Origins of Tea
China is the home of tea but its origins are lost in antiquities. Emperor Shen Nong, who lived 4700 years ago, is credited as its discoverer. One day, while boiling water under a wild tea plant, several tea leaves fell into the cauldron. Intrigued by the aroma, he took a sip that irreversibly changed the course of human civilisation. According to Chinese records, tea, both green and black, was already highly prized for its medicinal efficacies during Han time (206BC-220AD). The Tang Dynasty (618-907) saw its elevation as the national beverage, following the publication of the authoritative 3-volume tea classic, Chajing, by Luyu, the apostle of tea. Tea reached Japan, Middle East and Europe from the 9th to 17th centuries and immediately became a status symbol among the elites. Today, it is one of the world’s most loved beverages after water, transcending national boundaries and linguistic lines. This is firm testimony of its versatility and adaptability to differing tastes and needs.
World Impact of Tea
As you sip your daily tea, has it ever occurred to you that this commonplace produce had contributed to an infamous war and a glorious revolution that altered the course of world history: the Opium War (1840-1842) and the American War Of Independence (1775-1776). It is well documented by Western historians that, before the 20th century, Western consumer products had hardly any demand in China. Conversely, Chinese goods like teas, silks and porcelains were sought after in the West and transformed its lifestyle beyond recognition. First introduced into England in 17th century, the English took to tea like fish to water. A century later, it became the national beverage, eclipsing ale and coffee in popularity, despite its high cost. The British had to pay for their tea with silver. This led to balance of payment problems and adversely affected their national economy. The only foreign product that some Chinese liked was opium, which was readily available in British India. Banned in China, the British traders had to smuggle it into the country with the connivance of their Government and by bribing the corrupt Chinese officials. Before long, millions of Chinese became addicted to opium, which spread like a plaque throughout the land. This created serious social problems and untold sufferings for the family. The ill-gotten gains from the sale of opium adequately financed the British tea purchases. It also resulted in a reverse outflow of Chinese silver, with attendant adverse economic consequences. Determined to stamp out the illicit opium trade, the Chinese regime took stern remedial actions to stop its importation and confiscated large quantities already in the possession of the British opium merchants there. Consequently they suffered substantial losses. Britain declared war on China, despite strong protests from the more enlightened dissenting voices both in and outside its Parliament who felt tainted by this odious and unjust adventure. The Chinese were trounced by the British and coerced into accepting humiliating terms in 1842 including the cession of Hong Kong (and the subsequent 99-year lease of the New Territories commencing 1898). Hong Kong reverted to China on 1 July 1997, ending 156 years of British rule. History came full circle. W.E. Gladstone, a 4-time British Prime Minister, lamented in 1840: “… I am in dread of the judgment of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China.” Like the British in the mother country, the colonists in the New World were avid tea drinkers. But they firmly opposed the heavy import tax imposed by the British Government in order to finance its own tea trade with China. They manifested their deep-seated grievances in 1773 by boarding cargo ships at Boston harbour and hurling large quantities of tea into the sea. This symbolic act became known as “the Boston Tea Party”, and was followed by similar incidents in other cities. War ensued between Britain and her colonies resulting in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. After independence, tea drinking was considered unpatriotic and frowned upon. The Americans took to coffee instead in order to spite their previous oppressor; coffee being the preferred beverage of the French, the traditional foe of the English. Despite its common Chinese origins, the flavours of tea cultures in Japan and England are quite distinct from that of China.
Tea is one of China’s invaluable gifts to mankind; from royalty and the rich to the ordinary folks everywhere, they all relish it as it gives them a sense of well-being in body and mind. Its impact is such that it is deemed a necessity of life that no Chinese household should do without. Prized by the literati, numerous poems and treatises were written in its praise. Among the luminaries who were noted tea connoisseurs were poet Dufu, Emperor Qianlong, Dr Sun Yat Sen and author Luxun. Traditionally, the focus of the Chinese social life was the tea house. Its role is similar to pubs in England and coffee houses in United States. The Chinese consume tea at meal times and throughout the day. It is served to all guests on all occasions as a mark of hospitality.
Despite its hold on the Chinese and Japanese societies, it is in England that tea has attained its greatest glory and woven into its way of life. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the creator of the monumental English Dictionary, was a celebrated tea enthusiast. He is reputed to have drunk 30 cups of it at a social gathering and still asked for more! The afternoon tea became fashionable among the upper classes. This was emulated by the common people later. No one knows when the English came to take tea with milk and sugar. They probably found Chinese tea too bland for their palate. The Chinese abhor this English habit as it smothers the taste of tea , in the same way that the French agonise over the partiality of many rich overseas Chinese who partake of fine cognac with fizzy water. The opening of large tea plantations in India and Ceylon(now Sri Lanka) in late 19th century led to the phenomenal growth of black tea consumption in Britain at prices that all could afford. Taking tea is a consummate art in England, requiring a fair dose of artistry. It is a part of gracious living and an occasion to subtly show off one’s exquisite tea things, wit and humour. Today, the average English man and woman probably consume 6 or 7 cups of tea daily, starting from the time they wake. Morning and afternoon tea breaks are still de rigueur in many establishments, and strikes used to be called to enforce this privilege! Even Queen Elizabeth II makes it a point to conclude all her royal duties so that she can spend quality time at afternoon tea with her family. Winston Churchill once said that tea had helped to strengthen the morale of the British soldiers during World War II, and was more important than ammunition. The British public would not have withstood the relentless German bombing of London without the comfort of tea in their underground shelters. The English genius for romanticising tea and to adapt it to suit their unpredictable weather has made the delightful institution of afternoon tea the nation’s most enduring export to the world.
The Zen Buddhists and the tea masters played a vital role in the development of an aesthetic tea culture there. The Japanese prefer green tea, which is the only variety grown in the land. The most eminent Japanese tea master was Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), whose authoritative exposition on Chanoyu, commonly called the Japanese Tea Ceremony, is the scripture for this hallowed ancient art. It enjoys cult status, and exerts tremendous influence on Japanese art and culture. Chanoyu reflects the attainment of the Zen ideals of “harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. Its practitioners, by common consent, enter into a world in which these ideals prevail, in contrast to the business of every day activity.” Soshitsu Sen, the Grand Master of a famed Japanese tea school, sums up the quintessence of Chanoyu succinctly: “A small number of friends come together to spend several hours in partaking of a meal, drinking, and enjoying a brief respite from the busyness of daily concerns…. The host and guests seek to relate to each other and to all the elements of their environment with directness, immediacy, and profound appreciation”. Tea has been aptly called The Cup of Humanity by the author of The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura, a foremost expert on Japanese tea culture.
I am optimistic that, as long as tea is drunk, the time honoured offshoots spawned by it, be it the Chinese custom of serving it to all guests on all occasions, the English afternoon tea or the Japanese Chanoyu, will endure, even though their modes of expression may change in tandem with changing needs and circumstances. It is encouraging that tea appreciation is gaining popularity in Singapore. Tea houses have come into their own and draw young people there. One of them even had Queen Elizabeth II and her consort as guests on their state visit to Singapore in 1989.
Lam Pin Foo