Etiquette and Empire: The Story of Tea | History Hit

Etiquette and Empire: The Story of Tea

Oolong tea being harvested.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar, tea is considered to be one of the seven necessities of Chinese life. With history dating back nearly 5,000 years, tea drinking became widespread in China before the commodity had even been heard of in the West. Tea has been discovered in Chinese tombs dating as far back as the Han dynasty (206-220 AD).

Today, tea is enjoyed worldwide. The British are particularly renowned for their love of the stuff, and drink 100 million cups a day, which adds up to nearly 36 billion a year. However, the trade of tea between Britain and China has a long and rocky history, with the countries going so far as waging the Opium Wars at least in part over the sale of the commodity.

From its origins in China to its rocky journey to the West, here’s the history of tea.

The origins of tea are steeped in legend

Legend has it that tea was first discovered by the legendary Chinese emperor and herbalist Shennong in 2737 BC. He reportedly liked his drinking water to be boiled before he drank it. One day, he and his retinue stopped to rest while travelling. A servant boiled water for him to drink, and a dead leaf from a wild tea bush fell into the water.

Shennong drank it and enjoyed the flavour, stating that he felt as if the liquid was investigating every part of his body. As a result, he named the brew ‘ch’a’, a Chinese character meaning to check or investigate. Thus, tea came into being.

It was originally used in limited quantity

A Ming dynasty painting by artist Wen Zhengming illustrating scholars greeting in a tea party, 1518.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Before tea was enjoyed as a widespread beverage, tea was used medicinally by the elite as early as the Han dynasty (206-220 AD). Chinese Buddhist monks were some of the first to develop tea drinking into a habit, since its caffeine content helped them concentrate during long hours of prayer and meditation.

Indeed, much of what we know about early Chinese tea culture is from The Classic of Tea, written in around 760 AD by Lu Yu, an orphan who grew up cultivating and drinking tea in a Buddhist monastery. The book describes early Tang dynasty culture and explains how to grow and prepare tea.

Widespread tea consumption appeared during the Tang dynasty

From the 4th to the 8th century, tea became hugely popular throughout China. No longer merely used for medicinal properties, tea became valued as an everyday refreshment. Tea plantations appeared throughout China, tea merchants became wealthy, and expensive and delicate tea wares became a mark of wealth and status.

When Lu Yu wrote The Classic of Tea, it was normal for tea leaves to be compressed into tea bricks, which were sometimes used as a form of currency. Much like matcha tea today, when it was time to drink the tea, it was ground into a powder and mixed with water to create a frothy beverage.

Most tea bricks ‘Zhuan Cha’ are from Southern Yunnan in China, and parts of Sichuan Province. Tea bricks are made primarily from the broad leaf ‘Dayeh’ Camellia Assamica tea plant. Tea leaves have been packed in wooden moulds and pressed into block form. This tea is a one pound brick which is scored on the back and can be broken into smaller pieces.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tea became widely consumed and highly prized. It was even specified that owing to their purity, only young women were permitted to handle the tea leaves. In addition, they were not allowed to eat garlic, onions or strong spices, lest the odour contaminate the precious leaves.

Tea varieties and production methods evolved

During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD), an imperial decree saw tea bricks replaced with loose leaf tea as a way of making life easier for farmers since traditional tea-brick making was labour intensive.

Up to the mid-17th century, green tea was the only form of tea in China. As foreign trade increased, Chinese tea manufacturers realised that tea leaves could be preserved via a special fermentation process. The resultant black tea both retained its flavour and aroma longer than delicate green tea, and was much better-preserved over a long distance.

Britain became obsessed with tea in the 17th century

The Portuguese and Dutch introduced tea into Europe in 1610, where it caught on as a popular drink. The British, however, were initially suspicious of continental trends. When King Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, her dowry included a chest of fine Chinese tea. She began serving the tea to her aristocratic friends at court, and it finally caught on as a fashionable beverage.

Urns used to store tea and sold by merchants to customers. Also shown to the left is a basket for harvesting tea.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese empire tightly controlled the preparation and cultivation of tea, which remained highly expensive and the preserve of the upper classes. A status symbol, people commissioned paintings of themselves drinking tea. The British East India Company made their first tea order of 100lbs of Chinese tea in 1664.

Punitive taxation from 1689 almost led to the death of the trade, but also created a black market boom. Criminal gangs smuggled some 7 million lbs of tea into Britain annually, compared to a legal import of 5 million lbs. This meant that tea could be drunk by the middle and even lower classes, rather than just by the rich. It exploded in popularity and was consumed across the country in tea houses and at home.

Tea contributed to the Opium Wars

As British tea consumption grew, Britain’s exports couldn’t keep up with their demand for tea imports. China would only accept silver in exchange for tea, which proved difficult for the British. Britain came up with an illegal solution: they grew opium in their colony of India, had China exchange it with India in exchange for silver, then traded the same silver back with China in exchange for tea, which was imported into Britain.

China tried to ban opium, and in 1839, Britain declared war on China. China responded by placing an embargo on all exports of tea. The resultant 21 years of conflict, known as the Opium Wars (1839-1860), ended in Chinese defeat and led to a greatly expanded Western influence in China, a weakening of the Chinese dynastic system and paved the way for future rebellions and uprisings in the country.

One of the most damaging events of the Opium Wars was the theft of Chinese tea plants and tea-making and processing methods in 1848 by Scottish botanist and traveller Robert Fortune. Fortune, who disguised himself as a Chinese tea merchant as a way of buying plants and obtaining information, cultivated enormous tea-making farms in India. By 1888, Britain’s resultant tea imports from India outstripped China for the first time in history.

Over the next century, the explosive popularity of tea was cemented around the world, and China eventually regained its status as the world’s leading tea exporter.

The Chinese are the biggest tea-drinkers in the world

Today, the Chinese remain the biggest tea-drinkers in the world, consuming 1.6 billion pounds of tea leaves a year. ‘Tea’ is used as a catch-all term for many different brews in the West. However, the word only really applies to beverages made from the leaves of the original camellia sinensis plant that first fell into the emperor’s hot water. One strain of tea called the tieguanyin can be traced back to a single plant discovered in the Fujian province.

Old men chatting and drinking tea in a old traditional Sichuan teahouse in Chengdu, China.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Drinking tea is an art. Chinese tea can be classified into six distinctive categories: white, green, yellow, oolong, black and post-fermented. In China, tea bags are uncommon: instead, loose leaf tea is steeped in hot water.

Today, China produces thousands of types of tea. From its humble beginnings as an unknown leaf blown into a pot of boiling water to the explosive popularity of 21st-century bubble tea, tea has changed the course of history and remains a staple in households around the world.

Lucy Davidson