The story of how tea was first discovered and then spread to all of the major countries on Earth is a fascinating tale that includes romance, politics, religion, intrigue, heroics, deceit, greed, war and innovation.
T ea: but probe deeper into this sweet-sounding word – follow its roots to the Chinese, where the word is pronounced differently in the different varieties of this language, such as 茶, chá in Mandarin, zo and dzo in Wu Chinese, and ta and te in Min Chinese, Japanese ちゃ, cha, or だ da, た ta, or ocha, おちゃ, the Indian chāy, and Persian چای chay– and you’ll find a flow of time that reaches across Europe, through Africa, and back into the Asian continent.
The story of tea includes many twists and turns – tea was smuggled across the ocean, presented to kings, carried along the ancient spice routes on the land and sea. An extremely lucrative business that ended up in wars and revolutions, imperialism, colonialism, and general exploitation.
Many of these dates are approximate
Early, up to 10th century
Possible cultivation of tea in the Tianluo Mountain, in east China. Archeological evidence is open to interpretation.
3000- 2737 B.C.
Emperor Shennung, Shen Nung, 神農氏 accidentally discovers tea in China. (legend)
According to a Chinese historical record, there were tea farms in Sichuan and Yunnan.
Ji Dan, duke of Chou (Zhou) in China writes Against Drunkenness, containing the first written definition of tea.
Tea is served to King Wen (founder of the Zhou dynasty) as evidenced by early documentation of court life.
1100B.C. to 700 B.C.
Tea was called tu, 荼 in the Chinese ancient classic Shi Jing, The book of Songs.
Around 771 BC – 476 BC the Chinese tea is used for medicinal purposes. This period also known as the “Spring and Autumn Period”, is where Chinese people first enjoyed the juice extracted from the tea leaves that they chewed, Tu (tea) was used as sacrifice for ceremony and eaten as vegetable.
Tang Dynast writer, the sage of tea, Lu Yu (陸羽) publishes ‘Cha Jing’ (茶經) the first tea book, which describes how to grow, prepare and evaluate tea. He first uses the word cha instead of tu.
There are three different ways to interpret the character tea, “cha 茶” in Chinese. It could be categorized under either the “herb 艹” radical, the “tree木”radical, or both “herb” and “tree” radicals. Here are four other characters that have also denoted tea through history other than “cha 茶”. They are “jia檟”, “she蔎”, “ming茗” and “chuan荈.” Lu Yu was borrowing terms already well-established before his time.
Tea was used in powder form to make tea.
Tang dynasty poet Lu Tung said of tea,
“The first bowl moistens my lips and throat. The second bowl breaks my loneliness. The third bowl searches my barren brain… The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration. The fifth cup… purifies my bones and makes me feel light. The sixth cup links me to the realms of the immortals.”
Documents identify Confucius, teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, as a tea user.
From the historical annal “Yianzhi Chunchiu”: the prime minister of Chi (547 B.C.–490 B.C.) had egg and tea food on his table.
206 B.C.–220 C.E.
Han Dynasty, tea was called jia 檟 in the ancient Chinese classic Er Ya:
” Jia is bitter tu”.
The word tu was further annotated by a Jin scholar, Guo Pu (276–324 CE):
“Tu is a small plant, its leaves can be brewed into a beverage”.
From the beginning of Western Han to middle Western Han, Tu was used as medicine.
Tea plants from the Yunnan Province are planted along the Yangtze river in the Scechwan Province. The cultivation of tea in China begins.
The Erh Ya a dictionary of ancient Chinese origin annotated by scholar Kuo P’o, defines tea as beverage made of boiling leaves from a plant
“as small as a gardenia, sending forth its leaves even in winter. What is plucked early is called t’u and what is plucked later is called ming (bitter tea).”
A dictionary in China is published which documents the addition of onions, cinnamon, and orange to tea.
Tea joins noodles, vinegar, and cabbage as an item of trade in China.
Bodhidharma discovers tea in India, he chews it to stay focus on meditation. (legend)
Later Bodhidharma,(Chinese: Ta Mo; Japanese: Daruma 達摩) goes to China. The legend speaks of Daruma’s troubles staying awake and mindful in his meditation. So he cut off his drooping eyelids, casting them to the earth—later to find a tree grew where they landed. This tree was China’s first green tea plant. (legend)
Chinese character c’ha, meaning tea, comes into use.
[During the Han Dynasty, the word tu took on a new pronunciation, ‘cha’, in addition to its old pronunciation ‘tu’. The syllable tu 荼 later developed into ‘te’ in the Fujian dialect, and later ‘tea’, ‘te’. The syllable she 蔎 later became ‘soh’ in Jiangsu province, Suleiman’s ‘Sakh’ also came from ‘she’. The syllable jia 檟 later became ‘cha’ and ‘chai’ Russia, India.]
The Japanese Emperor Shomu receives a gift of China tea from a visiting T’ang court emissary.
The Japanese Emperor Shomu serves Chinese tea to visiting monks. The monks are inspired by the tea and decide to grow it in Japan. The monk Gyoki dedicates his entire life to the cultivation of tea in Japan, during which time he built 49 temples, each with a tea garden.
The first tax on tea in China, due to its popularity.
Tea drinking becomes very popular at court, inspiring the custom of “Tribute tea”, whereby tea growers “donate” their very best tea to the Emperor and the Imperial court.
Japanese monks plant tea bushes in Kyoto’s Imperial gardens.
Japan is again influenced by Chinese culture, when Japanese scholars return from a visit to China bearing tea.
The Jurgen tribes from North Eastern China united to establish the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234AD) used to put milk in tea.
Xia Zhong’s Treatise on Food states:
“Since Jin dynasty, the people of Wu (now Suzhou city) cooked tea leaves as food, and called it tea broth”.
Chinese Emperor Hui Tsung is known as a tea friend and holds tea-tasting tournaments in his court; legend has it that he was so busy drinking tea, he didn’t notice the Mongols were taking over his empire.
The Emperor Hui Tsung (1082-1135) defines seven criteria for tea competitions, and describes the technique of tea spotting, in his treatise called Ta Kuan Ch’a Lun, 大观茶论.
During the Southern Song Dynasty a Japanese monk 明菴栄西 Eisai, Yosai: came to Tiantai mountain of Zhejiang to study Chan (Zen) Buddhism (1168 CE); when he returned home, he brought tea from China to Japan, planted it and wrote the first Japanese book on Tea:喫茶養生記, Treatise on Drinking Tea for Health.
This was the beginning of tea cultivation and tea culture in Japan.
In the Song Dynasty, tea was a major export good, through the Silk Road on land and Silk Road on the sea, tea spread to Arab countries and Africa.
Genghis Khan and his Mongol troops attacked the Jurchen people, and after a few years the Jin Dynasty collapsed in 1234. The Mongols used to have tea with milk, salt, and in some cases butter or fat.
When the Mongols took over China and established the Yuan Dynasty, the significance of tea for aristocrats reduced, making the beverage a common man’s drink.
The twelfth century may also have been when tea-drinking spread south and west to India. It has been suggested that there is a reference to tea in the Ramayana: the ‘Sanjeevani’ plant brought from the Himalayas for medicinal use. However, this is not confirmed.
Buddhist monks travel across Japan, spreading the art of tea and the Zen doctrine.
Pictorial of Tea Ware, 茶具图赞 compiled by Shenan, 审安老人.
1368 C.E.-1644 C.E.
During the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese start drinking tea, by steeping the whole leaf tea in hot water.
The first teapots begin to appear – people didn’t have to prepare tea one cup at a time
Tea drinking becomes prevalent among the masses in Japan.
The Japanese Shogun Ashikaga-Yoshimasa builds the first tearoom at his palace in Kyoto. He employs the Buddhist priest Shuko to develop a ceremony around the service of tea. The practice and etiquette of “chanoyu” (“hot water tea”) is born.
Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) discovers a sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, after which in 1513 Jorge Alvares (-1521) becomes the first Portuguese to land in China, and in 1535 the Chinese emperor permits the Portuguese to settle in Macao at the mouth of the Pearl River; meanwhile on Aug. 24, 1511 the Portuguese under Alfonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) conquer Malacca on the Malay Peninsula; in 1516 they reach China, sending an ambassador to Peiping (Beijing) in 1517, and reach Japan in 1540.
Sen Rikyu, known as the “father of tea” in Japan, codifies the tea ceremony.
Italian Venetian geographer Giambattista (Giovanni Battista) Ramusio (1485-1557) writes Navigatione et Viaggi (Voyages and Travels) (3 vols.), a collection of first-hand accounts of travels by famous explorers incl. Marco Polo, Magellan, Alvar Nunez Cabeza, Niccolo Da Conti et al., containing the first mention of tea in Euro lit. as “Chai Catai” in an account of the 16th century. Some historians believe Marco Polo encountered tea in his travel, other historians point out that his writings fail to mention tea at all.
Persian traveler Chaggi Memet (Haji Mohamed):
“He told me that all over Cathay they made use of another plant or rather of its leaves. This is called by those people Chai Catai, and grows in the district of Cathay which is called Cacian-fu [Szechwan]…
They take of that herb, whether dry or fresh, and boil it well in water. One or two cups of this decoction taken on an empty stomach removes fever, headache, stomach ache, pain in the side, or in the joints, and it should be taken as hot as you can bear it… And it is so highly valued and esteemed that every one going on a journey takes it with him, and those people would gladly give a sack of rhubarb for one ounce of Chai Catai. And those people of Cathay do say if in our part of the world, in Persia, and the country of the Franks, people only knew of it, there is no doubt that the merchants would cease altogether to buy rhubarb.”
Italian Jesuit writer Giovanni Pietro (John Peter) Maffei writes: Historica Indica in Rome, talking about tea drinking in Japan, with the soundbyte:
“The Japanese have as yet no use for grapes, but they make a kind of wine from rice. But that which before all they delight to drink is water almost boiling, mingled with the powdered chia.”
Italian priest-poet-diplomat Giovanni Botero writes: On the Causes of Greatness in Cities (Delle Cause Della Grandezza Delle Citta), mentions the Chinese habit of tea drinking:
“The Chinese have an herb from which they press a delicate juice which serves them instead of wine. It also preserves the health and frees them from all those evils that the immoderate use of wine doth breed in us.”
Elizabeth I founded the John Foundation, with the intention of promoting trade with Asia. Chinese ceramics, silks, and exotic spices are much in demand in Europe. 1601, English East India Company founded.
Spanish Jesuit missionary to China Father Diego de Pantoja (Didaco Pantoia) writes a work on Chinese etiquette, with the soundbyte:
“When they have ended their salutations, they straightway cause a drink to be brought, which they call ch’a, which is water boyled with a certaine herbe, which they much esteeme… and they must drink of it twice or thrice.”
Dutch East India Company market tea. The Dutch procure tea and Chinese clay teapots from Portuguese traders in Macao, and establish a trading relationship with the Japanese. Tea comes to Europe, it is sold to rich people as an exotic medicinal drink.
The first Russians to be recorded as tasting tea were Ivan Petrov and Vasili Tumenets, Cossacks, dispatched by Tsar Michael the 1st as envoys to create trade with China. They were invited to dinner by Altin Khan after he received gifts sent by the Tsar. They were treated to many kinds of meat including duck, beef, mutton and game, and to accompany this great feast the two Russians were served Mongol milk tea.
Tea is introduced to Russia, when the Chinese embassy visits Moscow, bringing a chest of tea as a gift for the Czar Alexis.
The “tea heretics” (doctors and university authorities) of Holland argue over the positive and negative effects of tea, while the Dutch continue to enjoy their newfound beverage.
Tea was successfully marketed in Russia, when a Mongolian ruler donated to Tsar Michael I four poods (65–70 kg) of tea.
A Dutch trader introduces tea to the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (a small settlement in North America). Later, when the English acquired this colony, they found that the inhabitants of New Amsterdam (or New York as they chose to re-name it) consumed more tea than all of England.
Tea is introduced to England by the Dutch East India Company.
Tea sold at Garaway’s Coffee House, London.
For the first time tea is made publicly available at Thomas Garaway’s Coffee House in London.
England’s first tax on tea, levied at 8 pence for every gallon of tea sold at the coffeehouses.
King Charles II married the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, who, not only introduced tea at court, but also brought to England (as part of her dowry), the territories of Bombay and Tangiers. This added strategic impetus to the already-strong monopoly of the John Foundation.
The English East India Company brings the gift of tea to the British king and queen. Not long after, tea drinking becomes very fashionable among the aristocracy of England, although the debate continues as to its medicinal value or harm.
The English begin to make and use silver teapots.
In Holland, tea is widely available for purchase in common food shops.
First of the London Tea Auctions held.
Tea drinking becomes a popular pastime in Europe, as a result of a craze for anything Oriental. The Marquise Marie de Rabutin-Chantal de Sévigné, is recorded to have added milk to her tea. An addition of milk to hot tea was made to prevent the delicate porcelain cup (Oriental influence) from cracking. In one of her famous letters to her daughter she reminds her to offer milk with the tea when entertaining guests.
England begins to trade directly with China. Tea and the Chinese word t’e (Amoy dialect) is brought to England directly from the Amoy region.
The Trade Treaty of Newchinsk establishes a common border between China and Russia, allowing trade caravans to cross freely. The trade caravans consisting of over 200 camels take over 16 months to cross the 11,000 miles between Moscow and Beijing. As a result, the cost of tea in Russia is high, and is drunk only by those who can afford it.
Realizing the potential popularity of tea and the money it could generate, the British Crown levies a 5-shilling per pound tax on dried tea. This will eventually lead to widespread smuggling.
Thomas Twinning puts tea on the menu at his London coffeehouse.
England imports an annual average 240,000 pounds of tea. People of all levels of society now drink tea in England.
Tea is brought to Canada by the Hudson Bay Company.
Thomas Twinning converts his coffeehouse to the first teashop “The Golden Lyon”, which becomes the first place for women to meet and socialize in public.
Black tea (Bohea) (Wu-i) passes green tea in popularity in England, with sugar and milk becoming popular additives early on. By this time maritime Euro trade with China is dominated by the exchange of silver for tea.
The popularity of tea wanes in France, in favor of coffee, wine and chocolate.
Now viewed as a valuable commodity, the first Chinese teas are sold at auctions in Europe.
First attempt at tea cultivation in the United States.
Black tea exceeds green tea in popularity in Europe.
Tea production began in the Azores, Portugal.
England imposes high taxes on tea and other items sent to the American colonists. The colonists, resenting the monopoly that England has over them, begins to smuggle tea in from Holland.
The John Company and the East India Company merge, forming the New East India Company. This new company had a complete monopoly on all trade and commerce in India and China. Trade with China is expensive however, and England’s solution to its financial problem is opium. They begin to trade opium, (which they could grow cheaply in India) with the Chinese for tea. The Chinese would become addicted to the supply of opium, ensuring a constant supply of cheap tea to the English.
The Boston Tea Party occurs when American patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians push 342 chests of tea overboard, to protest taxes on tea. This act leads to the development of the Boston Tea Company and would eventually lead to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776.
Tea smuggling is rampant in England as people resort to illegal measures to avoid paying the high tax on tea.
The grandson of Thomas Twinning persuades the Prime Minister William Pitt to drop the high taxes on tea, not only eliminating smuggling, but making tea an affordable luxury to Brits of all walks of life.
The Comte de la Rochefoucauld writes:
“Throughout the whole of England the drinking of tea is general. You have it twice a day and though the expense is considerable, the humblest peasant has his tea just like the rich man.”
The American Revolution is over, and America begins to trade directly with China. They would eventually break England’s tea monopoly with their faster sailing ships, and they paid gold, not Opium for tea. Gold stolen from the South Americans…
French botanist Francois Andre Michaux, brought the Camellia sinensis plant to the United States and gave it to Henry Middleton.
Dutch East India Company declared bankrupt.
Tea gardens become popular haunts for fashionable Londoners.
Tea plants are introduced in Taiwan.
The Temperance Movement is founded as a result of rampant alcoholism brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Members seek salvation for the drunken men with “tea and god on their side”. This movement eventually inspired the word “teetotaling”.
The first Indian tea bushes are “discovered” growing wild in the Assam region of India by British Army Major Robert Bruce.
The first Chinese tea seeds are planted in Java by an entrepreneurial Dutchman (J.I.L.L. Jacobsen), who smuggled both the seeds and teamen out of China. The Chinese plant did not thrive however, and was later supplanted by the hardier Assam variety.
Tea planting in the Indian district of Darjeeling had begun Dr. Campbell, a civil surgeon of the Indian Medical Service. Campbell was transferred to Darjeeling in 1839 and used seeds from China to begin experimental tea planting, a practice he and others continued during the 1840s. The government also established tea nurseries during that period. Commercial development began during the 1850s.
The British are ecstatic as this means that they are now able to successfully grow their own tea, in India.
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (Viscount Horwick) forms a new government in England and he becomes British PM. A Chinese mandarin gifts him with Earl Grey Tea, containing the key ingredient of oil of bergamot (cross between pear lemon and Seville orange).
First Opium War, was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking, China lost the Hong Kong island to the United Kingdom, and UK also established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchow, and Amoy. England wins “the right” to trade opium for tea.
Anna the 7th Duchess of Bedford invents “Afternoon Tea” to abolish the “sinking feeling” she experienced during the long gap between breakfast and dinner.
Second Opium War, resulted in a second group of treaty ports being set up; eventually more than 80 treaty ports were established in China, involving many foreign powers (France, Russia, and the U.S.). Opium trade was legalized and China had to pay silver to the winners.
East India Company started tea production in Nepal.
Ladurée tea shop opened in Paris.
Tea first sown in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
Cutty Sark clipper built – the last merchant ship to be so built. Coffee-rust fungus destroyed most of the coffee plants in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka): this led to the establishment of the tea industry there.
The Orchard (tea room) opened.
The British introduce tea to Morocco.
Scotsman James Taylor, manager of a coffee plantation in Ceylon, Sri Lanka, experiments with growing tea, planting both the China and India seed. The Assam seed flourishes and becomes the first commercial tea from Ceylon.
Ceylon’s coffee industry is devastated by a coffee blight.
Clipper ships are outdated by the development of faster steamers.
The Assam tea seed is planted in Java. It thrives over the earlier planted China variety.
Tea is planted in Malawi, and becomes the first to be cultivated in Africa.
Scottish grocer Thomas Lipton buys numerous tea plantations in Ceylon, goes on to revolutionize tea production, and introduces Lipton brand tea, using orange pekoe and pekoe leaves, with the slogan:
“Direct from the tea gardens to the teapot”.
Tea is introduced to Iran.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is completed, ending camel caravan trade between Russia and China. In Russia, tea has become the national beverage (besides Vodka).
Tea is planted in the Botanical gardens at Entebbe, Uganda.
In England, teashops become the popular place for the working class to take their afternoon tea. By this time Lyon’s has over 250 tea shops, and taking tea, as meal away from home becomes a pert of daily life.
Tea is planted in Kenya at Limuru.
First patents on tea bags.
The first “iced tea” was served at the St. Louis World’s Fair. A certain tea merchant had planned to give away samples of his tea to the fair-goers, and when unable to think of anything else to do when a heat wave threatened his plans, he dumped ice into his hot tea.
Benjamin Ginsberg, Russian immigrant to Southern Africa became interested in Roobois and started its commercial development.
The Book of Tea, 茶の本, is written by Okakura Kakuzo, thus introducing the west to the Japanese Tea Ceremony and its history.
A New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan packages his samples of tea in silk sachets, as a way to cut down on his costs. His customers, mistaking his intentions, like the convenience of simply dunking the sachet into hot water, and begin to order their tea in this fashion. Tea bags are successfully marketed.
British workers are given tea breaks throughout the day as this is thought to improve their productivity.
British soldiers are given tea as part of their rations.
Mrs Florence Philips, a tea planter’s wife smuggled a box of tea seeds out of India and these were planed in Chipinge (Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe): led to the development of the tea industry in the then colony.
Nestle USA introduced the first instant tea, Nestea.
Rain Flower tea developed.
Last of the London Tea Auctions held. Ethical (?!) Tea Partnership established.
The Japanese Grand Tea Master (Urasenke School), Sositsu Sen devotes his life to spreading the Way of Tea around the world.
The paper teabag is developed by the Tetley tea Company, thus transforming tea-drinking habits around the world.
Today Over 2.5 million tea is grown and produced in more than 40 countries worldwide.
Having picked some tea, he drank it,
Then he sprouted wings,
And flew to a fairy mansion,
To escape the emptiness of the world…
~ ○ ~
Works Cited & Multimedia Sources
- All about tea.
- Etymology of tea.
- Image: 點茶
- Lu Yu. Cha Jing. The Classic of Tea. Complete English translation with translator’s notes in: Global Tea Hut magazine. September 2015. page 31.
- Map: The spread of the word for “tea” across the world. Reddit.
- TLW’s Coffee-Teascope™.
- WIKI: History of tea in China.