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A Brief History of Tea

The Legendary Origins of Tea

The story of tea begins in ancient China over 5,000 years ago.   According to legend, Shen Nung - an early emperor - was a skilled ruler, creative scientist and patron of the arts.   His far-sighted edicts required, among other things, that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution.   One summer day while visiting a distant region of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest.   In accordance with his ruling, the servants began to boil water for the court to drink.   Dried leaves from a nearby bush fell into the boiling water and a brown liquid was infused into the water.   As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing and cleansing to the body's systems.   And so, according to legend, tea was created.   (This myth maintains such a practical narrative, that many mythologists believe it may relate closely to the actual events, now lost in ancient history.)   In view of the Emperor's findings, tea was used as a medicinal beverage for thousands of years before becoming used as a social and refreshment beverage.  

The Chinese Influence

Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture reaching into every aspect of the society.   In 800 A.D.   Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book on tea, the "Cha Jing."   This amazing man was orphaned as a child and raised by scholarly Buddhist monks in one of China's finest monasteries.   However, as a young man, he rebelled against the discipline of priestly training which had made him a skilled observer.   His fame as a performer increased with each year, but he felt his life lacked meaning.   Finally, in mid-life, he retired for five years into seclusion.   Drawing from his vast memory of observed events and places, he codified the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China.   The vast definitive nature of his work projected him into near sainthood within his own lifetime.   Patronized by the Emperor himself, his work clearly showed the Zen Buddhist philosophy to which he was exposed as a child.   It was this form of tea service that Zen Buddhist missionaries would later introduce to imperial Japan.  

The Japanese Influence

The first tea seeds were brought to Japan by the returning Buddhist priest Yeisei, who had seen the value of tea in China in enhancing religious mediation.   As a result, he is known as the "Father of Tea" in Japan.   Because of this early association, tea in Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism.   Tea received almost instant imperial sponsorship and spread rapidly from the royal court and monasteries to the other sections of Japanese society.   Tea was elevated to an art form resulting in the creation of the Japanese Tea Ceremony ("Cha-no-yu" or "the hot water for tea").

The best description of this complex art form was probably written by the Irish-Greek journalist-historian Lafcadio Hearn, one of the few foreigners ever to be granted Japanese citizenship during this era.   He wrote from personal observation,

"The Tea ceremony requires years of training and practice to graduate in art...yet the whole of this art, as to its detail, signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea.   The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible".

Such purity of form, of expression, prompted the creation of supportive arts and services.   A special form of architecture (chaseki) developed for "tea houses", based on the duplication of the simplicity of a forest cottage.   The cultural/artistic hostesses of Japan, the Geishi, began to specialize in the presentation of the tea ceremony.   As more and more people became involved in the excitement surrounding tea, the purity of the original Zen concept was lost.   The tea ceremony became corrupted, boisterous and highly embellished.   "Tea Tournaments" were held among the wealthy where nobles competed among each other for rich prizes in naming various tea blends.   Rewarding winners with gifts of silk, armor, and jewelry was totally alien to the original Zen attitude of the ceremony.   Three great Zen priests restored tea to its original place in Japanese society:

  • Ikkyu (1394-1481)- a prince who became a priest and was successful in guiding the nobles away from their corruption of the tea ceremony.  
  • Murata Shuko (1422-1502)- the student of Ikkyu and very influential in re-introducing the Tea ceremony into Japanese society.  
  • Sen-no Rikkyu (1521-1591)- priest who set the rigid standards for the ceremony, largely used intact today.   Rikyo was successful in influencing the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became Japan's greatest patron of the "art of tea".   A brilliant general, strategist, poet, and artist, this unique leader facilitated the final and complete integration of tea into the pattern of Japanese life.   So complete was this acceptance, that tea was viewed as the ultiMatë gift, and warlords paused for tea before battles.  

Europe Learns of Tea

While tea was at this high level of development in both Japan and China, information concerning this then unknown beverage began to filter back to Europe.   Earlier caravan leaders had mentioned it, but were unclear as to its service format or appearance.   (One reference suggests the leaves be boiled, salted, buttered, and eaten!) The first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560.   Portugal, with her technologically advanced navy, had been successful in gaining the first right of trade with China.   It was as a missionary on that first commercial mission that Father de Cruz had tasted tea four years before.   The Portuguese developed a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon, and then Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland, and the Baltic countries.   (At that time Holland was politically affiliated with Portugal.   When this alliance was altered in 1602, Holland, with her excellent navy, entered into full Pacific trade in her own right.)

The Tea Trade Continues in the Orient

Though concerned over developments in America, English tea interests still centered on the product's source-the Orient.   There the trading of tea had become a way of life, developing its own language known as "Pidgin English".   Created solely to facilitate commerce, the language was composed of English, Portuguese, and Indian words all pronounced in Chinese.   Indeed, the word "Pidgin" is a corrupted form of the Chinese word for "do business".   So dominant was the tea culture within the English speaking cultures that many of these words came to hold a permanent place in our language:

  • "Mandarin" (from the Portuguese "mandar" meaning to order) - the court official empowered by the emperor to trade tea.
  • "Cash" (from the Portuguese "caixa" meaning case or money box)-the currency of tea transactions.  
  • "Caddy" (from the Chinese word for one pound weight)-the standard tea trade container.  
  • "Chow" (from the Indian word for food cargo)-slang for food.  

The Opium Wars

By the 1800s, much of the world was drinking tea and it almost all came from China, with a small amount exported from Japan and Indonesia.   No doubt Britain would have gone on trading silver for tea with China if it had not been for two facts.   China was not easy to deal with, and for some time Britain had been considering the possibility of producing her own tea elsewhere.   Not only was language a problem, but so was the currency.   Vast sums of money were spent on tea. To take such large amounts of money physically out of England would have financially collapsed the country and been impossible to transport safely half way around the world.

With plantations in newly occupied India, the John Company saw a solution.   In India they could grow the inexpensive crop of opium and use it as a means of exchange.   Because of its addictive nature, the demand for the drug would be lifelong, insuring an unending market.   By clever dealing through middlemen, the British found a way of exporting opium to China, making a great deal of money in the process.   The Chinese got their opium, and no blame could be directly pinned on Britain.   The money that was earned from the Chinese opium dealers was paid straight back for tea supplies.

The Chinese emperors tried to maintain the forced distance between the Chinese people and the "devils," but disorder in the Chinese culture and foreign military might prevented it.   The deals continued until the Chinese government took a stand and confiscated imports, prompting Britain to declare war in 1840.   Tea was no longer allowed to leave China for London's docks. The Opium Wars broke out with the English ready to go to war for free trade (their right to sell opium).   By 1842 England had gained enough military advantages to enable her to sell opium in China undisturbed until 1908.

This episode could have spelled disaster for tea drinkers in Britain and elsewhere, but fortunately tea had already been found growing wild in Assam in north-eastern India.   By 1823, the first plantations had been established and in 1838 the first India tea was shipped to Britain.   Soon tea was being cultivated in other parts of north-east India, in the Kangra valley in the north west and in Travancore and Nilgiris in the south.   Ceylon's plantations were developed by British planters in the 1870s but, although the export of China tea had been re-established by this time, the quantities traded with Britain were never as high as they had been before the opium wars.  

America Enters the Tea Trade

The first three American millionaires - T. H. Perkins of Boston, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, and John Jacob Astor of New York - all made their fortunes in the China trade.   America began direct trade with China soon after the Revolution was over in 1789.   America's newer, faster clipper ships out-sailed the slower, heavier English "tea wagons" that had until then dominated the trade.   This forced the English navy to update their fleet, a fact America would have to address in the War of 1812.   The new American ships established sailing records that still stand for speed and distance.   John Jacob Astor began his tea trading in 1800.   He required a minimum profit on each venture of 50% and often made 100%.   Stephen Girard of Philadelphia was known as the "gentle tea merchant."   His critical loans to the young (and still weak) American government enabled the nation to re-arm for the War of 1812.   The orphanage founded by him still perpetuates his good name.   Thomas Perkins was from one of Boston's oldest sailing families.   The Chinese trust in him as a gentleman of his word enabled him to conduct enormous transactions half way around the world without a single written contract.   His word and his handshake were enough - so great was his honor in the eyes of the Chinese.   It is to their everlasting credit that none of these men ever paid for tea with opium.   America was able to break the English tea monopoly because its ships were faster and America paid in gold.  

The Clipper Days

The trading of tea become much quicker and easier in the 1790s after the launch of the first clippers.   These sleek, stable and incredibly fast ships knocked between five and seven months off the time it took to sail from China to Europe or North America.   The clipper races that ended in the port of London after a round trip of only seven or eight months made headline news and added a premium to the first tea home.   By the mid-1800's the world was involved in a global clipper race as nations competed with each other to claim the fastest ships.   England and America were the leading rivals. Each year the tall ships would race from China to the Tea Exchange in London to bring in the first tea for auction.   Though beginning half way around the world, the mastery of the crews was such that the great ships often raced up the Thames separated only by minutes.   But the romance of the tea clipper era ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. By 1871 the newer steamships began to replace the great clipper ships, and today only the Cutty Sark sits in stately fashion by the River Thames at Greenwich as a last reminder of the excitement of those days.

Global Tea Plantations Develop

The Scottish botanist/adventurer Robert Fortune, who spoke fluent Chinese, was able to sneak into mainland China the first year after the Opium War.   He obtained some of the closely guarded tea seeds and made notes on tea cultivation. With support from the Crown, various experiments in growing tea in India were attempted.   Many of these failed due to bad soil selection and incorrect planting techniques, ruining many a younger son of a noble family.   Through each failure, however, the technology was perfected.

Finally, after years of trial and error, fortunes made and lost, the English tea plantations in India and other parts of Asia flourished.   The great English tea marketing companies were founded and production was mechanized as the world industrialized in the late 1880s.   By the turn of the century, annual tea consumption in Britain alone was approxiMatëly 115,200 tons - about 6 pounds 2 ounces per person.   As consumption grew, so too did the industry, and at the end of the nineteenth century the first plantings of tea had been made in Africa.   By the 1940s, major plantations had been set up in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).   The first tea from Kenya was sold in London in 1928 and today that country ranks third in world production.  

Tea Inventions in America: Iced Tea and Teabags

America stabilized her government, strengthened her economy, and expanded her borders and interests.   By 1904 the United States was ready for the world to see her development at the St. Louis World's Fair.   Trade exhibitors from around the world brought their products to America's first World's Fair.   One such merchant was Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner.   Originally, he had planned to give away free samples of hot tea to fair visitors.   But when a heat wave hit, no one was interested.   To save his investment of time and travel, he dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first "iced tea".   It was (along with the Egyptian fan dancer) the hit of the Fair.   Four years later, Thomas Sullivan of New York developed the concept of "bagged tea".   As a tea merchant, he carefully wrapped each sample delivered to restaurants for their consideration.   He recognized a natural marketing opportunity when he realized the restaurants were brewing the samples "in the bags" to avoid the mess of tea leaves in the kitchens.   Thus was born the Teabag!

Tea Rooms, Tea Courts, and Tea Dances

Beginning in the late 1880s in both America and England, fine hotels began to offer tea service in tea rooms and tea courts.   Served in the late afternoon, Victorian ladies (and their gentlemen friends) could meet for tea and conversation.   Many of these tea services became the hallmark of the elegance of the hotel, such as the tea services at the Ritz (Boston) and the Plaza (New York).   By 1910 hotels began to host afternoon tea dances as dance craze after dance craze swept the United States and England.   Often considered wasteful by older people, they provided a place for the new "working girl" to meet men in a city, far from home and family.   (Indeed, the editor of Vogue once fired a large number of female secretarial workers for "wasting their time at tea dances").  

Tea in the USA Today

Tea is more popular than ever in America today.   Currently, there is a re-awakening of interest in tea as many Americans seek a more positive, healthy lifestyle.   Fine hotels throughout the United States are re-establishing or planning for the first time afternoon tea services.

Myriad tea shops and salons are opening across the country, serving everything from "Tea and Biscuits" to full-blown Victorian-style Afternoon Teas with scones, tea-sandwiches, soups and sweets.

On-line merchants offer a vast array of loose and bagged teas, specialty shops offer exotic, rare and hard-to-find loose teas from around the world, and the range of bottled, ready-to-drink teas seems to be expanding daily.

Many teas that were unknown to the US just a few years ago are now being offered for sale.   Certified Organic teas are increasing in numbers and popularity, as are Certified Fair-Trade teas.   Gardens that, just a few years ago, were on the verge of bankruptcy and failure have become re-vitalized and are increasing production and sales.   All-in-all, this is a great time for tea!






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