When it comes to tea, the history goes back for thousands of years. While the actual origins of where tea came from are still not totally clear, it does appear that the first culture to drink tea was the Chinese back during the Shang Dynasty where it was used for medicinal purposes. It would be many more centuries before the use of tea was actually written down, but it does appear that China is the origin of all tea throughout the world.
The first stories about tea start around 2737 BC when the Emperor of China Shen Nung was sitting under a tree while being served boiling hot water in a cup. When some leaves from that tree fell off and into his cup of piping hot water, the Emperor decided to assist the infusion process and created was is now called tea. While the story of the Emperor may be a complete fabrication, it does indicate that around that time herbalists began experimenting with different leaves from trees such as the Camellia sinesis to create different medicines and products.
Over the centuries, China continued to develop different types of tea. In burial chambers that date back to the Han dynasty that started around 200 BC there are containers of tea that were found. However, it was in the Tang dynasty that began around 618 AD that tea became the widespread among the Chinese population. Entire books were written about tea during this time as it became a very strong part of their culture. Japanese monks who had traveled to China brought back tea to their home country where it soon caught on and established itself as their national drink as well.
Pretty soon, tea would spread to Korea and Southeast Asia and in particular Vietnam. In Korea, the evidence of tea first being used was in 661 AD when tea gifts were offered to the spirit of King Suro who had founded the Kingdom of Geumgwan Gaya over 600 years earlier. Tea gifts and offerings were often made in Buddhist temples during this time as well. In Vietnam, the green teas that were developed remained relatively unknown outside of Asia until the past few decades. They developed Jasmine and Lotus tea as well as many varieties of oolong and black teas as well.
It took until the 16th century before tea made its way from China and Japan into Europe thanks to the Portuguese who had established trade and had sent missionaries to China. However, it was really the Dutch who first brought back tea on a large scale. By the beginning of the 17th century, a trading post on the island of Java was established to help facilitate the trade for teas and the Dutch quickly became enamored with its taste. It was not long before tea became popular among the royalty and the well-to-do.
While tea began to spread across Europe, Britain at first was seemingly having nothing to do with it as their interests lay elsewhere. However, once they embraced tea they made it their own with the establishment of the British East India Company which forged a monopoly on importing goods from outside the continent at the turn of the 17th century. It appears that tea gifts were quite common during this time as the drink was brought home to England as well as the rest of Europe. Called the “China Drink” at first, the British then began using the Chinese word for the drink which was Tcha or “Tea” as it was pronounced.
However, tea was still rather slow to catch on with the British public until the marriage of their king Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who loved tea and made it quite fashionable when she brought it into the court. Pretty soon, the wealthy of England began demanding more tea as well and the British East India Company began to pick up the pace on importing the beverage.
As tea became more popular with the upper classes, it did struggle as a drink with the common people as it was heavily taxed. Although reduced significantly in 1692, the punitive system of taxation for teas was not officially abolished until 1964. However, the imposition of high taxes on teas created a large smuggler’s market which avoided the tax system and started to allow the commoners a way to enjoy the great taste of their favorite beverage. In fact, so popular was the smuggling that it was estimated to be almost as large as the legitimate tea trade in England at that time.
The punitive taxation of tea had another effect as well in the colonies that were founded by Great Britain in North America. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a political protest to the taxation of the imported tea which is considered the harbinger of the American Revolution which started two years later. Realizing the damage that their high taxation policies were causing, the tax was greatly reduced in 1784 and the smuggling of tea stopped virtually overnight.
Over the ensuing years, tea prices have gone up and down around the world and have been affected by events ranging from natural disasters to war when tea was being rationed in countries where it had to be imported. In addition, tea auctions in Great Britain which were once the heart of the industry trade were greatly reduced thanks to modern communications. The last London Tea Auction was held on June 29th, 1998 which ended a remarkable era for tea.
Today, tea gifts are enjoyed around the world in both hot and cold forms as the US in the early part of the 20th century invented the tea bags, which are now quite popular. British companies still play a leading role in the tea trade and the spreading of herbal teas has become quite the popular trend as well.
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