Like beer and wine, tea is an ancient beverage. Yet in some countries that are strongly associated with it, such as Britain, it was introduced only recently on the historical time scale.
No one knows with certainty who first had the odd idea of taking leaves from the Camilla Sinensis plant and adding them to hot water to make a brew. It might have been an accident at first, with leaves from the bush floating into a heated kettle. However, we all know the practice actually began over 5,000 years ago in China.
After it started, the art of tea drinking quickly spread once people realized the taste and health benefits as discovered by those early pioneers.
Eventually, between 760 and 780 CE (or AD) during the Tang Dynasty, a Chinese writer and ex-monk named Lu Yu wrote the Chajing, containing all that was then known about the ways of preparing tea. Chajing or the Classic of Tea or Tea Classic (simplified Chinese: 茶经; traditional Chinese: 茶經; pinyin: chájīng) is the very first monograph on tea in the world.
According to Tea Lore, Lu Yu was an orphan of Jinling county (now Tianmen county in Hubei province) who was adopted by a Buddhist monk of the Dragon Cloud Monastery. He refused to take up the monastic robes and was assigned menial jobs by his stepfather. Lu Yu ran away and joined the circus as a clown. At age 14, Lu Yu was discovered by the local governor Li Qiwu who offered Lu Yu the use of his library and the opportunity to study with a teacher. During the An Lushan and Shi Siming rebellion period, Lu Yu retired to Shaoqi (now Wuxing county, Zhejiang). During this period, Lu Yu made friends with many literati, including the calligrapher Yan Zhenqing and the poet Huang Pu Zheng and wrote his magnum opus: Ch’a Ching.
For Lu Yu, tea symbolized the harmony and mysterious unity of the Universe. “He invested the Ch’a Ching with the concept that dominated the religious thought of his age, whether Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian: to see in the particular an expression of the universal” (Shapira, et al., 150).
From there onwards, the word spread to various other countries. It went to Japan by way of Buddhist monks, in particular one named Yeisei, where it quickly became a royal favorite.
The Portuguese and other Western seamen later made contact with the Orient. They were introduced to a beverage unlike any other they knew in their native countries. From their travels in the early 17th century, they returned with many treasures, including the precious tea leaves. The importation of this then-expensive novelty rapidly made many of them wealthy.
In the mid-17th century, Britain finally got into the act and began to import tea from China and the East Indies. As is obvious now, it became so popular that afternoon tea is now strongly associated with that country.
With the merger of the John Company and the East India Company, both importers of tea with a near monopoly in the western world, tea spread everywhere. By the end of the 17th century tea imports were 40,000 pounds.
A few years later, though, the novelty had become a commodity. Over 240,000 pounds were imported into England in 1708 and the leaves were being sold in common food shops in Holland and France. Most of Europe doesn’t have the right climate to grow its own tea. The drink that had been imported and made popular by royalty was now consumed by nearly everyone.
At the same time, tea was spreading to other nations around the world. The Russian Tsar Alexis received several chests as a gift in the early 17th century. By the end of it the Russians were engaging in regular trade with China across their common border. The need to travel over a year across thousands of miles kept the price high. But eventually the practice spread throughout society and tea could be found in every samovar.
The United States, as some may remember, had a little ‘ceremony’ called the Boston Tea Party. As an act of protest against the heavy-handed British government, several Americans decided to dump large quantities of the good into the Boston harbor. In reaction, the British government closed the port and troops occupied the city. A revolution began. The results that followed changed the world forever.
Be a part of history and enjoy a fine cup of tea today.