The Basic History of Tea

For general/other topics related to tea.

May 18th 20 5:45 pm
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The Basic History of Tea

by umijoshi » May 18th 20 5:45 pm

It's not exactly Pulitzer prize winning writing, but I am not totally unsatisfied with this:

If you would rather watch a video of me talking than reading this, a fair amount of this article is presented as a video. I’m new to making videos, it kind of sucks, there’s no fancy editing. The article is much more in-depth. Choose your own adventure!
(if you end up watching the video, turning on subtitles is a great idea)

Part 1:
Part 2:

There’s something I want to touch on before we begin: Tea was invented before most modern countries existed. It’s only for convenience that we attribute origins the origins of tea to China, coffee from Ethiopia, and though a bit different — chocolate to Mexico.

There’s something I want to touch on before we begin: Tea was invented before most modern countries existed. It’s only for convenience that we attribute origins the origins of tea to China, coffee from Ethiopia, and though a bit different — chocolate to Mexico.

I mean, if you apply the political landscape of 2020 to the days of the past, then geographically all of that is true. But to a lot of people (myself included) knowing the slightly deeper history about things is a way we can appreciate them more. One of the legends of Chinese tea is that in 53BC a Chinese man went to India to study Buddhism. He returned to China with tea bushes and planted them on Mount Meng near the kingdom of Shu (These days a small area in the center of Sichuan province, Western China.) Tea as a beverage was conceived in Sichuan as ‘brick tea’ in a style similar to Pu’erh tea from Yunnan, but the fine green, red, and oolongs teas as we know them today are more of a South Eastern Chinese thing from around Fujian.

Coffee (and its name) came from the kingdom of Kaffa which was annexed by the Ethiopian empire. Cacao is from the central to south eastern Mexico from the empires of the Olmecs, Aztecs, and Mayans. A method of using a hydraulic press to push the cacao butter away from the cacao solids was invented by the Dutch, we can attribute dark chocolate (the sweetened form of cacao solids and sugar with a small amount of cacao butter) to them, but modern milk chocolate is a Swiss invention. Would we call the Aztecs Mexicans? would we call chocolate a Mexican invention? No, we wouldn’t (or at least I wouldn’t), but cacao is originally from the area which today is Southern Mexico, and the Mexicans are descendants of them. For the record Mexico became Mexico in 1821 but people have been living in the area since 8000 BC.

Geographically the area of the world where the tea bush originates is shared between Northern India, Northern Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, South Western China, and Northern Vietnam. It’s in this area that consuming tea in its most rudimentary form was conceived. Chewing the leaves for their effect, adding the leaves to food as a chopped green vegetable, and pickling them for later consumption. The people of Myanmar eat pickled tea leaves as one of their national dishes to this day. The people of the ancient kingdom of Siam had a similar tradition. The people of the Lanna kingdom in the 13th century ate a fermented tea dish called Miang in which they even have a specific plate made. Tea went from a quid, to a pickled vegetable, a pot herb and a basis of soup broth, to medicine, a ritualized elixir, to a modern day beverage consumed for leisure.

Tea is closely linked to Buddhism and it was during the Sui Dynasty of (581-618) that the consumption of tea progressed from being a beverage of the Buddhist clergy to something that everyone could enjoy.

During the Tang dynasty (618-907) tea as a beverage started to gain massive momentum. A man named Lu Yu who first documented tea in a treatise called ‘The Classic of Tea’ is responsible for the character 茶 and how the world came to know this beverage by the name of ‘cha’. During Lu Yu’s life time tea became a popular alternative to alcohol when one was entertaining their guests.

Tea became such an important commodity in China because at the time the Tang dynasty was fighting a war on almost every side. Tea was traded to Nepal for horses to fight the mongols. Tea was traded to the mongols to fight the Nepalese. Lands were won and lost, and eventually the Tang dynasty came to an end.

It was around the end of Lu Yu’s life in the year 806 that Japan first encountered tea. Japanese monks visited China in what would be modern day Zhejiang with the intention to study Chan Buddhism. When they returned to Japan they brought tea plants and tea drinking culture with them. At this time it was a drink for religious purpose and not for the consumption of the public. These initial tea seeds were planted around Kyoto but tea didn’t really take off in Japan until a little while later.

Regarding Chinese history, after the Tang dynasty ended the Song dynasty began. It was during the Song (960-1279) that so much of what people have come to love of Chinese art was created. It’s especially when Japan fell in love with Chinese culture. The Song dynasty period is also when the quality of tea changed from shitty low grade brick tea to the styles of loose tea we have today. The concept of high quality powdered tea was invented in China at this time, it was short lived, but then known as ‘motcha’. Processing motcha involved using steam instead of a wok to halt the oxidation of the the leaves to seal in their fragrance. Afterwards the tea was dried and ground to a powder.

Right around the time that motcha was conceived, the Mongols conquered the Song court and ended its rule. The Mongols started the Yuan dynasty and heavily suppressed Chinese culture of all types including tea drinking. Motcha was still just an ember during this time, and it was promptly snuffed out in China. Luckily for us alive today, Japanese monks visiting China during the Song period observed this custom of motcha and spread it to Japan.

History can attribute Japan’s reintroduction to tea, and introduction to the Song custom of motcha to a monk named Eisai. In China, motcha was prepared while playing an elaborate game known as ‘Diancha’. Friends would sit together and take turns showing off their skills in tea preparation such as grinding the leaves, heating the water, and whisking the tea. The tea maker was awarded points based on his proficiency and grace in these steps.

It was the Zen monks who turned this game of preparing of tea into a ritual. The monks were required to fast every afternoon and this motcha (which later came to be known as matcha in Japan) helped them stay awake during their meditation in the evenings. The cha-no-yu tea ceremony was created, matcha preparation was codified, and its skilled preparation suddenly became a goal of the Japanese ruling elite. Tea was planted and farmed mostly in the Kyoto area. Uji became a renowned production area which has persisted for centuries to this day.

From the outset of the ‘Western world’ (Portugal) discovering Asia in the 1500s tea fascinated Europeans. Tea was first witnessed by Western eyes in Japan. Japanese tea (even to the Chinese) was highly sought after and considered superior; it would fetch a much higher price for trade. The best Chinese tea would sell for the price of the lowest grades of Japanese tea. At the time, thanks to Portuguese book-keeping tea was known to the western world as “cha” as it was in most of China and Japan. We’ll get back to this in a second.

We owe our modern definitions of tea to the Chinese. White, Yellow, Green, Blue, Red, and Black. The ‘tea rainbow’ was created to categorize tea, somewhere between the years 1636 to 1912 during the Qing dynasty. When Western traders first encountered tea though, it was known as ‘green tea’ or ‘Bohea tea’ which was a darker, oxidized style that you can find in the Wuyi rock oolongs of today. Depending on the country doing the importing ‘Bohea’ stuck, or it was called Black tea.

The Dutch came in after the Portuguese and muscled them out of the Asian trade. The biggest trading port the Dutch had with China was at a city called Hokkien in the southern part of what we know today as the province of Fujian. In the Hokkien dialect the word for ‘cha’ sounded to the Dutch like ‘thee’ (as it rhymes with say, gay, lay, pay). As it was the word the Dutch used most frequently while trading, ‘thee’ became how Europeans except the Portuguese came to know this new fashionable commodity by.
The English transitioned away from coffee and into tea. Although the Dutch pronunciation of ‘thee’ was the standard around Europe, the English changed it from an ‘aY’ sound to an ‘ee’, (ie: see, pee) around the 1710s to 1748s, just because they could I guess (*freak* the Dutch.) They did the same thing with cacao, transmogrifying it to cocoa for probably no reason.

The Dutch got Europe hooked on tea. The English and the Dutch had a few wars (3 of them), during which the English took over the Dutch’s new world colony of ‘New Amsterdam’ and renamed it ‘New York’. The people in New York were living their best lives until their British government across the ocean decided that since they were technically an overseas colony they should have to pay an extra tax to the the tea being shipped there. The people of the new world revolted, Sam Adams and his team of vandals wearing overtly racist native American garb including feather head-dresses snuck on board a cargo ship which hadn’t yet off-loaded its goods of several thousand dollars of tea. The vandals unloaded all of the tea — into the water of Boston harbour, and the ‘Merica was born.

The English took over the majority of trading with Asia after winning the wars against the Dutch. The English grew to love tea so much that they found themselves in a situation where they didn’t have the capital to buy as much tea as they needed. So as a method to make some extra money the English got the Chinese hooked on opium. With the money England made on the black market selling opium to the Chinese for silver, the silver was turned around on the open market to pay the Chinese for tea.

China got sick of the black market drug dealing bullshit and started to retaliate. England slapped them down and made them sign a treaty which stated the English could go where ever they wanted in China (until this point foreigners were restricted to the port areas), they could dock their ships as long as they wanted (prior to this, there were some months of the year that trading was prohibited), and finally that English citizens would be subject to English laws in China, not Chinese laws. The English also annexed Hong Kong. They said they would stop the opium trafficking but of course, they didn’t. Opium trafficking was approximately 1/7th of the national income, the English were actually wondering how they could smuggle in even more. The rest of the world found this idea of peddling opium to Chinese addicts lucrative and got involved. Soon everyone and their mother was smuggling opium into China. One day, China caught a smuggling vessel and imprisoned the people onboard, the captain of whom was English.

An unrelated civil war known as the the Taiping rebellion broke out in China, and the English used this opportunity to wage another war with China with the help of France. The official reason being they had imprisoned English citizens. After the second opium war China had to allow Britain to supply opium to its addicts, allowed foreign powers to take Chinese citizens essentially as slave labor to the USA, allowed foreigners to travel china freely and pitch Christianity to its citizens, and give kowloon just across of Hong Kong to England as well.

There’s a lot missing. Everything about Taiwan, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Russia, Morocco. How shitty tea bags came to exist, and why they became so popular. It’s not that I can’t write it, but this took a lot out of me. Also some of you in the know might have noticed that I said ‘English’ at every opportunity when surely the correct term must be ‘British’. I don’t want to get into it.

In our modern world we can get tea immaculately packed tea from anywhere in a matter of days. It doesn’t take a half year trip through the heat and moisture of the equator, packed in shoddy wooden boxes. These days learning the production of tea is as easy as opening a video. These secrets were guarded upon pain of death of you and your entire family for centuries by the Chinese so that the western world wouldn’t be able to replicate the process. We truly do live in the best time to appreciate tea and its history, even if the history is dark and we should be ashamed of it.

If you want to go deeper, or more accurate into the history of tea, this article was inspired by a book I purchased recently called ‘The Tale of Tea’ by George Van Driem. It’s the most expensive book I’ve ever bought but worth the cost for someone who craves this knowledge as I do. Any mistakes I made in this article, please forgive me! I beg your correction.


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May 20th 20 1:41 pm
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Re: The Basic History of Tea

by Teasenz » May 20th 20 1:41 pm

Thanks for sharing. Makes me really want to read the book, but it's really really overpriced.
Loving the stories behind every leaf.

May 20th 20 8:43 pm
Posts: 49
Joined: Jan 7th 14 7:41 am
Location: Calgary, Canada
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Re: The Basic History of Tea

by umijoshi » May 20th 20 8:43 pm

Teasenz wrote: Thanks for sharing. Makes me really want to read the book, but it's really really overpriced.
It's impossible to disagree on the high price -- it was a big decision to buy it. I think they can justify their price in the footnotes and references though. Nearly everything written has a source, the book is at least 10% footnotes. That being said I don't know how I could follow up on the said sources, but they are provided none the less. After writing this post in all of its mediocrity, there's a level of appreciation I have for the professional consistent tone throughout the book. I guess you'd expect that from a science and fact centric publication but it's something I'm not really used to seeing in the other tea books.

I'm glad someone read this, thanks for your reply!