The History of Tea

The history of tea has roots in ancient times and is still evolving to this day.
The history of tea has roots in ancient times and is still evolving to this day.
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Tea is served with ceremony in Japan, spicy on the streets of Calcutta, with a swirl of milk in London, and sweet as syrup in Charleston. But no matter how you take it, tea is proving to be more than just a soothing and delicious beverage.

Tea has long been considered a healthful drink, and even thousands of years ago it was prescribed for a wide variety of ailments. Now research is revealing the science behind the ancient wisdom. Tea has healing properties that can help prevent diseases as dissimilar as heart disease and cancer.


From imperial beginnings to modern day popularity, tea has had a recurring role in world events. Tea was central to some of the greatest political, social, and economic upheavals in history, and it remains a drink that defines cultures and stirs passions.

Go to the next page to learn about the early beginnings of tea.

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Tea in Ancient Times

Most historians agree that China was the birthplace of tea. Chinese legend attributes the first cup of tea to Emperor Shen Nung, a scientist and herbalist. In about 2737 b.c., the emperor was in his garden boiling water to drink when some leaves from a nearby camellia shrub blew into his cup. He took a drink of the liquid and found it to be flavorful and energizing. Shen Nung was the first to recognize the potential health benefits of tea and is considered the father of Chinese medicine.

Another legend, from India, attributes the discovery of tea to a Buddhist monk named Daruma, or Bodhidharma, who later became the founder of Zen Buddhism. Daruma went to China as a missionary, and he vowed to meditate day and night without sleeping. He did this for seven years, until he accidentally fell asleep. When he awoke, he was so distraught that he tore off his eyelids so he could never doze again. The legend says the first tea plant grew where his eyelids fell. Tea is considered a gift to monks so they can stay alert during long hours of meditation.


From Medicine to Mainstream

For centuries, tea was mostly a medicinal drink used to treat everything from sore throats to clumsy children. The first documented reference to tea's medicinal use is from a Chinese scholar named Kuo P'o, who in a.d. 350 refers to a "medicinal beverage made by boiling leaves."

Drinking tea became a vital part of Chinese life during the Tang dynasty (a.d. 618 to 906), which is known as the "Golden Age of Tea." During this era, tea became China's national drink, and tea-drinking customs, including tea ceremonies, became an integral part of Chinese culture. One of the most important works in Chinese tea history, the Ch'a Ching (Tea Classic), was written during this golden age. Still known as one of the quintessential books on tea, the three-volume tome was embraced by the Chinese people, and it elevated tea preparation and tea drinking to an art form.

During the Sung dynasty (a.d. 960 to 1279), tea drinking became a popular social activity. Green tea was the preferred drink, and at first it was prepared by the boiling method. But a new preparation method emerged -- tea was powdered and whipped into boiling water to make a frothy drink. The Emperor Hui Tsung (a.d. 1101-1125) was enamored of this kind of tea and even hosted tea contests in his court. Many elements of Japanese tea ceremony rituals have their roots in the preparation methods used in China during this era.

When Genghis Khan and the Mongols overran China, the Sung dynasty collapsed and the tea culture experienced a decline. But in 1368, when the Ming dynasty overthrew the Mongols, tea regained its popularity. Tea growers began experimenting with new ways of processing tea leaves. The leaves were steamed, dried, and crumbled -- methods that more closely resemble modern processing methods -- and they were steeped in teapots. The loose-leaf tea could be more easily shipped to far-off locations. Tea could now travel the world.

Journey to Japan

There are also two legends about how tea came to Japan. The first tells the story of a Buddhist priest named Yeisei, who on a trip to China noticed that tea drinking kept monks alert during long hours of meditation. Yeisei brought tea back with him to Japan, and he is considered to be the father of tea in that country. Another legend credits a Japanese monk named Dengyo Daishi with bringing the first seeds of the tea shrub to Japan around a.d. 805. However it entered the country, tea quickly became a beloved drink there.

Tea was first used in Zen Buddhist religious ceremonies, and the renowned Japanese tea ceremony was an outgrowth of this practice. The detailed and beautiful ceremony reflects Zen philosophy and inspired the development of many significant Japanese cultural institutions.

Though it took centuries, it was only a matter of time before tea made its way to the West. On the next page, learn about the arrival of tea in Europe.

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Tea in Europe

For hundreds of years, tea was a secret of the Far East. It wasn't until a Jesuit priest from Portugal ventured to China on a missionary journey in 1560 that a European tasted a cup of tea. Father Jasper de Cruz wrote about the wonders of tea, and word of it quickly spread. The powerful Portuguese navy developed a trade route with China and began importing the leaves to Holland, France, and the Baltic.

After Holland broke political ties with Portugal in 1602, the Dutch began importing tea to their own shores. The Dutch created one of the most successful Asian trading companies, the Dutch East India Company. Because tea was so expensive to import (at one point during the early seventeenth century, it was 100 shillings a pound), at first it was only a rich man's drink. Soon, though, the Dutch began importing a larger supply of tea.


The Dutch were the first to introduce tea to America. The first tea was brought to New Amsterdam (later New York) by Peter Stuyvesant, but the drink didn't become popular until English settlers caught wind of the new drink captivating the motherland.

Tea Time for England

England and tea seem as inseparable as America and baseball. But the English weren't all that impressed with tea when it first hit their shores in 1652. It wasn't until King Charles II and his Portuguese bride Catherine de Braganza, both avid tea drinkers, brought the drink to the palace in the latter part of the seventeenth century that tea became popular.

At first only England's nobility and upper classes drank tea; it was too expensive for common folk. As demand increased, however, the British East India Company was granted a virtual monopoly on trade in Asia. This made tea more readily available and affordable. By the 1700s, tea was the most popular drink in the British Isles.

As tea's popularity grew, so did places to enjoy it. Coffeehouses and tearooms dotted cities and towns throughout England. But it was the advent and popularity of tea gardens that most transformed British society. Women were first allowed to mingle with men there, and they enjoyed tea, conversations, strolls through beautiful gardens, music, and dancing. Since the gardens were public, the social classes mixed freely.

Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with inventing the afternoon tea early in the nineteenth century. At the time, most English people had two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Lady Anna decided she needed a snack before dinner and made a practice of serving tea and a few sweets to guests for a late afternoon pick-me-up. The idea caught on and soon spread across England.

Wealthy tea lovers mourned the growth of tea's popularity among the country's poor. The upper class eventually lobbied Parliament to raise taxes on tea so the less privileged would not be able to afford it.

The Steep Cost of Tea

The taxes imposed on tea stirred up passions in England. At one point, Parliament placed a 119 percent tax on tea -- putting it out of reach of the lower classes. Demand did not diminish, though, and it presented an opportunity to entrepreneurs. Tea smugglers went to great -- and often violent -- lengths to get tea to England ahead of the established East India Company. Soon the tea smuggling trade began to eat into East India Company profits.

Meanwhile, the East India Company's political and economic strength increased in India and China. It was given the power to create money, establish governments in the name of Britain, build forts and arm them, and even declare war.

Demand for tea imported from China grew, but England didn't have a lot to offer in trade. The East India Company dealt mostly in silver, but by the early nineteenth century, the demand for tea far outstripped that for silver. To meet the need, the East India Company began illegally growing and trading opium to China in exchange for tea. Despite China's 1799 ban on opium imports, the opium exchange continued into the nineteenth century.

China stepped up efforts to curb opium imports, ordering the death penalty for anyone caught bringing the drug into the country. This ignited the first Opium War in 1840, which won Britain the right to trade opium and awarded Hong Kong to Britain. The second war, which ended in 1860, sealed Britain's right to continue trading opium for tea.

Tea played an important part in America's history, as well. Learn more about tea's arrival in America on the next page.

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Tea in America

Though the Dutch American colony of New Amsterdam was introduced to tea before England discovered it, the English colonists didn't hear about tea until 1670 -- about 20 years after England first enjoyed the drink. By 1720, tea was regular cargo on British trade ships headed to America. The colonists, like their British counterparts, turned to smuggling tea to avoid the high taxes imposed on it.

Widespread smuggling cost the East India Company -- the only British company allowed to legally import tea -- dearly. They lobbied Parliament, which granted the company the exclusive right to ship tea to America duty free, undercutting the smugglers and causing rumbles of rebellion among the colonists. The colonists registered their indignation in one of the most famous protests of all time: the Boston Tea Party.


On December 16, 1773, a group of Bostonians dressed as Native Americans boarded an East India Company ship loaded with 342 crates of tea. They threw every box of tea into Boston Harbor, costing the East India Company about $1 million in today's currency. In response, England closed the port and Parliament passed laws known as the Intolerable Acts that limited the political rights of colonists. These punitive measures helped unite the colonies against British rule. Tea was one of the sparks that ignited the American Revolution.

To learn more about the tea trade around the world, go to the next page.

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The Tea Trade

In the nineteenth century, two important events altered the tea-trade landscape. First, China's isolationism and trade limits prompted the East India Company to look to India for tea. Tea was soon growing in Assam and Darjeeling, giving tea lovers new flavors of tea to enjoy. The second event was the repealing of the Navigation Acts in 1849, which finally ended the East India Company's monopoly on Eastern trade.

These new resources combined with a newly freed market led to a flurry of ships racing each other to get to India and China and back to London's tea exchange. A new type of ship, the clipper ship, was designed to speed passage around the world. These light, narrow ships could navigate the waters at record speeds. In parlors and coffeehouses throughout England and America, people would bet on which ship would return in the fastest time. The new market opened the door for tea to gain popularity around the world.


Another Golden Age for Tea

By the mid-nineteenth century, tea had resumed its place as a staple at English tables. Following Queen Victoria's lead, British citizens elevated tea drinking to an art form. Afternoon tea became an event, and tearooms sprang up across England. At the turn of the twentieth century, tea dances became can't-miss events for Britain's upper and middle classes. During World War II, tea was such a critical staple that it was stocked in 500 places throughout the country to guarantee the supply would remain constant and not be destroyed by German bombing raids.

In America, tea experienced a similar golden age that continues to this day. One hot day at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, tea plantation owner Richard Blechyden realized he wasn't going to get any takers for his free samples of hot tea. To avoid wasting his stock, Blechyden iced his tea, and the beverage was a hit. Today, 85 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is iced tea, according to the Tea Association of the United States.

In 1908, four years after the creation of iced tea, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan inadvertently invented tea bags. As a cost-cutting measure, he wrapped his tea samples in small silk bags to send to prospective customers. He had no idea that they would steep the entire sample, but they thought that's what he had intended. His customers were sorely disappointed when their orders did not arrive packaged in the little silk bags, and they clamored for them. The cost of packaging the tea in silk would have been prohibitive, so Sullivan used gauze instead. His idea certainly caught on: Today, 60 percent of all tea in America is brewed from a tea bag.

ADDITIONAL CREDITS: Rebecca D. Williams, Michele Price Mann

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