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Tea in History
It all began in China in 2737 BC. Legend has it that while the emperor Shen Nung was boiling water to quench his thirst in the shade of a tree, a light breeze rustled the branches and caused a few leaves to fall. They mixed with the water, giving it a delicate color and fragrance. The emperor tasted it and found it to be delicious. The tree was a wild tea plant and tea was born.
In India, another legend tells of how Prince Dharma was touched by divine grace and set out to preach the teachings of Buddha in China. To make himself worthy of such a mission, he vowed never to sleep during the nine years of his journey. Toward the end of the third year, however, he was overcome by drowsiness and was about to fall asleep when by chance he plucked a few leaves from a wild tea plant and began to chew them. The stimulating qualities of the tea immediately had their effect; Dharma felt much more alert and thereafter attributed the strength he found to stay awake during the six remaining years of his apostolic mission to these leaves.
In Japan, the story goes a little differently. After three years, an exhausted Bodhi Dharma ended up falling asleep while he prayed. On awakening, infuriated by his weakness and devastated by his sin, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground.
Some years later, while passing by the same spot, he saw that they had given birth to a bush that he had never seen before. He tried the leaves and discovered that they had the property of keeping one's eyes open. He told those around him of his discovery and tea began to be cultivated in the places through which he had travelled.
Legends aside, it seems that the bush was originally from China, probably from the region along the border between North Vietnam and Yunnan Province, and that the custom of consuming this beverage was first developed by the Chinese.
Tea traditions and symbolism
During China's Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the drinking of tea evolved into a more popular pastime, moving away from the realm of pharmacology and becoming a refined part of everyday life.
Teahouses began to spring up and, for the first time, tea was a source of artistic inspiration. Painters, potters and poets created a sophisticated universe around tea, laden with symbolism. One of them, Lu Yu (723-804 AD), drafted the first treatise on tea, Cha Jing or Traditions of Tea, a poetic work in which he describes the nature of the plant and standardizes the methods of preparing and drinking the beverage. "One finds, he writes, in the serving of tea the same harmony and order that govern all things."
At the time, tea came in the form of compressed briquettes, which were roasted before being ground to a powder and mixed with boiling water. Certain ingredients were then added, including salt, spices and rancid butter. This is still how tea is consumed in Tibet today.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), a second school was born which, through the poetry of its ceremonies and the importance placed on adherence to the rules of preparation, was a precursor to the Japanese Cha No Yu tradition. The teas used were increasingly refined and fine china began to play a decisive role in the world of tea. The leaves were ground with a mortar and pestle to a very fine powder onto which simmering water was poured. The mixture was then whipped until frothy with a bamboo whisk. Alongside this ritual, reserved for the royal court, tea consumption became more widespread, extending to other social classes. The first bulk teas, which were easier to produce in large quantities, emerged, making it possible to meet a growing popular demand.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), an imperial decree banned the manufacture of compressed tea and tea began to be consumed in its present form - infused in a pot. This new way of drinking tea influenced the objects and accessories used in its preparation and marked the beginning of earthenware and china tea sets. The kettle replaced the tea bottles of the Tang era and the teapot became the ideal receptacle for infusing tea. Tea became more accessible and gradually gained a following in every social class, enjoying even greater economic success with the start of the export trade.
In Japan, tea appeared in the 7th century AD. On repeated occasions, Buddhist monks brought tea plant seeds from China and tried to establish a tea-growing culture in their country. However, it wasn't until the 15th century that tea was grown throughout the archipelago. Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591 AD) was the first grand tea master: with him, tea became a religion, an art and a philosophy. These disciplines were expressed through a complex and highly codified ceremony in which the ideal was to demonstrate the grandeur contained in the smallest everyday acts. "Tea is no more than this, he wrote, boil the water, prepare the tea and drink it properly."
Europe & the United States discover tea
Since the 10th century, tea has been an export of utmost importance for China, with exports first to other Asian countries and then to Europe starting in the 17th century.
In 1606, the first tea chests arrived in Amsterdam in Holland, the first known cargo of tea to be registered at a western port. At the time, the Dutch East Indies Company had close ties with the Far East and maintained a monopoly over the sale of tea until the late 1660s, despite the creation in 1615 of the East India Company, an English competitor. In 1657, Thomas Garraway, owner of a coffee house in London, introduced tea in his shop and placed an ad in the local paper which read: "This excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors, which the Chinese call 'Tcha' and other nations 'Tay' or 'Tee', is being sold at Sultaness Mead near the Royal Exchange in London."
Although the spread of tea was initially met with strong opposition - it was said to cause men to be short in stature and unpleasant and women to lose their beauty - it soon began to be widely traded. Once the privilege of princes, it later became the favorite of all the intellectuals who frequented the coffee houses, soon renamed "tea houses".
Cromwell imposed a hefty tax on tea just before his death, and it quickly became the subject of a thriving contraband trade. In the 18th century, tea became more affordable and a revered national drink.
In France, the introduction of tea gave rise to numerous controversies in medical circles starting in1650. It nevertheless became extremely popular. In one of her letters, Madame de Sévigné mentions that Madame de la Sablière was the first person to add tea to her milk. Racine was a faithful tea enthusiast, as was Cardinal Mazarin, who drank it to treat his gout.
Tea conquers the world
English and Dutch settlers brought tea to the New World, where it was to play an important role in the history of the United States. High taxes were imposed on the product and, in 1773, the inhabitants of Boston decided to boycott its import. On December 16, they threw the cargo of a vessel anchored in the harbor into the sea. It was this "Boston Tea Party" that provoked reprisals by the British authorities against the inhabitants of Massachusetts, thereby paving the way for the events that led to the War of Independence.
Tea was also responsible for more peaceful confrontations, such as those of the "tea clippers", light sailing ships used to transport tea. In the 19th century, high demand intensified competition between ship owners, giving rise to all-out races along the Eastern sea routes.
The Chinese were the sole producers at the time and imposed their rules, which included prohibitive prices, limited access to the port of Canton and a refusal to exchange tea for English textiles. To counter this commercial pressure, the English decided to illegally introduce opium into China to create dependence - and therefore give them a bargaining chip - on the part of their trading partner. This was the start of the Opium Wars that would end with Britain annexing Hong Kong in 1842.
By the 19th century, China could no longer accommodate the ever-growing western demand and in 1830 the English began to develop tea cultivation in other countries. Tea plantations were started in India in 1834 and in Ceylon in 1857. The Ceylonese plantations were at first purely experimental but, in 1869, after the total destruction of coffee plantations by a parasite, tea became the island's main source of income.
Tea was also planted in other Asian countries which have become important producers, as well as in former British colonies in Africa and, more recently, on Reunion Island and in Argentina.
Today, tea is the number one beverage in the world after water, with approximately 15,000 cups consumed per second.
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