Tea is a globally loved drink that is known for both its highly valued taste, diversity, and health benefits. The origin of the drink and plant dates back to ancient times. Tea has played a major role in many civilizations throughout history.
Tea originated in China and was first used as a medicine, but quickly spread to other Asian countries. In the 16th century, British trading companies controlled the market and tea became a status symbol. Eventually, it came to North America and played a role in the American revolution.
In this article, we will cover the origins of Chinese tea and how it became a global commodity. Plus, we will explore its medicinal uses, its role as a symbol of status, and the part it played in global politics.
History of Tea in China
Historians have traced the origins of tea rather unanimously back to ancient China, going back as early as some time around 2700 BC. In fact, China cultivated and used tea for many centuries before the drink expanded through exploration and colonization to other regions.
The written Chinese character for tea sheds light on how China viewed the drink. According to Coffee Tea Warehouse, the character illustrates a man between branches and grass and symbolizes humans being brought into balance with nature.
Tea in China has a rich history, including a debated origin myth and a large Chinese monopoly on the crop that remained unchallenged for many years. China is also credited for the creation of different varieties of the drink, including black and herbal teas.
The Origin Myth
The traditions of tea in China have existed for many centuries. The origin of the drink is commonly credited to the Emperor Shennong who is known as the first ancient emperor of China. However, it is largely unknown whether Shennong was a real person or not, as he is regarded as a mythical emperor and deity.
According to Britannica, the legend of Shennong credits the emperor with establishing the agricultural ways of ancient China as well as cataloging 365 species of medicinal plants, including tea. Shennong is also known as Shen Nung, Yandi, and the Red Emperor.
However, there are also legends that describe the emperor as a mortal and credit the creation of tea to an accidental occurrence. According to Red Blossom Tea Company, in this version of events, a tea leaf falls from a tree into hot water that is served to the emperor, who is struck by the taste and thus begins the practice of tea making.
Up until the 16th and 17th centuries of the common era, China held a massive monopoly over tea production and exporting. Tea sales and exports were a major component of the Chinese economy, which relied heavily on agricultural production.
However, China would eventually lose this monopoly to Britain who had begun cultivating their own tea crops in their colonies. The major colonized areas producing tea for Britain were located in India.
Britain has even been credited with providing opioids to China and eventually starting the Opium Wars in an effort to maintain this overtaking of the tea monopoly.
Despite this, tea remained a vital component of Chinese culture. Though war and competition ravaged parts of the Chinese economy, tea production eventually rose again. As of September 2020, more tea is grown and exported from China than any other country.
The Invention of Black Tea
A major advancement of tea and tea production was China’s discovery of different ways to process tea and how to create black tea through oxidation and aging.
All tea comes from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis, and originally the tea produced by China was all of the green variation.
The advent of the darker variations, such as black tea, helped to preserve the product for longer. Plus, black tea became more popular with international consumers, especially Europeans. Black tea ultimately helped to make tea a worldwide commodity.
Japanese Tea History
While China may have had a monopoly on tea production, that does not mean other nations were devoid of tea culture. Japan is known for its cultural appreciation of the drink, and even has its own origin myths and traditions surrounding it.
Sencha, which is one of the most popular variations of green tea, actually originated in Japan instead of China. According to Simple Loose Leaf, approximately 60 percent of all tea produced in Japan is Sencha.
However, Japan does not export in the same capacity as China and other major growers, and the majority of their tea stays within the country’s borders.
While Japan may not be a major exporter of tea, examining the country’s history with the crop is important as Japanese traditions have greatly affected international perspectives and practices regarding tea.
Monks Brought Tea from China
According to Ito En, a Japanese tea production company, tea seeds are believed to have been brought over by Japanese Buddhist monks somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, most likely during the Tang Dynasty in China.
Cultivation of tea quickly grew once the seeds had been introduced to the culture. Tea was originally used largely for medicinal and Buddhist spiritual practices.
During the early centuries of tea being available in Japan, it was only drunk by nobles and monks as it was regarded as being of high value and purpose.
Over the next several centuries, more tea seeds would be brought by scholars and monks alike to Japan. Eventually, the drink would become highly diversified throughout the country, and consumption and audience would range from nobility to commoners.
Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremonies
Tea-drinking parties and ceremonies quickly became a staple of Japanese culture as the popularity of the drink spread. These events ranged in purpose – some were symbolic of status, some were spiritual practices, and others were competitions especially amongst the Samurai.
Traditional tea ceremonies that originated in Japan have greatly influenced modern-day tea consumption by those who wish to follow the formal practices. In fact, many tearooms that follow the traditional protocol have sprung up across Europe and North America.
According to Japan Guide, the traditional Japanese Tea ceremony could take place over a long period of time and typically involved a few specific details: a non-flashy dress code, a garden surrounding the event that symbolizes the connection to nature, a tea room with tatami floors and walls, and the host preparing the tea in front of the guests.
Green Tea Is Tops In Japan
While tea has been greatly diversified in the ways it can be processed and the varieties available, Japan is known for focusing on the production of green tea. According to the Sakura blog, green tea is so closely tied to Japanese culture that it is sometimes referred to as “Japanese tea.”
Unlike western nations that primarily drink black tea or coffee for breakfast, many Japanese citizens view green tea as the proper breakfast or morning drink. Additionally, tea is typically drunk throughout the day and served with meals.
As mentioned, the highly popular Sencha green tea originated in Japan and has become one of the most well-known varieties of green tea worldwide.
History of Tea: Medicinal Uses
The cultivation and consumption of tea in earlier centuries was largely for the purpose of creating a medicinal drink. Ancient cultures, while lacking modern science and information, were able to identify that tea had special healing and health properties.
This made the drink a major commodity for nobility, who believed tea could help keep them strong and healthy.
While not all the original medicinal uses may have been correct, tea has proven by modern science to be a great source of nutrients and vitamins and is still used for medicinal and health purposes today.
This is one of the major reasons tea has garnered such a strong fanbase across the world, and why the tea market still flourishes so many centuries after its origin.
Ancient Medicinal Uses
In ancient China, there were many benefits that tea drinkers believed to be held within the leaves. Tea was used to treat illnesses, coughs, and sore throats. One of the more outlandish beliefs was that tea had the capability to serve as an antidote to poisons.
However, there was one purpose that eventually became the foundation for why drinking tea was so common throughout the day and during meals. This is that people in ancient times discovered that tea helped greatly with digestion, according to China Culture.
It was also thought that tea could aid in treating nervousness and anxiety, as well as providing happiness and wisdom.
Eventually, tea culture in China and other nations such as Japan would stray away from the traditional use as a medicine. Tea cultivation and brewing transformed into more of an art that laid the foundation for tea ceremonies and spiritual practices.
Today, tea is still used for health benefits but also plays a role in honoring traditional ceremonies. It has also become a component of everyday life for many citizens of countries all over the world.
Modern Medicinal Uses of Tea
While not all of the believed health benefits of tea in ancient times were true, many of the medicinal uses were not far from the truth. Thanks to modern science and research, we know a lot more about the uses and benefits of the drink and it definitely packs a healthy punch.
According to WebMD, there are many important benefits to drinking tea, such as:
- Promoting digestive health and a well-functioning metabolism
- Providing cleaner caffeine than other drinks such as coffee
- Helping to protect the lungs from smoke damage
- Providing tons of antioxidants and vitamins that may aid in the prevention of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and high cholesterol.
However, like all caffeinated drinks, there is such a thing as too much of a good drink. “True teas” are considered teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant, whose leaves contain caffeine.
Thus, tea should be drunk in moderation so as not to overwhelm the system. Luckily, many herbal teas that are not considered true teas do not contain caffeine.
Addition of Herbs and Other Ingredients
Herbal and infusion teas have become highly popular in modern day society, but even they can be traced back to ancient times. The use of herbs, roots, flowers, and other plant matter was used either in addition to tea leaves or on their own for medicinal purposes throughout history.
Ingredients such as ginger and mint especially were highly valued as being high in nutritional value and health benefits. In fact, most herbal teas do provide an array of medicinal uses just as true teas do.
A perk of herbal teas is that the majority do not contain caffeine, making them a preferable choice for those with caffeine sensitivities that still want the other health benefits of tea.
History of Tea in England and Western Europe
It’s no secret that tea has become widely popularized in western countries for centuries. In fact, it was around the 16th century when tea first came to Europe.
Unfortunately, there is some controversy over the morality of the various ways it was brought over, and some even believe that European explorers used colonization as a tool to steal tea from China.
The reality is a mixture of both positive and negative stories. Both China and European nations excluded the working class for many years from tea consumption.
When the lower classes eventually got their hands on it, it was often adulterated or modified to be of a lesser quality than the tea provided to the rich and nobility of society.
Exploration and Colonization
The Renaissance that occurred in the 14th century greatly encouraged European explorers to expand their horizons outside of Europe, leading many to journey to China and other Asian nations.
Two components that impacted explorers’ ability to venture to China were vastly improved technology thanks to the Renaissance and support from the Church who wanted to spread Christianity throughout Asia.
According to the textbook World Civics, the Christian Crusades largely provided European nations with a desire for new agricultural developments and spices. This led them to further the technology needed to explore Asia.
The ideology that was the foundation of these explorations was “God, glory, and gold.” Between the 1400s to 1600s, Europeans greatly improved their navigational techniques and studied their naval vessel designs. These improvements eventually brought them to China and to tea.
Portuguese and Dutch in Tea History
The introduction of tea to the global market is largely credited to two sets of people: the Portuguese and the Dutch. It is debated which of these countries actually brought over the first import of tea, but both certainly were the frontrunners in beginning the European overhauling of the drink.
According to the World Green Tea Association, Portugal made the first European reference to tea in letters from missionaries to the Portuguese king. Additionally, Portugal is believed to be the first European nation to reach China and Japan.
However, the Dutch had Portugal beat in the trading department, and thus the Dutch East India Company is often credited as being the first to import teas from China.
Regardless of who the true first European importer of tea is, it is undeniable that the exploration and trading efforts of both countries ultimately impacted both the eastern and western nations, making trading a global affair.
This would eventually lead to international conflicts between Europe and Asia.
Popularization of Tea in Britain
While the Portuguese and the Dutch may be responsible for bringing tea into the global market, it was ultimately Britain that highly popularized the drink. In fact, Britain even surpassed China in tea production thanks to its colonization of India.
Britain quickly became known for its consumption of tea – specifically black tea. The drink became a staple within British culture and perseveres as a cultural stereotype today. In the early days of tea culture in Britain, the drink was only provided for aristocrats, nobility, and royalty.
The British popularization of tea ultimately led to the drink being smuggled and adulterated so that it may be sold to all class levels.
According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, it was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Britain was able to become the world’s largest tea importer and exporter and held the monopoly over both India’s and China’s tea trade.
History of Tea in India
While Britain held the monopoly of tea trading during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tea itself was not produced within the U.K. Instead, Britain had colonized India under the direction of the Crown.
These colonized Indian territories would become the grounds for the tea production that gave Britain the leg up on China.
Even after India achieved independence from Great Britain in the 1900s, the country still continued to produce large amounts of tea and remains one of the top tea exporters in modern society.
As a result, there are noted differences and ongoing competition between the Indian and Chinese tea trades that persist through to today.
The Role of Britain and the East India Company
India cultivated and consumed tea for many years before its colonization by Britain. In fact, India had its own tea culture separate from the Chinese culture, although the two countries shared many traditional similarities.
The land and climate of India made it a highly suitable area for growing tea and other crops.
By some historic accounts, the British East India Company came to India not to colonize but rather to establish trading posts. However, some historians argue that colonization was always the underlying goal, considering Britain’s long history of colonizing other nations and populations.
One of the biggest products that the East India Company focused on trading was tea.
According to Daily History, the company arrived in India in the 1600s and had taken near-total control of the country by 1760. This would ultimately be bad news for China, who up until that moment had been the leading exporter and monopoly holder over tea.
The British took over that monopoly and held it for nearly two centuries and would sometimes smuggle tea out of China in order to better their variety. The Opium Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries have been partially credited as an effort to break China’s tea monopoly.
Differences in Indian Tea
While all true tea comes from the Camellia plant, there are actually two versions of this plant. The Camellia sinensis is considered the original and traditional plant, but there is also the Camellia assamica.
The Assamica is the plant most commonly seen in India and produces the majority of Assam teas, while the Sinensis plant produces many traditional green teas and the highly valued Darjeeling teas that come out of China and Japan.
While both India and China produce similarly flavored teas, China produces more variety of tea. India focuses on the cultivation and processing of black, green, white, and oolong teas, while China produces these plus yellow and pu’er teas, according to Simple Loose Leaf.
Indian Competition with China
Today, India is no longer a colony of Britain and China has regained its status as the top producer of tea. However, the two countries are still in stark competition for the production of the drink.
According to World Atlas, China produces approximately 2 million tons of tea annually, making it the number one exporter in the world.
However, India is close behind with around 1.2 million tons annually and holds the second-place position in terms of exports.
Both countries still view tea as an important part of daily life and tradition. According to Business Standard, China actually became the third-largest importer of India tea in 2019 – however, Indo-China relations have unfortunately worsened due largely to border conflicts, meaning the imports from China will likely diminish.
American Tea History
Tea played a huge role in trading for Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thanks to Britain’s massive colonization of other regions they managed to overcome China in production and challenge the tea monopoly.
However, a certain set of colonies would prove to be problematic for Britain – the American colonies that would eventually become the United States.
Ironically, tea would sit at the center of the start of a revolution that led to the United States’ independence from Britain. While the end of the East India Company is largely credited to rebellion from the Indian population, the revolt of the American colonies certainly weakened and shifted the focus of Britain substantially.
The Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party is one of the most notorious instances in U.S. tea history. Occurring in 1773, American colonists boarded East India Company ships disguised as Native Americans and dumped approximately 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor.
According to History.com, this act was carried out in response to taxation that gave the East India Company a virtual monopoly over the American tea trade.
The Boston Tea Party is also credited as being one of the main starting points of the American revolution that would eventually lead to the independence of the United States.
Interestingly, the colonies that would become the U.S. had already established their own tea culture thanks to Dutch imports and smugglers. According to Teabox, tea would play a strangely symbolic role in early American history thanks to the struggles between the colonists and the East India Company of Britain.
The U.S. even has a political group called the Tea Party.
While ice brewing tea was not unknown to China and other Asian countries, the popularization of iced tea is credited mainly to the United States. According to Coffee Tea Warehouse, the United States consumes approximately 50 billion glasses of iced tea annually.
The United States is also largely credited for developing tea bags. Before the widespread use of tea bags, tea was sold as loose leaf. With the addition of the bags, tea was able to be sold on a much larger scale commercially.
Additionally, common and commercial tea bags would eventually begin using cheaper varieties of tea, making them more widely available to the lower classes.
Exporting and Importing
As far as growing and exporting tea, the United States is relatively low on the totem pole. However, according to World’s Top Exports, the United States is often the top importer of tea and in 2019 accounted for approximately 8.5 percent of the total tea imports worldwide.
The top five countries that export tea to the U.S. are China, Argentina, Japan, India, and Sri Lanka.
Final Thoughts on Tea History
Tea has been around since ancient times, beginning its historical journey in China and eventually making it all the way to the United States. The history of tea is marked by extensive cultural reverence, but it has also played a massive role in colonization and trading.
Today, tea is still one of the most sought-after products in the global market. From the discovery by mythical emperor Shennong to the East India Company and the eventual Boston Tea Party, tea has undoubtedly helped shape the history of our world.