History of Tea

Tea in China | Japan | Europe | Russia
Tea in the U.S. | Modern Tea History

The history of tea reaches back to nearly three thousand years B.C. into a time so distant that it has misted over into legend. An ancient Chinese story posits that tea was invented accidentally. The Chinese Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. was a man of advanced culture. He was somewhat of a scientist. He believed that drinking boiled water was more healthy than water straight from the well. He was said to have been sipping hot water with his subjects out of doors while travelling when a dried leaf fell into his drink. He sipped the drink and found that it was good. He felt it was invigorating. Thus it soon became a medicinal staple.1

The tea plant is indigenous to eastern Asia. It seems that tea was first cultivated and harvested in Hunnan province in southern China, near the border with Viet Nam. This may have resulted from the power and renown of Emperor Shen Nung popularizing the drink among his people. Tea became the national drink of China and is now grown in many regions of the country and beyond.

All the Tea in China

Some people give credit to tea for fostering a health-conscious culture early in China and other parts of east Asia. The idea is that the need for using boiled water (which kills the germs in water) coupled with the natural health benefits of provided by tea helped people to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. How long it took for this practice to disseminate throughout China is not known. What is known is that in 221 B.C. a tax was levied on tea, which means, by that time, it was in widespread use. At points in Chinese history dried bricks of tea were even used as money.

In 350 A.D. tea was mentioned in an updated dictionary. The definition was "a beverage made from boiled leaves."2 In about 780 Lu Yu wrote a book about Tea, called "Chai Ching", which meant "Tea Classic". In this three volume work he describes a very elaborate tea ceremony. Although this may have been followed by the upper classes, it is doubtful it was used extensively by other classes. Even so, it does illustrate the caché tea had at the time (and still has).

By the time of the Sung Dynasty (690-1279 A.D) tea became almost a mania in China. It was processed into bricks, pieces of which were cut off, ground into powder, and soaked in very hot water. Then a whisk was used to turn the liquid into a frothy brew. Tea rooms or houses became popular at this time where people could congregate and enjoy tea together. As Zen Buddhism began to take hold, the tea ceremony began to be scaled back to a simpler form.3

The Chinese Emperor Hui Tsung became known as the "Tea Emperor" because of his fanatical love for tea. (He even wrote a treatise on tea.) Guidelines for picking this emperor's tea leaves were that only virgins using golden scissors were to be employed in the process. They could not touch the leaves with their fingers.4 The upper class obsession with tea was even blamed for the demise of the Sung Dynasty and the success of the Mongol invasion. Interestingly enough, the Mongols did not have a taste for tea. Marco Polo who was in China during the Mongol ascendancy never even mentions tea in his book about his travels.

Tea in Japan

Tea consumption spread beyond China to Japan. The influence seems to have been Buddhist monks who studied in China, and upon finding tea, brought some back with them to Japan. In 649 a Japanese monk named Gyoki is supposed to have planted tea bushes in 49 Buddhist temple gardens.5 Nevertheless tea was not extensively grown in Japan. Because the best quality tea had to be imported, it was long a beverage consumed mainly by the upper classes.

Europeans Discover Tea

The Portuguese had discovered a rout to China around Africa. As part of a trading mission to China, the first European known to have consumed tea was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560. The Portuguese liked the tea and brought some back to Lisbon. Soon the Portuguese were shipping it throughout Europe. Seeing the great fortunes being made in Portugal, the Dutch began to also trade with China in the early 1600s.

Tea came to England via a vicarious route. Charles II, whose father had lost his head trying to put down a revolution had married a Portuguese princess (infanta). He also spent much time in the Dutch capital. He was waiting in exile to regain the British crown. Soon after Cromwell, the Great Protector's, demise, Charles who had acquired a taste for tea brought the drink home with him when he was placed on the throne. The John Company, which would later merge with the East India Company entered into the tea business in its own right soon thereafter.

The tradition of afternoon tea in England came from Anna, the Dutchess of Bedford, who at about five in the afternoon typically invited guests to partake of tea and some light food. This was called "low tea" as it was taken in the early afternoon when people were feeling rather low or sleepy. A later tea, called "high tea" might also be taken. Because it comprised a full blown meal, it was often considered the "high" point of the day. Interestingly enough, in the U.S., where high tea is considered a special event, it is practiced more in the manner of "low tea" in Great Britain.

Tea in Russia

The Chinese ambassador brought tea to Russia as a gift for Czar Alexis. The Czar turned down the gift as "useless". Nevertheless, Russians soon saw benefits of the brew, especially in their cold climate. By the 1680s camel caravans passed back and forth over the wastes of Siberia. However, this mode of transport was costly, and tea remained a drink restricted largely to the upper classes until it could be transported more economically by ship and later by rail.

Tea in Russia was served from a boiling pot and tea server called a samovar. This became the center of the Russian household. Generally, tea was served strong, but sweetened. In spite of the interference of the Russian Revolution and the disruption caused by civil war, tea remained popular. Today it is still one of the leading beverages in the country.6

Tea in the United States

Tea naturally arrived in North America via Dutch and British colonization, first through New York and later through Boston - then the rest of the colonies. Smuggling was commonly practiced by merchants and much tea entered the country in this manner, reducing profits by the British East India Company. The government in London was having difficulty paying the bills accumulated during the recent Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian War in the colonies). One measure to solve this problem put into to place by parliament in 1767 was a tax on tea.

At this time the colonies had become prosperous and populous enough to expect a degree of representation in the government. This was denied the colonists even as measures were being made to tax them. The cry arose, "No taxation without representation." Parliament tried other measures and made efforts to secure the tax. When a shipload of tea entered Boston harbor a group of revolutionaries stormed the ship and dumped it overboard. In retaliation for this act of violence, the government sent troops to occupy the city of Boston. Thus, one of the greatest events in American history was triggered by tea.

With the victory of the colonists over Great Britain, a new sea going power emerged. United States ships began their own trade with the orient. Some of the great millionaires at the time made their fortunes in the tea trade. The "Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company" began as a mail order house that sold tea through the mails. Now it is a large grocery chain.

Modern Tea History

Although tea was grown in Japan and in parts of southeast Asia, China was long the center of tea production. This began to change when a British botanist, by the name of Fortune, smuggled seeds out of China. It took some experimentation, but eventually the British began growing tea in India.

Iced tea was introduced to the world at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. In 1908 a New Yorker on the make, Thomas Sullivan, invented tea bags, which he first marketed to restaurants. Tea is the leading flavored beverage in the world today. Only water is consumed in greater quantities.

<< Health Benefits of Tea | Tea Varieties >>


  1. Chinese Historical and Cultural Project on Tea History
  2. Tenren History of Tea
  3. Yam Tsa
  4. Tea History Timeline
  5. Stash on Tea in Russia
  6. The Green Tea Book: China's Fountain of Youth, by Lester A. Mitscher and Victoria Dolby Toews (1998) (p.29)

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