Origins and Legends
The story of tea is older than our memories, and its true origins are shrouded in mystery. Travel to the border areas between India and China, the ancestral homeland of the camellia sinensis, and you will find truly ancient tea trees, some up to 1,700 years old. These plants have been harvested for as long as local people can remember.
As with any good mystery, all sorts of colourful legends surround the beginnings of tea drinking and tea culture. One legend, from around 5,000 years ago, describes how the Second Divine Emperor and Celestial God Shen Nung (also venerated as the Father of Chinese Medicine), took an afternoon nap. Upon waking from his slumber, he saw that a few tea leaves had blown into his cup of boiling water. He tasted the liquor and immediately decreed that all his subjects should regularly drink this infusion 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 fell asleep. He was so angry that he cut off his eyelids, and where the eyelids landed, the first tea plants began to grow.
Early tea drinking
Tea drinking is first mentioned in ancient texts dating back to the 3rd century BC, such as the Erya , the first Chinese dictionary, and the Shijing, ‘the Book of Songs’. However, 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. Legend has it that in 53 BC a Buddhist monk named Wu Li Zhen planted the first true tea garden, beside a particularly fragrant spring on Mengding Mountain. The story goes that the emperor of that time loved the tea so much that it became one of the famous Tribute Tea Gardens.
The Chinese increasingly began to use tea as currency; they traded tea 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.
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 advise on, and prepare, their tea. When Lu Yu wrote his famous text, The Classic of Tea, he elevated tea to an art form. In this famous opus, he covers everything from growing and classifying tea, to the rituals of mindful tea preparation. He also laments what was then the common practice of adding fruit pastes, ginger, cloves, and even salt and onion to tea leaves!
Lu Yu’s influence continued into the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) by which time tea drinking was a highly sophisticated pastime enjoyed with exquisite tea ware and associated with poetry, art and music. The Song era also saw the flourishing of tea houses and the enjoyment of tea in everyday public life.
The Mongol invasion under Kublai Khan in the mid-13th century halted these tea traditions. But with the return of the Ming dynasty, Song tea culture was revived, with blue and white tea ware, small teapots to hold the finest, most precious teas, and flower petals to scent the tea.
Interest in this magical brew and its highly sophisticated rituals first spread to Japan through diplomatic missions during the 7th and 8th centuries. But it didn’t properly take on until the Buddhist priest Myōan Eisai brought tea seeds back from China and wrote 'Drinking Tea for Health'. This gave rise to the chanoyu – the Japanese tea ceremony – which is still practiced in Japan today. It held much in common with the Song dynasty tea concept, embodying four aspects: harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquillity (jaku).
By the early 17th century the first Dutch and Portuguese traders had introduced tea drinking to Europe, where it became popular with the upper classes. Much of this tea was green, but soon the Chinese tea makers began to oxidise the tea leaves for export because they lasted better after long voyages, and appealed more to the western palate.
Tea first became available for sale in England in 1685 at Garraway’s Coffee House in London, where it was advertised as an "excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors". It was touted as a ‘temperance’ drink along with coffee and hot chocolate as part of efforts to wean Londoners off ale. It soon became popular with the dandies who frequented these coffee houses (soon to be re-named tea houses) and a few years later the Portuguese bride of King Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, would start the fashion for afternoon tea, to be drunk with milk and sugar.
In 1684 the British East India Company was granted trading rights in China, ending the earlier Dutch monopoly on the lucrative tea trade. Demand for tea grew as the fashion for tea drinking spread beyond the confines of the upper classes, and tea houses opened across London. When Cromwell enforced a heavy tea tax, a black market in smuggled tea took hold. By 1773 new world colonists were so outraged by the high taxes that they dumped British tea chests into Boston Harbour, marking the beginning of the fight for American independence.
As demand rose, Britain became increasingly uncomfortable with the over-reliance on China for goods, including tea. Its solution was to pay suppliers with another of the Empire’s commodities – opium from India. With an increasingly addicted population, successive Chinese emperors tried to end the practice, sparking the Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-60. The result was that Britain won far greater trading rights and access to ports, as well as the islands of Hong Kong.
Simultaneously Britain pursued the idea of cultivating its own source of tea. In 1823 a variety of the tea plant had been discovered by Robert Bruce in Assam, India, but it was assumed to be inferior to the Chinese variant. It was not until Robert’s cousin, Charles, successfully made an agreeable brew from the Assam tea plant that Indian tea took off. In 1839 the very first Assam tea chests arrived for auction in London.
Another major breakthrough 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 East Africa and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This was the heyday of the great tea clippers which carried cargoes of tea to Britain. These ships would compete in informal races to be the first ship to dock in London with the new crop of each season - The Great Tea Race of 1866 is the best known.
By the 20th century tea was firmly entrenched as a very British custom. The little green leaf became so fundamental to British life that during WW2 the government called for all London tea reserves to be rehoused outside potential bombing zones.
Tea is now grown in over fifty countries and the demand is global – after water, it is the world’s most popular beverage. In the United Kingdom alone, it is said that over 165 million cups of tea are consumed each day. And while hectic lifestyles and limited choice have challenged Britain’s long-standing tea drinking traditions, there is a renewed interest in speciality teas from around the world. In kitchen cupboards across the country, the everyday cuppa now sits comfortably next to a fresh green tea from China and a caffeine free rooibos tea from the Cape.
We are witnessing a revival of tea knowledge, and all over the world there are studies being conducted on tea’s health benefits, credited for over 1500 years in Chinese traditional medicine. We are rediscovering what we always knew: that tea not as a forgettable commodity item but a delicious and special substance that can enrich our everyday lives.