The history of tea is an intriguing and exciting subject. The beverage has been the subject of a large part of our history – from colonialism to modern trade. So, where did it all start? Where does tea come from? And how did it become important enough to cause the Opium Wars in China, and the rise of British Raj in India?
According to legend, the story begins around 2737 BC when a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, found some leaves had accidentally blown into his cup of hot water, changing the colour. The taste impressed him. Another legend involves Shen Nung poisoning himself and testing the leaves’ medicinal properties. But all this is just that: legend.
Experts do agree, however, that tea drinking originated in South-west China. In fact, historical evidence shows that the earliest record of tea-drinking dates back to the 2nd century BC, during the Han dynasty. There is speculation that it may have been in use since long before that. The beverage served a medicinal purpose in those days. But, there is no known record that states whence it became a stimulant and a casual drink. A 220 AD medical text by Hua Tuo does mention that “to drink bitter t’u constantly makes one think better”.
During the Tang dynasty, after the mid-8th century, tea drinking became popular in Korea, Japan and Vietnam, rather than remaining a pre-dominantly Chinese practice.
The Song dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) witnessed a change in the production of tea. Until then, tea leaves were pressed and steamed. But, the Song dynasty introduced the concept of loose tea leaf, and brewed tea. Further, a powdered form of tea began to emerge. By the middle of the 13th century the Chinese began to roast and then crumble the tea leaf before steaming it.
As the centuries wore on, the tea leaf processing methods continued to evolve – unfermented tea leaves were pan-fried, then rolled and dried in order to prevent the oxidation process from destroying the tea. The 15th century saw the introduction of Oolong tea as a result of partial fermentation before pan frying. Black tea emerged as some people preferred the taste of fully oxidized leaves and prolonged fermentation. And sloppy cultivation practices led to the rise of yellow tea, where the leaves turned yellow and yielded a different flavour.
And this was just the beginning of tea’s meteoric rise.