Tea Through the Ages


Photo Credit: Martin Moscosa

Experts have identified the Yunnan province of China as the birthplace of tea, and the earliest record of it describes the drink as a medicinal concoction used in the 3rd century during the Shang dynasty. From China, tea-drinking was spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

In the 1500s, traders and Portuguese priests in China came to love the drink, and by the 17th century, the drink gained a following in Britain. To create a source of this drink other than China, the British brought tea to India where it was planted. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Drink that Launched a Thousand Ships

Everyone has heard the expressions, “Not for all the tea in China!”, “Not my cup of tea!”, and “tempest in a teapot”.  However, beyond spawning idiomatic expressions and figures of speech, tea was a central figure in many events throughout history. Among the first of these events were the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856 -1860).  

From the 1700s to the 1800s, the demand for Chinese porcelain, silk, and tea far exceeded the demand for European goods in China. The European traders found themselves having to pay large amounts of silver to the Chinese because of this trade deficit. To offset this detrimental situation, the Dutch and the British traders brought in opium.

In Trading Tea for Opium, James Norwood Pratt of Tea Muse says, “…toward 1750, with the British buying millions of pounds of tea a year, they were having to pay for two-thirds of it with silver coin or bullion. Yet despite what would appear to be a rerun of the old Roman gold story, the company managed to thrive. The secret of its success was opium.

“It is Instructive to reflect that the beverage John Wesley, the Methodist evangelist, was urging on his flock in the name of temperance in England was purchased at the price of drug addiction on the other side of the world. Having addicted the greater part of the English-speaking world to tea, the Honorable Company proceeded to addict its Chinese-tea suppliers to another of its commodities-opium grown in India. This drug was all but unknown in China, until in the 1600s…”

The Boston-Tea-Party is another important historical event where the drink played an important role. Protesting against taxation without representation (including the prejudicial taxes levied on tea) the colonists emptied 45 tons of the drink into the sea.

The article Boston Tea Party of says, “It took nearly three hours for more than 100 colonists to empty the tea into Boston Harbor. The chests held more than 90,000 lbs. (45 tons), which would cost nearly $1,000,000 dollars today…

Tea All Over the World Today

The British are as addicted to this drink as ever. In Drinking Tea – The British Way, Lisa Baron of Hello Giggles says, “There’s no doubt that us Brits have very strong opinions on the best way to make a pot – or mug – of tea. To keep things straightforward for the purpose of this column, when I say ‘tea’ I am talking about traditional English Breakfast tea. Green tea, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong…they all have their place, but that place ain’t here.

“Let’s start with some fun facts… we drink a total of 165 million cups of this drink per day (and still only 70 million cups of coffee. 96% of the tea we drink is from a tea bag, and 98% is made with milk. 30% of people take sugar in their tea. We have a number of slang words for tea, including brew, Rosie Lee, cuppa and cha…”

Australians also enjoy their “cuppa” but many have done away with the old fashioned formality that went with British. In Tea Ettiquette, the Bushells Barometer makes the following observations from their survey: “ A massive 76 percent of Australians prefer to drink their tea without a saucer. The majority of the nation (50 percent) enjoy ‘dunking’ cake or biscuits into their tea with guests. Australians have also proudly abandoned the formal ‘British’ style of entertaining. Only 18 percent of respondents still have a room specifically designed for hosting guests – suggesting Aussies now prefer to connect and enjoy a social cup of tea with their friends in a relaxed, laidback setting. More than half the nation (58 percent) agrees catching up over a cup of tea is still the best forum for sharing stories and anecdotes. The majority of the nation is still neighbour-friendly, with 58 percent of Australians claiming they would invite a new neighbour in for a cup of tea or a drink. 64 percent of the Australians believe it is rude to leave the television on when entertaining guests over a cup of tea…”

From the look of things, tea-drinking, one of the last bastions of British Imperialism appears to have been ‘Australianised.’…

Everywhere else in the world people are drinking tea with milk, with lemon, and in a variety of delicious ways. Indeed, it is a product that has sustained its popularity through the centuries and across many nations.

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