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The History of Tea

The Legendary Origins of Tea

The story of tea began in ancient China over 5,000 years ago. Shen Nong, an early emperor, was a skilled ruler, creative scientist and patron of the arts. His far-sighted edicts required, among other things, that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One summer day, while visiting a distant region of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest. In accordance with his ruling, the servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from a nearby bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid infused into the water. As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing. And so, according to legend, tea was created. (This myth maintains such a practical narrative that many mythologists believe it may relate closely to the actual events, now lost in ancient history.)

The Chinese Influence

Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture reaching into every aspect of society. In 800 A.D. Lu Yu wrote the first definitive book on tea, the Ch'a Ching. This amazing man was orphaned as a child and raised by scholarly Buddhist monks in one of China's finest monasteries. However, as a young man, he rebelled against the discipline of priestly training which had made him a skilled observer. His fame as a performer increased with each year, but he felt his life lacked meaning. In mid-life, he went into seclusion for five years. Drawing from his vast memory of observed events and places, he codified the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China. The vast definitive nature of his work projected him into near sainthood within his own lifetime. Patronized by the Emperor himself, his work clearly showed the Zen Buddhist philosophy to which he was exposed as a child. It was this form of tea service that Zen Buddhist missionaries would later introduce to imperial Japan.

Tea and America

It was not until 1670 that English colonists in Boston became aware of tea, but it was not publicly available for sale until twenty years later. Tea gardens were first opened in New York City, already aware of tea as a former Dutch colony. The new gardens were centered on the natural springs, which the city fathers now equipped with pumps to facilitate the "tea craze"". The most famous of these "tea springs" was at Roosevelt and Chatham (later called Park Row Street). During colonial times tea was even eaten. The leaves were boiled at length and were salted and eaten with butter.

By 1720, tea was a generally accepted staple of trade between the colonies and England. Tea trade was centered in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which were future centers of American rebellion. As tea was heavily taxed even at this early date, contraband tea was smuggled into the colonies by independent-minded American merchants from ports far away. They also adopted herbal teas from the Indians. The directors of the then John Company (to merge later with the East India Company) fumed as they saw their profits diminish and they pressured Parliament to take action. It would not be long in coming. In 1773 the Boston Tea Party took place, which protested King George's tea tax. In the contest between the British Parliament and the American colonists, Parliament, when repealing the Townshend Acts, retained the tea tax, partly as a symbol of its right to tax the colonies, and partly to aid the financially embarrassed East India Company. The colonists tried to prevent the consignees from accepting taxed tea and were successful in New York and Philadelphia. At Charleston, the tea was shipped, but was held in government warehouses. At Boston, three tea ships arrived and remained unloaded, and Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to let the ships leave without first paying the duties. A group of indignant colonists led by Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and others, disguising themselves as Native Americans, boarded the ships on the night of Dececember 16, 1773, and threw the tea into the harbor.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, America stabilized her government, strengthened her economy, and expanded her borders and interests. By 1904, the United States was ready for the world to see her great developments at the St. Louis World's Fair. Trade exhibitors from around the world brought their products to America's first World's Fair. One such merchant was Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner. Originally he had planned to give away free samples of hot tea to visitors at the Fair but, when a heat wave hit, no one was interested. In order to save his investment, he dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first "iced tea". It became one of the biggest hits of the Fair. Four years later, Thomas Sullivan of New York developed the concept of "bagged tea". As a tea merchant, he carefully wrapped each sample delivered to restaurants for their consideration. He recognized a natural marketing opportunity when he realized the restaurants were brewing the samples "in the bags" to avoid the mess of tea leaves in the kitchens.

Afternoon Tea

The English ceremony of Afternoon Tea dates back to the 1840's, but rather than being 'invented', it actually evolved out of the rituals and routines that had surrounded tea drinking in Britain before that time. The English started drinking tea in the late 1650's and since both the brewed beverage and the dry loose leaves were extremely expensive, it immediately became the drink of the royal family and aristocracy. Wealthy gentlemen drank their tea in London's coffee houses and upper class ladies bought very small amounts of loose leaf tea and drank the brew at home with their friends and family.

The ships that carried the tea from China and Japan to Europe also brought in, as part of their cargo, porcelain teapots, tea bowls and neat little jars for storing the tea. Like the new exotic drink, these attracted the attention of the rich, who bought some for their own use at home. They were stored not in the kitchens or dining room cupboards, but on shelves in the lady's private closet - a small room near or next to her bedchamber where she received visitors and offered them some refreshment. Because the tea itself was so expensive, the servants were not allowed to handle the precious leaves and the lady of the house kept it in the little Chinese jars in her closet alongside the tea bowls and pots. When she wanted to serve tea to her friends, a servant would arrange the furniture, set all the tea brewing equipment on a small table and bring in a kettle of boiling water. Then the lady herself warmed the pot, took the little cap off her tea jar, measured the correct amount into the pot and poured boiling water into it. When the tea had brewed she poured it into the little translucent, handleless, Chinese bowls and served them to her guests.

So when did all this tea drinking go on? The beverage was offered to visitors to the house at almost any time of the day (and the house would have been an elegant and expensive town house or country mansion), but the most important time for tea was after the main meal of the day. In the mid-17th century, dinner was served between 11 am and noon and was a rich, heavy, alcoholic meal that lasted from 3 to 4 hours. Once all the food had been devoured, the men liked to stay at the table in the dining room to smoke, chat, and drink more liquor. (It was not uncommon for men to drink so much in those days that they ended up under the table in a drunken stupor!) So, the ladies were expected to withdraw to a smaller closet or boudoir to talk more quietly, sew, brew tea, and generally behave in a more elegant way than their men folk. When, at about 5 or 6 pm, the men eventually decided that they had had enough of their smoking, drinking, and loud conversation, they would join the ladies for tea in the drawing room or closet. Sometimes they also played cards or listened to some form of musical entertainment until a light supper was served and the guests then departed.

So, right from the earliest days of tea drinking in England in the second half of the 17th century, certain patterns developed which eventually influenced the ritual of afternoon tea in the early 19th and on into the 20th centuries. Taking tea was always associated with elegant rooms set well away from the kitchen, with fine porcelain tea wares, silver spoons, sugar nippers, and kettles, with beautiful tables carved by craftsmen, and with the elegant manners of society ladies - as it was throughout the Victorian period and still is today. The brewing of the tea was always the responsibility of the lady of the house (or gentleman if he lived alone), sometimes with the help of the eldest daughter, and was carried out in the room where the tea was to be served. Today, of course, we brew our tea in the kitchen, but it is still the duty of the hostess to pour and serve it. Usually the only food served to accompany the tea was very thin slices of bread and butter. That has developed, of course, into a more elaborate menu, but bread, toast, muffins, tea cakes, crumpets and other bread-like foods are still a very important part of a traditional tea. The time of day for drinking tea was usually in the late afternoon in the 19th century, as well as today.

Once the trend had been set, all of fashionable society started to hold tea parties to suit almost any occasion - drawing room teas for groups of 10 or 20 visitors, small intimate teas for 3 or 4 friends, tea in the garden, 'at home' teas, tea receptions for up to 200 people, tennis teas, croquet teas, and picnic teas. The growing middle classes imitated the rich, and found that tea was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money. Pots of tea and a few small tea-time treats such as crustless sandwiches, hot buttered toast and scones, little pastries, and a cake or two were served.

The tradition has lasted until now. Afternoon Tea is still the ideal way to entertain neighbors, friends, and even business acquaintances. It still creates the same elegant, refined, calm atmosphere that was enjoyed by the English during those previous 350 years of tea drinking.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

A Japanese cup of tea is more than is implied by the name for the ceremony - cha no yu (which translates literally as 'hot water for tea'). It is, in fact, a quiet interlude during which host and guests strive for spiritual refreshment and harmony with the universe. The Japanese Tea Ceremony captures all the elements of Japanese philosophy and artistic beauty, and interweaves four principles - harmony (with people and nature), respect (for others), purity (of heart and mind), and tranquility. It grew from the custom of Zen Buddhist monks drinking tea from a single bronze bowl in front of a statue of their founder, Budhidharma, during their act of worship. Over the centuries rituals gradually developed around the religious significance and the use and appreciation of the utensils needed for preparing and serving tea. A full tea, or Chaji, involves a meal and the serving of two different types of tea and can last for four hours. However, shorter, simpler teas can be served to suit individual occasions. Ceremonies are held to honor special guests, to celebrate particular occasions such as the blossoming of the cherry trees in Spring, to admire the full moon, or simply to gather together a few friends.

Because the Tea Ceremony involves an understanding and appreciation of a complex combination of sensual and spiritual elements, the training to become a Tea Master is long and demands complete commitment. A student can learn enough of the basic movements and rituals to create a tea after three years or so of dedicated study, but becoming a true Tea Master is a lifetime's work and the training process is never really completed. Although the study is long and demanding, it is also fun and very rewarding... And whatever style of tea a host or hostess creates, each tea occasion links the people taking part to a continuous chain of 5000 years of tea history.

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