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The history of tea

Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water.

By Betty-AnnPublished 10 months ago 3 min read
The history of tea
Photo by Massimo Rinaldi on Unsplash

In the annals of ancient legends, the story of Shennong, the divine farmer of China, stands as a testament to the serendipitous discovery of tea. During one of his laborious days spent foraging the forest for edible grains and herbs, Shennong unwittingly poisoned himself an astonishing 72 times. It seemed that his life was hanging by a thread, destined to be claimed by the deadly toxins coursing through his body. However, fate had other plans. As he lay there, on the precipice of death, a solitary leaf drifted into his mouth. Instinctively, he chewed on it, and to his astonishment, it revived him. Thus, the tale of Shennong and the miraculous leaf came to be, marking the inception of tea, a beverage revered throughout history.

However, it's essential to clarify that tea does not possess magical powers to cure poisonings. Rather, the legend of Shennong serves as a symbolic ode to the profound significance of tea in ancient China. Archaeological evidence suggests that the cultivation of tea in China dates back a staggering 6,000 years, which is a staggering 1,500 years before the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The tea plant cultivated in those ancient Chinese times remains the same variety that is grown globally today, yet its consumption differed significantly.

By Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Originally, tea was consumed not as a beverage but as a vegetable, or it was cooked with grain porridge. The transformation of tea from food to drink occurred around 1,500 years ago when people stumbled upon the alchemy of combining heat and moisture to unlock the complex and varied flavors hidden within the tea leaves. After centuries of experimentation with preparation methods, the standard practice emerged, involving the application of heat to the tea leaves, pressing them into portable cakes, grinding them into powder, mixing with hot water, resulting in a beverage known as "muo cha" or "matcha." The popularity of matcha was such that it spawned a distinctive Chinese tea culture, with tea featuring prominently in literature, poetry, imperial courts, and even artistic expressions, akin to the intricate foam art seen in contemporary coffee shops.

In the 9th century, during the Tang Dynasty, a Japanese monk introduced the first tea plant to Japan, laying the foundation for Japan's unique tea rituals, eventually leading to the revered Japanese tea ceremony. Subsequently, in the 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Emperor orchestrated a shift from pressed tea cakes to loose leaf tea, further diversifying tea culture.

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China held a virtual monopoly on tea tree cultivation for centuries, which made tea one of the three vital Chinese export goods, alongside porcelain and silk, endowing China with significant economic power and influence as the tradition of tea spread worldwide. The international spread of tea began earnestly in the early 1600s when Dutch traders introduced tea to Europe on a grand scale.

Much credit is often attributed to Queen Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese noblewoman, for popularizing tea among the English aristocracy when she married King Charles II in 1661. At this time, Great Britain was expanding its colonial influence and emerging as a dominant global power. As Britain's empire grew, so did the worldwide fascination with tea. By 1700, tea in Europe commanded prices ten times higher than coffee, all while tea plants remained exclusively cultivated in China.

By 五玄土 ORIENTO on Unsplash

The profitability of the tea trade led to fierce competition among Western trading companies, prompting the creation of the world's fastest sailing vessels, the clipper ships, to hasten the return of tea to Europe. Initially, Britain paid for Chinese tea with silver, but when this proved unsustainable, they proposed trading tea for opium. This exchange gave rise to a public health crisis in China as opium addiction swept through the populace.

In 1839, a Chinese official ordered the destruction of vast British opium shipments, inciting the First Opium War between the two nations. The conflict raged along the Chinese coast until 1842 when the Qing Dynasty conceded Hong Kong to the British, resuming trade under unfavorable terms. This war significantly weakened China's global standing for more than a century.

By Farzad Mohamadi on Unsplash

Meanwhile, the British East India Company sought to grow tea themselves and exert more control over the market. To this end, they engaged botanist Robert Fortune to embark on a covert mission to steal tea plants from China. Disguised and traversing the treacherous terrain of China's tea-growing regions, Fortune successfully smuggled tea trees and experienced tea workers to Darjeeling, India. This endeavor played a pivotal role in the further proliferation of tea cultivation and its transformation into a global everyday commodity.

Today, tea ranks as the second most consumed beverage globally, trailing only behind water. From the sweet Turkish Rize tea to the savory Tibetan butter tea, the world boasts a rich tapestry of tea traditions, reflecting the diverse cultures that have embraced this ancient elixir throughout history.


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    Betty-AnnWritten by Betty-Ann

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