Tea is a very special drink. It is the second most consumed beverage in the world behind water, and has quite an interesting history.
The origins of this delicious drink are shrouded in legend. There are two Chinese myths, both revolving around Emperor Shen Nong around 2300 B.C.E., the father of agriculture. One legend states that a tea leaf floated into his pot as he was boiling water. He liked the infusion so much, that he began further research into it. The second legend says Shen Nong poisoned himself 72 times while experimenting with herbs to see what was edible. It is said that drinking tea relieved him of his ailments.
A second, Indian legend dating from the year 520, depicts the story of Prince Bhodi-Dharma who founded the Zen school of Buddhism. The Prince left India to preach Buddhism in China, and vowed to meditate for nine years without sleep. It is said that towards the end of this mission, he fell asleep. Upon waking up, he was so devastated with his failure, that he cut off his own eyelids and threw them on the ground. For this sacrifice, a tea plant began to grow from them.
Based on archaeological and historical evidence, the consumption of tea began around 6000 years ago. The first ambiguous written record known of tea being used and consumed comes from 59 B.C.E.. Looking at physical evidence, the world's oldest tea was found in 2016 in the Han dynasty tomb of Emperor Ying Di. Ying Gi died in 141 B.C.E., making this artefact over 2000 years old!
Tea consumption became widespread in during the Tang Dynasty in China (9th century C.E.), with a tax even imposed on it, showing just how popular the leaf had become. Tea was officially the national Drink of China. In this same century, tea was introduced to Japan by a monk who brought seeds back to his country.
Tea was not always consumed as it is today. It was previously eaten, cooked with grain and porridge. It was also dried and packed into cakes, which was then ground into a powder. This is what we now call matcha. It was not until the 14th Century that the consumption of tea via loose leaf brewing can be seen. By this time, it was the major export of China besides silk and porcelain. With these three goods, China became an economic super power.
In 1710, the Dutch began shipping huge quantities of tea into Europe, creating the popularity and spread there. Contrary to popular belief, the British were not always big tea drinkers, and it took them some time to warm up to the notion of drinking it. It was a Portuguese noble woman, Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II that it became popular among the royals. With the British Empire growing to its height, the export and spread of tea began to multiply exponentially and became a highly sought after and expensive good. To keep up with competition, many of the fastest sailboats built during this time were designed to solely ship tea.
By the mid-19th century, the British began trading opium for tea instead of paying the Chinese in silver, as it became too expensive. This created a public health problem within China. In 1839, the first Opium War began in protest towards the British, by destroying opium shipments. This war continued until 1842, when the Qing Dynasty ceded the port of Hong Kong to the British and trading resumed, with the Chinese empire greatly weakened.
The British East India Company was also vying for a way to grow tea themselves, therefore eliminating the need to trade with China. A biologist by the name of Robert Fortune was sent in as a spy to China to smuggle out tea trees and skilled workers, settling them in Darjeeling, India.
Around the same time, traditions began to form in the Americas. Most particularly, the rise of iced tea! At the Missouri World Trades Far in 1904, a tea vendor ran to an ice cream shop and asked for some ice to cool down his drinks as no one wanted to purchase a hot beverage in the southern heat. It was such a hit that now iced tea counts for 80% of tea consumption in the United States.
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Looking to Find out More?
UK Tea & Infusions Association, Tea - A Brief History of the Nation's Favourite Beverage
Mighty Leaf- A History of Tea
Ted-Ed- The History of Tea- Shunan Teng