The History of Tea
The course of history was changed by it. The mightiest trading company of its time was founded on it. Dutch sailors traveled thousands of miles looking for it. After water, it is the world’s favorite drink. What is it? Tea!
Have you ever wondered how tea gained such popularity? Where did it come from? Like countless other innovations, it originated in China. Some 500 years before the Common Era, Confucius alluded to tea in one of his poems.
History tells of a Chinese emperor who, 300 years later, replenished empty coffers with a tax on tea.
Although there is no shortage of legends to explain its origin, we probably will never know how tea was really discovered.
One story connects it with Emperor ShenNung, who drank only boiled water when traveling around the country. Once a branch of a burning brush was blown into the already bubbling water.
Much to his surprise, the emperor noted a most pleasant taste and a beautiful aroma in the new beverage. His discovery was tea!
According to a second legend, one of the Buddha’s disciples, a certain Bodhidharma, believed that true sainthood could be attained only by constant meditation, day and night.
During one of his long vigils, sleep finally conquered him. That he might not succumb a second time to so base a human weakness, he cut off his eyelids.
These fell to the ground and miraculously started to sprout. The next day a green shrub appeared. He tried the leaves and found them deliciously refreshing. Of course, it was the tea plant.
Tea Conquers the Far East
It was not long until tea conquered Japan. It was taken there by Chinese Buddhist monks, who arrived sometime during the ninth century with the ‘teapot in their knapsack.’ Soon, tea was such a favorite among Japanese that 400 years later, a “highly formalized ritual” of preparing and serving tea, called chanoyu, became a national institution.
However, while the Japanese were elaborating a meticulous tea-drinking ceremony, tea in China was hardly palatable. Even though Chinese poets hailed tea as a “froth of fluid jade,” it was often more like a soup.
Green tea leaves boiled in salt water and sometimes flavored with ginger and cinnamon or even onions, and other times brewed with milk and even rice, were the more common recipes of the time.
Yet, it was a Chinese who wrote the first book dedicated to tea making. Around 780 C.E., Lu Yu published Tscha-King (Book of Tea), which soon became the tea bible for Far Eastern tea lovers.
Influenced by this man of letters, China began to refine its tea habits, preparing the beverage in a more subtle, and yet simple, way: Plain boiled water with at most a pinch of salt—as the sole concession to the long-cherished ancient recipes—was poured over dried tea leaves.
Lu Yu observed that whether tea is good or not depends largely on its aroma. He recognized that its flavor and quality are determined not only by the tea plant itself but even more so, as in the case of wine, by such factors as soil and climate. That explains why he could say that there are “a thousand and ten thousand” teas.
Soon the Chinese started to blend teas, and hundreds of different sorts were marketed.
Not surprisingly, the country that gave tea to the world also gave it its universal name: It is from a Chinese character in the Amoy Chinese dialect.
Europe Discovers Tea
It took a long time for Europeans to discover their taste for tea. Even though Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian merchant and adventurer, widely toured China, he mentioned tea but once in his travel reports.
He told of a Chinese finance minister who was dismissed because he had arbitrarily increased the tea tax. Some 200 years later, another Venetian, Giovanni Battista Ramusio, gave Europe its first detailed description of tea production and usage. Thus, at the beginning of the 17th century, the first samples of this exotic new beverage were sold in European pharmacies, fetching initially the price of gold. Little wonder the originally Australian expression “Not for all the tea in China!” means—“Certainly not!”
In the meantime, the Dutch had started trading with the Far East, tea being one of their more exotic imports.
An enterprising merchant, Johan Nieuhof, reports about his interminable negotiations with Chinese mandarins, which were usually crowned by a banquet at which a beverage was served.
He disparagingly called this drink a “bean soup.” After describing how it is prepared and that it is “supped as hot as you can bear it,” he added that the “Chinese treasure this beverage as much as the alchemists their LapidumPhilosophorum . . . that is, the philosopher’s stone.”
Yet, he also praised tea as an effective, though expensive, remedy for all sorts of ailments.