History of Tea
Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung is credited with the discovery of tea around 2737 B.C. It is said that as he was boiling a pot of water one day, some tea leaves blew into it. He tasted this creation and found it to be a delicious new beverage. He later produced the first written record of tea in his medical book, Pen Ts’ao, in which he noted that tea “quenches the thirst. It lessens the desire for sleep. It gladdens and cheers the heart.”
Tea was initially highly regarded as a medicine, and not an everyday beverage. Early written records around the 4th century A.D. noted that tea was used to cure a wide range of digestive disorders and nervous conditions. By the 5th century A.D., drinking tea for pleasure was becoming more common in many areas of China
In 780 A.D., the Chinese poet and scholar, Lu Yu, created his famous three volume book detailing everything that was then known about tea: the origins of the tea plant, the varieties of tea, the methods of tea cultivation and production, the benefits of tea drinking, and precise instructions for brewing and serving tea. This book, “Ch’a Ching”, became the tea bible, and Lu Yu the ultimate authority on the subject of tea, and the “patron saint of tea”.
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From China to the Rest of the World
Tea was introduced to Japan around 729 A.D. by Buddhist monks who had been studying in China. A new version of Lu Yu’s tea ceremony was practiced based on Buddhist principles. At first tea was mainly promoted for its spiritual and health-promoting properties, but by the 14th century, it had become a popular pleasure drink, especially with the Japanese nobility. Thanks to its simplicity, the Japanese tea ceremony became accessible to the middle class, and the use of tea became almost universal throughout Japan.
Spain and Portugal were the first Western countries to begin trading for tea and other exotic goods in the mid 16th century. In the late 16th century, a Dutch navigator, van Lin-Schooten, published an account of his travels to Japan, in which he described the Japanese tea ceremony and the beautiful tea artifacts that were used. This sparked the interest of Dutch traders, and a trading station for Oriental goods was set up on the island of Java. So it was that Dutch sailing ships carried the first shipments of tea to Europe in 1610.
Until 1689, all of England’s tea was supplied by the Dutch. As the demand for tea became more widespread, England’s East India Company began to import tea directly from China via sailing ships – a difficult one year round trip voyage in which many ships were lost at sea. The East India Company monopolized England’s tea trade with China for almost 150 years.
Russia opened up tea trade with China at the end of the 17th century, using camel caravans that made round trips across the Gobi desert – about a three year journey.
During the 17th century, tea was introduced to nearly every Western country. Only Russia and Great Britain, however, maintained their love of the beverage that continues to this day.
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The History of Tea in the United States
The popularity of tea was carried over from Great Britain to the American colonies into the 17th and 18th centuries. The turning point came when Britain levied a stringent tea tax, and the outraged Colonists responded by tossing chests of tea over the sides of English ships into the Boston Harbor – the now famous “Boston Tea Party”. Thus began both the move toward American independence, as well as the move toward adopting coffee as the national drink.
Because many people still had an affinity for tea, the United States began importing its own tea. In 1841, the U.S. invented the clipper ship, which reduced the import voyage to China and back to nearly half the time. In 1869, the opening of the Suez canal made the journey even quicker.
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India Enters the Export Business
In the early 1800’s, an English Major stationed in the Indian province of Assam, discovered that the natives there enjoyed a brewed drink that greatly resembled tea. Upon investigating where the brewed leaves came from, he found tea trees growing wild. Samples of the leaves were sent to the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta where they were classified as plants from the same family as Chinese teas (Camellia), but a different species (assamica, rather than sinensis).
The Major’s discovery was ignored for nearly a decade, when an infantry Lieutenant made a similar discovery and also sent samples to the Botanical Gardens for analysis. This time, the East India Company got wind of the discovery and took advantage of this opportunity to become their own tea supplier. They sent their secretary to China to steal the seeds of sinensis tea plants. Several took root, along with the indigenous Indian assamica tea plants, and the first British tea plantations were formed in India.
This plantation style cultivation of tea resulted in cheaper and larger quantities of tea production. The English also brought tea processing machines which saved money, labor and time. By 1900, China’s tea exportation had dropped dramatically, never to be regained. Today, India is the largest tea producing country in the world, with China close behind. China, however, is still the leader in green tea production, producing more than four times the amount of green tea than Japan.
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