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January 31, 2022

Warm Up with Tea - Origins

"There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life." - Lin Yutang, the author of "The Importance of Living"

Photo by CHI CHEN on Unsplash

January 12th was National Hot Tea day.  Did you warm up your day with a hot cup of tea? It's hot tea day for us every day.  TEA makes us feel many things like TranquilEnergetic, and Awake.

Did you know that Tea is the 2nd most popular drink in the world next to Water?  It is consumed approximately 3.7 billion cups on a daily basis according to Euromonitor Sept 2020. It is the only beverage commonly served hot or iced, anytime, anywhere, for any occasion.  On any given day, over 159  million  Americans are drinking tea.

 Origins of Tea Culture

How did this drink or beverage become so popular? What is the history behind Tea culture or its origin? Tea is nearly  5,000  years old.  Purportedly discovered in  2737  BC by  Chinese  Emperor  Shen-Nung,  aka “The  Divine  Healer”.   Legend has it,  some tea leaves accidentally blew into the Emperor’s pot of boiling water and created the first tea brew.  According to  Chinese tea scholars,  the  Emperor,  as a botanical explorer,  accidentally poisoned himself some  85  times,  and was cured each time by this wonderful brew. 

Tea has been consumed in China for thousands of years on record dating from the Shang Dynasty (1500 BCE–1046 BCE), where it was consumed in Yunnan province primarily as a medicinal drink. 

Compressed Pu'erh tea cake

By the Tang period (618- 907 CE), tea had become popular and was widely enjoyed as a refreshing beverage, prepared from leaves that had been moistened and shaped into a dense brick. Anecdotal evidence from the 8th century CE reports that the city of Chang-an had a large number of flourishing tea shops, many of which advertised the health benefits of tea drinking. 

Later, during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) the brick form of tea was replaced in popularity with loose leaves which were often ground into a fine powder and, increasingly, flavored with different substances. Over time tea houses began to appear across large cities making tea more accessible outside of elite society.  As it grew in popularity, tea became associated with homeliness and was drunk daily as well as served to guests to welcome them.1 

The Diffusion of Tea Culture along the Silk Route

From China, tea spread across the Eastern Silk Road to Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In Japan, the beverage developed close connotations with religious and social rituals owing to the fact that it was commonly consumed by Buddhist priests. In the 6th century, CE envoys were sent from Japan to China to learn about tea and its associated culture, and seeds were imported via the Silk Road in order for the plant to be cultivated in Japan. 

Tea soon became prominent in creative circles, including within poetry and literature, as poets and artists wrote about the joy of tea and explored tea customs and associated traditions in their work. A great example is a poem called "Seven Bowls of Tea" by Lu Tong from 790-835CE. Lu Tong's poem was a favorite for centuries and even carved on tea jars.  What does his poem convey to you about tea?  

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat.
The second shatters the walls of my lonely sadness.
The third searches the dry rivulets of my soul to find the series of five thousand scrolls.
With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores.
The fifth purifies my flesh and bone.
With the sixth I am in touch with the immortals.
The seventh gives such pleasure I can hardly bear
The fresh wind blows through my wings,

As I make my way to Penglai [the mountain of the immortals].2

The tea trade spread from China and Mongolia to the Indian Subcontinent, Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau, and beyond eventually reaching Europe and North Africa. Tea was also intricately linked to another flourishing Silk Road trade that became the basis for a number of complex interactions within the arts, that of ceramics, and specifically, porcelain. 

Although there are many regional variations, many cultures along the Silk Road share tea drinking customs and traditions. Today, cultures and regions around the world have continued to adapt the ubiquitous product according to their own societal norms, with brewing processes, flavoring, and social rituals varying from place to place. 

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the origins of tea and tea culture. Stay tuned as we explore varieties of tea and more of tea culture in our next posts.