Written by Diana Mather, Senior Tutor at the English Manner, the UK’s leading etiquette, protocol and household management consultancy (www.theenglishmanner.com).
The Indians claimed tea originated in India and were transplanted to Sichuan Province in 6the century BC, but the Chinese records go back to Emperor Shen Nong who is said to have lived around 2737BC. He is credited with inventing a system of agriculture as well as experimenting with herbs and plants for medicinal purposes.
Tea was said to “be good for tumours and abscesses that come about the head, or for ailments of the bladder. It dissipates the heat caused by Phlegms, or inflammation of the chest. It quenches the thirst. It lessens the desire for sleep. It gladdens and cheers the heart.”
Yunnan Province is said to be the first to cultivate tea, before it spread to the whole if Southern China. Originally fresh leaves were boiled, which produced a rather bitter brew. Eventually the leaves were dried and the ‘cakes’ were broken into small pieces and pounded and put into a pot of boiling water. Freshly picked leaves were steamed and compressed into flat cakes and strung together, this made them easy to export and ‘tea bricks’ of various shapes and sizes were also used as currency in exchange for imported goods.
Between the 10th and 12th centuries whipped, powered green tea became the fashion. The practice whisking the finely ground green tea leaves into hot water that developed into the central feature of the Japanese Tea ceremony. Tea seeds were taken to Japan in the 8th century by a Buddhist monk named Dengyo Daishi. He had been studying in China and planted the seeds in the garden of his monastery. After the Japanese Emperor tried it, he liked it so much he ordered tea to be planted in 5 provinces around Kyoto, which was then the capital of Japan. Back in China, whisked powered tea was starting to be brewed in the way we know today, infusing loose processed leaves in hot or boiling water and when Dutch and Portuguese merchants started trading with China, this was the method they learned.
Marco Polo seems to have missed tea when he is said to have explored China in 13th century. This could have been because an infusion of leaves and boiling water didn’t seems very palatable to a medieval European, or because he never actually went to China at all, which some scholars believe.
Anyway, tea didn’t come to Europe until 1557 when the Portuguese reached China by sea. The Portuguese and the Dutch established trading bases in Macau and Java respectively and were soon ting successfully with China by 1610. By the following year the Dutch were also trading tea from Japan. As tea became more popular, the trade grew and in 1633 Japan feared European domination and effectively cut itself of from the outside world, with exception of Nagasaki and the port of Hirado, foreigners were barred from entering the country for the next 200 years. Although Japan went through a long period of peace and stability, it stagnated, allowing Spain, France, Portugal and England to colonise the world. Europe and America were also going through the massive change and growth due to the Industrial Revolution. In England we were more interested in drinking coffee than tea and we didn’t export anything form the temporary trading post in Hirado and it was not until 1672 that we established a trading base in Formosa. But all this was about to change with the rise of one of the most powerful companies the world has ever known, The Honourable East India Company, after it was given a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1600. In 1629 Charles 1st issued another Royal Charter, this time to The Massachusetts Bay Company, which set the scene for the great Anglo American struggle which culminated in what became known as The Boston Tea Party 150 years later.