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History of tea


The Chinese have been drinking tea for 5,000 years. The beginning is clouded in legend, the most famous of which concerns the Emperor Shen Nung (pronounced ‘Shay-Nung '). His chance discovery of tea is placed in the precise yet historically unfounded year of 2737 BC.

The Chinese have been taking tea for health and for enjoyment for thousands of years. No one knows what drew them to the glossy, green leaves of Camellia sinensis, but a popular legend fills the gap in our knowledge.

One day the Emperor Shen Nung was about to drink some boiling water, when a few leaves from an overhanging tree blew into the pan. The inquisitive Emperor decided to taste this unlikely looking brew. He discovered that this brew was both delicious and refreshing.

An Indian legend attributes the discovery of tea to the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. He was understandably tired as a seven-year period of sleepless contemplation drew to an end. In desperation he chewed on some leaves from a nearby tree, and was immediately revived.

India is now one of the world's greatest producers of tea, yet there are no historical records for tea-drinking in India prior to the nineteenth century. Bodhidharma's leaf-chewing experiment never made it to the general public at the time.

Another (Japanese) myth about the meditative Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, describes how he threw his drooping eyelids to the ground in frustration at his inability to say awake. Tea bushes sprang up where the eyelids fell. The leaves of these new bushes miraculously cured his fatigue.

Tea is not native to Japan, so this myth does at least provide an explanation for its sudden appearance on the islands. The reality is less colourful: early in the ninth century, a far-sighted Japanese monk called Dengyo Daishi brought tea seeds back with him from China.

The chance method of open-pan tea-making attributed to the Emperor Shen Nung stood the test of time. It was another 4,000 years before the brewing method that we use today was developed.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Chinese began steeping tea leaves in boiled water. With a few adaptations, the traditional Chinese lidded wine-ewer became a perfect teapot.


‘Tea' and all its worldwide variations in spelling and pronunciation come from a single source. ‘Te', means ‘tea' in the Chinese Amoy dialect. The Mandarin word for tea, ‘cha', has also spawned a few derivatives around the world.

T ea reached Europe in the early seventeenth century. Despite exaggerated claims for its medicinal properties, Europeans preferred the flavour of coffee. It was only amongst a few aristocratic cliques, that tea became popular.

Arriving in Europe

Early seventeenth-century Dutch and Portuguese traders were the first to introduce Chinese tea to Europe. The Portuguese shipped it from the Chinese coastal port of Macao; the Dutch brought it to Europe via Indonesia.

18th century Dutch East India ship

The strange brew that came in amongst the cargoes of silks and spices was not an instant success. Europeans tasted it, but preferred the flavour of coffee. The suspicious English waited until 1652 before they even began to trade in tea.

The Russians were early devotees of tea. Their tea arrived overland from China by camel train.

As the passion for tea increased in Russia, the lines of camels that snaked across Asia lengthened. By the end of the eighteenth century, several thousand camels in trains of 200–300 at a time were crossing the Chinese border.

The Trans-Siberian railway sent the camels into a well-earned retirement, but their romantic journey lives on as the popular and delicate blend of China black tea known as Russian Caravan.

Royal promotion

In seventeenth century Europe, nothing helped sell a product more than royal patronage.

Tea-drinking got its lucky break in 1662 when the English King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess and avid tea-drinker. Catherine began taking tea at Court in delicate, translucent Chinese bowls and pots – and the courtiers soon followed suit.

Tea was already expensive, but now it was fashionable too. Suddenly tea had style and exclusivity. In the eyes of the image-conscious aristocracy, it was irresistible.

In seventeenth-century Europe, tea was a practical product with great potential. Most water was unfit to drink. For those who wanted to avoid disease, the choice was uninspiring: an exciting cup of boiled water; or beer that was strong enough to kill bacteria.

In Britain and several other countries, where ale was a common breakfast drink, tea came as a welcome alternative. Here, at last, was a thirst quencher that refreshed and invigorated, was full of flavour, and above all was safe to drink.

In the eighteenth-century rich homes, tea drinking was an occasion of great ceremony.

The precious tea leaves were often kept in a locked caddy, for which there was only ever one key. Once or twice a week, the lady of the house would unlock the caddy to serve tea as a family treat, or to impress an important guest.

The fine porcelain in which the tea was served emphasised the family's wealth, while adding to the sense of ceremony. It was an opportunity for a refined woman to show off her pale skin and delicate bone structure against the translucent purity of the Chinese porcelain. These two attributes were the way that a lady's purity was measured in those days.


Social life in the first half of the eighteenth century became more sophisticated as coffee houses gave way to tea gardens. The tea gardens came in like a vision of paradise: tree-lined avenues, lantern-lit walks, music, dancing, fireworks, and good food accompanied by a fine cup of tea.

Tea gardens weren't just fun, they were a social melting pot. Within these exotic landscapes, royalty and the masses could promenade together.

Tea consumption increased dramatically during the early nineteenth century. Fashion and reduced costs built a market that suppliers were finding it hard to satisfy. To break the Chinese monopoly, the tea trade looked to India to fill the gap.


As tea consumption increased in the early nineteenth century, the East India Company looked for new sources of supply. Since the Chinese had a monopoly on tea-growing, the solution was to plant tea elsewhere.

The first experiments with Chinese tea seed were conducted in Assam, North East India. They were not successful, although the same seeds subsequently grew well in Darjeeling, North India .

Then in 1820, botanists discovered some unidentified native trees in Assam . They sent leaf samples to London for analysis. The samples were immediately recognised as tea – a plant previously unknown in India – and the Indian tea industry was born.


Until 1826, tea was always sold loose. It was an invitation to unscrupulous shopkeepers to thin the tea out with additives. In 1826 John Horniman developed pre-sealed, lead-lined tea packets, which did not immediately find favour with grocers. They preferred to boost their profits in the time-honoured manner. Horniman then tried a different route to market. He put medicinal messages on the packaging and sold his tea to pharmacists and apothecaries. They and their customers were far more receptive to his approach.

Tea bags are said to have arrived by accident. A New York tea importer named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of tea to his customers in small silk bags. The customers clearly liked the convenience because they were soon requesting all their tea in bagged form.

After 5,000 years, tea consumption and production continues to increase. Worldwide, roughly three million tonnes of tea are harvested each year.

Two factors are currently driving the international market. In the developing countries, tea-drinking is being adopted for the same reasons that Europeans took to it three centuries earlier: it's a tasty way to enjoy safe drinking water. In the developed countries, the thirst for variety and new flavours is increasing the consumption of speciality teas.


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