The History of Tea

The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is thought to have originated in South East Asia, in the area that China, India, Burma and Tibet conjunct, although some studies, based on the genetics of the tea plant suggest that the plant has an entirely China origin, various parts of China, e.g. the Yunnan Province, being nominated for the honour. Certainly, Yunnan Province believes in its primacy, and we are informed that it was here that it was first discovered that tea is a pleasant drink for human consumption. In any event, this province prides itself as the abode of the oldest surviving cultivated tea plant on the planet, one in Fenqing County, said to be more than 3200 years old. Since then, the plant is now cultivated worldwide, from China to Kenya, and from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Certain morphological differences between the Chinese plant, camellia sinensis sinensis, and the Indian (Assamese) variety, camellia sinensis assamica, have caused some botanists to postulate that the varieties developed independently of each other; yet, chromosomal and other affinities between both varieties, coupled with the ease with which hybridization occurs suggests a common origin. Whatever the case, the tea drinking culture is something that has come to the world at large from China.

We are informed from Chinese records, that tea was first discovered by Shennong (around 2737 BC), the legendary emperor who is also credited with the invention of agriculture and medicine (Chinese). As the story has come down to us, the emperor was enjoying a bowl of hot water when some leaves from a nearby tea plant dropped into his bowl of hot water, carried by the breeze. Discovering that the resultant brew was extremely pleasant, as well as having positive healthful effects, he instituted tea drinking, and the world has never been the same since then.

Tea consumption spread, albeit fairly slowly, to the rest of the world. During the short-lived Sui Dynasty (China, 589-618 AD), tea was introduced into Japan by proselytising Buddhist monks. Initially a drink enjoyed by the new (Buddhist) religious order, by the reign of Emperor Saga (746-842 AD), the royal family had adopted the drink and Japan had become another tea addict. It was during Saga’s reign that two Buddhist monks, Saicho (776-822) and Kukai (774-835), brought tea seedlings from China to Japan and a tea growing culture developed.

Roughly around the time that tea was being introduced into Japan, it also made its way into Korea. The earliest references to tea in Korean documents date back to around 660AD, and, as in Japan, the brew and plant was introduced by proselytising Buddhists. By the time of the Goreyo Dynasty (918-1392), tea was commonly used as a part of religious practice in the Buddhist temples.

Although the English are widely believed to have brought the tea addiction to the west, the Arabs, and subsequently the Portuguese must take the credit. As early as 879, Arab records show that tea and salt were the main revenue earners at the port of Canton (Guangzhou), and, certainly, the tea culture amongst Arabs is extremely old, probably dating from around this time. Moving further west, tea was introduced into Europe by the Portuguese, following the establishment of their trading post on the island of Macau in 1557. Tea became an English thing, so to speak, when, in 1660, Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, and the tea habit was introduced into England. From England, the habit has spread to all of the Commonwealth and the United States, where, although coffee is a much more popular beverage, tea is consumed in immense quantities. One wonders whether the relative unpopularity of tea in the US, (given that tea is second only to plain water amongst the liquids that all humans consume), has anything to do with the events at Boston Harbour, December 1773, when over 300 tea chests were thrown into the waters of harbour off three British ships by protesting colonists, and, incidentally, leading to the birth of a great nation.

Of course, no history of tea, however set, can be considered to be complete without a consideration of the Indian subcontinent. Whether or not the Assamese variety of the plant evolved independently, India, today, is not only one of the greatest tea producers, it is also one of the greatest consumers of the product, and the credit for this must be given to the British colonial authorities in that country. Although tea has been present in India from time immemorial, it was the determination of the British, i.e. the British East India Company, to reduce Britain’s dependence on Chinese tea that led to the purposeful and intensive cultivation of the plant. Tea had always been a major ingredient in ayurvedic medicine (India’s indigenous medical tradition), but it was not a product that had been commonly used for recreational purposes. The determined efforts of British tea planters to inculcate a general tea drinking habit was extremely successful; so, today, chai, the spiced tea invented in India, is a worldwide phenomenon.

On a parting note, it is well to keep in mind that quite a number of tisanes (beverages made by the infusion of herbs in water or some other liquid) are quite popular in various parts of the world, and are often described as teas. Real tea, however, is queen; long live her majesty.

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