History of Tea

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Early Tea History In China

Emperor Shen Nung is credited with discovering tea Fineartamerica.com

Tea has been known about and written about in China for much longer than the Europeans have been interested in trading tea.

Legend credits Emperor Shen Nung with its discovery in 2700 BCE, when some leaves accidentally fell into a pot of boiling water. Shen Nung wrote that tea's properties "give joy to the body and sparkle to the eyes." Accident or not, the brewed tea had a pleasant taste and a soothing effect on the digestion, so became widely used in China as a medicine. Another legend has it that, during the 5th or 6th CE, Bodhidharma (the founder of the Zen Buddhism), fell asleep once while meditating; in annoyance, he cut off his eyelids so who would never fall asleep again, but Quan Yin - a god - created the tea tree with leaves shaped like an eyelid and full of caffeine to keep his followers awake when they meditate[1].

Tea's first written record was in 780 CE, during the T'ang Dynasty, when the Ch'a Ching was written or the "Holy Book of Tea"[2]. Lu Yu, a courtier, used his great work to standardise haphazard methods of growing and production, and depicted the famous Tea Ceremony in minute detail, raising the preparation of tea to new heights, almost an art-form.

The Ch'a Ching was the start of tea drinking as we now know it, with a social ritual becoming an art form in China and Japan. From the Ch'a Ching, tea rooms evolved, and exquisite pots and bowl, from which whole leaf teas were drunk. More prosaically, the tea brick - a flat cake or brick of steamed ground leaves, easy to barter and transport - made its appearance and became a form of currency along the Silk Road. Lu Yu wrote:

"Tea has a thousand and one faces. If we just consider the broad categories, some tea cakes have the tanned look of boot leather; others are rounded like a zebu's chest or curled into wreaths like the clouds floating over the mountain. Still others look like waves caressed by the breeze, or fine silver tiles, transformed into a thick, creamy elixir by pouring a little water over them."[3]

The Foreign Devils Arrive In China

Making Butter Tea, Tibet. Photo: Cultural-china.com.

Chinese tea culture developed over the next 500 years without interference and became ever more elegant.

From the earliest times, tea has been traded. In the Tang dynasty, tea was traded with neighbouring countries, perhaps exchanged for horses and skins. In the 7th century, tea was becoming the national drink of China and its large annual crops were traded even into Tibet, beginning to create the legendary Tea Road, a 930-mile (1,500 km) return trip. Along its travels, tea came near nomadic peoples in China, and the Mongols, Turks and Tibetans. In Tibet, teas was enhanced with salt, yak butter and goat's milk and is still served as Butter Tea as a symbol of hospitality from Tibet down into Ladakh. Later, tea was introduced into Japan by Buddhist monks during the 9th century CE, who then invented the "Way of Tea" (chado).

As the tea trade expanded, tea was exported from sea-ports that were built in Canton during the Song dynasty (960 - 1279) and trade routes were opened up that linked China to Korea and Japan. By the 17th century, the overland Tea Road brought Chinese tea to Iran, Russia and Turkey.

Against this peaceful and cultured backdrop, the arrival of 16th century Europeans - ill-educated, boorish and unwashed - must have been a shock to the Chinese. The first arrival was a Portuguese square rigger which had taken more than two years to sail the 15,000 miles to China, and it was not permitted to moor. For many years, the Chinese prevented "the foreign devils" from entering China, but eventually the Portuguese were granted trading rights on a rocky island at the mouth of the Pearl River, a few kilometres from Canton. They called it Macao and used it as a base for trading in silk, velvet, ceramics, spices and, from 1610, tea, with the first tea shipment of tea to Europe a Dutch ship that docked into Amsterdam in 1610.

Early Trade In Tea

The first countries to try tea in Europe were the Dutch, French and Poruguese. It was not until some 10 years later that the English tried tea, so were relative late-comers to this new luxury; the first cases of tea came to London in 1645.

In 1658, Thomas Garaway of Exchange Alley in London advertised tea for the first time as: "that Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China Drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee, is sold in the Sultane's-Head, a Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exchange, London."[4] In 1660, Samuel Pepys first tasted tea: "And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away."[5]

By 1669, tea was a habit that was popular in the upper echelons of society and the East India Company made its first bulk tea import, of a colossal 143 lbs![6] It is interesting that tea was first drunk in a coffee house close to another coffee house in Exchange Alley that evolved into the London Stock Exchange.

Battling For Supremacy In Tea Trade

Coffee had arrived in Britain before tea and became an immediate success. However, coffee was a victim of its own popularity and the Establishment soon regarded coffee houses as meeting places for "anti-establishment" and "revolutionary" ideas, women were barred from entering them and many becoming dens of iniquity.

Queen Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) - the popularizer of tea in England The Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment
Tea had made a less than brilliant start, being originally offered as medicine and coffee houses brewed it by the barrelful - which would have given it a horrible tannic taste. However, rescue for tea came from King Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, who had learned all about tea during their exile in Europe[7]. A eulogy written for Catherine of Braganza on her birthday went:
"Venus her myrtle, Pheobus has his bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise
The best of Queens, and best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation, which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muse's friend, tea does our fancy aid,
Repress those vapors which the head invade,
And keep the palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen."
Edmund Waller

Tea drinking soon became a far more fashionable and civilised habit than coffee-drinking[8]. Tea was served with beautiful accessories that came over from China, so the habit of tea soon was adopted by the English court. Craftsmen began to copy the new styles of furniture and ceramics and by 1712, the tea house was a firmly established as "a genteel and elegant place where ladies could sup the enlivening beverage." In contrast, women were barred from coffee houses.

Trouble Brewing In America

For a while, London sipped its tea in peace. But far away from home, in the colonies of the New World, trouble was brewing. The Colonies had always paid the same taxes as the British, which on tea was 100% of its value. The Government then imposed an extra 3d per pound on tea imports into America, spawning a healthy smuggling trade with the Dutch, and the passed another bill giving the East India Company sole rights to import tea duty free into the Americas, so undercutting both American and Dutch merchants[9].

The Americans had quite rightly had enough.

The Boston Tea Party - when every British ship had its tea cargo dumped in the ocean at Boston Harbor or burned at Annapolis, Maryland - was one of many incidents in 1773, and is one of the foundation events of modern USA[10]. Its consequences were far-reaching, The American War of Independence whose sparks were lit by the Boston Tea Party not only severed political ties with Britain[11], but eventually led to the breaking up of the East India Company's trading monopolies.

"They's been a row about this yer tea, I expect you heerd tell of it. A tax or something. And bung me if I don't think the province is right, what I understand of it. Anyhow, I like to see 'em stand up against England. It looks good, I'm for shutting down on tea. But I says is, shut down on it in a general way, but a little tea never done no harm to no one. 'Specially on a chilly morning like this yer." (In "Drums", by James Boyd, a novel of the American Revolution.)

Quite apart from politics, the Americans were put off tea and became a nation of determined coffee drinkers, except in the form of iced tea.

Overpowering The Dragon

In England, where tea was growing in popularity, the tea merchants were frustrated. All the world's tea came from China, and the Chinese were ruthless traders. "Foreign devils" were unable to step foot on mainland China and were forced to deal through "Hong" wholesalers and pay large bribes to Chinese officials. On top of this, the Chinese did not need European goods and demanded payment only in silver. By 1800, tea merchants were having to find £24 million in silver every year, which had to shipped on long, dangerous voyages through pirate-infested waters.

The British then had a cunning plan. Newly colonised India, with its cheap land and labour, became the centre for opium growing which was traded with China in return for silver[12]. After a few free samples, the Chinese were hooked and were forced to finance their habit with silver and tea. Contemporary British writers were quick to point out that "of the tea drunk in the West at Methodist and anti-slave meetings, in fine drawing rooms and poor cottages, nearly all was bought with opium."

It took the brief - but vicious - Opium Wars[13] and the Treaty of Nanking[14] in 1842 for China to accept free trade with the British.

The Age Of The Clipper Boats

Clipper Ship, Boston Harbour - 1851 Wikipedia.

An open market for tea meant more competition and more pressure to get tea to Britain as quickly as possible and to America. This heralded the glorious age of the tea clipper, which lasted from 1840 to 1896 and produced some of the sleekest sailing vessels ever built.

With the Americans the leaders, shippers invested huge sums in slim-line ships with acres of sales which could effortlessly outpaced the lumbering old East Indiamen[15]. Some of their names are legendary - the Flying Cloud which sailed from Canton to San Francisco in 89 days, and the Lightning which sailed 436 nautical miles in 24 hours, a record never beaten.

In the great race of 1866, the first three ships - the Ariel[16], Taeping[17] and Serica[18] - completed the voyage in 99 days at London Docks on the same tide[19].

Tea And Empire

A silhouette of silver sails against a shining sky,
A clipper ship, a ghostly shape, that stealthily slips by;
A crew that croons a merry song,
A phantom son, sung low
"To India, to India, to India we go!"
Margaret Sangster

China was no longer the only port of call for clipper ships seeking their cargoes of tea. Although tea was unknown in early British India, the British began experimenting with tea in Assam. Seeds were smuggled from India to the Brahmaputra River valley and, using cheap land and labour for opium growing, early plantations were planted. The seedlings were sickly and never flourished.

However, under pressure from the East India Company, which was losing trade to the Dutch and Portuguese, the pioneers continued to trial new ways of growing tea. Then, unexpectedly, Major Robert Bruce, an explorer, found tea bushes growing wild in the forest in Bengal, Trials with the new strain - Thea assamica - were successful and in 1830 an ambitious planting programme was started[20]. Ten years later, the first shipments of Assam tea were sold in London for an impressive price and the East India Company was on the road to recovery.

Buoyed by their success in Assam, the planters shifted their ambitions to the Himalayas and the horticulturalist's paradise of Darjeeling by the 1850s[21]. Investors in Britain were gripped with "English Tea" mania, with the one thought that many had become rich from tea once, so why not again? There were financial disasters, mainly because of greed, but land was cleared and bushes planted and slowly some of the best tea in the world began to emerge, some of it based on the original China Jat (tea bush), which was happier in the Darjeeling mountain climate, and some from the newly-discovered Assam Jat.

With the spread of plantations across India, tea became the mainstay drink of the British and also of the Indians. Black tea is also drunk in large quantities in Ireland, Iran and Russia.

Growth In Ceylon Tea

Until 1796, Ceylon was a Dutch colony, and like other Dutch colonies in Indonesia and the Caribbean, coffee plantations had existed there since the late 17th century. The coffee bushes had flourished in the rich soil of the hill regions and soon Ceylon was soon supplying the world with coffee in the same way that China had been supplying it with tea[22].

By 1890, leaf blight had all but destroyed the coffee industry in Ceylon through Dimbula and Dikoya[22]. Ceylon survived by turning to tea production, using a variation of the Assam Jat that had proved so popular in India.

Within 20 years, Ceylon was growing over 300,000 acres of tea bushes, using agricultural knowledge from Assam and machinery developed by the Jackson Brothers. Sir Thomas Lipton, whose name is that of the Lipton tea brand, won his place in tea history by investing money directly in the new tea estates before their success was assured.

Tea in the Twentieth Century

Tea as a popular drink evolved further in the twentieth century, with the popularisation of iced tea, the invention of the teabags and industrialised processes for making black tea - the CTC method.

Iced tea is the most popular way of taking tea in the United States, catching on for the first time at the 1904 World's Fair in St Louis. It's made by brewing tea with about a half extra of tea leaves per cup, then to dilute the strong concentrate down with cold water and ice later.

CTC stands for Cut-Tear-Curl and is the modern way of manufacturing tea. The leaf is cut, torn and curled rather than rolled as in orthodox teas. This produces small black balls of tea that release a strong colour and flavour that's ideal for teabags.

While the invention of teabags is credited to Thomas Sullivan in the USA in 1908, modern teabags only really caught on in the 1950s when Tetley began to mass produce and market tea in this format. Nowadays, teabags comprise 96% of the UK tea market[23].


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