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Tea in History
The legend goes that tea was accidentally discovered by the emperor and father of Chinese medicine Shen Nung, in 2737 BC. The emperor was sitting under the shade of a tree and was boiling water to quench his thirst. The light breeze rustled causing few leaves to fall and got mixed with the water giving it a delicate color and fragrance. The emperor Shen Nung tasted it and found it delicious. The leaves fell from a wild tea plant and tea was born.
There’s another legend in India. Touched by divine grace, Prince Dharma set out to preach the teachings of Buddha in China. To make himself worthy of a mission, he vowed to not sleep during the 9 years of his journey. However, by the end of the third year, he was overcame by drowsiness and was about to fall asleep. To avoid from falling asleep, he plucked a few leaves which happened to be a wild tea plant and began to chew them. Dharma immediately felt the stimulating qualities of the tea and felt much more alert. The effect attributed the strength and he stayed awake for the six remaining years of his apostolic mission with these leaves.
After several years, Dharma went passed by the same spot where he had thrown his eyelids and saw a bush that he had never seen before. He tried the leaves that had sprung and discovered that they had the property of keeping one’s eyes open. He told his discovery to those around him and tea began to be cultivated in the places in which he travelled
Legends aside, it appears that the bush was originated from China in the region along the border between North Vietnam and Yunnan Province and the custom of consuming tea was first developed by Chinese.
Tea traditions and symbolism
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) in China, the drinking of tea evolved into a more popular pastime and became a part of everyday life moving away from the notion of pharmacology.
For the first time, teahouses began to spring up and became a source of artistic inspiration. Poets, painters and potters created sophisticated universe around tea loaded with symbolism. Notably, Lu Yu (723-804 AD), drafted the first treatise on tea called Cha Jing or Traditions of Tea. It’s a poetic work that describes the nature of the plant and standardizes the methods of preparing and drinking of tea. Lu Yu writes, “One finds, in the serving of tea the same harmony and order that govern all things.”
Teas came in the form of compressed briquettes at the time. Tea was roasted and grounded to a powder then mixed with boiling water and salt, spices and rancid butter was added. This is still how tea is consumed in Tibet today.
In Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), through poetry of its ceremonies and the importance of devotion to the rules of preparation, a second school was born that originated the Japanese Cha No Yu tradition. Increasingly, fine china and refined teas were used and began to play a significant role in the world of tea. Simmering water was poured onto tea leaves that were grounded with a mortar and pestle to a very fine powder. Then, bamboo whisk was used to whip the mixture until it became frothy. Along with this ritual which was reserved for the royal court, tea consumption extended to other social classes and became more widespread. The first bulk teas, teas that are easier to produce in large quantities, emerged and helped to meet growing popular demand.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), imperial decree banned the manufacturing of compressed tea. Then tea began to be consumed in its present form as infused in a pot. This new way of drinking with objects and accessories used in its preparation influenced and marked the beginning of earthenware and china tea sets. Tea bottles of the Tang era were replaced by kettles and teapot became the ideal receptacle for infusing tea. Tea became more accessible and progressively gained a following in every social class. Tea gained even greater economic success with the start of an export trade.
Tea appeared in the 7th century AD in Japan. Buddhist monks brought tea plant seeds from China and repeatedly tried to build a tea growing culture in Japan. Yet, teas weren’t grown throughout this island until the 15th century. The first grand tea master, Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591 AD), led tea to become a religion, an art and a philosophy. These discipline were communicated in a highly codified and complex ceremony in which the ideal was to demonstrate the grandeur contained in the smallest acts of everyday life. "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, first with exports to other Asian countries and then to Europe starting in the 17th century.
The first tea chests arrived in Amsterdam, Holland in 1606, which was 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 – the owner of a coffee house in London, introduced tea in his shop and placed an ad in the local paper that 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."
The spread of tea was met with strong opposition at first – it was said to cause men to be short in stature and unpleasant and women to lose their beauty – but it soon became a very important and 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".
Just before his death, Cromwell imposed a substantial tax on tea and it quickly became the subject of a thriving contraband trade. In the 18th century, tea became more affordable and became a respected national drink.
In France, from 1650 onwards, the introduction of tea gave rise to numerous controversies in medical circles. 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 in which it played 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 16th, they threw the cargo of a vessel affixed 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 light sailing ships called “tea clippers” 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.
At the time, the Chinese were the sole producers so they imposed their rules which included, limited access to the port of Canton, prohibitive prices, 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 – which gave them a bargaining control - 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. At first, the Ceylonese plantations were purely experimental but, in 1869, after the total destruction of coffee plantations by a parasite, tea became the island's major 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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