Green tea, black tea, bubble tea — it’s true, we can’t live without tea. And it should come as no surprise that tea is the second-most widely consumed beverage in the world! Tea ceremonies are an integral part of many cultures, from Japan to England, and many nations have defined themselves by the tea trade.
The history of tea dates back to as early as 2737 BCE, from a legend of ancient China. It is said that tea was first discovered by Shen Nong*, a mythological emperor, scholar and herbalist. He was sitting under a tree when leaves from the tree fell into the water that his servant was boiling. He decided to try the infusion and that was the birth of tea. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, whose leaves and leaf buds are used today to produce tea.
*Shen Nong is most popularly known by the Chinese legend, 神农尝百草 (shén nóng cháng bǎi cǎo), where he is said to have tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medicinal value. He would often be poisoned by the herbs he ingested, but would chew on tea leaves to cure himself.
While we don’t know if the legend is true, containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE). During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE), tea rose in popularity and so did teaware, from purple clay teapots to porcelain cups. Up sprung teahouses for people to drink tea and relax, becoming an integral part of Chinese social life and Chinese tea culture.
Later in the 3rd century, tea was brought over to Japan by Japanese Buddhist monks studying in China. Since then, tea drinking has been a vital part of Japanese culture, with Japanese tea ceremonies referred to as chado, which means ‘the way of tea’.
With the British famous for their love for tea, you would expect tea to be found in Britain fairly early. But it was only in the 17th century when records first reference tea in the country. In Europe, the Dutch were the first to ship tea from China to Holland and tea became a fashionable drink among the Dutch. The practice of drinking tea then spread to other parts of Western Europe, but remained an expensive indulgence for the wealthy due to its high tax and the long journey across oceans.
The marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II was what introduced tea to the court of England and made it a fashionable drink among the wealthy classes. This Portuguese princess was a tea addict and it was her love for tea that eventually popularised the drink in Britain. English merchants were quick to start importing tea to rival the Dutch, but the price of tea remained very much unaffordable for anyone other than the wealthy, with a tax amounting to 118%!
Perhaps the most famous tea party of them all is the Boston Tea Party — albeit not containing fine porcelain, silverware, or any of the usual afternoon tea gossip. In protest to the British Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773—viewed by many colonists as another example of taxation tyranny—342 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company were dumped into the Boston Harbour by American colonists on 16th December 1773. I wonder if the water tasted like tea… Till this day, there are still sealed glass vials of tea buried under all the silt and muck of the harbour!
The modern-day tea comes in many forms, from the six types of Chinese tea drunk today to the ever-popular matcha from Japan. Tea can be calming or energising, and who wouldn’t love a good cup of (bubble) tea?
Yesteryear Tea Time
If you love tea and all things vintage, join us in indulging vintage Chinese tea surrounded by shelves of antiques from the collection of Jacob and his dad, PK Cheong. Learn about the history of Pu-Er and be taken back to the past with a selection of carefully curated tea, all aged over 10 years. Find out more here!
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At Culturally, we offer customised hands-on cultural experiences for you and your loved ones to enjoy and have fun whilst learning about other cultures! Book an experience here today.