There are many legends and stories in the history of tea which stretches back to over 5000 years in the past. They vary from country to country, from China to Japan and India and are a major part of religious cultures – Buddhism, for example – and the leading persons of the time.
For the Chinese, tea was discovered by Emperor Shennong (2737 BCE), the legendary father of agriculture. He ordered his people to drink boiled water as a health measure. Some leaves from a tree fell during his siesta into boiling water. The gentle and subtle drink pleased the emperor who ordered the tree to be grown throughout the country.
Across the East China Sea to Japan or the Himalayas to India, Buddhist culture was highly influential in the legend of tea. Prince Bodhi Dharma set off to preach Buddhism in China and reportedly vowed not to sleep for the seven years of his journey. Only tea leaves which he chewed throughout the day made him keep his promise. Alternatively, he cut off his eyelids in a fury and threw them on the ground…where a tea bush sprouted.
Although tea was originally a few fresh leaves in boiling water, it was soon enjoyed in different ways. During the Tang dynasty, bricks of tea were used. Leaves were pulped and then dried in a hearth before being compressed in bamboo moulds. The bricks were easy to carry on the backs of camel or yak caravans. The bricks were crumbled in water for use. During this period Lu Yu wrote his famous "Classic of Tea”, surrounding it with a precise ritual.
Later, during the Song dynasty, Emperor Huizong (reigned 1100-1126 CE) developed tea drinking based on fine green powder. Leaves were ground using a millstone. The tea was whipped in water into ‘Jade foam’. This is still the most widespread form in Japan with the famous Maccha tea that was developed into nothing less than a philosophy by the monk Sen no Rikyu and is central to the ceremony of “Cha No Yu”.
The Ming dynasty in 1368 CE drink tea as an infusion, a method discovered by Westerners some three centuries later at the end of the 16th century and introduced in Europe, probably by Jesuit missionaries, in the 17th.
The Dutch were the first tea traders through the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch traded tea for sage and borage, advertising the therapeutic properties of these ‘European’ plants in China and Japan.
England secured a direct supply of tea at the end of the 1660’s through the Honourable East Indies Company. Tea was manhandled from plantations to Canton over mountains and was also carried along riverways on “tea boats”. Tea cargos were loaded on western ships which supplied Europe and America.
The first ship to arrive in port set the price of tea. It was therefore important to arrive as quickly as possible. In the 19th century, tea clippers, large and particularly fast sailboats, were chartered for the tea trade. The ‘tea race’ was born …