Tea Culture  |  3.24.2019  |  By C. Yu

Where Tea Originated: A Brief History Of Tea In China, Japan and the West

The earliest appearance of tea in history comes from the Chinese anecdote of Shen Nong (Shennong, the founder of agriculture and Chinese medicine), who is said to have eaten wildflowers and tea leaves.  This legend suggests that tea was discovered around 2700 B.C., during the Shen Nong period.

A medical book from the Han Dynasty (1st century B.C.), the Shen Nong Honzo Kyo, describes the tea as “tastes of leaves and bitter with benefits for the drinker that include little sleep, light body, and clear eyes”. At this time, tea was already well known. In a page from a contract written by Wang Pao of Sichuan, a master and slave are said to have agreed to buy tea in Wuyang. This indicates that tea was already being sold and consumed in those days. This is the first written record of tea utensils at this stage. Tea was mainly consumed by the upper classes as a luxury item from this time onwards.

cup of hot tea

The History of Tea in China

According to the book “Koga” from the Three Kingdoms period (3rd century), tea was made by pounding tea leaves into a rice cake shape, pouring hot water over it, mixing it with mandarin orange peels, green onions, and ginger, and then mixing it with other ingredients to make a kind of soup. At this time, tea was treated the same as liquor in the imperial court. Later, it was gradually used as a social drink, such as for entertaining guests.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the custom of drinking tea spread throughout the country. At that time, tea was mostly made from steamed tea leaves that had been pounded and dried to make a sticky tea. Although tea leaves were already being grown across the country, solid tea was probably more convenient to transport to the place of consumption.

The Tea Sutra, said to be the world’s oldest book on tea, was written by Rikuu in the Tang Dynasty. The Chakyo or Tea Sutra, consists of three volumes and ten chapters, covering the origin and history of tea, its manufacturing tools, tea utensils, how to brew tea, how to drink tea, where it comes from, and etiquette. It describes in detail how to make and drink teacake tea, which was made by steaming plucked tea leaves, pounding them into a mold, drying them in the sun, roasting them to dry, and then storing them for drinking.

In the Song dynasty, tea became the drink of choice for wealthy citizens, such as the aristocrats, government officials, and literati, who would recite poetry, calligraphy, paint, and discuss philosophy while drinking tea. Tea was sometimes judged to be good or bad, and the quality of the tea was judged against the quality of the tea utensils. The way of drinking tea was to mix the powdered tea leaves with hot water in a bowl, just like Tencha and Matcha powdered green tea in Japan. At this time, bamboo “chasen”, similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, was used. As the process of making mochi-cha became more complicated, the name was changed to “hencha” or “dancha”.

In the Ming Dynasty, tea underwent a period of great change, and the custom of tea-drinking, which had been limited to the aristocracy and wealthy citizens, eventually spread to the general public. At this time, tea leaves were considered to be too tasty and time-consuming to make, so the first emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, issued a ban on dan-tea. After this, “suncha” was produced in earnest, and the mainstream of tea leaves underwent a radical change. In addition, the steaming method was replaced by kettle frying method. It was also during this period that “flower tea”, flavored with jasmine flowers and other flavors, appeared as a way to drink the leftover tea leaves.

During this period, green teas such as West Lake Longjing Tea in Zhejiang Province and Huangshan Mao Feng in Anhui Province became well known. By the end of the Ming dynasty, Wuyi tea from Fujian province was highly prized by the upper classes, and merchants were willing to pay large sums of money for this rare and high-quality tea.

By the Qing dynasty, Chinese tea leaves and tea utensils were nearly perfected and tea culture was at its peak. In Fujian, blue tea (oolong tea) was developed, and it came to be enjoyed with “flower tea”. In the process of seeking the unique flavor of green tea, they developed a method of producing “creative tea”. The method of “devised tea” means to brew slowly and carefully with a lot of time and effort. Tea utensils are used to bring out the charm of the tea, and first enjoy the “aroma” in the cup, and then enjoy the “taste” in the teacup. It can be said that the importance of fragrance in Chinese tea and the popularity of “flower tea” can be traced back to this period.

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, China was invaded by the other powers, but the production of tea pots and the cultivation of tea leaves developed further.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1951, the cultivation of Chinese tea continued to grow steadily, but Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) suppressed tea as a symbol of luxury and restricted its cultivation. Instead, the art of tea and tea cultivation became more developed in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where Taiwanese tea is now world-renowned.


senbird matcha in black bowl with white mochi Japanese traditional pastry

The History of Tea in Japan

Nara – Heian period (710-1192)

Tea is presumed to have been brought to Japan by emissaries to Tang China and foreign students during the Nara and Heian periods when Japan was trying to learn and adopt the advanced systems and culture of China.

In the Nihon Kouki (Nihon Kouki) of the early Heian period (815), it is described that “Daisozu Eitada offered tea to the Emperor Saga at Bonshaku-ji Temple in Omi. This is said to be the first description of the tea ceremony in Japan. Tea was extremely valuable and could only be consumed by a limited number of people, such as monks and the nobility. The method of making tea at this time seems to have been the tea-making process described in the Tea Sutra.

Kamakura – Nanbokucho period (1192-1392)

Eisei (1141-1215), the founder of the Japanese Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, traveled to the Song Dynasty twice to study Zen Buddhism and saw and heard about the flourishing practice of yum cha in Zen temples. After returning to Japan, Eisai wrote the first Japanese book on tea, “Tea Tea Kyogen Ki,” in which he explained the benefits of tea.

The “Record of Health and Welfare for Tea” describes a method of making tea, a steamed powdered tea made during the Song dynasty (960-1279), which can be said to be the prototype of Tencha (powdered tea). The tea was crushed, poured into hot water, and whisked with a tea whisk.

Myoe Shonin (1173-1232), a monk of the Kegon sect of Buddhism, promoted tea planting at Takayama Temple in Kyoto, where it is believed to be the oldest tea garden. It is said that this is the oldest tea garden, and the tea in Tsugao was called “Honcha” to distinguish it from other teas. From the late Kamakura period to the Nanbokucho period, tea gardens centered around temples spread further from Kyoto, and tea was also grown in Ise, Iga, Suruga, Suruga, and Musashi.

During the Kamakura period, tea drinking spread to Zen temples and also to the samurai class as a tool of social interaction. Further, into the Nanbokucho period, tea-drinking competitions were held, in which tea was compared and the areas where it was produced were compared.

Muromachi – Azuchi-Momoyama period (1336-1603)

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) gave special patronage to Uji tea, which was passed on to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and the Uji tea brand was formed. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1537-1598), the cultivation of Tencha (powdered tea) was started in Uji, and it was processed into high-quality Tencha (powdered tea), which is now Matcha today.

In the latter half of the 15th century, Murata Tamamitsu (1423-1502) created wabi-cha, which was inherited by Takeno Joao (1502-1555) and Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who perfected the tea ceremony, and the tea became popular among wealthy merchants and samurai.

Edo Period (1603-1868)

Chanoyu was formally included in the rituals of the Edo shogunate and became an essential part of the samurai society. On the other hand, the records of the Edo period show that tea was widely used as a beverage by the common people. The tea consumed by the common people was not matcha but infused tea leaves processed by a simple method (boiled out).

In 1738, Nagatani Soen of Uji Tawara Township developed a method of producing high-quality sencha by carefully modifying the method of tea production, and he is known as the founder of Sencha. He amazed the citizens of Edo with its unprecedented greenish-blue color, sweet taste, and aromatic aroma. The method created by Soen is called the “Uji method”, and it spread to tea gardens all over Japan after the late 18th century and became the mainstream of Japanese tea. To develop higher grade Sencha, attempts were made to apply the subterranean cultivation method used for Tencha (powdered tea) to Sencha, and in 1835 Yamamoto Kahee invented the shade-grown method to produce Gyokuro tea.

In the early modern era, the distribution system became more developed, and tea was traded at tea towns, where tea stock companions (wholesalers in the consumption area of Edo) and tea companions (wholesalers and shippers in local cities) traded tea on a license basis.

In 1858, the Edo shogunate signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States, and in 1859, with the opening of the ports of Nagasaki, Yokohama, and Hakodate, 181 tons of tea was exported, along with raw silk, as an important export item.

Meiji Era – Early Showa Era (1868-)

Even after the Meiji Restoration, tea exports increased, mainly to the United States, with government support, and accounted for 15-20% of total exports until 1887 (Meiji 20).

At the beginning of the Meiji era, group tea plantations were established on the Makinohara plateau and other flatlands as a result of the samurai production project. However, the samurai who cultivated the tea plantations gradually dispersed and were replaced by farmers who took over the tea plantations. This was due to the decline in the export price of tea and the huge cost of tea plantations.

The formation of group tea plantations not only influenced the formation of tea plantations, but also the development of the distribution, the training of tea merchants, brokers and wholesalers, and the invention of various machines. The invention of the tea rubbing machine by Kenzo Takabayashi (1832-1901) was the first step in the rapid development of mechanization in the Meiji period, which contributed to labor-saving and quality stabilization.

Japanese tea had been developed as a flowery export item until the middle of the Meiji era, but with the rise of India and Ceylon black tea, the exports gradually stagnated. Instead, domestic consumption increased and tea became a beverage for domestic consumption. It is said that tea took root in the life of Japanese people from the end of the Taisho era to the beginning of the Showa era, which is surprisingly new.

pouring tea into a white cup for tea time

The History of Tea in the West

After the mid-sixteenth century, the Portuguese came into contact with Japan’s “tea ceremony culture” during their travels to and from the colony of Macao and Japan. They marveled at the huge sums of money they were willing to pay for the buildings and vessels for tea, and the wide range of cultural practices that went into the tea ceremony. This led to the spread of tea throughout the West.

It was the Dutch East India Company that first introduced tea to Western Europe (1610), but it was not black tea, but green tea (Japanese tea bought in Hirado and Chinese tea bought from the Portuguese in Macao). At that time, the Dutch had a monopoly on Oriental trade with China and Indonesia, and the British, who also ran the East India Company, had no choice but to focus on Indian trade (a new species of tea tree, Assam, was discovered in India in the 19th century, and there was no tea in India at that time).

The British declared war in 1669 by enacting a law banning the import of tea from the mainland Netherlands. And although Britain won the Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674) and gained the upper hand in China trade, it was not until 15 years later, in 1689, that tea imported directly from China was actually distributed to England. After this year, tea from the British East India Company’s base in Xiamen, Fujian province, was collected and distributed in England, and in 1720, the British gained exclusive rights to import tea.

All the tea collected in Xiamen was Wuyi tea, a semi-fermented tea similar to black tea. It was called “black tea” because of the black color of its leaves and eventually became the mainstream tea in the West.

In 1823, the English adventurer Bruce discovered the native tea tree (Assam) in Assam, India, and it was later confirmed that it was a different species from the Chinese tea tree. It was also discovered by the Englishman Fortune in 1845 that the difference between green tea and black tea is the difference in manufacturing methods, and that the ingredients are the same tea plant. These discoveries led to the cross-breeding of the Chinese species with the newer Assam species, which led to the cultivation of tea throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

It is said that the British liked tea because they knew from experience how fermented tea promotes the digestion of fats and proteins. The British adopted large-scale farming and rational processing methods to mass-produce tea at a low cost. This led to the decline of Chinese tea, which had dominated the world market for 100 years. However, Chinese black tea, with its oriental flavor, was prized in Europe as chinoiserie (Chinese taste) by the upper classes, and there were many people who liked it.

In the 1870s, the Netherlands also developed a full-scale plantation in Indonesia and made it a commercial product for its own consumption and trade, making Indonesia, along with India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, one of the leading tea-producing countries in the world. After World War II, tea production spread to African countries (Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, etc.).

It is said that the custom of tea drinking was introduced to Russia via Mongolia in the late 16th century, and after the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, when trade with China began, tea was consumed by the nobility. In 1847, tea cultivation began in Russia, and by the 1930s it was in full swing in Georgia, and by 1985, the annual production of tea was 15 tons (40% green tea), but after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, the tea was completely depleted. However, in 1993, the annual production increased to 20,000 tons, and it has had a great influence on the world tea market.

A Natural History of Tea” written by an Englishman

In the eighteenth century, when tea was becoming a necessity in England, an Englishman, Lettsham, wrote The Natural History of Tea. The book discusses in detail the botanical properties of tea, tea production methods, types of black and green teas, and their effects on the human body, based on the literature and experimental results.

The background to the acceptance of tea in Europe is the lack of drinkable freshwater. Milk and alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, etc.) have been drunk since ancient times because there are not many areas in Europe where freshwater is available due to the length of rivers and hard water. Milk can be stored for only about a day after being heated, so people were dependent on alcoholic beverages, and there were concerns about the decline in the labor force due to drunkenness. Then, with the introduction of attractive teas from Asia, it spread to the general public.

The Boston Tea Party

Since the Americas were originally a Dutch colony, it was customary for the upper classes to drink tea. Later, after the country became a British colony, the custom continued.

In the second half of the 18th century, after the British became financially strapped, they tightened their tariffs and direct taxes on the American colonies, causing the colonists to boycott British goods. The British began taxing tea in retaliation. As a result, consumption of tea in the colonies dropped dramatically and there was an overstock of tea in the home country. Four ships loaded with tea stock headed into Boston harbor to force the American colonies to tax-free their tea stocks.

On December 16, 1773, a group of residents, angered by this tax policy, dumped all of the ships’ tea into the sea in the Boston Tea Party incident. This was followed by an escalation of British repression and colonial protests that led to the Revolutionary War of 1775 for the Americas.

Tea in Modern Times

Tea is now one of the world’s most widely consumed beverages, only second to water. Worldwide, there are 250,000 cups of tea consumed every second—about 2.16 billion cups per day, as claimed by Huzaifa Nalwala. Research shows that the volume of tea consumption continues to grow year over year.

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