Tea has played a significant role in human history for thousands of years. From its legendary origins in Chinese mythology to the modern-day trend of tea cocktails, tea has been a symbol of culture, tradition, and sociability throughout the world. Let’s take a look at the history of tea, from ancient China to modern-day trends, and explores its many cultural and historical significances.
The Roots of Tea
According to Chinese legend, tea was discovered by the legendary emperor and herbalist, Shennong. He was said to have been boiling water under a tea tree when leaves fell into the pot, creating a delightful aroma and taste. Thus, the first tea was born. However, the first recorded instances of tea cultivation in China dates back to the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) for medicinal purposes. Tea was thought to have healing and restorative properties, and it was consumed as an herbal remedy for a better quality of life.
The spread of tea to other parts of Asia like Japan and Korea is also closely tied to China’s influence in the region. Japanese monarchs and elites embraced the Chinese culture of honoring tea, introducing their own iterations like the tea ceremony. In Korea, tea was grown and consumed extensively in Buddhist monasteries, where they were viewed as a calming and cleansing beverage.
The Rise of Tea Culture in China
While tea began in China as a medicinal herb, it didn’t take long for it to become a significant part of Chinese culture, particularly for the elites. Tea production and consumption became a complex and sophisticated system, with the creation of teahouses or cha yuan, which became a popular social gathering place.
In the Song dynasty (960-1279), tea evolved from its medicinal purposes into a social beverage associated with refinement, good taste, and status. It was during this time that the Chinese developed formal tea ceremonies, which were performed by trained experts. These ceremonies would involve the preparation and serving of tea, along with the art of conversation, creating an environment for the exchange of ideas.
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), tea was a popular pastime, enjoyed by people from all walks of life. The Ming rulers regulated the tea trade, ensuring consistent quality, which resulted in a rapid growth of exports. It was also during this time that the teapot came into existence, which revolutionized how tea was served.
Tea Beyond China
Tea trading along the Silk Road helped to spread the popularity of tea to Tibet, Central Asia and eventually Russia. Tea became a valuable commodity and was used as currency, as well as a luxurious product for the wealthy. Trading centers emerged in the western regions of China, such as Guangzhou, Macau, and Hong Kong, which became major ports for shipping tea to other continents, through which the tea economy bloomed.
In Japan, tea was a revered beverage, and the Japanese developed their version of the tea ceremony, sado, in the 16th century, which covers a multitude of cultural practices. The ceremony involves the ritualized preparation and presentation of matcha, powdered green tea, which is infused in hot water and whisked until a froth is formed. The entire process is performed very carefully and methodically, such that the participants can concentrate on the moment and their surroundings.
Similarly, in Korea, tea was celebrated in rituals, like the Tea Book of 1340, which detailed the social and spiritual significance of tea in Korean culture, although it was not used as currency or lucrative export.
In Europe, tea arrived via the Dutch empire at the beginning of the 17th century. Initially, it was confined to the wealthy, as the drink was seen as fashionable as well as medicinal. By the 18th century, tea had gained widespread popularity in Britain, with tea houses flourishing as places to socialize and do business. Hence, Britains became so historically associated with the drink that the simple act of drinking tea became known as “having tea”.
Tea in Modern Times
Today, tea is consumed and enjoyed in numerous ways around the world. The beverage has moved beyond its traditional role as a social drink and is consumed for various purposes, including for health and wellness. This has given rise to various tea trends, like matcha, bubble tea, and tea-infused cocktails. In particular, the rise of matcha, a finely ground green tea, has gained popularity in the last four decades, with twice as productive antioxidants as regular green tea, matcha is often sipped as a frothy tea that has an array of health benefits.