Drinking Tea plays a central part in our lives. It is a universal phenomenon with millions of people the world over enjoying tea on a daily basis. It is hard to imagine a world without tea. In fact it has become the most widely consumed beverage on earth after water.
Tea has a long history that spans across numerous countries over thousands of years. Legend says that tea originated in 2737 BC when the highly disliked Emperor Shen Nung of China was removed from power and driven out to an isolated spot in Southern China. Having no money to drink anything else but water, Shen Nung happened to be sitting under a tree one day when a gust of wind dropped a few leaves into his cup of boiling water. He loved the blend and found it so relaxing that he sat under that tree for the next seven years and wouldn’t drink anything else.
Today, tea is the most popular drink in the world behind water, and its impact on culture and politics is huge. Read on to learn more about where tea came from and what its place is in today’s society.
Tea was first discovered in Chin, in the mountains around Sichuan and Yunnan, and according to earliest legend Emperor Shen Nung first sampled the drink when some unidentified leaves fell into his pot of hot water. Allegedly, Shen Nung used to wander the country recording the effects of infusions made from the leaves and berries of various plants. He discovered that tea cured him of a stomach ache contracted as a result of drinking a toxic herb.
Tea drinking became an elaborate art form during the Tang Dynasty (616 – 907). This was the heyday of the Chinese Empire, and traders journeyed to China from the Middle East to obtain silk, porcelain and tea. Over time, the practice of drinking tea spread across Asia, and later to Europe and the America.
People in China were the first drinkers of tea, and they did so for hundreds for years before it was finally discovered by European explorers. The Chinese thought tea to be hugely beneficial for health and eventually it was used as a religious offering! A scarce and rare product, tea was only consumed by royalty and it wasn’t until the discovery of more kinds of tea plants during the Tang Dynasty that tea became available for people of lower classes.
At this point, tea came in the form of bricks. Leaves of tea would be crushed and pressed into a mold and then dried. When it came time for preparation, a small portion of the brick would be ground and boiled in water. Powdered tea was also popular for green teas; after pouring boiling water over it, the tea would turn into a frothy drink. It was also during this time that knowledge of tea began to spread; Japanese priests studying abroad in China brought tea back to their homes and shared it with their fellow priests and the rich.
Buddhists made good use of tea. While meditating they’d often drink a cup to stay awake during their mediations and soon the Japanese Tea Ceremony was developed, which made tea drinking a spiritual and serious experience. The Emperor of Japan loved tea so much he ordered tea seeds and had them grown in Japan so that everyone could access it.
Tea finally made its way over to England when King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, in the 17th century. Surprisingly, though many people associate tea with being quintessentially British, the popularity of the drink is wholly due to the foreign princess.
Asia is by far the biggest producer supplying 80-90% of all tea, mainly from India, China, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. India is the largest individual tea-producing country, growing nearly 30% of the world’s tea. Tea was introduced to East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. It has become an important crop there, particularly in the highlands of Kenya.
Afternoon Tea – A Quintessentially British Pastime
Whilst the custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China and was popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II and his wife, it was not until the mid 17th century that the concept of ‘afternoon tea’ first appeared.
Afternoon tea was introduced in England by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840. The Duchess would become hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter (some time earlier, the Earl of Sandwich had had the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread) and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.
This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change their gowns for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock. The Etiquette of Modern Society points out that a thoughtful hostess should always provide biscuits with tea, since these can be eaten more easily than sandwiches without removing one’s gloves.
Some poorer households also adopted the practice of afternoon tea, but more common among the working classes was ‘high tea’. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when most people worked in agriculture, the working classes tended to have the main meal of their day at midday, with a much lighter supper in the evening.
But after the industrial revolution, more and more people were employed for long shifts in factories or mines, and hot midday meals were thus less convenient. The custom developed of having a high tea in the late afternoon, at the end of the working day, consisting of strong tea, and hearty, hot food. Unlike afternoon tea, high tea was the main meal of the day, rather than a stop-gap between lunch and dinner.