During a long day spent roaming the forest in search of edible grains and herbs, the weary(tired) divine farmer Shennong accidentally poisoned himself 72 times. But before the poisons could end his life, a leaf drifted into his mouth. He chewed on it for sometime and it started to revive him, and that is how we discovered tea. Tea doesn’t actually cure poisonings but the story of Shennong, the mythical Chinese inventor of Agriculture, highlighted Tea’s importance to ancient China.

Archaeological evidences suggests tea was first cultivated there as early as 6000 years ago, or 1500 years ago before the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramids of Giza. That original Chinese tea plant is the same type that’s grown around the world today, yet it was originally consumed very differently. It was earlier eaten as a vegetable or cooked with grain porridge. Tea only shifted from food to drink, 1500 years ago when people realized that a combination of heat and moisture could create a complex and varied taste out of the leafy green. After hundreds of years of variations to the preparation methods, the standard became into heat tea packaged into portable cakes, grinded into powder, mixed with hot water and created a beverage called “muo cha, or matcha”. Matcha became so popular that a distinct Chinese tea culture emerged. Tea became the subject of books and poetry, the favorite drink of emperors and medium for artists. They would draw extravagant pictures in the foam of the tea, very much like the “espresso art” seen in the different coffee shops today.

In the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty, a Japanese Monk brought the first tea plant to Japan. The Japanese eventually developed their own unique rituals around tea, leading to the creation of the Japanese tea ceremony. In the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese emperor shifted the standard from tea pressed into cakes to loose leaf tea. At that point, China still held a virtual monopoly on the world’s tea trees, making tea one of the three essential Chinese export goods, along with Porcelain and silk. This gave China a great deal of power and economic influence as tea drinking spread around the world.

That spread began in earnest around the early 1600s when Dutch Traders brought Tea to Europe in large quantities. Many credits Queen Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese noble woman, for making tea popular with the English Aristocracy when she married King Charles II in 1661. At the time, Great Britain was in the midst of expanding it’s colonial influence and becoming the new dominant world power, and as the Great Britain grew, interest in tea spread around the world. By 1700, tea in Europe sold for ten times the price of coffee and the plant was still only grown in China. The tea trade was so lucrative that the World’s fastest sailboat, the Clipper ship, was born out of the intense competition between Western trading Companies. All were racing to bring their tea back to Europe first to maximize their profits. At first, Britain paid for all this Chinese tea with silver. When that proved too expensive, they suggested trading tea for another substance, opium. This triggered a public health problem within China as people became addicted to the drug. Then in 1839, a Chinese official ordered his men to destroy massive British Shipments of opium as a statement against Britain’s influence over China. This act triggered the first opium war between the two nations.

Categories: Culture and History

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