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The Legendary Origins of Tea


The story of tea began in ancient China over 5,000 years ago. According to legend, Shen Nung, an early emperor was a skilled ruler, creative scientist and patron of the arts. His far-sighted edicts required, among other things, that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One summer day while visiting a distant region of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest. In accordance with his ruling, the servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from the near by bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid was infused into the water. As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing. And so, according to legend, tea was created. (This myth maintains such a practical narrative, that many mythologists believe it may relate closely to the actual events, now lost in ancient history.)

The Chinese Influence

Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture reaching into every aspect of the society. In 800 A.D. Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book on tea, the Ch'a Ching. This amazing man was orphaned as a child and raised by scholarly Buddhist monks in one of China's finest monasteries. However, as a young man, he rebelled against the discipline of priestly training which had made him a skilled observer. His fame as a performer increased with each year, but he felt his life lacked meaning. Finally, in mid-life, he retired for five years into seclusion. Drawing from his vast memory of observed events and places, he codified the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China. The vast definitive nature of his work, projected him into near sainthood within his own lifetime. Patronized by the Emperor himself, his work clearly showed the Zen Buddhist philosophy to which he was exposed as a child. It was this form of tea service that Zen Buddhist missionaries would later introduce to imperial Japan.

The Japanese Influence

The first tea seeds were brought to Japan by the returning Buddhist priest Yeisei, who had seen the value of tea in China in enhancing religious mediation. As a result, he is known as the "Father of Tea" in Japan. Because of this early association, tea in Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism. Tea received almost instant imperial sponsorship and spread rapidly from the royal court and monasteries to the other sections of Japanese society.

Tea was elevated to an art form resulting in the creation of the Japanese Tea Ceremony ("Cha-no-yu" or "the hot water for tea"). The best description of this complex art form was probably written by the Irish-Greek journalist-historian Lafcadio Hearn, one of the few foreigners ever to be granted Japanese citizenship during this era. He wrote from personal observation, "The Tea ceremony requires years of training and practice to graduate in art...yet the whole of this art, as to its detail, signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea. The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible".

Such a purity of form, of expression prompted the creation of supportive arts and services. A special form of architecture (chaseki) developed for "tea houses", based on the duplication of the simplicity of a forest cottage. The cultural/artistic hostesses of Japan, the Geishi, began to specialize in the presentation of the tea ceremony. As more and more people became involved in the excitement surrounding tea, the purity of the original Zen concept was lost. The tea ceremony became corrupted, boisterous and highly embellished. "Tea Tournaments" were held among the wealthy where nobles competed among each other for rich prizes in naming various tea blends. Rewarding winners with gifts of silk, armor, and jewelry was totally alien to the original Zen attitude of the ceremony.

Three great Zen priests restored tea to its original place in Japanese society:

1. Ikkyu (1394-1481)-a prince who became a priest and was successful in guiding the nobles away from their corruption of the tea ceremony.
2. Murata Shuko (1422-1502)-the student of Ikkyu and very influential in re-introducing the Tea ceremony into Japanese society.
3. Sen-no Rikkyu (1521-1591)-priest who set the rigid standards for the ceremony, largely used intact today. Rikyo was successful in influencing the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became Japan's greatest patron of the "art of tea". A brilliant general, strategist, poet, and artist this unique leader facilitated the final and complete integration of tea into the pattern of Japanese life. So complete was this acceptance, that tea was viewed as the ultimate gift, and warlords paused for tea before battles.

Europe Learns of Tea

While tea was at this high level of development in both Japan and China, information concerning this then unknown beverage began to filter back to Europe. Earlier caravan leaders had mentioned it, but were unclear as to its service format or appearance. (One reference suggests the leaves be boiled, salted, buttered, and eaten!) The first European to personally encounter tea and write about it was the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz in 1560. Portugal, with her technologically advanced navy, had been successful in gaining the first right of trade with China. It was as a missionary on that first commercial mission that Father de Cruz had tasted tea four years before.

The Portuguese developed a trade route by which they shipped their tea to Lisbon, and then Dutch ships transported it to France, Holland, and the Baltic countries. (At that time Holland was politically affiliated with Portugal. When this alliance was altered in 1602, Holland, with her excellent navy, entered into full Pacific trade in her own right.)

Tea Comes to Europe

When tea finally arrived in Europe, Elizabeth I had more years to live, and Rembrandt was only six years old. Because of the success of the Dutch navy in the Pacific, tea became very fashionable in the Dutch capital, the Hague. This was due in part to the high cost of the tea (over $100 per pound) which immediately made it the domain of the wealthy. Slowly, as the amount of tea imported increased, the price fell as the volume of sale expanded. Initially available to the public in apothecaries along with such rare and new spices as ginger and sugar, by 1675 it was available in common food shops throughout Holland.

As the consumption of tea increased dramatically in Dutch society, doctors and university authorities argued back and forth as to the negative and/or positive benefits of tea. Known as "tea heretics", the public largely ignored the scholarly debate and continued to enjoy their new beverage though the controversy lasted from 1635 to roughly 1657. Throughout this period France and Holland led Europe in the use of tea.

As the craze for things oriental swept Europe, tea became part of the way of life. The social critic Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Seven makes the first mention in 1680 of adding milk to tea. During the same period, Dutch inns provided the first restaurant service of tea. Tavern owners would furnish guests with a portable tea set complete with a heating unit. The independent Dutchman would then prepare tea for himself and his friends outside in the tavern's garden. Tea remained popular in France for only about fifty years, being replaced by a stronger preference for wine, chocolate, and exotic coffees.

Tea Comes to America

By 1650 the Dutch were actively involved in trade throughout the Western world. Peter Stuyvesant brought the first tea to America to the colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (later re-named New York by the English). Settlers here were confirmed tea drinkers. And indeed, on acquiring the colony, the English found that the small settlement consumed more tea at that time then all of England put together.

Tea Arrives in England

Great Britain was the last of the three great sea-faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian trade routes. This was due in part to the unsteady ascension to the throne of the Stuarts and the Cromwellian Civil War. The first samples of tea reached England between 1652 and 1654. Tea quickly proved popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England.

As in Holland, it was the nobility that provided the necessary stamp of approval and so insured its acceptance. King Charles II had married, while in exile, the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza (1662). Charles himself had grown up in the Dutch capital. As a result, both he and his Portuguese bride were confirmed tea drinkers. When the monarchy was re-established, the two rulers brought this foreign tea tradition to England with them. As early as 1600 Elizabeth I had founded the John company for the purpose of promoting Asian trade. When Catherine de Braganza married Charles she brought as part of her dowry the territories of Tangier and Bombay. Suddenly, the John Company had a base of operations.

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