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Origins of Tea

Origins of Tea:

While everyone knows where tea originated, no one knows when the now worldwide custom of tea infusion began. Its origin is concealed in the shimmering mists of exotic legends of which the following is but one.

One of the Emperors of China, who lived 5,000 years ago, was an excellent ruler and always delighted in setting his subjects good examples. One of these was that he always boiled his drinking water. One day a few leaves from the branches which were burning under the pot of boiling water fell into it, giving it a delightful scent and flavor and making the water a drink indeed fit for an emperor. The branches were those of the wild tea plant.

Apart from such charming fantasies however, what is certain about tea drinking is that it was widely practiced in China a early as the 6th Century. In fact the first history of tea, the "Cha Ching", was written by a China-man around 800 AD and in it is recorded the fact that in 793 AD the drinking of tea had become so widespread that a tax was levied on it.

The new drink spread to China's neighbor Japan, very quickly, the earliest record of tea drinking in that country was in 729 AD when the Emperor Shomu invited 100 Buddhist monks to take tea in his palace.

From that time on a most elaborate ritual grew up round the making of tea. It is called Cha-no-yu and is a long and intricate ceremony in which the hostess, the guests, all the tea-making utensils and even the room in which the tea is taken play set parts. Nowadays tea is made and drunk according to Western standards but the old ceremony is still taught and widely practiced.

By the time that the first European explorers returned from the Far East, tea had long been the national drink of both China and Japan but it was not until the end of the 16th century that the English first heard of it.

Shortly afterwards, in 1610, the first consignment of tea reached Holland from whence the first imports came to England.

Tea was first sold in the coffee houses that had sprung up all over the country but such was its almost immediate popularity, not only as a drink but as a medicine that was reputed to have almost magical healing properties, that it soon ousted coffee from general favor and by 1750 had become the principal beverage of all classes.

One of the main reasons for this was Britain's supremacy of the seas so making it easy for regular cargoes of tea to be brought from China.

On the Continent, however, the main trade routes to the East were through the Mediterranean and overland so that coffee, which lay so much nearer to hand, was easier to import. The result has been that apart from Britain and Holland, both great maritime nations, coffee has remained the chief beverage on the continent.

In Russia, too, tea drinking became a national habit as their traders had direct access to China.

It may seem remarkable but it is nevertheless true that the habit of tea drinking in Britain led to three very important consequences.

When tea was first imported from China the necessary utensils in which to infuse it and also those from which it was drunk were imported with the tea itself, but later, various firms began to design and make teapots and cups and saucers with the result that British pottery and earthenware industries received a tremendous impetus.

Before the year 1700 earthenware teapots and cups were being made in Staffordshire followed, early in the 18th century, by the famous Staffordshire glazed teapots. Fifty years later the world famous firm of Wedgewood was supplying most of the country with tea sets, while the colorful and exquisite porcelain of Worcester, Derby, Chelsea and Bow graced the tea tables of the rich.

The second of the consequences inspired one of the most picturesque chapters in maritime history.

In 1833 the East India Company's monopoly of the tea trade, which it had held for many years, was abolished. As a result, merchants began to look for faster transport than had been provided by the heavy, slow East India-men. Thus was born the more beautiful and graceful of all the world's ships, the tea clippers. The first was the "Rainbow", launched in 1845 in New York, which did the return journey from New York to China in less time than the old ships had sailed one way. This was followed in quick succession by many other famous clippers such as the British "Lightning", which reached an average speed of 18 knots for 24 hours, an all-time record for sailing ships, and the still famous "Cutty Sark".

The third - and more tragic - consequence was the loss of America.

Tea drinking had been brought to the New World by the British and Dutch colonists and was as popular there as it was at home.

It was in 1765 that the British Parliament began to tax the American colonies without the consent of their Assemblies and tea was one of the commodities which was taxed. The colonists refused to pay it and in December 1773, to demonstrate their determination to resist these taxes, they raided three tea ships that were in the harbor and threw overboard 10,000 worth of tea. This was the celebrated and now historical "Boston Tea Party" which was the spark that set off the American War of Independence and so lost America to the British Empire.

In 1823 wild tea was discovered in Assam. It was cultivated and with such good effect that in 1839 the first shipment of Indian tea was brought to London.

In the meantime, Ceylon, which was dependent almost entirely upon its flourishing coffee trade, fell a victim to the dreaded coffee blight and in 10 years the coffee industry was entirely wiped out. The planters then turned to tea and in a very few years their tea production was rivaling that of India.

By the end of the century the export of tea from these two new sources was far greater than that of China.

Today India and (Ceylon) Sri Lanka exports millions of pounds of tea annually. The tea plant, which has so changed the drinking habits of the world, is a hardy evergreen called Camellia Sinensis and would, if left in its natural state, grow about thirty feet high.

Three types of tea are made, although they all come from the same plant, the difference being in the way the leaves are processed.

The three varieties are called Black Tea, Green Tea and Oolong.

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