Exploring the Myths and Realities of Tea’s History and Cultural Significance

Tea originated in the Himalayan mountains where people chewed the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant as medicine. The Chinese developed ways to preserve the leaves and transport tea over long distances, which led to the creation of new villages cultivating tea and their own processing techniques. This history of sharing and innovation resulted in the various types of teas we know today, all from a single leaf.

The history of tea as a cultural icon

Tea is one of the world’s most popular beverages and has a rich and complex history. However, many books about tea begin with a list of dates and events, which doesn’t really help us understand what tea is. The history of tea is not just a series of events but is as diverse and colorful as the millions of tea servings consumed over the past 3,000 years.

Each time someone drinks a cup of tea, they have a unique experience that shapes their understanding of what tea is. This experience can be as simple as trying a new tea or feeling a deeper connection to themselves while drinking a cup of tea. These experiences and beliefs are what make tea tea.

Understanding these feelings and beliefs can help us appreciate the many different ways that tea is enjoyed around the world. Whether we are motivated to drink tea, share tea with friends, or read books about tea, it is the individual experiences and beliefs that make tea such a beloved and cherished beverage.

Stories and mythology

The story of tea usually starts with a few myths, which reveal the cultural significance of tea. However, the real history of tea is as vast as all the tea consumed over time.

Confucian origins

A popular myth surrounding tea, which was also the first story the author heard about tea, centers around the Chinese inventor of farming and medicine, Shennong. As the legend goes, Shennong was sitting under a Camellia Sinensis tree when a leaf accidentally fell into his cup of boiled water and began to steep. As a man of medicine, Shennong observed that the leaf not only created a beautiful green color, but also made him feel refreshed, stimulated, and full of vigor. This supposedly led to the birth of tea.

While the myth does not accurately describe the true origins of tea, it is significant because it helps connect the present to the mythical past and emphasizes the importance of ancestry and tradition. The fable encourages us to view the world through a Confucian lens and provides a glimpse into the Chinese worldview and their reverence toward tea.

Buddhist origins

Another creation story about tea that has been told many times involves the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. According to the tale, after a long meditative walk through the mountains, Siddhartha sat down and fell asleep. When he woke up, he was angry at himself for losing control and discipline. In a fit of rage, he tore out his eyelashes and threw them into the wind. From these eyelashes grew the first tea plants.

Like the previous myth, this story offers a glimpse into a specific cultural worldview. In general, the myth reflects the core Buddhist belief that one cannot attain true enlightenment until they have escaped the material world, represented in the story by the Buddha removing his eyelashes. Interestingly, some scholars argue that tea’s ability to provide energy and focus made it the perfect drink to accompany the intellectually demanding demands of Buddhism and helped the religion spread throughout Asia. Like the previous myth, this story is not only about the origin of tea, but also serves as a lesson in understanding the Buddhist worldview and their respect for tea.

Western European origins: a story in three acts

Tea’s history from an English or Dutch perspective is often linked to the expansion of empire, including espionage, naval development, drug trade, and wealth accumulation. These stories confirm Europeans’ worldview, their place in the world, and their relationship to tea. They also reveal tea’s cultural significance to Western Europeans and how they view tea.

Act 1 – The introduction of tea

In most books about the history of tea in Europe, the stories typically begin around the 1600s when the East India Company was established by England. The company had the power to acquire land, maintain armies and forts, form foreign alliances, and declare war, and it began trading silver for tea in the late 1600s. This trading generated considerable wealth for the English Crown. However, the East India Company became so successful trading tea that by the mid-1800s, England’s silver reserves were almost depleted. To balance this, the company turned to resources in Bengal, specifically large fields of poppy plants. The seeds from these plants were used to process opium, which was traded for tea. This led to severe opium addiction in China in the 1800s, the two Opium Wars, and ultimately the cessation of Chinese foreign trade.

With trade between China and the West halted for most of the 1900s, tea companies had to become creative to sell “tea.” As a result, products like flowers, herbs, and spices were marketed as “tea.” The irony of the English acquiring tea through opium addiction in China seems to be lost in most Western discussions about tea. However, it is essential to understand current tea trends. The Opium Wars were the precursor to the demise of Imperial China, which eventually led to the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and the almost complete destruction of China’s specialty “bourgeois” tea industry. For generations, people in the Western world could not experience China’s famous teas. It was only after China began to liberalize its trade restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s that the Chinese tea industry began to recover and the Western world rediscovered the joys of these teas. In the past fifteen to twenty years, the world has again begun to “discover” the great Chinese teas.

Act 2 – The creation of commodity

The British governor general of India, in an attempt to break China’s tea monopoly, investigated the possibility of growing tea in India instead of importing it using opium. In preparation for this experiment, the governor annexed Assam in 1824 and purchased land in Darjeeling in 1835.

Tea propagation began in Assam in 1834, using the C. sinensis var. assamica plant instead of the C. sinensis var. sinensis commonly used in China. The English hoped to control the entire tea market and end their reliance on Chinese production. In 1839, the first Assam black tea was auctioned in London and although its quality was only deemed “reasonable,” its nationalistic appeal and novelty resulted in record tea prices. This led to the birth of English black tea, which Western tea companies successfully marketed and sold for premium prices.

It is important to note that unlike many Asians who view tea as a way of life, the West historically viewed tea as a commodity. Western tea trade was primarily about acquiring wealth, rather than acquiring a well-crafted drink or a means to self-fulfillment. Understanding this fundamental difference is crucial in comprehending how tea is viewed and conceptualized differently around the world.

Act 3 – The emergence of black tea in the west

During the time when the English were developing the tea industry in South Asia, they learned that Chinese tea processors used Prussian blue and yellow gypsum to enhance the green color of tea leaves. However, Prussian blue contains arsenic, which was being slowly consumed by those who drank green tea. This discovery led to a decline in green tea consumption among Europeans.

Interestingly, despite trading with China for almost three centuries, the English did not know that black and green teas came from the same plant until 1843, four years after the first Assam tea auction. Perhaps if they had realized that they could make green tea from the tea leaves growing in India, the West’s perception of tea and tea culture may have been different today.

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