The history of tea, from imperial China to colonial America

Before becoming the second most consumed drink in the world, tea went through many stages. From its distant Chinese origins to the quarrels it provoked in the era of colonialism, take a journey through time to discover the history of tea.

The myths and legends surrounding tea

For tea to become so important, someone had to start drinking the leaves of the tea plant infused in water. Although it is impossible to know who had this crazy idea for the first time, a few legends offer to explain it to us.

The first comes from China and tells us that tea was first consumed as a drink in 2737 BC. At that time, the Emperor Shennong sat at the foot of a tree, from which some leaves fell into a jar of water that he had boiled. Pleasantly surprised by this unexpected infusion, the emperor is said to have praised the merits of tea and contributed to its popularity.

Another legend tells that the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma left India to teach his dogma in China. While he had the ambition of not sleeping for 9 years in order to accomplish this ambitious mission, Bodhidharma became tired in his third year. It is at this point in the story that the legend splits into two distinct endings.

According to some beliefs, Bodhidharma stumbled upon some tea leaves which he had the reflex to ingest, discovering its energizing properties which allowed him to stay awake for the remaining 6 years. Other versions of this legend say that the monk fell asleep. When he woke up, devastated by his failure, he cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground, giving birth to the first tea plant.


The rise of tea in Asia

Whatever legend one chooses to believe, all research on the subject tends to place the origins of tea, as a plant and as a beverage, in China.

It was during the Tang dynasty, between the 7th and 10th centuries, that tea became popular in China. At that time, it was consumed in the form of compressed powder bricks. It immediately inspired artists, who developed the beginnings of the rituals that accompanied its consumption. A "tea ceremony" was born in the upper echelons of Chinese society, surrounding the drink with very precise rules of preparation (temperature, gestures, utensils, infusion time, etc.) and tasting, charged with symbolism.

Little by little, tea was adopted in all social circles, where it was consumed in a more trivial way. In response to this increase in consumption, producers gave birth to the first loose teas.

At the same time, Buddhist monks tried to introduce tea to Japan, but this did not bear fruit until the 15th century. In the 16th century, the Japanese took over tea and developed their own traditions around it.


The export of tea to Europe

With its democratisation among the Chinese population, the cultivation and production of tea increased tenfold. China had a flourishing trade in tea, first with other Asian countries, then with the West in the 17th century. Through the East India Company, the Dutch were the first to benefit from it in Europe. They were closely followed by England, and the British bourgeoisie flocked to the coffee-houses, shops where it was served to enjoy its gustatory and medicinal virtues. It became the country's national drink in the 18th century, following the abolition of the tax imposed by Cromwell.

Tea made its appearance in France at the same time, where it was far from being unanimously approved. It caused a stir in medical and intellectual circles, before finally being popularised by Cardinal Mazarin.


Tea at the heart of geopolitical conflicts

This meteoric rise has, unsurprisingly, given rise to many twists and turns.

How can we not mention, for example, the famous Boston Tea Party? On 16 December 1773, following a major disagreement between the British government and the 13 English colonies in America, 40 tonnes of tea were thrown into the water in Boston harbour. This incident played an important role in the development of American nationalism, contributing to the declaration of 4 July 1776 and the outbreak of the American War of Independence.

Another example is England's failed attempt to counter China's supremacy in tea. The British, wanting to compete with China, ordered tea plants from the East India Company in order to start their own plantations. The Chinese, who refused to be dethroned, replaced the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) with ornamental camellias (Camellia japonica). However, this story ends on a positive note for the English, who, charmed by the plant's beautiful flowers, eventually acclimatise, cultivate and sell it as a cut flower with great success.