The actual origin of tea, as a drink, is not recorded in history, only in legend, but it certainly began in ancient China over 5,000 years ago.
The story goes that an early Emperor named Shen Nung was visiting a distant part of his realm one day when serendipity caused a discovery that would spread in popularity worldwide.
Shen Nung was an excellent ‘creative’ ruler – a scientist and a patron of the arts. He was certainly well ahead of his time, and in the interests of hygiene, he commanded that all drinking water should be boiled.
While on a visit to the extremities of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest. Under his ruling, the servants were busy boiling the drinking water when leaves from a nearby bush blew across the landscape and fell into the water and infused.
As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in this new brown liquid and, having drunk some, found it very refreshing – and so, according to this narrative, tea was born.
All the Tea in China
For thousands of years, ‘tea culture’ spread throughout Chinese life and philosophy and every area of society, but it was not until 800 A.D. that the scholar Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book on the Ch’a Ching subject (Book of Tea).
Lu Yu was an orphan raised by Buddhist monks in one of China’s finest monasteries. He was both a rebel and a skilled observer who achieved acclaim as a performer.
Later, for a period of five years, he became a recluse, withdrawing into seclusion and using his vast experience of events and places in ancient China to log the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation.
This huge project caught the attention of the Emperor, who gave him patronage.
His Zen Buddhist upbringing deeply influenced lu Yu’s work, and he almost achieved sainthood in his lifetime.
It was this influence that brought Zen Buddhism and tea-drinking together.
The Japanese ‘Tea Ceremony’
The value of tea for enhancing religious mediation in China was noticed by the Japanese Buddhist priest Yenisei, who took the first seeds back with him to Japan.
He was thereafter known throughout Japan as the ‘Father of Tea’. The subtly captivating qualities of Tea were well received among members of the royal court, various monasteries and other sections of Japanese society. Since that time, tea in Japan has always been associated with Zen Buddhism.
Tea’s presence as an aid to the calmer side of religious fervour made its transformation into philosophy and art an easy path. The Japanese Tea Ceremony was created, otherwise known as: ‘Cha-no-yu’, which translates as ‘the hot water for tea’.
The Tea Ceremony required years of training and practice, even though “the whole art, signifies no more than the making and serving a cup of tea. The crucial matter is that the act is performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible“. This description was written by the journalist-historian Lafcadio Hearn, who was granted Japanese citizenship during this era.
As time went by, the original purity of the Zen and Tea concept was lost in a plethora of activity that surrounded the heartwarming drink’s mystique.
These diversions included introducing a special form of architecture known as ‘chase for the construction of ‘tea houses’. Its concept was based on the simplicity of a forest cottage.
The Geisha began to specialize in the presentation of the tea ceremony too. Soon the intrinsically simple ceremony became corrupted by unnecessary embellishment, including ‘tea tournaments’, which were flamboyantly brash affairs held among nobles.
They were completely out of harmony with the Zen philosophy surrounding tea, or even what is considered the correct ritual in teashops today, for that matter.
Eventually, harmony was restored through the influence of priests, who convinced the nobles that tea drinking was a calm, reflective affair – the sort of meditation aid one might use before the battle.
On this basis, it could be seen as the ‘ultimate gift’ and was reintroduced into society and restored as a beautiful and respected ceremony.
The ceremony’s greatest practitioners have always been philosophers and artists, connoisseurs, collectors, gardeners, calligraphers, gourmets, and flower arrangers.
The greatest of them, Sen Rikyu, left a tantalisingly simple set of rules: “Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give to those with whom you find yourself, every consideration.“
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Passage to Europe
Tea came to Europe slowly – at first by rumour and whispers. The first European to ‘take tea’ and document the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jasper de Cruz in the 1550s when he was visiting China. Later, the Portuguese developed a trade route and shipped tea to Lisbon. This enterprise was repeated by the Dutch, who transported it to France, Holland and beyond.
Great Britain was the last of the three great sea-faring nations to benefit from the Chinese and East Indian trade routes. Tea first reached English shores between 1652 and 1654, soon proving popular enough to become the national drink – replacing ale. The following quotation by Agnes Reppiler sums this beautifully:
“Tea had come as a deliverer to land that called for deliverance; a land of beef and ale, of heavy eating and abundant drunkenness; of grey skies and harsh winds; of strong nerved, stout-purposed, slow-thinking men and women. Above all, a land of sheltered homes and warm firesides – firesides that were waiting – waiting for the bubbling kettle and the fragrant breath of tea.“
Tea was very fashionable in the Dutch capital, The Hague when the price was high and only affordable by the rich. Eventually, the volume of imports grew, and the price fell. By 1675 it was available in food shops throughout Holland and spread into common use in France, remaining popular there for about fifty years before coffee took over.
Meanwhile, there had been a fierce debate among scholars and doctors about the benefits or otherwise of tea drinking, but nothing in this argument stopped tea from becoming a way of life.
The first mention of adding milk to tea was in 1680. During that period, Dutch inns provided the first ‘service of tea‘. Owners would furnish guests with a portable ‘tea set’, which they would take outside with them so tea could be prepared in the tavern gardens.
Tea in America
The Dutch influence on the transportation of tea ensured that it reached America. Peter Stuyvesant (1592-1672) took the first tea to the colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (later re-named New York).
The Dutch settlers were avid tea drinkers, and it was discovered when the English acquired the colony that this relatively small settlement consumed more tea than all of England.
The mania for tea had swept across England soon after it had become popular in Holland, and imports rose fivefold between 1699 and 1708.
Still, it was not until Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), decided that the “sinking feeling” she experienced in the late afternoon called for adopting the European idea of ‘tea service’ and created what we now call ‘tea time’.
She did this by inviting friends to join her for an additional summer meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. The menu was simply bread and butter sandwiches and small cakes. It proved so popular she took the idea back to London with her and soon caught on. Of course, the afternoon ritual was as much centred around conversation and gossip as food and drink.
Eventually, two distinct tea services evolved: ‘High Tea’ and ‘Low Tea’.
Low tea is served in the ‘low’ part of the afternoon and was generally served in aristocratic homes of the wealthy, featuring tea and gourmet delights – again.
The emphasis was on presentation and conversation. ‘High’ Tea, also known as ‘Meat Tea’, was served as the main meal of the day.
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The English Tea Garden
The idea of ‘Tea Gardens’ was inspired by Dutch ‘tavern garden teas’. Ladies and gentlemen took tea outdoors with entertainment and diversions, such as concerts, arbours, flowered walks, bowling greens and gambling.
Women were permitted to enter mixed public gatherings for the first time without social criticism. At Tea Garden events, the custom of ‘tipping’ was developed to ensure prompt service.
In fact, each table had a small wooden box with the letters ‘T.I.P.S.’ inscribed on them. The letters stood for: ‘To Insure Prompt Service.
Tea Gardens were prevalent in England throughout the twentieth century, and although they are now somewhat scarce, they remain popular today.
The history of tea – Shunan Teng
Tea Rooms, Tea Courts, and Tea Dances
In the late 1880s, fine hotels in England and America began to offer ‘tea service’ in Tea Rooms and Tea Courts.
Tea was served in the late afternoon to Victorian ladies and gentlemen who could meet for tea, conversation and gossip in a socially acceptable way.
By 1910, hotels began to host Tea Dances in the afternoon as various dance crazes began to rival the tea obsession.
These were very popular among younger people who used them to meet members of the opposite sex.
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