Imagine you’re working late at night, and you’re looking to unwind before going back to work on whatever it is you’re doing. Some people choose to drink coffee to get their late night buzz, but some people choose to drink tea, most likely bought from nearby convenience stores or supermarkets.
Whether it’s Oolong, Chamomile, Earl Grey, or plain old green tea, it’s hard to ignore the enduring legacy of such a seemingly bland drink made of dried herbs and leaves brewed in hot water. Where did this thing come from anyway, and why do we keep drinking it today?
For a drink that is so easily and conveniently bought today, we often forget that it has an intricate history spanning across centuries and across national borders. Let us look at the complex and multifaceted history of tea, from its origins in China, up to its subsequent spread to other parts of the globe to become the international drink that it is today.
Tea in Ancient China
If one is looking for the exact geographical and chronological origin of tea as we know it today, one need not look further than Ancient China some 5,000 years ago.
According to legend, in 2732 B.C., an emperor named Shen Nung discovered this drink by accident as leaves from a nearby wild tree flew into his pot of boiling water. Rather than scooping it out, he let it settle for a while out of curiosity, and the leaf began to brew with a pleasant and soothing scent. As soon as he drank this new brew, he was immediately enamored by the soothing warmth of the drink, and he would name this drink “ch’a,” written in Chinese with the character meaning to check or investigate.
Over time, tea as a drink began to grow in popularity across the 4th up to 8th centuries. It originally was used for medicinal properties, but over time, it became an everyday drink for refreshment purposes. As the drink grew more popular, plantations would spread across China dedicated to cultivating tea of all kinds. Tea merchants would even become rich, and specific tea wares became a status symbol for those who owned them.
Tea in Ancient Japan
Come the 9th century, tea would be introduced by the Chinese beyond their own national borders to nearby countries such as Tibet, and significantly with Japan. It is said that in the early 9th century, Japanese visitors to China brought home the traditions of tea and brought it back to their native country.
Buddhist monk, Dengyo Daishi, is often credited with first bringing home Chinese tea seeds after studying abroad, and eventually it would cement itself as a part of Japanese monastery life where monks would often use tea to help stay alert during meditation.
Soon, the Japanese would also develop their own type of tea known as Matcha, a type of potent ground green tea, as well as their own Japanese Tea Ceremony known as “Chanoyu” which evolved in the late 15th century under the influence of Zen Buddhism. Tea ceremonies would become so important in Japanese culture that special tea rooms would be constructed in backyard gardens, and the mastery of this ceremony would become a requirement for women prior to marriage.
Tea in Europe
Come the 17th century, the Chinese would start spreading tea far beyond even neighboring Asian countries, even reaching up to countries such as Russia, and as well as European countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain.
Interestingly, Britain would also develop its own traditions of tea drinking by 1662 after King Charles II wedded the Portugeuese princess Catherine of Braganza. The princess would often serve Chinese tea at their Court, and over time it would spread to aristocrats as a Royal beverage.
Because it was an imported luxury from China, tea was for a long time a privilege afforded only to the wealthy. For centuries, ordinary peasants and working class Brits associated tea with elitism and high social status.
Come the 19th century however, tea would start to become a tradition even for working class citizens in the form of “High tea,” which refers to the custom of serving tea past 6:00 PM after a hearty dinner meal for common people.
Tea in India
During the 1800s, in an effort to control tea trade from the Dutch East India Company, the British Royal Family took various colonies such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and most notably India, resulting in an increasingly global economy. Tea was not native to India, but because of the increasingly closed off nature of China from external trade due to the Opium Wars, countries such as Britain explored the possibility of growing tea in the promising climate of India.
It’s said that knowledge on tea processing and cultivation were snuck in by a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune who spied on China’s ancient sacred tea processing techniques before bringing it to India with a small team of experienced Chinese tea growers. At first, Indians lacked knowledge on tea cultivation and production, but over time, they began to gain expert knowledge on tea cultivation to the point of even developing their own tea specimens such as Assam and Darjeeling tea.
Tea in North America
Where did our modern tea bags bought at local supermarkets come from? To find out where, one need not look further than North America, a continent once colonized by Europe, where European traditions of tea brewing and processing carried on throughout the 18th century until today.
By the second half of the 18th century, tea gained an unusual significance when the British imposed a “tea tax” on the country to capitalize on its popularity in the continent. As a means of defying this move by the British, the infamous Boston Tea Party took place in the ports of Boston, where they dumped massive quantities of tea into the sea as an act of protest to the increasing tensions between America and its colonizer, Britain.
So when did tea bags become a thing? During the 20th century, tea bags were developed by accident when a New York tea merchant in 1908 sent samples of his product wrapped in silk bags to restaurants and cafes throughout the city. Apparently, to save time, these restaurants were brewing the tea directly in the silk bags! Soon, this unorthodox method of brewing tea would catch on and turn into an industry of its own!
Americans also invented iced tea when a group of tea producers organized a special tea pavilion during the St. Louis World Trade Fair of 1904, wherein they poured originally hot tea into glasses with ice cubes as a result of the hot summer temperatures at the time. From then on, this new invention called iced tea would become a global sensation which we continue to drink today, whether in restaurants or at home!
Tea in the Modern World
So all of this long history brings us to tea as it is today.
In modern day China, tea remains deeply ingrained in its culture and everyday life. They even developed a Shanghai Tea Institute where the tea ceremony was elevated to the status of a high art. Interestingly, there is even an amusement park dedicated to tea called the Tenfu Tea Museum which honors ancient Chinese tea-drinking traditions.
Meanwhile, in modern day Japan, tea is often served with every meal, and used to greet every guest. Bottled tea is found practically everywhere such as vending machines and shops which sell green tea flavored ice cream. Entire plantations have since been set up in Japan, making it the most technologically advanced in the world as they combined ancient tradition with modern innovations.
In modern day America, tea for a while had been lower in popularity than coffee or soft drinks, but due to an increased drive for healthier diets, tea began to slowly rise in consumption in the country. As a result, tea has become its own billion dollar industry being exported everyday across different parts of the globe.
From its humble origins in Ancient China, to the billion dollar industry that it is today, tea has become inseparable from the human drive for innovation and sophisticated flavors. To this day, the practice of tea cultivation and processing is constantly changing, and we can’t say for sure what the next big step in tea’s evolution will be. Regardless, for us tea lovers, we are absolutely ready for what the future has in store. This is only the beginning.