Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Brief history of tea with key highlights that have shaped how we drink it today.
This may seem like a funny question - what is tea, indeed, and where does it come from? But the story behind tea is actually quite interesting. Before we dig in, let’s point out a few things we are going to cover in this blog post:
Tea origins and history
I say tea, you think … exactly. There would be many different responses to this question. For some people tea drinking is a part of their daily routine, something they look forward to, for some it’s an occasional pick. For some it’s a commodity, for others more of a special beverage. There are also people who take tea drinking to the next level and turn it into a ceremony (more on that in one of our future posts). Interestingly, it's the second most commonly consumed beverage on Earth just after water! Isn’t that fascinating, considering that the main ingredient is just water and leaves?
Where does the tea come from?
Tea comes from a plant called Camellia sinensis that can grow for hundreds or even thousands of years. It has small white flowers similar to the ornamental camellias you can come across in gardens all around the world. Like most other camellias it is thought to have originated in the sub-Himalayan areas (India, Laos, Myanmar, south-west China).
What is the history of tea?
Tea originated in China in about 59BC, but most likely even earlier. According to a famous legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong was sitting beneath a tree and while his servant boiled drinking water, some leaves from the tree blew into the water. These leaves were tea. That’s how it came to be what we know today to be tea. Shen Nong named the brew "ch'a" - it’s a Chinese character that literally means ‘to check something’ or to ‘investigate something’. In 200 B.C. a powerful Han Dynasty Emperor ruled that when referring to tea, a special written character must be used - it illustrates wooden branches, grass, and a man between the two elements. This written character (pronounced as "ch'a") symbolised something rather beautiful - it signifies the way tea brought humankind into balance with nature. Shen Nung is often referred to as the Yan Emperor and the literal meaning of his name translates to"the divine farmer" because he is credited with bringing agriculture to ancient China.
Tea became a popular drink in Buddhist monasteries after the caffeine proved to keep the monks awake during long hours of meditation. Buddhist monks grew tea plantations near the monasteries and during the Tang Dynasty tea was first introduced to Japan by monks who had travelled to China to study.
In China the popularity of tea continued to grow rapidly from the 4th century through the 8th century. Tea became valued and was considered 'everyday pleasure'. This refreshment became an iconic drink for the entire Chinese nation. Tea plantations spread throughout China, and tea infrastructure continued to progress - there were plenty of new tea merchants, and tea vessels became an important part of tea drinking too. It was much more than just tea drinking now, it was a ritual. Moreover, stylish tea wares became very popular and were an indication of one’s status and wealth.
The Chinese empire tightly controlled the preparation and cultivation of the tea crop. There were even rules about who was allowed to pick the leaves - presumably because of their purity, only young women were allowed to handle the tea leaves. There were very specific rules on what these females were allowed to touch/eat too - apparently they were not to eat garlic, onions, or strong spices in case the odour on their fingertips might contaminate the precious tea leaves.
To be clear, in those Asian countries there was only green tea all the way up until mid 17th century (only then the process of making black tea got discovered).
When and how did the black tea get invented?
Up to the mid-17th century, all Chinese tea was green tea only . As foreign trade increased, though, the Chinese growers discovered that they could preserve the tea leaves with a special fermentation process. This process ‘accidentally’ resulted in discovering how to turn these leaves into black tea. Black tea had a much stronger flavour and aroma, as well as ‘shelf’ life - it was much better suited for long travels across the water. More on tea manufacturing and different ways of handling tea leaves in the next blog post.
When did tea get introduced to the Europeans?
Once the tea had become a famous hot drink throughout Asia, different countries have developed their iconic teas (i.e. Sencha in Japan, Oolong Da Hong Pao from China). As Europeans (the Portuguese and Dutch to begin with) were conquering the world and trading with the East, Western societies got finally introduced to this beverage in the 17th century and started setting up their own tea estates (Sri Lanka - previously known as Ceylon, Africa etc.). Although tea reached England in the 1650s it wasn’t until later when a famous East India Company was established and started trading with China and amongst other things tea was being imported. By the early 19th century the English East India Company was buying over 11 million kg of tea a year - that’s quite a number considering this drink wasn’t around back then for a very long period of time. It surely speaks to its popularity and high demand.
Where does tea names come from?
There are different ways teas get their names. Most commonly they are derived from the geographic regions or legends.
As for the geographic regions the most famous ones are Darjeeling and Assam in India, Yunnan in China or Ceylon from Sri Lanka. Pu Erh tea is named after a city of Pu Erh in China where it originated from. You could argue that these tea types have made those locations famous and well known for their tea heritage.
When it comes to legendary stories or folklore, there are a few well known legends that have ‘lent’ their names to some widely known teas.
A great example is Iron Goddess (particular type of oolong tea), also known as Tieguanyin. According to the legend, a poor farmer in the Fujian Province of China lived near a neglected and abandoned temple dedicated to the Iron Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. According to the story, the farmer have cleaned and restored the temple, which didn’t go unnoticed. After this selfless act attracted the Iron Goddess - she appeared to the farmer in a dream and told him to find a special little treasure left for him behind the temple. When he woke up, he found a small tea bush that he then cultivated - this is how Iron Goddess came to be what we know today.
Another tea type rooted in legends is a Chinese tea Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe, also an oolong tea. It’s believed that Ming Dynasty tea farmer cured the emperor (or possibly his mother) of a serious illness by serving tea made from bushes from the Jiu Long Cliff deep within the heart of the Wuyi tea-growing region. To thank the farmer, the emperor ordered that lavish red robes and thus the name Big Red Robe was coined. Today, those six original bushes are an important symbol and they aren’t to be cultivated or harvested - it’s even illegal to pick leaves from these bushes!
I sum, tea is a very versatile drink with a lot of history that originated in China. Firstly green tea, then all the other different types emerged.
Today, tea is grown on every continent only except Antarctica and is a second most popular drink on earth. All tea types come from the same plant called Camellia sinensis - there are plenty of wonderful choices to pick from.
And speaking of slowing down … what role does tea play in your life? Is it something that you do quite often, enjoy and relish or is it something that you do every now and again? Do you have any interesting tea rituals that you are fond of? Share it with us below this post or jump on our forum to chat to your fellow tea community.