The history of tea is too long for a single blog post, but here we try to hit the highlights and key milestones in time. Tea has been consumed by humans for a really long time and has influenced international relations for centuries. According to legend, tea was discovered in 2737 BCE in China when the leaves of a nearby evergreen fell into the boiling water of the Emperor Shen Nung creating a beverage that reinvigorated him. The first credible texts referencing tea plantations and the consumption of tea appear around 1000 BCE. However, it took until the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) for tea to become China’s national beverage. It was during this dynasty that Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea called Ch’a Ching, The Classic of Tea.
Tea appears to have first travelled beyond China during the late 500’s CE to Japan by way of Japanese Buddhist monks who utilized tea during their meditation rituals to maintain alertness. Tea was first offered to the Russians in 1618, but the Czar did not like the taste, so tea failed to take hold there until the middle of the 1600’s. Once the taste did develop in Russia, tea traveled thousands of miles in a caravan and was most likely the same Pu-erh tea that was traded with the Mongolians and Tibetans. Even though European explorers like Marco Polo mention tea in their logs as early as the 13th century, Europeans did not come into contact with tea in any large scale until 1627 CE by way of a Portuguese trading vessel. As an American, tea is considered to be British, but it was the mainland of Europe that adopted tea first and it wasn’t until Charles II married a Portuguese princess, some forty years later, that tea took hold as fashionable in Britain with the British East India Company placing its first order of tea in 1664 (UK Tea Council, 2014). Today, Europe still maintains a significant role in the tea trade with parts of the continent exporting more tea than some of the countries that actually grow it commercially.
Tea traveled with the colonists to America and it is the tax on tea that is credited as pushing the colonists to their breaking point with the British monarchy, helping to instigate the American Revolution. While America was trying to figure out how to be a country, the Chinese emperor decided that foreign trade was to be paid for with silver, putting a very large burden on the British East India Company. In response, they began to heavily export opium to China at the time to off-set the silver requirement, since the Chinese government did not stop the merchants from accepting opium instead of silver. Simultaneously, the British began trying to figure out how to cultivate tea in India.
At about the same time that the British had success in growing tea in the Assam region of India, 1839, the First Opium War broke out between the British and Chinese. At the start, it was estimated that the amount of opium flowing into China had increased to 40,000 chests annually from the pre-silver requirement level of 4,500 chests, prompting the Emperor to have local government officials arrest opium merchants and seize their stocks to be destroyed (Greenberg, 1951). In response, the British sent troops from India both decimating the Chinese coast and ultimately giving Britain control what is now Hong Kong.
It is the consumption of tea by the British, and later the thirst for ready-to drink and iced tea by Americans, that fueled cultivation of tea not just in India but into Africa and then South America by some of the largest tea producers in world. While China and Japan may produce more tea, this is mainly for domestic consumption rather than export.
Since tea cannot be commercially grown in every country and it continues to be the second most consumed beverage on the planet, I suspect it will remain a factor in international relations. I can only hope that it brings more peaceful relationships in the future. Do you think it can?
Greenberg, M. (1951). British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42. In M. Greenberg, British Trade and the Opening of China, 1800-42 (p. 113). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
UK Tea Council. (2014, January 5). Tea – A Brief History of the Nation’s Favourite Beverage. Retrieved from UK Tea Council Web site: http://www.tea.co.uk/tea-a-brief-history-of-the-nations-favourite-beverage