Notable People in the History of Tea

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Statue of Lu Yu

Lu Yu – In Xi’an on the grounds of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda
Nat Krause
July 26, 2005, CC – 2.0

The history of tea is intertwined with religion, commerce, early notions of wellness and more. Understanding where tea has come from requires looking at the notable people who influenced the production and consumption this fine drink across the globe. Given that tea has been around for a few thousand years, there are many people to consider, from religious scholars, to corporate spies, and even accidental inventors. There are really too many, in fact, for one blog post so we’ve selected a few of our favorites to touch on briefly.

Lu Yu

As the man credited with documenting the production and consumption of tea in China, his work, The Classic of Tea, still has meaningful insights into ancient production of tea. Born in Hubei, in central China, Lu Yu lived between 733 and 804 C.E. This book gives a view into the Chinese practices around tea and its status as one of the seven necessities in life. The poems and quotes in the book are still relevant today, about 1200 years later!

Eisai

This buddist monk, also known as Eisai Zenji (or Zen Master Eisai) is credited with bringing tea seeds to Japan and planting them near Kyoto, creating the first tea farm in Japan. He is also credited with writing the first book about tea consumption in Japan during his lifetime from 1141 to 1215 C.E. His writings on tea are credited with spreading tea culture throughout Japan and setting the stage for the Japanese tea ceremony.

Robert Fortune played a critical role in the history of tea and its move to India.

Robert Fortune – An early example of corporate espionage.

Robert Fortune

As the botanist for the British East India Company, he is credited with stealing seeds and tea plants from China that where then taken to India to plant. While these initially failed, Fortune (1812 – 1880 C.E.) helped to identify the native camilia seninsis var. assamica, which is considered the backbone of Indian tea. He helped the British East India Company break the monopoly that China had on tea.

Arthur Campbell

Living from 1805 to 1874, Arthur Campbell planted camilia seninsis var. seninsis seeds in the Darjeeling region of India. Without him, the British East India Company would not have expanded tea production into Darjeeling and we would be missing a seriously good tea (see Darjeeling – The Champagne of Tea).

Thomas Sullivan

The story goes that in the early 1900’s Thomas Sullivan started sending tea samples to customers in small bags. Not knowing that this was simply meant as a convenient way to ship the tea, his customers dropped the entire bag in water, soon after complaining that the silk was too fine all the while demanding more tea bags from Mr. Sullivan. He was not the first to create it, but just make it a commercially viable design that was widely adopted. The first to patent the tea bag in the U.S where Roberta C. Watson and Mary Molaren. They were unable to turn their patent into a commercial business, but their design looks pretty similar to the modern day version minus the string to pull it out of the water.

There are so many people that have contributed to the history of tea through thousands of years and this is just a small sampling. Do you have a favorite?

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