True Origins of Tea

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GREEN TEA

 

LEGEND HAS IT

 

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. In a lot of countries especially in the far east tea is not just a beverage, drinking tea is part of the culture, in Zen-Buddhism as well as medicine. But not just in the far east even in the west, especially in England and the countries in the commonwealth, drinking tea is an indispensable habit, like the early morning tea, the afternoon tea or the high tea. But how did it all start? Like almost every tale, it starts with a legend.


In China they say that tea was discovered accidentally by emperor Shen-Nung approximately 3’000 years before Christ, as follows: The emperor set up camp in the shade of a large tree. A fire was made and a pot with boiling water was prepared. The heat of the fire brought some of the leaves of the long branches of the tree to dry out. Suddenly, a light wind got up and blew some of the leaves into the pot with boiling water, and this was the first tea infusion.


In India legends say that Fakir Dharma took the vow not to sleep for 7 years. After 5 years of mental immersion it appeared that he could no longer fight the need to sleep, so he grasped a couple of branches of the tree nearby. He put a few leaves into his mouth and chewed them. Immediately, Dharma experienced a refreshing and invigorating effect. And this is how he discovered the stimulating effect of tea.

Tea picking in Uji 1903, Meiji 36

Tea picking in Uji 1903 (Meiji 36)

Tea Picking

Tea pickers at a tea plantation for Matcha in Uji, early 1900s (late Meiji )

TRUE ORIGINS OF TEA

 

The true origins of tea are shrouded in the mists of time, but the origin lays somewhere in the eastern Himalayan region in the distant past. Modern research also tells us that probably rice and also citrus fruits have their origin in this territory, in Indochina and Burma and the southern Yunnan jungles.

In ancient times people gained knowledge through experiments. For example, they treated a sick person by giving them infusions, decoctions or extracts of plants and decided depending on effect whether the plant is toxic or has a healing effect. And this is probably how they discovered the healing effects of tea. In China, there is proven evidence that tea plants were already cultivated in Sichuan under the first Han emperor (202 BC – 1 AD). In the 6th century tea was widely consumed by the Chinese people through all social classes.

Tea Rolling

Hand rolling tea leaves in Uji early 1900s (late Meiji)

 

HOW TEA CAME TO JAPAN AND TO EUROPE

 

Where in China tea was already established in the 6th century, the tea just made it to Japan at the beginning of the 6th century with the coming of Chinese monks from China and Korea to Japan. At this time, they did not bring actual tea plants to Japan, rather they brought a finely ground powder which was made from dried tea leaves and then mixed with water. This beverage is today known as Matcha tea and is used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. In the 12th century, with the spreading and establishing of Buddhism in Japan, tea drinking got more and more known and accepted by more and more Japanese through all social classes. In Japan, the volcanic soil was particularly good for the tea plant and so the plant adapted so well that botanist speak of camelia japonica rather than camellia sinensis.

 

Contrary to popular belief, it was not the English but the Dutch who brought tea to Europe. In 1610, Dutch East India Company brought the first batch of Japanese and Chinese teas to Europe, to Amsterdam, which they had been purchased from Portuguese traders on Java. It was not until 1699 that the monopoly of the sea tea trade passed to the British East India Company.