According to the Chinese legend, in 2737BC, a few leaves were taken from a tree, beneath which the Emperor Shen Nong sat. They were mixed with a little water to quench his thirst. The Emperor enjoyed this new experience and thereby invented tea.
Originally, tea came from the southern province of Yunnan in China. The tea was at first seen as a therapeutic drink under the Western Han dynasty (206BC – 24AD). Under the Eastern Han period of the dynasty, tea became a daily part of the emperors and aristocratic people’s lives. However, it was only under the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) that tea became more widely available, first in the form of compressed pieces that would be reduced into powder before being mixed with boiling water, and then eventually mixed with salt and spices. Under the Song dynasty (920 – 1279) tea took the form of a powder that was added
to simmering water, like a type of soup. It was not until the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) that tea took its current form; tea leaves that were infused in water.
From the 10th century, China started to export its tea, first to neighbouring countries and then to Europe. In 1606, tea was first exported to Holland by boat. It was then in 1653 that France and England discovered the delights of tea. In 1657, Thomas Garraway started to serve tea in his London coffee house. Tea was an immediate hit, and soon took the place of coffee in British people’s hearts. In the 19th century, China could no longer keep up with the growing demand for tea; the British then introduced their culture in other countries: India in 1834, Ceylan in 1857 and in other Asian and African countries, in Réunion and Argentina.
Also during the Tang Dynasty, tea spread to Japan by Japanese priests studying in China. Similar to the Chinese adoption of tea, tea was first consumed by priests and the rich for its medicinal properties. Tea is often associated with Zen Buddhism in Japan because priests drank tea to stay awake and meditate. Soon, the Buddhists developed the Japanese Tea Ceremony for sharing tea in a sacred, spiritual manner. The Emperor of Japan enjoyed tea very much and imported tea seeds from China to be planted in Japan, making tea available to more people.
Tea finally arrived in England during the 17th century when King Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The Queen made tea the drink of royalty and soon tea became a popular import to Britain via the East India Company. Afternoon tea or tea parties became a common way for aristocratic society to drink tea. Though tea was regularly imported to Britain, the taxes were so high that smugglers would get and sell tea illegally for those that could not afford it. In attempts to turn profits during the tea smuggling period, the East India Company began exporting the tea to America. The American tea was also taxed heavily and contributed to the cause of the Boston Tea Party.
Today, tea is a staple drink of almost every house. After water tea is the most consumed beverage.