The History of Tea

Tea has a long and, at times, confusing history which begins with mythic origins, leading into an early history in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Following its global expansion, tea became popular in India, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, and United States. This article will cover the history of tea in all of these locations.

Origin Myths

Chinese tradition has a popular tale in which an emperor of China, Shennong, was drinking from a bowl of boiled water. Through the open window, a few spare leaves from a nearby tree blew into his drink and, upon drinking this newly flavored hot water, discovered that he quite enjoyed the flavor. Emperor Shennong experimented with the leaves of various different plants and trees and soon realized that some of them could act as a medicinal treatment with their restorative properties.

There is another, although definitively more grisly, fable which comes from the Tang Dynasty. The myth goes that the founder of the Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma, fell asleep while meditating and stayed sleeping for a full nine years. When he finally awoke, he was so abhorred by his own powerlessness over himself that he promptly took a knife and removed his own eyelids. He left them on the ground, and there they took seed and sprouted into tea bushes. The rest from there, as they say, is history.


The earliest confirmation of tea in ancient China dates back to the year 2016 BC, around four thousand years ago. The evidence was discovered in the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi'an. Some written records suggest that tea may have even been used as a drink earlier. China is considered to have the oldest concrete proof of tea being consumed. The Chinese philosopher Laozi depicted tea as "the froth of the liquid jade", and even went as far as to pronounce it to be an essential ingredient of the mythical elixir of life. The origin of how we drink tea today began during the Song Dynasty. Two different styles emerged with which we are familiar with now - loose-leaf and powdered. During this time period, leaves were steamed in preparation before being ground up into a fine powder, which was later steeped in the water. By the 13th century, the Chinese changed their method from steaming and crushing to roasting and crumbling.


Despite their close proximity with each other, tea did not become popular in Japan until around the year 500 AD. Instead of becoming a drink of the rich and royal as in China, the drink became a staple among Japanese religious leaders. Eventually, it did become a drink of the aristocracy when Emperor Saga became fond of the drink and encouraged the planting of tea bushes. Even though tea did become more accessible over time, it remained a drink of the upper class rather than becoming available to the less wealthy. Green tea became the chosen tea of the Japanese, and was incorporated into a tea ceremony adapted by Zen Buddhist monks from China. In 1738 came the invention of sencha, which translates to roasted tea - an unfermented green tea.


The year 661 marked the first time tea was recorded onto a document in Korea, and in this instance was being offered up to an ancestral god. Tea offerings were very common in Buddhist temples in China, Japan, and Korea. The Koreans reformed the tea ceremony into two separate events: the Day Tea Rite and the Special Tea Rite. The former was used in every day settings, while the latter was reserved for specific ceremonies and celebrations. Eventually, even commoners were able to join in on the offering up of tea to their ancestors as a mark of honor and respect.


Up until modern times, it was largely unknown to the majority of Asia - and, by extension, to the rest of the world - that Vietnam had its own special style of green tea. Two of the specialty teas we know and love today came from Vietnam; Lotus tea and Jasmine tea.


During the Age of Imperialism, tea was introduced to India by the British. Originally, tea was considered to be only a drink worthy of the Europeans who ruled the country, and it wasn't until around the 1950's that tea became a popular staple in Indian culture. However, just because the Indians did not drink tea, does not mean they didn't utilize it. It has been recorded that the leaves of the Sanjeevani tea plant were used for various medicinal purposes. For nearly one hundred years, India was the leading producer of tea until they were overtaken by China only very recently in the 21st century. Still, India is noted as the largest global consumer of tea.

Taiwan and Thailand

Taiwan is most famous among tea lovers for its creation of the increasingly popular Bubble Tea, which is a cold black tea which has been sweetened with tapioca and condensed milk. This has become a favorite among many Westerners, who enjoy the unique combination of solids in liquid. Thailand, in a more traditional sense, is acclaimed for its production of Thai tea. Thai tea can be served either hot or cold, and a variety of different natural flavorings such as star anise, crushed tamarind seed, and orange blossom water are commonly added to enhance the flavor.

United Kingdom

Tea was first brought to Britain in 1615 by a merchant returning from Japan. While tea is often thought of as being a primarily British drink, it should be noted that the Chinese enjoyed it hundreds of years before the Brits. Quickly it became a favorite of the monarchy and later became something of an unofficial national drink. Tea has been an important part of the British global trading system since it was first brought to the UK, and today there are even commercial tea plantations in England itself.

United States

During colonialism in America, tea was naturally brought over to New England by Brits who wished to have a taste of home with them. Coffee remains the most popular hot drink in America, but hot tea is also still quite popular, while iced tea has continued to grow in demand, especially in the South. The biggest difference between traditional British tea and new-age American tea is that Americans have the tendency to add a large amount of artificial sweetener to the drink, whether consumed hot or cold. In the time of the American Revolution, the consumption of tea came to a screeching halt following the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, when it was proclaimed to be an unpatriotic drink. Today, however, the American tea market is now worth a reported $6.8 billion dollars every year.

The history of tea is one that is long and has traveled across many countries and continents to get to where it is today, and will likely ever remain a favored drink. It's history is as rich and deep and the drink itself; the next time you pour yourself a cup of hot Earl Grey or oolong, consider how much time and how many places that humble leaf had to travel to end up steeping in your cup.

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