All the tea in China – and beyond.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

“The use of tea grows upon me surprisingly; I know not how it is, but my fancy is awakened and my spirits exhilarated as if with wine.”

- Chinese emperor of the Han dynasty (as quoted in The Ch’a Ching)

According to Chinese legend, it was China’s mythical emperor, Shennong who discovered tea - albeit quite by accident. Shennong, who ruled from 2737 to 2698 BC, had the habit of only drinking water that had been boiled. He believed - quite rightfully - that this would make it clean.

On a hunting trip one day, he and his army stopped to rest. As a servant began boiling the emperor’s water, a leaf from a wild tea bush fell into the bowl. The leaf turned the water a

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

“The use of tea grows upon me surprisingly; I know not how it is, but my fancy is awakened and my spirits exhilarated as if with wine.”

– Chinese emperor of the Han dynasty (as quoted in The Ch’a Ching)

According to Chinese legend, it was China’s mythical emperor, Shennong who discovered tea – albeit quite by accident. Shennong, who ruled from 2737 to 2698 BC, had the habit of only drinking water that had been boiled. He believed – quite rightfully – that this would make it clean.

On a hunting trip one day, he and his army stopped to rest. As a servant began boiling the emperor’s water, a leaf from a wild tea bush fell into the bowl. The leaf turned the water a brownish colour (apparently not noticed by the servant). The bowl was given to the emperor, who found it surprisingly flavourful and more refreshing than his plain boiled water.

And thus, the drinking of ch’a – later known as tea – was born.

The history of tea is spread across dozens of cultures and thousands of years. Archaeological data suggests that despite the legend of Shennong, tea originated in China during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) when it was used as a medicinal beverage.

Today, China is still the world’s largest consumer of tea, at over 1.6 billion pounds a year. But per person, the nation drinking more tea than any other country in the world is Turkey. Turks drink around three to five cups daily and up to 10 cups during winter. Morocco follows with five cups per person per day, then Ireland, the Independent Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and the UK – known as a nation of tea-drinkers – in fifth place. In fact, the British drink two-thirds less tea than they did 30 years ago.

Even the word for tea is almost universal. As the beverage was absorbed by different cultures, the spelling changed only slightly. The Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic say te, the Dutch thee, Estonian, German, and Finnish tee, French thé, Hungarian tea (pronounced teya), Italian , Latin thea, Malay the, and Spanish.

The original pronunciation of the English word “tea” some 300 years ago was “tay”, while the Dutch, English, French, and Germans acquired their pronunciation from the port of Amoy in Xiamen, China, where “te” rhymes with “ay”.

Origins of green tea

Humans have been consuming plants ever since we set foot on earth. It was only a matter of time before we discovered that certain plants had desirable properties – and that these properties could be better enjoyed by infusing plant material in water.

The two main varieties of the tea plant include Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica.

Sinensis is a small, hardy shrub that grows wild throughout southern China. It can withstand frost and can be cultivated at high altitudes, which means it grows well in Darjeeling in the Himalayas, and in central Ceylon in Sri Lanka. It’s also been introduced to more than 52 other countries. The delicate leaves of the Sinensis plant are harvested for green tea, Oolong, and fine black tea.

Assamica is a strain of black tea with larger, leathery leaves, which makes for a more smoky, robust flavour. Originating in the lowlands of northern India, Assamica tea is mostly cultivated in China, Assam, and Sri Lanka.

Nowadays, the world of tea can largely be divided into the green tea cultures of China, Japan, and Morocco; the black tea cultures of Britain, its former colonies, Russia, the Middle East, and East Africa; the Oolong tea culture of Taiwan; and the brick tea cultures of Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia.

The journey of tea

The birthplace of tea is believed to be the Yunnan Province of China, where the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree still grows, now around 3,200 years old.

Tea was the national drink of China many centuries before it was even heard of in the west – perhaps as early as the Tang dynasty, in 618-906 AD. Tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) have been found containing vessels for tea. In the Ming dynasty, loose-leaf green tea became the most common kind in China. Later, Oolong and black tea were created by controlling the tea leaves’ natural oxidation process through fermentation.

From China, tea steadily spread around the world along three main routes. It arrived first in Japan, where Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study returned home with samples to share. The founder of Rinzai Buddhism, Eisai Kissa, is credited with popularizing green tea. By the 14th century, the rituals of the tea ceremony had become entrenched in Japanese culture. Japan’s own green tea, sencha, was developed in the 18th century, followed by a range of other distinctive styles which now dominate tea consumption in Japan.

Tea then headed overland through western and central Asia. The Tibetans welcomed the beverage, finding it highly beneficial in aiding their heavy diet of yak meat and barley. One of the traditional forms of tea here was known as ‘brick tea’ – compressed lumps of black tea, boiled extensively to extract its full flavour and strength and mixed with generous amounts of yak butter and salt. In the later 17th century, the Mongols also adopted this custom but mixed their tea with horse milk instead of butter.

Tea made its way along the Silk Road before spreading to the Middle East. Afghanistan adopted it quickly, with the Scottish explorer Alexander Burnes noting in 1831 that “nothing is done in this country without tea, which is handed round at all times and hours, and gives a social character to conversation.” In Persia, coffee has been the main beverage until it was surpassed by tea in the first half of the 19th century. Turkey, too, had been a nation of coffee drinkers since the Middle Ages, and coffee was central to its trade with Western Europe. But when the key port of Mocha was lost in 1923, tea served as the replacement.

The Suez Canal allowed tea to be obtained from Odessa in Russia, and trade was opened to Afghanistan. Tea now permeates every area of Islam society, even as far as the nomadic Bedouin tribes living in the Arabian deserts. In Russia, tea is known as ‘chai’ – referring to the path taken from China, and to Mongolia to Siberia.

In the 16th century, South America was enjoying its own form of tea. In 1516, the Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís noted his experience of yerba maté, a brew made by the native Guaraní tribe and used for shamanistic rituals. The tea is made from the plant Ilex paraguariensis, the seeds of which will only grow after they have passed through the digestive tract of the toucan. This secret was eventually learned by the Jesuit missionaries who arrived in Brazil, and led to the cultivation and trade of the popular drink. Yerba mate quickly spread throughout South America and remains one of the most popular drinks in this part of the world. It is usually prepared in gourds and sipped through a bombilla(metal straw) in order to filter out the leaf dregs.

Back in Europe, the more traditional form of tea was having a slightly different reception. It was first brought to the west by Portuguese priests and merchants returning from China in the early 1500s, and the Dutch shipped the first consignment of tea from China to Holland in 1606. The brew gained a reputation as a fashionable drink, and eventually caught the attention of other countries in continental western Europe. However, it remained an expensive beverage that only the wealthy could afford. Tea was first introduced to France in 1635 and Germany in 1650, but, according to some sources, has never replaced their love of wine or beer.

One of the earliest records of tea drinking in Britain is a newspaper advertisement in 1658, which announced that “China Drink” was available at a coffee house in London. But it wasn’t until Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in 1661 that tea became a national obsession. As a Portuguese princess, Catherine was a ‘tea addict’, and her desire for a daily cuppa quickly caught on. Like Europe, tea became highly sought-after among the wealthy classes, especially the Royal families and nobility.

Apparently, it was England that first came up with the idea of adding sugar to tea: an enhancement that saw its popularity soar. It also disguised the taste of tainted water.

By the early 1800s, demand for tea had increased so much that the British were concerned about the flow of silver out of the country to purchase it from China, which was the only place tea could be sourced in commercial quantities. To keep the economy afloat, the British East India Company began selling Indian opium in Bengal – illegally – to Chinese trading companies. The trade in tea, opium and spices underpinned the economics of the British East India Company. It was also the British East India Company that began cultivating tea in India as a means of competing with the Chinese monopoly on tea production.

Before green tea arrived in the South Pacific, a very different beverage was brewed. When James Cook arrived in 1773, he observed the Tongan kava ceremony, noting “several people take of the root or stem adjoining to the root and chew it into a kind of pulp when they spit it out into a platter or other Vessel…. It has a pepperish taste rather flat and insipid and intoxicating.”

The first black tea is likely to have arrived in New Zealand with European sealers in the late 18th century when trade for Chinese tea was at its height. However, tea culture didn’t really take off until the tea-loving British missionaries arrived in the 1850s.

The diffusion of tea around the world is far more complex than this brief overview allows. Tea – in all its shapes and forms, varieties, and blends – is the brew through which we live our daily lives. It connects cultures, marks celebrations, honours rituals. It will be here for as long we are.

So, how do you have yours?

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