From earliest times native tea plants grew in northern India, southern China (Yunnan Province) northern Burma, Vietnam and Laos. Awareness of tea flourished in Yunnan and from there it travelled throughout China before spreading to the rest of Asia and to the West.
Following tea usage through the Chinese dynasties, enables us to see its evolution over the centuries.
At first leaves were chewed from indigenous tea bushes as a source of energy. Then, fire enabled water to be boiled. By the time of the Shang dynasty (1766 – 1050 BC), tea was being consumed for its medicinal purposes.
Midway through the Zhou dynasty (1045BC-256BC) the three major Eastern religions, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, emerged and embraced tea drinking for its invigorating qualities.
It wasn’t until the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) that tea became widely consumed in China.
By the Tang dynasty (618-907) tea drinking became more sophisticated and refined with utensils such as ceramic tea bowls, cups, teapots and water pouring ewers. Whole-leaf tea was compressed into cakes and flavoured variously to conceal any bitterness. The first book codifying the rituals and preparation of tea was written by Lu Yu – a scholar and poet. Tea gardens were established in southern and western China.
During the Tang dynasty, tea made its way to Japan, introduced by a Buddhist monk named Saicho, in 815. By the 10th century, tea had spread to Mongolia and Tibet via rugged horse caravan routes historically known as the Tea Horse Routes. Shortly, tea made its way to Persia, the Islamic world and Russia.
The Song dynasty (960 – 1279) introduced systems for grading leaf tea but only members of a certain class could drink certain teas. However, tea houses appeared during this time where regular citizens could drink tea in public.
During the Song, finely powdered tea started to replace coarse leaves in the tea cakes and could be whipped into a green froth. The preparation of tea at this point became more than just an elegant pastime. For Zen Buddhists, it evolved into one of the paths towards enlightenment, thus giving birth to Cha No Yu, the tea ceremony later developed in Japan.
Aesthetic tea pursuits ended under the 88 years of Mogul rule – Kubla Khan’s Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368) but found their way to Japan in earnest when priests and monks carried tea seeds and bushes back to their homeland.
During the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) the secrets of oxidation were discovered which turned the fresh leaf into black tea. Tea could now be exported long distances and arrive in much better condition than ever before. The principles of oxidation led to the production of the various categories of tea that we recognize today. It wasn’t until the end of the Ming dynasty however, that Western Europe discovered tea.
During the Qing or Manchurian dynasty (1644-1911) China became a world trader and the Portuguese, Dutch (in Jakarta) and later the English traded tea. While the Portuguese were the first tea traders, it was the Dutch who introduced adding milk to tea in the West! Adding fermented milk to black tea was how the invading Manchu rulers drank their tea. Hence, this was the method adopted by the Dutch as it was how the Chinese emperor of the day took his tea! Han Chinese Emperors in the past never did nor would add milk to their tea.
Tea exports arrived into Holland in 1610, into France in 1636, into Germany in 1650 and into England in1658. Tea became a craze. By the nineteenth century tea had become the national drink of England.
In 1834, the English East India Company lost its monopoly on tea imported into England. This moved them to find a location where they could grow their own tea and control all aspects of production. The Chinese guarded their tea secrets zealously but with considerable subterfuge the English broke through the barriers and put tea production to work in India in the mid nineteenth century and in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1875. The Dutch began propagation in Java in 1878. Today, tea is now produced in Africa, the Middle East, South America, the South Pacific and South East Asia.
From China, its homeland, tea has spread throughout the world. It is little wonder that of the three major beverages; tea, coffee and cocoa, it is tea that is the most widely consumed.