Have you ever wondered where the delicious and versatile beverage that the world is extremely fond of, comes from? What is the history of tea and who discovered it? Does it date back to the times of British colonization of the world, or does it go back even further?
To satisfy your curiosity about tea, read on!
There are two main legends of the discovery of tea and they originate from China and India respectively.
According to the first story, tea is said to have been discovered in China and this might not come as a surprise to you since China is after all, the world’s largest producer and exporter of tea. However, what will surprise you is how it was discovered. Legend has it that tea was discovered by accident. It is said that in the year 2732 BC Emperor Shen Nung of China came across the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) when he and his troops were taking shelter. The wind blew a couple of leaves from the tea plant into a pot of boiling water that was sitting
out. As the water boiled with the tea leaves in it, the brew became fragrant and aromatic and intrigued the emperor who then tried this new liquid and that is how the first pot of tea was brewed. Legend also has it that the emperor was so taken with the brew that he further began researching about the plant and also discovered its medicinal properties.
An Indian legend regarding the discovery of tea revolves around a mythical story which talks about a Prince named Bodhi Dharma who was an Indian saint and the founder of the zen school of Buddhism. It is believed that in the year 520, he went to China to preach the teachings of Zen Buddhism and there he vowed to meditate for 9 years without sleep. Towards the end of his meditation, he fell asleep and when he woke up, he was terribly upset and angry with himself and in that anger, he cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. From these eyelids, a tea plant sprang up to honor and sanctify his sacrifice. It is again, not surprising at all that the second legend revolving the discovery of tea originates in India since it is second only to China when it comes to tea production and exporting.
India is also the home to some of the most famous teas in the world including Darjeeling tea and Assam tea. The early uses of tea have been mainly linked to medicinal uses and purposes in both China and India.
Tea has historically been introduced to various places across the far Eastern
region of the world map by China or by people who have visited China. This includes places such as Japan and Tibet. However, the introduction of tea in India and other South Asian nations such as Sri Lanka and Nepal happened as a result of British colonization of the subcontinent and England’s inability to keep up with the cost of importing tea from China which led to the East India Company trying to re-plant Chinese tea bushes in Indian soil and trying to look for the same or similar plants.
The British were extremely fond of tea and imported it from China in large quantities well into the 17th Century. It is important to keep in mind that till the 18th century, tea was grown exclusively in China. Britain used to import tea heavily from China and China did not reciprocate in this respect. The British had to pay for tea with silver and without having China import anything from them, this was the recipe for an economic disaster.
To balance out this economic imbalance and to force China into importing something from them, Britain took control of the Opium markets through Bengal. China, refusing to bow down and give in, then declared opium as illegal to stop any kind of trade. This led to the smuggling of opium and the increased amount of consumers in China resulted in a rise in drug addiction. Seeing the state of his people, the emperor of China confiscated large amounts of British traded opium which led to the infamous Opium wars. After the end of the wars, towards the beginning of the 18th Century, Britain could no longer afford to import tea from China since their resources had depleted due to the multiple wars in various countries (a major one being the Opium wars) The British thus introduced tea in India to mainly put an end to the Chinese monopoly over tea cultivation and trade. Indian soil turned out to be perfect for the cultivation of tea and the hills of Assam and Darjeeling were converted into lavish and lush tea estates which were used for large scale tea production.
Hence, the main reason behind tea cultivation in all of Asia (apart from China of course) is the aftermath of the opium wars and Britain’s financial inability to import tea from China.
Thus, the history of tea is varied and filled with beautiful stories from Asia. A liquid discovered by accident is today the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water. Tea is versatile and has many types – Black tea, Green tea, White tea, Oolong tea, Masala Chai tea, blends like Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea along with teas from coveted regions in the world like China, Darjeeling, Ceylon and Assam. Tea consumption in America is on a rising trend since this versatile beverage can be consumed hot or cold, with milk or without milk, sweet or unsweetened and has health benefits as well!
The rich history of tea is just another reason as to why you should try and experience different types of tea because what happened in 2732 BC was a happy accident and we are all reaping the benefits of Emperor Nung’s curiosity.
What do you think about the origin of tea?
Tell us in the comments below!