into the golden Lyon, the first teashop in London.
1776 England sent the first opium to China. Opium addiction in China funded the escalating demand for tea in England. Cash trade for the drug increased until the opium wars began in 1839.
1835 The East India Company established experimental tea plantations in Assam, India.
1834 An Imperial Edict from the Chinese Emperor closed all Chinese ports to foreign vessels until the end of the First Opium War in 1842.
1838 A small amount of Indian tea sent to England was eagerly consumed due to its novelty.
1840 Afternoon tea was “invented” by Anna, Duchess of Bedford (1783 – 1857), wife of the 7th Duke as “a way to quell the inevitable hunger pangs between lunch and dinner”.
1856 Tea was planted in many areas of Darjeeling.
1857 Tea plantations were started in Ceylon, though their tea would not be exported until the 1870’s.
1869 A deadly fungus wiped out the coffee crop in Ceylon, shifting preference from coffee to tea.
1869 The Suez Canal opened, making the trip to China shorter and more economical by steamship.
1870 Twinings of England began to blend tea for consistency.
1876 Glasgow grocer, Thomas Lipton opens his first teashop.
1953 World’s first instant tea is introduced.