The history of tea is long and complex, spreading across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years.
Tea likely originated in the Yunnan region during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink.
An early credible record of tea drinking dates to the 3rd century AD, in a medical text written by Hua Tuo. Tea was first introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in Lebanon during the 16th century.
Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century. The British introduced tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea.
In one popular Chinese legend, Shennong, the legendary Emperor of China and inventor of agriculture and Chinese medicine was drinking a bowl of just-boiled water due to a decree that his subjects must boil water before drinking it.
Sometime around 2737 BC, a few leaves were blown, from a nearby tree, into his water, changing the color and taste. The emperor took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor and restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote.
Shennong is also mentioned in Lu Yu’s famous early work on the subject, The Classic of Tea. A similar Chinese legend goes that the god of agriculture would chew the leaves, stems, and roots of various plants to discover medicinal herbs. If he consumed a poisonous plant, he would chew tea leaves to counteract the poison.
A rather gruesome legend dates back to the Tang dynasty. In the legend, Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, accidentally fell asleep after meditating in front of a wall for nine years. He woke up in such disgust at his weakness that he cut off his own eyelids. They fell to the ground and took root, growing into tea bushes. Sometimes, another version of the story is told with Gautama Buddha in place of Bodhidharma.
Scholars, however, believe that tea drinking likely originated in the southwest of China and that the Chinese words for tea themselves may have been originally derived from the Austro-Asiatic languages of the people who originally inhabited that area.
Whether or not these legends have any basis in fact, tea has played a significant role in Asian culture for centuries as a staple beverage, a curative, and a status symbol. It is not surprising, therefore, that theories of its origin are often religious or royal in nature.
The early history of tea
History of Tea in China
The history of tea in China can be traced back to thousands of years. The earliest physical evidence known to date, found in 2016, comes from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an, indicating that tea was drunk by the Han dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC.
The samples were identified as tea from the genus Camellia particularly via mass spectrometry, and written records suggest that it may have been drunk earlier. People of the Han dynasty used tea as medicine (though the first use of tea as a stimulant is unknown).
China is considered to have the earliest records of tea consumption, with possible records dating back to the 10th century BC. Note however that the current word for tea in Chinese only came into use in the 8th century AD, there are therefore uncertainties as to whether the older words used are the same as tea.
The first known reference to boiling tea came from the Han dynasty work “The Contract for a Youth” written by Wang Bao where, among the tasks listed to be undertaken by the youth, “he shall boil tea and fill the utensils” and “he shall buy tea at Wuyang“.
The first record of cultivation of tea also dated it to this period (Ganlu era of Emperor Xuan of Han) when tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain near Chengdu. From the Tang to the Qing dynasties, the first 360 leaves of tea grown here were picked each spring and presented to the emperor. Even today its green and yellow teas, such as the Mengding Ganlu tea, are still sought after.
An unknown Chinese inventor was also the first person to invent a tea shredder. An early credible record of tea drinking dates to 220 AD, in a medical text Shi Lun by Hua Tuo, who stated:
“to drink bitter t’u constantly makes one think better.”
Another possible early reference to tea is found in a letter written by the Qin dynasty general Liu Kun. However, before the mid-8th century Tang dynasty, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese practice. It became widely popular during the Tang dynasty, when it was spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Legend has it that master Lao was saddened by society’s moral decay and, sensing that the end of the dynasty was near, he journeyed westward to the unsettled territories, never to be seen again. While passing along the nation’s border, he encountered and was offered tea by a customs inspector named Yin Hsi.
Yin Hsi encouraged him to compile his teachings into a single book so that future generations might benefit from his wisdom. This then became known as the Tao Te Ching, a collection of Laozi’s sayings.
During the Sui dynasty (589–618 AD) tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks.
During the Song dynasty (960–1279), production and preparation of all tea changed. The tea of Song included many loose-leaf styles (to preserve the delicate character favored by court society), and it is the origin of today’s loose teas and the practice of brewed tea.
A new powdered form of tea also emerged. Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea. After the transition from compressed tea to the powdered form, the production of tea for trade and distribution changed once again.
The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-13th century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. By the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stops the oxidation process which turns the leaves dark and allows the tea to remain green.
In the 15th century, Oolong tea, where the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying, was developed.
Western taste, however, preferred the fully oxidized black tea, and the leaves were allowed to ferment further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty when apparently sloppy practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow but yielded a different flavor as a result.
Tea production in China, historically, was a laborious process, conducted in distant and often poorly accessible regions. This led to the rise of many apocryphal stories and legends surrounding the harvesting process. For example, one story that has been told for many years is that of a village where monkeys pick tea.
According to this legend, the villagers stand below the monkeys and taunt them. The monkeys, in turn, become angry, and grab handfuls of tea leaves and throw them at the villagers.
There are products sold today that claim to be harvested in this manner, but no reliable commentators have observed this firsthand, and most doubt that it happened at all. For many hundreds of years, the commercially used tea tree has been, in shape, more of a bush than a tree. “Monkey picked tea” is more likely a name of certain varieties than a description of how it was obtained.
In 1391, the Hongwu emperor issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a “tribute“. As a result, tea production shifted from cake tea to loose-leaf tea and processing techniques advanced, giving rise to the more energy-efficient methods of pan-firing and sun-drying, which were popular in Jiangnan and Fujian respectively.
The last group to adopt loose-leaf tea were the literati, who were reluctant to abandon their refined culture of whisking tea until the invention of oolong tea. By the end of the sixteenth century, loose-leaf tea had entirely replaced the earlier tradition of cake and powdered tea.
History of Tea in Japan
The history of tea in Japan can be traced back to the sixth century AD. Tea became a drink of the religious classes in Japan when Japanese priests and envoys, sent to China to learn about its culture, brought tea to Japan.
Ancient recordings indicate the first batch of tea seeds were brought by a priest named Saichō in 805 and then by another named Kūkai in 806.
It became a drink of the royal classes when Emperor Saga, the Japanese emperor, encouraged the growth of tea plants. Seeds were imported from China, and cultivation in Japan began.
In 1191, the famous Zen priest Eisai brought back tea seeds to Kyoto. Some of the tea seeds were given to the priest Myoe Shonin, and became the basis for Uji tea. The oldest tea specialty book in Japan, Kissa Yōjōki, was written by Eisai. The two-volume book was written in 1211 after his second and last visit to China. The first sentence states:
“Tea is the ultimate mental and medical remedy and has the ability to make one’s life more full and complete.”
Eisai was also instrumental in introducing tea consumption to the warrior class, which rose to political prominence after the Heian Period.
Green tea became a staple among cultured people in Japan—a brew for the gentry and the Buddhist priesthood alike. Production grew and tea became increasingly accessible, though still, a privilege enjoyed mostly by the upper classes.
The tea ceremony of Japan was introduced from China in the 15th century by Buddhists as a semi-religious social custom. The modern tea ceremony developed over several centuries by Zen Buddhist monks under the original guidance of the monk Sen no Rikyū. In fact, both the beverage and the ceremony surrounding it played a prominent role in feudal diplomacy.
In 1738, Soen Nagatani developed Japanese sencha, literally simmered tea, which is an unfermented form of green tea. It is the most popular form of tea in Japan today. The name can be confusing because sencha is no longer simmered. While sencha is currently prepared by steeping the leaves in hot water, this was not always the case.
History of Tea in Korea
The first historical record documenting the offering of tea to an ancestral god describes a rite in the year 661 in which a tea offering was made to the spirit of King Suro, the founder of the Geumgwan Gaya Kingdom (42–562). Records from the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) show that tea offerings were made in Buddhist temples to the spirits of revered monks.
During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), the royal Yi family and the aristocracy used tea for simple rites. The “Day Tea Rite” was a common daytime ceremony, whereas the “Special Tea Rite” was reserved for specific occasions. Toward the end of the Joseon Dynasty, commoners joined the trend and used tea for ancestral rites, following the Chinese example based on Zhu Xi’s text formalities of Family.
Stoneware was common, ceramic more frequent, mostly made in provincial kilns, with porcelain rare, imperial porcelain with dragons the rarest. The earliest kinds of tea used in tea ceremonies were heavily pressed cakes of black tea, the equivalent of aged pu-erh tea still popular in China.
However, the importation of tea plants by Buddhist monks brought a more delicate series of teas into Korea and the tea ceremony.
History of Tea in Vietnam
Vietnamese green teas have been largely unknown outside of mainland Asia until the present day. Recent free-enterprise initiatives are introducing these green teas to outside countries through new export activities.
Some specialty Vietnamese teas include Lotus tea and Jasmine tea. Vietnam also produces black and oolong teas in lesser quantities.
Vietnamese teas are produced in many areas that have been known for tea-house “retreats.” For example, some are located amidst immense tea forests of the Lamdong highlands, where there is a community of ancient Ruong houses built at the end of the 18th century.
The earliest record of tea in more occidental writing is said to be found in the statement of an Arabian traveler, that after the year 879 the main sources of revenue in Canton were the duties on salt and tea.
Marco Polo records the deposition of a Chinese minister of finance in 1285 for his arbitrary augmentation of the tea taxes. The travelers Giovanni Batista Ramusio (1559), L. Almeida (1576), Maffei (1588), and Teixeira (1610) also mentioned tea.
In 1557, Portugal established a trading port in Macau and word of the Chinese drink “chá” spread quickly, but there is no mention of them bringing any samples home. In the early 17th century, a ship of the Dutch East India Company brought the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China.
Tea was known in France by 1636. It enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Paris around 1648. The history of tea in Russia can also be traced back to the seventeenth century. Tea was first offered by China as a gift to Czar Michael I in 1618. The Russian ambassador tried the drink; he did not care for it and rejected the offer, delaying tea’s Russian introduction by fifty years.
In 1689, tea was regularly imported from China to Russia via a caravan of hundreds of camels traveling the year-long journey, making it a precious commodity at the time. Tea was appearing in German apothecaries by 1657 but never gained much esteem except in coastal areas such as Ostfriesland.
Tea first appeared publicly in England during the 1650s, where it was introduced through coffeehouses. From there it was introduced to British colonies in America and elsewhere.
History of Tea in the United Kingdom
The first record of tea in English came from a letter written by Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, writing to a merchant in Macao requesting “the best sort of chaw” in 1615.
Peter Mundy, a traveler and merchant who came across tea in Fujian in 1637, wrote, “chaa—only water with a kind of herb boiled in it“.
In 1657, Thomas Garway, a “tobacconist and coffee-man” was the first to sell tea in London at his house in Exchange Alley, charging between 16 and 50 shillings per pound. The same year, tea was listed as an item in the price list in a London coffee house, and the first advertisement for tea appeared in 1658.
On 25 September 1660 Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary:
“I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drunk before.”
It is probable that early imports were smuggled via Amsterdam or through sailors arriving on eastern boats. The marriage of King Charles II in 1662 to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza also brought the tea-drinking habit to court.
Official trade of tea began in 1664 with an import of only two pounds two ounces for presentation to the king but grew to 24 million pounds a year by 1801.
Regular trade began in Canton (now Guangzhou), where it was controlled by two monopolies: the Chinese Cohong (trading companies) and the British East India Company.
The Cohong acquired tea from ‘tea men’ who had an elaborate supply chain into the mountains and provinces where tea grew.
The East India Company brought back many products, of which tea was just one, but proved one of the most successful. It was initially promoted as a medicinal beverage or tonic but by the end of the seventeenth century was taken as an all-purpose drink, albeit mainly by the elite, as it was still expensive.
Tea was not traded in significant amounts until the 18th century. By 1700 tea was being sold by grocers and tea shops in London, the latter frequented by women as well as men. By the 1720s black tea overtook green tea in popularity as the price dropped, and early on British drinkers began adding sugar and milk to tea, a practice that was not done in China.
By the 1720s European maritime trade with China was dominated by the exchange of silver for tea. As prices continued to drop, tea became increasingly popular, and by 1750 had become the British national drink.
A fungus reduced coffee production in Ceylon by 95% in the 19th century, cementing tea’s popularity.
The escalation of tea importation and sales over the period 1690 to 1750 is mirrored closely by the increase in importation and sales of cane sugar: the British were not drinking just tea but sweet tea. Thus, two of Britain’s trading triangles converged: the sugar sourced from Britain’s trading triangle encompassing Britain, Africa, and the West Indies and the tea from the triangle encompassing Britain, India, and China.
Tea remained a very important item in Britain’s global trade, contributing in part to Britain’s global dominance by the end of the eighteenth century. To this day tea is seen worldwide as a symbol of ‘Britishness‘, but also, to some, as a symbol of old British colonialism.
History of Tea in India
Commercial production of tea was first introduced into India by the British, in an attempt to break the Chinese monopoly on tea.
The British, “using Chinese seeds, plus Chinese planting and cultivating techniques, launched a tea industry by offering land in Assam to any European who agreed to cultivate tea for export.”
Tea was originally only consumed by Anglicized Indians, it was not until the 1950s that tea grew widely popular in India through a successful advertising campaign by the India Tea Board.
Prior to the British, the plant may have been used for medicinal purposes. Some cite the Sanjeevani tea plant’s first recorded reference of tea used in India.
However, scientific studies have shown that the Sanjeevani plant is, in fact, a different plant and is not related to tea. The Singpho tribe and the Khamti tribe also validate that they have been consuming tea since the 12th century.
However, commercial production of tea in India did not begin until the arrival of the British East India Company, at which point large tracts of land were converted for mass tea production.
The Chinese variety is used for Sikkim, Darjeeling tea, and Kangra tea, while the Assamese variety, clonal to the native to Assam, everywhere else. The British started commercial tea plantations in India and in Ceylon:
“In 1824 tea plants were discovered in the hills along the frontier between Burma and Assam. The British introduced tea culture into India in 1836 and into Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1867. At first, they used seeds from China, but later seeds from the clonal Assam plant were used.”
Only black tea was produced until recent decades mostly in India, except in Kangra (present-day Himachal Pradesh) which produced green tea for exporting to central Asia, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries. Tea is called chai in India.