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History of Tea

Tea and Tea Etiquette

The history of tea begins with the fables of China when Heaven and Earth were split. The world was ruled for 18,000 years by twelve emperors of Heaven. Then it was ruled for another 18,000 years by eleven emperors of Earth. For the next 45,000 years, China was controlled by nine emperors of mankind, followed by sixteen sovereigns, and finally three sovereigns: Fu Xi, Huang Ti, and Shen Nong. Tea was discovered in the reign of Shen Nong in the twenty-eighth century B.C.

According to legend, Shen Nong was born of an earthly princess and a heav­enly dragon. He was the first man to till the soil, and hence is known as the Divine Cultivator, the Divine Husbandman, and the Divine Healer. Shen Nong observed that healthy people drank boiled water, and one day as he boiled water over a fire made from a tea plant. a tea leaf accidentally fell into his cup and infused. After he drank the beverage, he felt so restored and energized that he wrote the Shen Nong Ben Cao-jing the earliest materia medica in the world.

The first history of tea is attributed to the duke of Chou, a statesman who lived in the twelfth century B.C. But it was not until 350 A.D. that the historical informa­tion was set forth in the Erh Ya, a Chinese dictionary. In the fourth century, Kuo P'o identified green tea as a medicinal beverage, and by the fifth century, tea was an es­tablished medicine

For easy transport and storage, tea leaves were dried and pressed into a "brick" form that was suspended from a rope strung through a hole pierced in the center. Tea leaves were broken from the brick and dropped into boiled water, a method of preparation that continues today. By the sixth and seventh centuries, tea bricks were a medium of exchange.

In the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.), tea was appreciated as much for its flavor as for its medicinal qualities, and to differentiate the beverage from drinks made of other plants, in Chinese calligraphy tea was assigned its own character. In 780, a group of tea merchants commissioned Lu Yu to write the Cha Ching or The Classic of Tea, a three-volume work that chronicled the history of Chinese tea, the method of cultivation, and the preparation and service, a tome published still today.

Tea evolved as a social or spiritual art form in the Song dynasty (960-1280), a drink served by the cultured elite in a special tea room or teahouse, a select environ­ment that fostered the Ch’a Lu, written in 1053 by Can Kiang (Tsan Hsiang), a Chi­nese calligrapher who mentions the preparation of green tea in powdered form. The Ch'a La was followed by the Ta Kuan Ch'a Lan, or A General View of Tea written by Emperor Hui Tsung (r, 1101-1125), a book that described the preparation of pow­dered green tea with a special bamboo whisk, a utensil used to whip tea into froth.

By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), tea leaves were infused in teapots. To en­hance the color of the infusion, teacups were glazed with special colors, such as white-bodied porcelain cups to accent green tea, and brownish-black cups to com­pliment black tea.

In the eighth century, a group of Japanese Buddhist monks visited China and found tea so stimulating and helpful to meditation that they took home a few seeds. Initially, tea was a rare and valuable beverage only wealthy warlords and the aris­tocracy could afford to serve. Because tea was a scarce commodity, its use became ritualized. The first mention of a formal tea ceremony is credited to the eighth century emperor Shomu, who held an incha (a religious ceremony in which tea is served to Buddha or an emperor) and invited a few monks to join him for tea pre­pared from a brick of tea leaves, a gift of Ganjin, a famous Chinese priest. By the early ninth century, Kukai, a monk, introduced the Japanese to the Chinese method of brewing tea from powdered green tea.

In the twelfth century, the Japanese priest Eisai Myo-an founded Zen Bud­dhism, which advocated truth through introspection and intuition. In 1187, Eisai went to China, and in 1191 he returned with seeds of the tea plant, which he culti­vated at selected Buddhist temples. Eisai is thought to be the first Japanese to grow tea for purely religious purposes.

In the fifteenth century, Sen-no Rikyu, an Osaka merchant turned tea master, touted the Japanese tea ceremony as a mystical experience, one that fostered the four principles of Zen: harmony, purity, respect, and tranquility. The Japanese tea ceremony, known as Cha-no-yu, meaning "hot water for tea," incorporated esthetics, etiquette, order, and tranquility in a serene setting that encouraged meditation, kindled friendship between host and guests, and fostered spirituality.

But in the nineteenth century, the Japanese tea ceremony was associated with the customs of a feudal age, and masters of the tea ceremony began to lose status. The grand master of the Urasenke School of Tea saved the tradition, however. He propounded that the tea ceremony instilled obeisance, discipline, and order, qualities valuable for the success of a modern Japan. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Japanese tea ceremony was popular once again, and this led to establishment of tea schools. Today, the Ch'a La and the Ta Kuan Ch'a Lun form the basis of the mod­ern tea ceremony in Japan.

The legendary discovery of tea in India is attributed to Bodhidharma, a revered Buddhist philosopher and priest, who in 520 traveled to China to teach the Zen sect of Buddhism. The emperor gave Bodhidharma sanctuary in a cave temple located in the mountains of Nanking, where according to legend he meditated for nine years facing the wall of the cave. But one day he dozed off accidentally during prayers, and when he awoke he was so distressed that to remind himself of his mo­mentary weakness he cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. Magically, a tea plant took root, covered with leaves that banned the desire for sleep. Another tale relates that a frustrated Bodhidharma grabbed a handful of tea leaves, ate them, and lost the need to sleep.

Tea was introduced to Europe a little more than 300 years ago. It was im­ported from China along with other exotic spices and luxury products, such as silk and lacquer. In the sixteenth century, both Chinese and Indian tea were imported via land and sea routes controlled by Arab merchants. Eager to learn about Asian goods that might turn a profit, the Venetians hosted the Arabs at elaborate dinners. One evening as Giambattista Ramusio, secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten, dined with Hajji Mahommed, a Persian merchant, he learned about the curative powers of tea, and in 1559 he recorded the information in Voyaged and Travels. This was the first European book to mention tea.

Portuguese missionaries and priests sent to China in the sixteenth century noted the taste of tea and the customs associated with the service. In 1560, Father Gasper da Cruz, the first Portuguese missionary to reach mainland China, wrote a let­ter that describes the taste of tea as "bitter, red, and medicinal." Father Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest who arrived in China in 1598, wrote about the preparation of tea and mentioned that the beverage promoted longevity and stimulated energy. Father Al­varo Samedo wrote about the social customs associated with tea, stating that the first cup honored the guest but that the third cup was a subtle suggestion to depart.

In 1607, the Dutch East India Company stimulated tea trade between Asia and Europe, commerce that included the transport of tea from Macao to Java. In 1610, the first cargo of Chinese tea was shipped by the Dutch East India Company from Java to Holland, and by mid-century transported from there to England. In England, tea was a controversial beverage, a drink touted in the seventeenth century by physi­cians as a cure for everything from anxiety to depression to intemperance, a beverage good for the eyes, stomach, spleen, and kidneys. However, those who disapproved of tea stated it was an addictive drug, one that promoted ill health, fostered feebleness, and undermined the British economy. Tea was outrageously expensive, costing more than $100 (£60) a pound by today's standards. The poor bought used tea leaves from the kitchens of the wealthy, and reused them until they were colorless, then ate the leaves on buttered bread sprinkled with sugar.

The first public sale of tea took place in 1657 at Garway's Coffee House, Lon­don, whose owner, Thomas Garway, promoted it as a beverage that, "vanquisheth heavy dreams, easeth the Brain, and strengtheneth the Memory." He also touted it as a tonic for "Headache, Stone, Gravel, Dropsey, Scurvey, Sleepiness, Loss of Memory, Looseness or Gripping of the Guts."

In the seventeenth century, English merchants competed with the Dutch for dominance of the tea trade, commerce assisted handsomely when Catherine of Bra­ganza married Charles II of England in 1662, bringing in her dowry the port of Bombay and India's tea plantations. Soon the British established tea factories in Bengal and Madras, and to protect the monopoly enjoyed by the British East India Company, Parliament forbade the import of tea from the Dutch East India Com­pany. In 1689 the British East India Company began to trade directly with China, a monopoly they held for more than 150 years.

The Golden Lyon was the first establishment to specialize in the sale of bulk tea by weight. The business was opened in 1717 by Thomas Twining and still oper­ates today. In 1734, Twining's sold 13,114 pounds of tea, 5,137 pounds of coffee, and 2,897 pounds of chocolate.

The duty on British tea in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries ranged from 12V2 percent to 200 percent. To support demand, between 1711 and 1810, an illegal tea industry arose. Dutch smugglers moored off the coasts of Corn­wall, Dorset, Kent, and Hampshire transported tea across the channel from Hol­land. Tea was hidden in caves connected by underground passageways and distributed throughout England by pony cart.

The high duties prompted a second illegal industry, namely adulterated tea, one that wreaked havoc on the forests of England and the health of the population. Black tea was contaminated with "smouch," a product made from the leaves of ash trees steeped in copper water and sheep's dung. Green tea was diluted with buds from elder trees boiled in iron sulfate, sawdust, and sheep's dung.

To eliminate these illegal practices, the government repealed the tea duty in 1784 and ordered the British East India Company to import enough tea to satisfy de­mand without increasing the cost. However, there were those who still considered tea an addictive, intoxicating drink worthy of abstinence. Hence, the expression "tee totaller," a term attributed to Robert Turner who in 1833 urged those who drank tea not to be "tea drinkers totally."

In 1823, Major Robert Bruce, a British botanist on a trading expedition to In­dia, noticed that wild tea plants thrived in the cooler high altitudes of Assam. This discovery led to the clearance of dense forests for tea planting in 1830 and estab­lished northeastern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as major tea-producing regions.

By the eighteenth century, tea and coffee were household beverages that com­peted commercially for market share. Compared to coffee, which took time to roast, grind, and brew, tea was touted as faster to prepare, a beverage that required only boiled water and a few minutes to steep. To stimulate trade, the British East India Company advertised tea as a drink appropriate for both sexes to take in the outdoor setting of a tea garden that catered to families, as opposed to coffee taken indoors in the all-male coffeehouse. Soon tea gardens established in the country catered to fam­ilies of all classes. In the evenings orchestras played, fireworks lit up the sky, and promenades were illuminated to encourage strolls through flower-covered arbors and romantic interludes. But the prolific use of tea in the home eventually lowered public attendance at tea gardens, and in 1850 the last one closed.

Tea leaves were a source of superstition. When boiled water was put into a teapot ahead of the leaves, it was an omen of bad luck. And teas leaves were never stirred widdershins (counterclockwise), for this forebode of a quarrel. Fortunes were told by a "tasseographer," or cup reader. As the drinker drank from the cup he or she pondered a question, leaving just enough tea in the cup to cover the leaves. Holding the teacup in the left hand, the tasseographer rotated it three times coun­terclockwise and poured the tea into a saucer. Next, the tasseographer rotated the cup counterclockwise three times more, ending with the cup handle pointed toward the enquirer. The reading began with the tea leaves located left ofthe handle. Leaves in the shape of a knife forewarned of divorce. A dot indicated money. A ball sug­gested the ability to overcome problems. A heart meant happiness, as did a butterfly. Two hearts implied marriage. A ladder indicated success or a promotion. And so on.

In 1618 a caravan of 300 camels carrying 600 pounds of Chinese tea em­barked for Russia, an 11,000-mile journey across the Gobi Desert that took 16 months to complete. To lessen the load on the camels' backs, tea leaves were carried in cloth sacks rather than wooden chests. At night the sacks absorbed the smoke of the campfires, imbuing the leaves with a smoky taste Russians called caravan tea.

Russian tea was prepared from "tea essence," a dark, strong tea infused in a small teapot kept warm on the top of a samovar, a large metal urn with a spigot and a central tube that held charcoal for heating water. Tea essence was poured into a small glass and diluted with hot water drawn from the lower part of the samovar. As the flavor was bitter, tea was sipped through a sugar cube held between the teeth.

The import of tea to the colonies seems to have begun with Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam (New York). In 1674, New Amsterdam became an English colony, and thereafter English customs were followed. However, the colonists were unsure how to prepare tea and often stewed the leaves for hours, producing a bitter brown drink, or ate the leaves on toast with salt.

In the eighteenth century, over 1 million pounds of tea were being exported to the colonies every year. In 1765, to help repay the cost of the French and Indian Wars (fought by the English on behalf of the colonies), King George III passed the Stamp Act, a heavy tax levied on the import of tea and other commodities, such as rum. Although Parliament rescinded the law a year later, through the Declaratory Act it reserved the right to establish taxes and laws for the colonies without their ap­proval. The colonists deeply resented this and formed the Sons of Liberty to con­sider the appropriate response to the act.

A year later, in 1767, the British Parliament passed the Act of Trade and Rev­enue, which levied a duty on tea imported by the colonies. In defiance, the colonists refused to accept tea imported from England and smuggled in tea from Holland. Moreover, the colonists brewed ((liberty tea" from herbs, roots, and leaves of local fruits, such as raspberry canes.

In 1773, Lord North, the British prime minister, passed the Tea Act, which authorized the British East India Company to export tea directly to the colonies but retained the government's right to charge 3 pence a pound. When Thomas Hutchin­son, the governor of Massachusetts (a position appointed by the British govern­ment), refused to let English ships unload 18,000 pounds of tea until the colonists had paid the tax, the result was the Boston Tea Party: on the night of December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty, led by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere, dressed as Mohawk Indians, set upon 342 chests of tea with hatchets before dumping them into the sea. This was one of the events that led to the American Revolu­tion. Coffee became the national drink of the colonies; after the revolution tea com­merce resumed, but the drink was not as popular as before.

In the nineteenth century, American military officers and their wives hosted afternoon teas parties known as kettledrums, and served from a drum head rather than a tea table. Supposedly, the guests talked so fast and with such intensity that the din resembled the roar of a kettledrum. In 1897, the U.S. government passed a tea act that ensured uniform quality of imported tea, a measure still enforced today.


- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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