History of Tea
History of Tea

The history of tea is long and complex, spreading across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years. Tea likely originated in southwest China during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD, in a medical text written by Hua Tuo. Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century. Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with the China monopoly on tea.




Origin myths

In one popular Chinese legend, Shennong, the legendary Emperor of China and inventor of agriculture and Chinese medicine was drinking a bowl of just boiled water due to a decree that his subjects must boil water before drinking it some time around 2737 BC when a few leaves were blown from a nearby tree into his water, changing the color. The emperor took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor and restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote. Shennong is also mentioned in Lu Yu's famous early work on the subject, The Classic of Tea. A similar Chinese legend goes that the god of agriculture would chew the leaves, stems, and roots of various plants to discover medicinal herbs. If he consumed a poisonous plant, he would chew tea leaves to counteract the poison.

A rather gruesome legend dates back to the Tang Dynasty. In the legend, Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, accidentally fell asleep after meditating in front of a wall for nine years. He woke up in such disgust at his weakness that he cut off his own eyelids. They fell to the ground and took root, growing into tea bushes. Sometimes, another version of the story is told with Gautama Buddha in place of Bodhidharma.

Scholars however believe that tea drinking likely originated in the southwest of China, and that the Chinese words for tea themselves may have been originally derived from the Austro-Asiatic languages of the people who originally inhabited that area. Whether or not these legends have any basis in fact, tea has played a significant role in Asian culture for centuries as a staple beverage, a curative, and a status symbol. It is not surprising, therefore, that theories of its origin are often religious or royal in nature.


Early history

The Chinese have consumed tea for thousands of years. The earliest physical evidence known to date, found in 2016, comes from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi'an, indicating that tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC. The samples were identified as tea from the genus Camellia particularly via mass spectrometry and written records suggest that it may have been drunk earlier. People of the Han Dynasty used tea as medicine (though the first use of tea as a stimulant is unknown). China is considered to have the earliest records of tea consumption with possible records dating back to the 10th century BC.Note however that the current word for tea in Chinese only came into use in the 8th century AD, there are therefore uncertainties as to whether the older words used are the same as tea. The word tu appears in Shijing and other ancient texts to signify a kind of "bitter vegetable" , and it is possible that it referred to a number of different plants, such as sowthistle, chicory, or smartweed, including tea.In the Chronicles of Huayang, it was recorded that the Ba people in Sichuan presented tu to the Zhou king. The state of Ba and its neighbour Shu were later conquered by the Qin, and according to the 17th century scholar Gu Yanwu who wrote in Ri Zhi Lu: "It was after the Qin had taken Shu that they learned how to drink tea."




The first known reference to boiling tea came from the Han dynasty work "The Contract for a Youth" written by Wang Bao where, among the tasks listed to be undertaken by the youth, "he shall boil tea and fill the utensils and "he shall buy tea at Wuyang".The first record of cultivation of tea also dated it to this period (Ganlu era of Emperor Xuan of Han) when tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain near Chengdu. From the Tang to the Qing dynasties, the first 360 leaves of tea grown here were picked each spring and presented to the emperor. Even today its green and yellow teas, such as the Mengding Ganlu tea, are still sought after. An unknown Chinese inventor was also the first person to invent a tea shredder. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to 220 AD, in a medical text Shi Lun by Hua Tuo, who stated, "to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better." Another possible early reference to tea is found in a letter written by the Qin Dynasty general Liu Kun. However, before the mid-8th century Tang dynasty, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese practice. It became widely popular during the Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Laozi, the classical Chinese philosopher, was said to describe tea as "the froth of the liquid jade" and named it an indispensable ingredient to the elixir of life. Legend has it that master Lao was saddened by society's moral decay and, sensing that the end of the dynasty was near, he journeyed westward to the unsettled territories, never to be seen again. While passing along the nation's border, he encountered and was offered tea by a customs inspector named Yin Hsi. Yin Hsi encouraged him to compile his teachings into a single book so that future generations might benefit from his wisdom. This then became known as the Dao De Jing, a collection of Laozi's sayings.

During the Sui Dynasty (589–618 AD) tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks.

The Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu's is an early work on the subject. (See also Tea Classics) According to Cha Jing tea drinking was widespread. The book describes how tea plants were grown, the leaves processed, and tea prepared as a beverage. It also describes how tea was evaluated. The book also discusses where the best tea leaves were produced. Teas produced in this period were mainly tea bricks which were often used as currency, especially further from the center of the empire where coins lost their value. In this period, tea leaves were steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake or brick forms.

During the Song Dynasty (960–1279), production and preparation of all tea changed. The tea of Song included many loose-leaf styles (to preserve the delicate character favored by court society), and it is the origin of today's loose teas and the practice of brewed tea. A new powdered form of tea also emerged. Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea. After the transition from compressed tea to the powdered form, the production of tea for trade and distribution changed once again.

The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-13th century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. By the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stops the oxidation process which turns the leaves dark and allows tea to remain green. In the 15th century, Oolong tea, where the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying, was developed. Western taste, however, preferred the fully oxidized black tea, and the leaves were allowed to ferment further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently sloppy practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, but yielded a different flavour as a result.




Tea production in China, historically, was a laborious process, conducted in distant and often poorly accessible regions. This led to the rise of many apocryphal stories and legends surrounding the harvesting process. For example, one story that has been told for many years is that of a village where monkeys pick tea. According to this legend, the villagers stand below the monkeys and taunt them. The monkeys, in turn, become angry, and grab handfuls of tea leaves and throw them at the villagers. There are products sold today that claim to be harvested in this manner, but no reliable commentators have observed this firsthand, and most doubt that it happened at all. For many hundreds of years the commercially used tea tree has been, in shape, more of a bush than a tree. "Monkey picked tea" is more likely a name of certain varieties than a description of how it was obtained.

In 1391, the Ming court issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a "tribute". As a result, loose tea production increased and processing techniques advanced. Soon, most tea was distributed in full-leaf, loose form and steeped in earthenware vessels.