The history of tea – Shunan Teng

During a long day spent roaming the forest
in search of edible grains and herbs, the weary divine farmer Shennong
accidentally poisoned himself 72 times. But before the poisons could end his life, a leaf drifted into his mouth. He chewed on it and it revived him, and that is how we discovered tea. Or so an ancient legend goes at least. Tea doesn’t actually cure poisonings, but the story of Shennong, the mythical Chinese inventor
of agriculture, highlights tea’s importance
to ancient China. Archaeological evidence suggests tea
was first cultivated there as early as 6,000 years ago, or 1,500 years before the pharaohs built
the Great Pyramids of Giza. That original Chinese tea plant is the same type that’s grown
around the world today, yet it was originally consumed
very differently. It was eaten as a vegetable
or cooked with grain porridge. Tea only shifted from food
to drink 1,500 years ago when people realized that a combination
of heat and moisture could create a complex and varied taste
out of the leafy green. After hundreds of years of variations
to the preparation method, the standard became to heat tea, pack it into portable cakes, grind it into powder, mix with hot water, and create a beverage
called muo cha, or matcha. Matcha became so popular that a distinct
Chinese tea culture emerged. Tea was the subject of books and poetry, the favorite drink of emperors, and a medium for artists. They would draw extravagant pictures
in the foam of the tea, very much like the espresso art
you might see in coffee shops today. In the 9th century
during the Tang Dynasty, a Japanese monk brought the first
tea plant to Japan. The Japanese eventually developed
their own unique rituals around tea, leading to the creation
of the Japanese tea ceremony. And in the 14th century
during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese emperor
shifted the standard from tea pressed into cakes
to loose leaf tea. At that point, China still held a
virtual monopoly on the world’s tea trees, making tea one of three
essential Chinese export goods, along with porcelain and silk. This gave China a great deal of power
and economic influence as tea drinking spread around the world. That spread began in earnest
around the early 1600s when Dutch traders brought tea to Europe
in large quantities. Many credit Queen Catherine of Braganza,
a Portuguese noble woman, for making tea popular with
the English aristocracy when she married King Charles II in 1661. At the time, Great Britain was in the
midst of expanding its colonial influence and becoming the new dominant world power. And as Great Britain grew,
interest in tea spread around the world. By 1700, tea in Europe sold for ten times
the price of coffee and the plant was still
only grown in China. The tea trade was so lucrative that the world’s fastest sailboat,
the clipper ship, was born out of intense competition
between Western trading companies. All were racing to bring their tea
back to Europe first to maximize their profits. At first, Britain paid
for all this Chinese tea with silver. When that proved too expensive, they suggested trading tea
for another substance, opium. This triggered a public health problem
within China as people became addicted to the drug. Then in 1839, a Chinese official
ordered his men to destroy massive
British shipments of opium as a statement against
Britain’s influence over China. This act triggered the First Opium War
between the two nations. Fighting raged up and down
the Chinese coast until 1842 when the defeated Qing Dynasty ceded
the port of Hong Kong to the British and resumed trading on unfavorable terms. The war weakened China’s global standing
for over a century. The British East India company also
wanted to be able to grow tea themselves and further control the market. So they commissioned
botanist Robert Fortune to steal tea from China
in a covert operation. He disguised himself
and took a perilous journey through China’s mountainous tea regions, eventually smuggling tea trees
and experienced tea workers into Darjeeling, India. From there,
the plant spread further still, helping drive tea’s rapid growth
as an everyday commodity. Today, tea is the second most consumed
beverage in the world after water, and from sugary Turkish Rize tea, to salty Tibetan butter tea, there are almost as many ways
of preparing the beverage as there are cultures on the globe.

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