Exploring the history of tea

Come, let us have some tea and continue to talk about happy things ~ Chaim Pot.


“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Where did the culture of tea drinking start?

No, the habit of drinking tea as regular beverage did not originate in India, even though most Indians are famously addicted to their cup of chai (tea). It may come as a shock to some, but historically the art of drinking tea in India is pretty recent. So, however much we would like to believe that we have been drinking our beloved chai since ancient times, the fact remains that the British were almost single handed in introducing the fashion of drinking endless cups of tea in India.

Tea plant (Camellia sinensis) from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1897. The Chinese call it as tú, meaning a bitter herb. Photo from Wikipedia. 

Historians believe that tea originated in China and is said to have been in regular use there, originally as a medicine and later as a drink. However, there are debates on the exact area where tea was first grown in China, and claims vary from Sichuan province, to Yunnan province in south China, to the regions where Tibet, Indo-Burma, and Southwest China meet.

The practice of drinking tea as a medicine likely began in Yunnan during the reign of the Shang Dynasty (1500 BC–1046 BCE). During illnesses, tea leaves were boiled with different herbs, seeds, and other plant parts, to make a herbal concoction that was served to the patient. Thus, tea was seen as a health drink. Later people living in Sichuan (during the Zhou dynasty reign ~1122 to 256 BCE), first discovered the art of making tea, by simply brewing tea leaves in hot water (without adding any herbs).

Tea plant. Photo from Wiki

The popular Chinese legend runs that the famous mythical Emperor, Shen Nung (who lived around 2737 BCE) was once resting under a tea tree (Camellia sinensis), and his servant served him boiled water to drink. The servant being a careless one, had not bothered to remove some tea leaves that had accidentally fallen in the boiling water. The brewed tea leaves gave the water a distinct flavour. The emperor liked what he tasted, found the drink restorative, and thus was born the first cup of tea ever drunk.

Chinese Emperor,  Shen Nung: also an expert agriculturalist and a medicine man. Other stories claim that the Emperor found that tea also worked as an antidote to various poisons!  Photo from Wiki.

Not to be outdone, Indians believe that tea originated in India and the leaves were carried to China by Bodhidharma in 6th c. BCE, an Indian Buddhist monk who founded Zen Buddhism. Another parallel story, claiming the Indian origin of tea, says that while meditating, Bodhidharma had cut off his eyelids to avoid falling asleep. The severed eyelids then fell on the ground and transformed themselves into the first tea plants. Rather a gory story, but one can choose and pick the stories they like, depending on which side of the border they are in!

Tea bytes

  • Interestingly, while Chinese legend attributes discovery of tea to Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BCE, the book supposedly authored by him (Medical Book) wasn’t written before the 1st-2nd century CE, and tea as a medicinal plant finds mention in it only in the 7th c. CE.
  • When tea drinking started, it was a bitter brew that was drunk. This is because the leaves used were freshly picked when needed, and not processed. Then a method was developed where tea leaves were dried and crushed, after which it was boiled in a pot. Later, the leaves were first steamed, thoroughly dried, and then packed together tightly to form a cake or discs. The cakes or discs were then baked until they became hard. When tea was to be drunk, the cakes were crushed into small pieces and boiled.
  • Tea leaves were also dried, ground and pressed into brick shapes. These tea bricks were used as a trading currency in China and Tibet for quite some time
Tea brick. Photo from wiki. 

While tea drinking had started earlier in some parts of China, it was the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) that popularised tea in the whole of China, and there’s an entire book (Tea Classic) eulogising this drink, written by Lu Yu (760-762 CE), under the patronage of the Tangs. It is the first known monograph on tea.

Chinese workers with baskets, drying tea near a brick oven fire, 19th century. Caroline Simpson Collection, Historic Houses Trust: L2007/174-2 Source

Westward Ho!

While China drank their brewed tea for many centuries, the West remained happily oblivious of this magic potion, until 1557, when Portuguese ships arrived in China. Thus, while their initial dream destination of reaching the end of the world remained only a distant dream, the Portuguese instead found a new elixir named tea; and by 1610 both Portuguese and Dutch were carrying shiploads of tea boxes to Europe.

Tea trade: ships being loaded at a Chinese port with tea boxes, 19th c. CE.

When the Portuguese arrived in China, the modern way of brewing processed tea leaves were already in vogue; hence, Europe learned and adopted this method of tea making. However, prior to this, the Chinese were whisking dry, crushed green leaves in hot water and making their brew (8th -12th c. CE). This particular way of making tea infusion, along with some green tea seeds, were carried to Japan by a Japanese monk sometime in the 8th c. CE, and soon the process became the mainstay of the famous Japanese tea ceremony.

Japanese way of brewing and whisking green tea

While the Portuguese and Dutch ships started trading tea (initially from both China and Japan), the English didn’t take any interest in it. Their focus was more on controlling the spice trade and defeating other colonial powers operating in this route. Also, after being defeated by the Dutch, the English East India Company was limited to the Indian mainland, and trading with the Chinese came to a standstill. Thus, while the English Company agents knew of this popular drink, England did not see tea until the Dutch merchants took it to the London markets in 1657. The English East India Company  finally managed to import its first packet of tea in 1669.

While tea entered the western scenario in early 17th century, the Europeans were pretty slow in ‘discovering’ the subtle flavours of tea, and they preferred coffee. It was also the era when city waters ran highly contaminated, and people drank alcohol instead, such as ale, beer, wine, rum, etc. As the Dutch started importing tea to Holland, the drink was welcomed, but owing to high taxes the cost ran high, and only rich households could buy tea. In Europe, the French were the first to pick up the habit of drinking tea, only to abandon it later, and go for coffee instead. In other European countries, tea initially was seen as a medicinal beverage.

When tea trading started with Europe, only green tea was imported. However, the long distances travelled from remote mountains of China to the European markets often saw entire consignments of tea being destroyed, owing to hot weather and heavy rains on the way. Soon it was deemed essential that tea leaves be processed into black in order to make them last longer and avoid heavy commercial losses. It was then the Chinese tea garden owners and merchants came up with a process to make black tea.

Some tea varieties. Assam and Darjeeling teas shown here are the black tea varieties. “Black tea is oxidised (allowed to undergo chemical reactions caused by exposure to oxygen) and green tea is not. Oxidation results in colour and flavor changes.”

For Queen and Country!

The British did not take to tea very easily. As tea consignments trickled in, trade in tea remained slow. A major reason for the slow development were the high prices. In 1658, a pound of tea costed £26. Compare that with the earning of an average worker who earned £2 to £6 annually! Clearly only the Dukes and Earls could afford the new drink.

Coffee had arrived in England just prior to tea, and newly built Coffee Houses became the popular meeting places for traders, politicians, philosophers, poets, doctors, etc. These were mainly aimed at attracting men from rich and middle class families, and functioned as gentleman’s clubs. The coffee houses besides selling coffee, sherbert, and chocolate, also served China drink (tea) and sold loose dry tea leaves. English women would often buy these tea leaves to enjoy the drink in the comfort of their homes.

A coffee house scenario in London c. 1700. “Interior of a London Coffee-house; maid in white lace frontage behind canopied bar and manservant taking clay pipes from a chest, at centre, another servant pouring “China Drink” (tea) or coffee, to right, group of men seated on benches with newspapers and cups, in background, fire with cauldron, various paintings and notices on wall, c.1690-1700 / British Museum, London.” Source

The lady with the posh taste

It was Catherine of Braganza, a princess from Portugal, who came to the court of

Queen Catherine of Braganza
Catherine of Braganza, the Queen of England, who popularised tea in Britain

England in 1662 to marry King Charles II and turned the custom of drinking tea into a fashion statement. Since the Portuguese had been importing tea for many years, the princess had grown up drinking tea, and brought with her a casket full of tea. Her love for this drink soon turned it into a craze among the wealthy, that later spread among the general populace too.

Since tea was expensive owing to high taxes and monopoly of the East India Company on

PU7772 002
Tea smugglers bringing in tea illegally, on small ships. It is said that “in the 18th century, more tea was smuggled in than was imported legally.”

its trade, the tea business soon caught the attention of unscrupulous thugs and pirates. A large scale smuggling started, and often people were fooled with “British tea” that did not have any tea leaves, but contained dried crushed leaves of other plants, or buds of elders, ash tree and hawthorn. Often the spurious “tea” mix had harsh chemicals and even cattle dung mixed in them. Finally at the end of 18th century, the government cut down the high taxes on tea (the Commutation Act of 1784 which slashed from 119 % to 12.5 %). After this, tea became affordable, gained popularity in entire England, and became “the great leveller”.

The British ‘Toxic’ Tea:

Even after tea became affordable, some merchants continued selling adulterated tea for many years to make tea even cheaper. Green tea was given its colour by using the poisonous lead chromate and copper carbonate. Black tea also had its own adulteration that included floor sweepings, poisonous black lead, and goat/sheep dung. Milk was added to tea to make it more palatable, but soon milk adulteration started with watering down and mixing of chalk dust.

Two famous names in tea business

Sir Thomas Lipton hailed from a family of grocers, but he moved away and began selling teas in 1871. He sold his tea in little, coloured pouches or bags that were highly popular. Lipton owned tea farms in Sri Lanka that cut out the middlemen, thus bringing profits directly to him.

Thomas Twining came from a family of weavers.  However young Thomas saw greater potential in tea business, and decided to join the East India Trading Company. Later he bought Tom’s Coffee House in The Strand, and sold different varieties of tea and coffee. The tea shop still remains open for business, and is owned by the Twining family.

Tea culture in England

In the first half of 17th century, the English merrily drank beer, sherry, or ale during breakfast and also later in the day, often as a substitute for water. By the end of the century, however tea started replacing the alcoholic drinks. At this time, tea was drunk with sugar or honey, but no milk was added to it. Large sized tea leaves were brewed by pouring hot water into dainty porcelain or earthenware Chinese teapots. For most part of the 17th century an English tea table would consist of a kettle, a Chinese teapot, a basin for holding the tea leaves dregs, a bowl of sugar, little teaspoons for adding and stirring in sugar, porcelain cups and dishes.

A 17th century English tea table showing a Yixing Teapot and Chinese porcelain cups (without handles) and saucers. Lumps of sugar are seen on the extreme right side of the painting. Yixing red clay teapots are famous as they are believed to be the best in extracting the favour of tea. Cups with handles came in existence only in the 18th century. 
Painting by Pieter Gerrutsz Van Roestraten, 1627-1698. 

The first Chinese porcelain tea cups that came to  England were of different patterns and without handles. Matching tea sets came into vogue only in the eighteenth century when the British ceramic industry came into existence. Soon inviting guests for tea became a ritual, where it served a chance for the hostess to show off her tea and tea set collections, along with her perfect manners while serving it correctly.

An English Family at Tea, a painting by Joseph van Aken, 1720
An English Family at Tea, Joseph van Aken, 1720. It is believed that Queen Anne was a frequent tea drinker and she brought into fashion large silver teapots in place of the tiny Chinese ones. It was during her reign that proper tea services started. In the painting, the lady with the child balances her cup perfectly, by holding the base and the rim with two fingers and a thumb, while the little finger is held crooked to balance the cup and also not to appear as a snob. The correct etiquette as per the social tea rules is that the pinkie finger must not stick out while holding a tea cup, or else it will show the drinker as a snob / a pretentious person

With evolving tea culture, in the 18th century tea gardens became popular and

Tea garden meetings

fashionable places for pleasurable outdoor meetings. These gardens were where the ladies and gentlemen could meet freely and take tea together, while enjoying the surrounding entertainers. While Catharine of Braganza made tea drinking fashionable, and Queen Anne brought in silver teapots, the concept of  afternoon tea as a social event was developed by a third lady of distinction: Anne, Duchess of Bedford. The duchess complained of hunger in the afternoons, which was a long gap between two meals, and started eating light sandwiches with tea. Soon others were invited to join her for the afternoon tea party. Thus, it became a tradition to drink tea in the afternoon along with sandwiches, scones, and cakes.

Anne, the 7th Duchess of Bedford with her afternoon tea
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Afternoon tea and accompaniments. Photo source

Hello India!

While India had known tea as a medicinal drink, it was never much in use. After exporting tea to Portugal for some years, Japan decided to close its doors to the world and isolate itself, so the global tea trade was entirely in the hands of the Chinese. While China was happy to trade, it refused to give up the secrets of tea cultivation. To break the monopoly, British spies tried entering Chinese tea industry, and there are stories of a Scottish botanist growing pigtails and infiltrating as a Chinese trader, and stealing tea plants. At the same time it was suddenly discovered that the Singpho tribe who lived in Assam drank a variation of the Chinese tea for many centuries. The Indian variety had larger leaves and produced a stronger liquor, unlike the Chinese ones with smaller leaves that gave a weaker liquor with floral flavour. Meanwhile the stolen Chinese plants were planted in Darjeeling, and the latter not only thrived in Darjeeling, but produced a new flavour owing to changes in altitude and soil. Tea plantations started in Darjeeling in the 1850s, and soon the world tasted the ‘Champagne of teas’: Darjeeling tea.

With the production of Darjeeling tea and wide scale marketing by the British, Chinese monopoly was completely broken, and soon Indian teas captured both the market and the global tea drinkers’ fantasy, and thereafter, as we all know, rest is history.

Some advertisements (from both pre and post Independence era) that helped in removing the strong mind-block and a stiff resistance by Indians against tea drinking, thus turning an imperial drink into the national drink of India:

Regular magazine advertisements and billboard hoardings made an impact
Advertisements showing a happy family drinking tea helped in removing the strong mindblock
Showing tea drinking in movies helped to capture Indian minds across social classes
Tea combined with nationalism helped to break the anti- colonial resistance towards tea drinking that was being seen as an imperial imposition
ads showing tea drinking across race, colour, regions, and religions had a positive impact

The journey of chai or Indian tea is a rather long one, which I will take you through, perhaps some other day…Until then, Keep Calm and Drink Tea.

(All photos used here are for representational purposes only)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. myatanu says:

    Very nice. Informative and entertaining.


  2. dpranita583 says:

    How nice tea it is?


    1. moni1706 says:

      Hope you liked the visual tea party 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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