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The History of Tea: From Humble Little Plant to Green Gold

It has fired imaginations, crossed continents, and changed people’s lives. Delve into tea’s intriguing story.

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Origins & Legends

The story of tea is older than our memories, and its origins are shrouded in mystery. Travel to the border areas between India and China, and you will find truly ancient tea trees, some up to 1,700 years old.

One legend from around 5,000 years ago describes how the Father of Chinese Medicine, Emperor Shen Nung, took an afternoon nap. Upon waking, he saw that a few tea leaves had drifted into his cup of boiling water. He tasted the infusion and immediately decreed that all his subjects should regularly drink it for their health.

Another story set around 2,500 years ago tells of the famous Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. After meditating continuously for nine long years, Bodhidharma became drowsy and fell asleep. He was so angry that he cut off his eyelids, and where the eyelids landed, the first tea plants began to grow.

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Early Tea Drinking

Tea drinking is first mentioned in texts dating back to the 3rd century BC, such as the Erya, the first Chinese dictionary, and the Shijing, ‘the Book of Songs’. Both suggest that by this time, tea (called tu) had already been used for cooking and medicines for well over a thousand years.

In time, tea became closely associated with Buddhism as a useful tonic for staying awake whilst spending long hours meditating, and even as an 'elixir' of life and immortality.

Later, tea in China began increasingly to be used as currency, traded for horses with Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia. The tea leaves were compressed into ‘cakes’ or ‘bricks’ for easy transportation across the Himalayas, on what would become known as the Tea Horse Road.

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The Art of Tea

By the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) ‘brick tea’ was part of cultured life in China and every distinguished family employed a Tea Master to prepare their leaves. The era’s flourishing tea culture was uniquely captured in Lu Yu’s book, The Classic of Tea, covering everything from growing to the rituals of preparation.

Lu Yu’s influence continued into the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), by which time tea drinking was widely recognised as a highly sophisticated pastime associated with poetry, art, and music. The Song period also saw the flourishing of tea houses and the enjoyment of tea in everyday public life.

The Mongol invasion in the mid-13th century briefly halted these tea traditions. But with the rise of the Ming dynasty, celebrated for its famous blue and white porcelain tea ware, tea culture was revived.

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Tea Travels

Interest in tea first spread to Japan in the 7th century, but it is the 12th century Buddhist priest Myōan Eisai who is credited as the founder of the Japanese tea tradition and the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony (chanoyu).

In Europe, tea only arrived in the 1600s, introduced by Portuguese traders. Much of this tea was green, but soon Chinese tea-makers and traders began to favour oxidised leaves for export – black tea travelled better and appealed more to the western palate.

Advertised as an ‘excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors’, tea went on sale for the first time to the English public at Garraway’s Coffee House in London in 1657. It soon also caught on in wider aristocratic circles, thanks to Catherine of Braganza, the tea-loving Portuguese bride of King Charles II said to have invented ‘British’ afternoon tea.

Tea Trading

In the 1680s, the British East India Company was granted trading rights in China. As local demand boomed, the humble leaf found its way into the economics and politics of the nation. When Cromwell enforced a heavy tea tax in the 1750s, a vast black market for smuggled tea took hold. And when new world colonists opposed tea taxes during the so-called Boston Tea Party of 1773, it triggered the fight for American independence.

Uncomfortable with its reliance on China for goods, and the resulting trade imbalances, Britain began paying for its tea with another of the Empire’s commodities – opium from India. Successive Chinese emperors tried to end the practice, sparking the Opium Wars. Britain prevailed, gaining far greater trading rights and access to ports, and further fueling the heyday of the great tea clippers which raced their precious cargoes to Britain.

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Tea Producing

At the same time, Britain pursued the idea of cultivating its own source of tea. In 1823, a variety of the tea plant had been discovered in Assam, India, but it was assumed to be inferior to the Chinese variant. It was not until Charles Bruce successfully made an agreeable brew from the Assam tea plant that Indian-grown tea took off. In 1839 the first Assam tea chests arrived for auction in London.

Another development came when botanist Robert Fortune was sent to China in 1848 as a ‘tea spy’. Disguised as a Mandarin merchant, he unlocked the closely guarded secrets of Chinese tea making and smuggled thousands of tea seeds out of the country for planting in India. This paved the way for the first large-scale plantations in Darjeeling – and tea production soon spread to other British territories such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and East Africa.

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Tea Today

By the 20th century, the little green leaf had become so fundamental to British life that during WW2, the government called for all London tea reserves to be rehoused outside potential bombing zones.

Today, tea is grown in over fifty countries and demand is global. It is said that over 165 million cups of tea are consumed each day in the UK alone. And while hectic lifestyles and limited choice have challenged Britain’s long-standing tea traditions, there is a renewed interest in specialty teas and tea culture.

In part this is driven by tea’s health properties, and scientific papers all over the world are starting to make sense of what Emperor Shen Nung intuitively knew 5,000 years ago: that tea not is not a forgettable commodity item but a delicious and special drink that can enrich our everyday lives and wellbeing. Read about Tea Benefits here.

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