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A Storm in a Teacup: The Storied History of Tea

It comes as no surprise that tea is a popular drink. Even to somebody literally living under a rock, tea would be a familiar, comforting brew. But just how popular is it? According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world drinks about six billion cups of tea every single day. That is nearly one cup for every person on the planet! Coffee, by contrast, is less than half this number, proving that, at least by numbers, tea is the clear winner of that perennial contest. In fact, tea is more popular than coffee and all carbonated drinks in the world combined! So what lies at the heart of the chai mania that seems to be gripping the world?


To start with, tea has quite the first mover advantage when compared with its competitors. According to legend, the mythological Chinese emperor Shennong discovered it quite by accident. You see, the Emperor had been boiling a pot of water when a tea leaf just happened to float inside the vessel. When the Emperor decided to have a taste of the resulting brew, well, the rest is history. Or myth. But at any rate, tea was most likely first cultivated for consumption in China a long time ago, likely some 3,000 years or more. The plant itself first grew in the lands of southwest China, Tibet, and Northeast India. Before its storied history as a drink really kicked off though, tea was frequently chewed for supposed medicinal purposes and was closely tied to traditional Chinese medicine (a discipline that, incidentally, Emperor Shennong is often considered the father of).



The more recent history of tea takes on decidedly darker tones. After its discovery by Portuguese and Dutch traders in the far east, Europe quickly developed a taste for what was considered an exotic, stimulating drink. Not long after, the transatlantic slave system allowed the exploitation of African labor to mass produce sugar, which when mixed with tea and milk produced a deliciously satisfying beverage. The British taste for tea led to a massive trade deficit with China, ultimately resolved when the British East India Company trafficked opium to the Chinese masses, using force of arms to prevent the Chinese government from intervening. But the episode did push the British Empire into seeking an alternate producer for tea and India, the jewel in the crown, was just right. Although slavery was outlawed by this time, labor conditions in tea plantations in India were not very different from those of slaves, and they were often bound in debt trapped servitude that made their lives, for all practical purposes, akin to those of slaves. Unfortunately, poor labor conditions continue to plague tea plantations in India today, even as it has grown to be among both, the largest exporters and consumers of tea today.


Elephant soapstone tealight handcrafted from a single piece of kisii soapstone, found only in the hills of southwestern Kenya.

But before it got caught up in the violent and turbulent colonial centuries when it introduced itself to the wider world, East Asia had been developing vibrant tea cultures for more than a thousand years. By the time the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was ruling in China, its consumption had become widespread and had also spread to Korea and Japan. It was around this time that Lu Yu wrote The Classic of Tea in China, which would become the basis of the Tea Ceremonies that would develop as an intricate part of East Asian cultures. In the Nara period, Japanese trade delegations brought the drink to the Land of the Rising Sun, whereby the 13th century it had become the beverage of choice for the gentry and the Buddhist priesthood.



Lu Yu's classic treatise, itself drawing heavily upon Buddhism, proved to have a lasting impact on Japanese tea culture, and the development of the Japanese tea ceremony, chadō, which, alongside incense appreciation, and flower arrangement would become one of the three classical arts of Japanese refinement. Every action in chadō – how a kettle is used, how a teacup is examined, how tea is scooped into a cup – is meant to be performed in a very specific way, and different schools follow different procedures collectively called temae. A tea gathering itself may be formal (chaji) or informal (chakai). Every aspect of a Japanese tea ceremony is tightly regulated by procedure, starting from the Chashitsu, or teahouse. chashitsu usually has a hearth built into the floor, an alcove for hanging scrolls and placing other decorative objects which themselves have some degree of significance for the ceremony, and separate entrances for host and guests. The placement of the tatami, or floormat, is indicative of how a person is meant to walk around the Chashitsu.  Although styles can vary greatly, wabi style Chashitsu are deliberately built in a simple and rustic style. Temae vary with seasons, different types of teas, venues, and occasions with formal gatherings easily lasting up to four hours.


The utensils used for a tea ceremony are called chadōguThey hold strong ritual significance and their handling and preparation are dictated closely by procedure. The chakin is a small rectangular piece of cloth that is used to wipe the chawan, or tea bowl. Different chawan are used for thick and thin tea, or based on the season. Some bowls can be as old as four hundred years and are greatly prized. A small lidded container called a chaki is used for storing the powdered tea to be used for preparation of the brew. Chashaku made of bamboo (sometimes wood or ivory) are used to scoop the powder into the chawan and chasen  are used to mix it in the bowl. The simple act of preparing and serving tea has, over hundreds of years, been refined into a complex high art. So the next time you take a sip of a refreshing cup of tea, take a moment to reflect on its long, varied history and diverse cultural significance. After all, in the 21st century, tea is truly everyone's drink. From the famished worker in a dusty street of Bhopal sipping masala chai from a tiny earthenware cup to the complex tea ceremonies of Japan, tea is the universal elixir for refreshment and the perfect spark for conversation. In the words of H.H. Munro "find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me hundreds of things."




  1. http://www.teausa.com/teausa/images/Tea_Fact_Sheet_2019_-_2020._PCI_update_3.12.2020.pdf
  2. https://worldteanews.com/tea-industry-news-and-features/tea-consumption-second-only-to-packaged-water
  3. https://senchateabar.com/blogs/blog/history-of-tea
  4. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/onward/2014/04/28/the-worlds-top-drink/
  5. https://www.peets.com/learn/history-of-tea
  6. https://gjtea.org/info/japanese-tea-information/japanese-tea-culture/
  7. https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2096.html
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