History of Tea
In China, there are various legends about the origins of tea drinking. Most sources,
however, attribute the discovery of tea as a beverage to Emperor Shen Nung (also Shen
Nong; Shen Nong Shi), who reigned in the third millennium BC.
It was in the spring of 2737 BC, when Shen Nung settled down in the shade of a wild tea bush
and requested that his servants boil some water for him. Aware that this would protect him
from diseases, Shen Nung always had his water boiled. While he was sipping the beverage, a
leaf broke off the tea tree, and floated into the water. Thus, the Emperor became aware of
the exquisite flavor of the drink, and he was enthralled by the taste and the refreshing
qualities of the infusion.
The poor servant, however, whose duty it was to make sure that no leaves fell into the
Emperors drink, was beheaded. According to popular mythology, his head was wrapped in tea
leaves and buried next to the tea bush.
In India, there is another legend. It is about a man called Darma
(also Daruma). After a wild and crazy youth, Darma turned to asceticism
and became a begging monk. Renamed Bodhi Dharma,
he went to China, where he served as a Buddhist missionary. As a
punishment for the excessive life of his early years, he made a vow
that he would never sleep again. He kept his promise for several years,
but one day, sleep overwhelmed him. Full of remorse for having broken
his word, he tore off his eyelids and threw them away. When he passed
by this place years later, he found an unknown bush on the very spot
where his eyelids had fallen to the ground. He plucked some leaves off
the bush and steeped them in hot water. When he tasted the beverage, he
was granted enlightenment, his weariness was suddenly gone, and his
spirits were raised. Ever since monks have been drinking tea during their long hours
of meditation, and tea is known as “the beverage of
Darma’s eyes” in India.
"Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage", Kakuzo Okarura states in his
famous Book of Tea. Indeed, the Chinese had started to use tea leaves for preparing medicine
and vegetable relishes long before Shen Nungs discovery. But until the incident in 2737 BC,
camellia leaves had never been considered as an ingredient of a hot beverage.
Soon, tea became an essential part of Chinese culture. Tea ceremonies evolved, and the
beverage became common as an aid to meditation.
The greatest Chinese authority on tea was Lu Yü, who was born in the middle of the
eighths century and died in 824. His The Classic of Tea was the first book ever
written about the virtues of tea drinking. It became the most important manual for tea
drinkers in Tang China (618-907), and it exerted a great influence on later Taoist and Zen
Lu Yü considered the making and drinking of tea an art. But despite his attention to
detail, he insisted on moderation:
"Moderation is the very essence of tea. Tea does not lend itself to extravagance. If a
tea is insipid and bland, it will lose its flavor before even half a cup has disappeared.
How much more so in the case of extravagance in its use. The vibrancy will fade from the
color and the perfection of its fragrance will melt away."
Tea drinking spread to Japan in the eighth century. Japanese emperors
recorded gifts of “700 bags of tea that were given to 700
Buddhist monks” and, later, “the construction of
temples in each of which is a large tea garden.” History has
it that Eisei
(also Esai-ki), a Japanese Zen Buddhist
monk, brought tea seeds from China and cultivated them in his own
garden. Within a very short time, tea was accepted and internalised in
the culture of the country. Tea drinking gradually evolved into a ritual
ceremony, the so-called chanoyu
(from Japanese cha
tea + no
possessive particle + yu
hot water), held in a special room according to strict rules. The tea
ceremony expressed – and still expresses – an art
of living that seeks the beautiful in the mundane of life.
Europe and Great Britain
Western civilization encountered tea in the 17th century. Elizabeth I
of England, perceptive about the future of natural resources such as
tea, cotton, or wood, chartered the East India Company in 1600. But
despite English efforts, it was the Dutch or Portuguese (accounts vary
here) who brought the first sample of tea to Europe from Macao in
China. The Dutch East India Company first imported tea in 1637; the
English began to trade in Chinese tea toward the end of the 17th
Tea was very expensive in Europe. English companies and European
merchants sold it at about twenty times the price they had paid for it.
Soon, those in charge discovered the value of this commodity and
– sensing profit for the state –levied a tax.
Oliver Cromwell was allegedly the first who imposed a tea tax. As a
result, tea turned into a much-desired contraband item. History has it
that some of the most cunning tea smugglers of the time were among the
clergy. Many a tomb, emptied of its human remains, served as a perfect
hiding place for bales of tea.
When Charles II ascended the thrown, the popularity of tea grew
rapidly. Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s Portuguese wife, was a tea
aficionada, and she introduced the beverage to the English court. Now,
drinking tea became popular with all classes of society. Whereas in
France, Italy, and Spain tea drinking remained a privilege of the upper
class, in England and the Netherlands it became a common pleasure. The
beverage was sipped in the homes of aristocrats and workers alike, and
it was served in taverns and tea gardens. In 1640, Thomas Garaway
opened the first tea house in London.
The profitability of the tea trade depended largely on the velocity of
the ships. The need for high-speed vessels gave rise to the 19th
century invention of the clipper ship, a sharp-bowed sailing vessel
with tall masts and pointed lines. Tea occasioned the first
long-distance race between transatlantic sailing ships. It attracted
many spectators in all ports of the world, and high bets were placed on
The popularity of tea and the economic success of the tea trade were
amazing. By 1770, the English were importing 6 million pounds a year.
In 1823, it was discovered that tea grew wild in India, and Governor
Bentinick started cultivating these leaves. When tea began to be grown
systematically in the Indian Empire, the tea trade became virtually all
profit for Great Britain, and China lost its preeminence on almost all
Tea reached the height of its popularity in the Victorian era, and ever
since, drinking tea has remained a central part of British culture.