Perhaps nothing represents China better than a cup of freshly brewed tea. About five thousand years ago, the emperor Shen Nong (神农 – Divine Farmer in Chinese) was boiling some water in a kettle when a few leaves from a nearby tea tree fell in it. He loved the taste of the resulting drink. Being a devoted herbalist, Shen Nong immediately appreciated the value of his discovery. The plant has had many different names, such as tou, zhung, zeh, ka, ming, but now it is called cha (茶) throughout China.
From China to Japan
It isn’t quite clear how true this legend is, since there are simply no written sources dating that far back into Chinese history. In fact, the earliest material evidence of tea consumption is a tea container that was discovered in a tomb built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). More traces of tea were found in the 4th century settlements around the valley of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River, but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (616-906 AD) that the tea drinking became an essential part of Chinese culture. Around this time, the Japanese Buddhist monks and ambassadors brought tea to Japan. The introduction of tea had a profound effect on Japanese culture and greatly reshaped both countries’ farming, economy, and traditions.
From China to Europe
Ancient tax records show that Arabs were trading with tea as early as the 9th century, but in Europe the trend didn’t take on until much later. Tea was a rare commodity at that time, since only Portuguese ship owners and missionaries were bringing it to Europe in small amounts.
It was the Dutch who blazed the trail in tea trade. In the 17th century the first major commercial shipments of tea started to arrive in Europe from China via Java. Initially, the drink was popular mainly among the Dutch nobility and then it gradually spread throughout the continent – first to France and later to Russia. Tea became truly popular in the British Empire and Ireland. These two are still the EU’s largest tea-consuming countries.
Interestingly enough, one of the major factors that boosted the spread of tea throughout the world was marriage between members of different royal families. The brightest example of this trend was the wedding between Charles II and Portuguese princess Catherine who was a dedicated tea-drinker. It was Catherine who made the beverage popular among the British Royal family and the elite and thus set the trend for many centuries to come.
The growing demand was soon noted by the business community. The East India Company was the first to establish tea trade with China. Even though the enterprise soon proved to be immensely profitable, the British had reservations about strengthening China economically. The process of tea making was one of China’s most guarded secrets, but the British spared no effort and were eventually able to procure the technology. Large-scale tea tea production was soon organized in India which was under the British colonial rule at that time.
Despite the fact that tea imports continued to grow, the price remained very high mainly due to the outrageous tea import levy that often exceed 100%. By the 17th century, the British underworld was importing and selling more tea than all the official tea traders combined. At the end of the 18th century, the British government greatly lowered the tax, and good quality tea became accessible to the masses.