Tea is a beverage that is the second most widely consumed beverage after water. Tea drinking has developed as a culture in many parts of the world. The history of tea drinking will lead us to what country did tea originate from.
Every country has a different story behind the history of how tea began in their countries. It means that every country tells a different story as to how tea reached them. But the question ‘what country did tea originate from‘ leads us to one answer, i.e. China. China had a monopoly over the tea market for a long time but slowly other countries devised ways to either grow tea in their country or import it in some ways.
In this article, we shall discuss how tea began in China and moved to other countries. The development of the tea industry will be addressed in the countries it is a popular drank in.
As per a Chinese legend, the history of tea dates back to 2737 B.C. A Chinese emperor Shen Nong accidentally discovered tea when he had been banished from the kingdom to an isolated part in Southern China.
The legend tells that one day when Shen Nong was boiling water and a few leaves dropped into his pot. He liked the infused water and found it very relaxing. This compelled him to research the leaves that fell into his pot and hence tea originated. He went on further to research the medicinal properties of tea leaves and found them to effective for good bacteria in the gut.
As per the Chinese culture, the question of what country did tea originate from can be answered through the legend of Shen Nong.
1.1. Oldest Tea Trees
The world’s oldest tea trees are found in Yunnan and Sichuan which are located in the Southwestern province of China. These trees produce Pu Erh tea ( Dark tea category). Some of these trees are more than 2000 years old. These trees are famous for their health benefits.
1.2. Tang Dynasty
It was during the Tang dynasty that drinking tea spread to other parts of the world. During this period, the Chinese empire was flourishing and traders were traveling across nations. This helped the tea trade go beyond China.
For a long time, tea was a luxury limited to rich elites of the society. But during the Tang dynasty varieties of tea plants were discovered, thus widening the access to common people. Tea houses and tea shops were opened to increase the reach of tea.
The Classic of Tea, by Lu Yu, is an important work of literature from the Tang dynasty. It elaborates on every aspect of tea.
1.3. Varieties Of Tea
Some of the varieties of tea are Black tea, Green tea, Oolong tea, Iced tea. These varieties emerged as tea spreads beyond China and moved to other countries. People adapted the taste of the beverage by experimenting with tea seeds and tea leaves. Thus what country did tea originate from can be traced back to China?
Also, different cultures of tea consumption developed in different countries. Tea trade between countries required tea leaves to be stored properly to maintain their aroma and taste. But since tea leaves cannot be kept in raw form for long, different storage mechanisms also developed. These will be discussed as the history of tea drinking unfolds.
Japan has its history to answer the question ‘ what country did tea originate from‘. The Buddhist monks brought tea to Japan during the Sui dynasty in China. It is believed that the monks who went for studies abroad came in contact with the tea-drinking culture of China. While journeying back to Japan, they carried some tea seeds with them and since then it has been an integral part of the life of the Japanese people.
The Buddhist monk credited with bringing tea seeds to Japan is Saicho. After this, the import of tea seeds from China began, and growing tea plants occurred in Japan. The monks found tea drinking to be beneficial in their meditation sessions and since then they have become tea drinkers and admirers.
Find out the benefits of White Tea in the article ‘Ultimate guide to white tea with 10 benefits‘.
2.1. Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese philosophies of Zen Buddhism gave rise to the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It is also known as ‘Chanoyu‘ and developed during the 15th Century. This ceremony can be conducted after proper training as it is required to serve tea most politely and graciously.
2.2. Tea Preparation
The tea served at Chanoyu was prepared through freshly brewed tea. Fresh green leaves are not added directly to the boiling water. Tea leaves are ground into finely powdered tea using a stone mill. This powder is known as ‘Matcha‘. Japanese prefer this green tea flavored Matcha over other brewed tea.
India is credited with cultivating a large portion of tea, among which Darjeeling tea, Nilgiris tea, and Assam tea are quite famous. The history of tea drinking in India starts with the British East India Company. Here the question ‘ what country did tea originate from‘ changes to ‘ who discovered tea‘. The Britishers have been credited for discovering tea in India.
It was the British government that wanted to explore the tea trade and tea plantations and therefore, they started looking for options to make their tea. China occupied the monopoly over the tea trade and to break that British East India Company worked towards tea production in India.
3.1. The Opium Wars
By the end of the 19th Century, Britishers became fond of tea and the demand for Chinese tea rose drastically. This increased demand for tea led to increased export prices. At this point, China exported tea to other countries. But these could not match the required amount.
China was interested in importing silver in exchange for tea, not cotton and silver was not available in large quantities to meet the trade requirements. Moreover, Britain was facing a shortage of silver after the American war of independence and more silver was needed for the industrial revolution.
To overcome this difficulty, the British East India Company started growing opium in India. The idea was to sell opium to China in exchange for silver and then sell the same silver to China for tea. This scheme worked for a short period but when the Chinese returned the opium, the war had begun.
3.2. How Tea Plantations Started
The commercial tea plantations in India were started by the British government to break the monopoly of China over tea cultivation. Initially, the British used Chinese seeds and their tea cultivation techniques to grow tea in the high altitudes of Assam.
Britishers offered land to those cultivators who were ready to cultivate tea for export purposes. With the arrival of the British East India Company, mass production of tea started. Before that people might have been drinking the beverage as a local drink only.
Robert Fortune, a botanist is credited for bringing in the techniques of tea processing. He was sent to China to spy on tea cultivation practices. He came back with knowledge of tea plants, tea processing, and a small team of Chinese cultivators.
3.3. Popularizing Tea In India
Tea was not always a popular drink in India. Deliberate efforts were made by the Indian Tea Association owned by the British government. To popularize and promote tea consumption, several promotional campaigns were organized. Some of these include setting up tea stalls in towns and cities, giving tea breaks to employees, home demonstrations.
With the advent of railways under the British Empire, tea stalls were opened up on the railway platforms. Slowly tea became an everyday beverage for Indians, especially during the second world war. Today, Indians consume almost 70% of the tea produced.
3.4. Indian Varieties Of Tea
Tea plantations in India are located in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Many of the estates located in these plantations produce international quality tea and supply tea to major international tea brands like Tetley and Typhoo.
The most common variety of tea consumed in India is Masala Chai. It is a blend of milk, tea leaves, sugar, and Indian spices like cardamom, ginger, cloves. People add the ingredients as per their liking and taste.
Nowadays, green tea is becoming popular in cities. It is available as dried leaves as well as in tea bags. One has to dip the tea bag into boiling water and it is ready to drink. Kangra region is famous for its green tea production. Darjeeling tea is also known for its unique flavors.
America was once a British Colony and hence the practices followed by Britishers were bound to reach America too. The Tea Act of 1773 by the British government influenced the tea-drinking habits of Americans. This Act was introduced to regulate the large quantities of tea held in London warehouses and to stop the smuggling of tea into America.
4.1. The American Revolution
The consumption of tea decreased during and after the American Revolution. It saw an uptake in coffee and a decrease in tea consumption. To drink tea came to be seen as unpatriotic, and thus tea was replaced by coffee houses.
The American tea market saw a boom in the years 1993 to 2008. Specialty tea houses and retail stores were set up during this period.
Tea became an important export good of the Britishers. They levied a tax called ‘tea tax’ to enforce the capital nature of the good. During the American revolution of 1776, the American ports refused to harbor any duty-bound goods.
With the Boston tea party, political tensions were coming to an end. People protested against the heavy taxes levied by Britishers and in the act of protest, they dresses as native Americans and dumped the tea into ocean waters.
4.2. The Boston Tea Party
During the mid-1600, tea came to America via the Dutch East India Company. It became a colony around 1664 and during this time, the tea trade flourished amongst rich colonists and women of the colonies.
As discussed above, Britishers imposed a ‘tea tax‘ on tea. This was done to manage the financial situation of the British. This act benefitted the British merchant as they were able to ship duty-free tea to their colonies, thus the native merchants were left at a loss.
This tea tax policy led to political tensions in America which came to an end with the Boston tea party. It further saw the ends of the British East India Company.
4.3. Clipper Ships
After the fall of the Company in America, the Americans started importing tea directly from China. To import good quality tea, American clipper ships were used.
The navigation act made it compulsory that all tea must be shipped directly from England and hence Clipper ships came into the picture. These ships had sleek vessels with three masts which was an upgrade over the old trading ships.
The clipper ships were known for their speed and both America and England competed with each other to bring the best quality of tea from China for auction.
4.4. New Ways Of Tea Consumption
The United States brought forth many new ways of tea consumption. The two major changes were the invention of iced tea and the use of tea bags. Both of these have been discussed below.
At the St. Louis World Trade fair of 1904, Iced tea was invented. A tea merchant was supposed to provide free hot tea samples to the visitors. But the weather conditions didn’t support this as it was too hot. Due to the hot weather, the merchant changed his original idea and added iced cubes to the tea.
Thus putting iced cubes into hot brewed tea led to the invention of Iced tea. It is now widely consumed as a favorable drink during hot weather.
The second major innovation was the use of tea bags. It was discovered by Albeit accidentally. He had sent some tea samples packed in silk bags to the restaurants and cafes in the city. The restaurant owners were using the silk bags as it is for brewing tea. This led to the idea of tea bags and thus a new way of consumption.
Tea bags saved time and were easy to carry over long distances. Thus they also gained popularity.
Tea was brought to Europe by the Dutch and the Portuguese in 1610. It all started when King Charles II married Catherine, a Portuguese princess. Catherine, the new British queen was fond of tea and had brought a chest of fine Chinese tea with her as part of the dowry.
She didn’t limit the pleasures of tea to herself and thus shared the flavors with her aristocrat friends. Soon tea became a drink of the elite and the royalty had developed a taste for it.
5.1. A Status Symbol
Since tea was an imported good, it was restricted to the elite members of society. The price of the beverage was such that only wealthy families could afford to drink tea.
The least expensive tea in the market would cost a layman his monthly wage. Such was the pricing of tea. So, its high prices made tea a status symbol among the elite group.
Tea serving became art and skilled tea serving came to be seen as a marker of social status, good breeding, and good intellect. It became a symbol of social standing so much so that the English had paintings drawn of their families having tea.
5.2. Afternoon Tea: British Pass Time
The practice of Afternoon tea can be attached to the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna. She often complained about the long gaps between afternoon meals and late evening meals.
To cater to her needs, she had asked her maid to serve tea with some light refreshments. This acted as a light meal between the long gap. She also started inviting friends for the same.
Thus afternoon tea became a trend whereby ladies gathered and chatted.
5.3. The High Tea
High tea is a working-class custom, much as Afternoon tea is an elite-class custom. But these two are different from one another.
High tea is drunk later in the afternoon and is served with a full meal for common people. The meal includes meats, eggs, bread. It developed around the 19th Century and acted as a male center activity whereas, afternoon tea was the female center.
6. Tea and Globalization
Before the East India Company, the Dutch had a monopoly over the tea trade. In 1678, Britishers started commercial import and export of tea on a large scale.
The British East India Company took full control over the tea trade and its profits. They establish a monopoly on all trade in Asia and Eastern Africa. Through the tea trade, The company became the most powerful monopoly.
The British became so powerful that they could acquire land, coin money, develop armies, make punishment laws, or even declare wars.
In 1833, the British parliament opened up the trade route thus ending the sole monopoly of the East India Company. But the initial impact of the tea trade left traces of dominance for centuries to come.