• Kristin Thompson

The History of Tea

Tea is the second most drank beverage in the entire world, next only to water! But have you ever wondered where this amazing little herb came from?

The earliest known evidence of tea dates all the way back to the Han Dynasty. Tea leaves discovered in the mausoleum for Emperor Jing of Han indicate that tea was in use during the 2nd century BC, however it is unknown if the Emperor was drinking the tea or just using it as medicine.

However, in 59 BC, during the same dynasty, there is written evidence for boiling tea as well as cultivation of the plant.

Artist depiction of Shennong dated 1503

The Chinese have a legend that say tea was invented by the mythical Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC. The story goes that as Shennong boiled his water over a fire one day the wind blew leaves from a nearby shrub into the water. The aroma intrigued the Emperor and he decided to drink it. When he did, he found it very refreshing, and thus tea was born.

As the centuries passed, tea was processed in a variety of ways. The Tang dynasty steamed and pounded the plant into a cake to steep. The Song dynasty embraced loose leaf steeping, and the Yuan and Ming dynasties steeped after pan-frying the leaves.

Giovanni Battista Ramusio

In the 6th century AD, Buddhist monks gifted tea seedlings to the Japanese Priests who had come to learn from them, and soon drinking tea became a cultural phenomenon across the Orient.

Tea then made it’s way to Europe by way of the Italian traveler Giovanni Battista Ramusio, when a Persian merchant regaled him with tales of a Chinese drink and the curative power of tea. Ramusio took these stories and documented them in a three-volume work entitled Voyages and Travels.

“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, head-ache, stomach-ache, pain in the side or in the joints, and it should be taken as hot as you can bear it.”

Ramusio’s tales set Venice a buzz. Everyone wanted to taste the miracle drink, and by the 1600’s tea was being shipped from China to Europe. However, the price of tea was absurd, easily exceeding over $100 per pound. This left it reserved for royals and the rich. The influence of its popularity amongst the high class as well as the belief in it’s medicinal and healing properties launched tea as a prominent beverage in Great Britain.

Traditional Dutch Delftware

However, to drink the tea the Europeans required teaware to be imported. These fine porcelain teapots and cups were dubbed “china” after their country of origin. However, the process to make these items was not well known in Europe at the time and to save on importing costs the Dutch designed imitation tea services called Delftware that soon became popular across Europe.

Depiction of the Boston Tea Party by W.D. Cooper

When the European settlers came to America in the early 1600’s they brought their tea with them. The earliest known American tea party was held in the Dutch colony of New York in 1674. However, it was only a century later when the most memorable tea party took place. In 1773 American colonists were angry with the British for imposing prohibitive taxes on tea. On December 16th, in an act of political dissent, protesters boarded ships belonging to the East India Trading Company and destroyed their entire shipment of tea by tossing all 342 cases of it into the Boston harbour. A harsh response from the British government quickly escalated into what became the American Revolution.

In the UK, tea is drank daily and considered a cultural beverage. Russia was introduce to tea by Tsar Michael and to this day a gathering is considered incomplete without tea. In Pakistan, a mix of tea and milk with spices, also known as chai, is the most common household beverage, and in India, tea was declared their national drink.

Across the globe, every country and culture has it’s own history, practice and traditions with tea. From a tiny area in southwest China over 2200 years ago, to the global phenomenon it is today, tea has not only acted as a medicinal herb or a comforting quaff over the centuries but has shaped cultures, influenced design and even overthrown governments in its lifetime thus far.

All from a little shrub.

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