Origins of tea: How its leaves moved the world

Origins of tea: How its leaves moved the worldOrigins of tea: How its leaves moved the world
via Pexels
Carl Samson
27 days ago
In the course of human history, few commodities have woven as intricate a narrative as the humble tea. Its journey from a garden in ancient China to the cups of billions today — while playing a key role in cultural rituals, economic engines and even geopolitical negotiations — underscores its profound but often overlooked impact.

Into the pot

It all started with a bunch of leaves in ancient China, according to one popular legend. The mythical Emperor Shennong, regarded as the creator of Chinese medicine, was boiling water in his garden when leaves from a nearby Camellia sinensis plant fell and drifted into the pot.
  • Intrigued by the aroma, Shennong took a sip and found the resulting brew refreshing and revitalizing. To many, this serendipitous moment in 2737 B.C. marked the birth of tea and its use as a medicinal concoction.
  • Tea also served as a meditative elixir among Buddhist monks. Seeking a way to stay awake during long hours of meditation, they found that tea offered both alertness and a sense of calm. This not only enhanced their meditation but also laid the foundation for the role of tea in Zen philosophy.
  • Elaborate tea ceremonies evolved in China and eventually reached Japan. These events highlighted the value of tea not only as a beverage for drinking, but also for being present in the moment to appreciate the beauty of life.
A 1503 painting by Guo Xu depicting Shennong as he chews a branch, highlighting his role as healer

Around the globe

As trade routes expanded, so did the reach of tea. Along ancient Silk Roads, caravans carried tea leaves with silk and spices. The beverage soon spread from the East to the West. 
  • In the 8th century Tang Dynasty, tea rose to prominence in China. It was during this time that Lu Yu, a renowned tea master, penned the “Classic of Tea” (“Cha Jing”), an encyclopedia that compiled information about tea in China. This literature of knowledge elevated tea to an art form and solidified its place in Chinese society.
  • By the 17th century, tea had made its way to Europe through Dutch and Portuguese traders. Initially a luxury reserved for the elite, it soon captured the hearts of common people. The British, in particular, developed a passionate affair with the drink, eventually leading to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, a protest against British “taxation without representation.”
  • The British East India Company also played a pivotal role in the spread of tea. By the 19th century, they had established vast tea plantations in India, Sri Lanka and other colonies, changing the landscape of tea production.
An 1853 map by August Heinrich Petermann illustrating the visits of botanist Robert Fortune to the tea districts of China and India. Fortune was sent by the British East India Company in 1848 to steal China’s tea trade secrets, believing the knowledge would help them dominate India’s tea market.

Shaping history

The cross-continental journey of tea went beyond commerce as its leaves played a critical role in shaping political landscapes. From the American Revolution to the First Opium War, tea’s influence transcended trade routes, affecting societal norms and international policies​​.
  • During the American Revolution, the Tea Act of 1773, which sought to save the struggling East India Company via a monopoly on the American tea trade, ignited fierce opposition among colonists. Under the law, the company was allowed to sell surplus tea directly to American colonies, undercutting local merchants and bypassing tax collectors. Many colonists saw this as an attempt by Britain to impose taxes without their consent, further inflaming tensions over the issue of “taxation without representation.”
  • The Boston Tea Party, a direct protest against the Tea Act, saw American patriots, many disguised as Mohawk Native Americans, board British ships and dump 342 crates of tea into Boston Harbor. This show of defiance led to the Coercive Acts (known to the colonists as Intolerable Acts), which further united the colonies against British rule and paved the way for the American Revolution.
An 1846 hand-colored lithograph by Nathaniel Currier depicting the Boston Tea Party’s destruction of tea at Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773
  • The Opium Wars between Britain and China — and later France — were indirectly related to tea through the trade imbalances it caused. Britain had a high demand for Chinese tea but few goods that China wanted in return. To counteract this imbalance, British traders began smuggling opium into China, leading to widespread addiction and social disruption. The Qing Dynasty’s efforts to suppress the opium trade culminated in the destruction of a large opium stockpile by politician Lin Zexu in 1839, a key event that triggered the First Opium War.
  • The war ended with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which not only ceded Hong Kong to Britain but also opened several Chinese ports to foreign trade, including the opium trade. The Second Opium War further expanded foreign powers’ privileges in China, including legalizing the opium trade, increasing the number of ports open to foreigners and allowing foreign embassies in Beijing​​​​​​.
A scene depicting the First Opium War at the Shenzhen Museum in Shenzhen, China

Transformations today

Tea has come a long way since its discovery. Today, it is the world’s most popular drink after water, evolving beyond its traditional forms through herbal blends, cocktail infusions and the irresistible boba, to name just a few.
  • Teas designed to help manage health concerns such as stress relief, digestion and immunity are everywhere today. Turmeric, ginger and chamomile are commonly used in these functional blends.
  • Blends that combine various herbs and spices for flavorful experiences have also become popular. Peppermint, lavender and hibiscus are typically used in these drinks.
  • The craft cocktail movement has also embraced tea, with tea-infused cocktails gaining traction in bars and restaurants. These beverages experiment with different tea varieties to create unique party or dinner drinks.
A glass of bubble tea
  • Bubble tea, also referred to as boba, reflects tea’s transformation into a customizable beverage experience that incorporates milk, tapioca pearls (boba) and a myriad of flavors. This has not only introduced tea to a younger audience, but also showcases the drink’s versatility in blending with a diversity of ingredients.
  • Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and precision agriculture are reportedly being applied in tea cultivation and processing to improve efficiency and quality. Today, the tea industry is also utilizing data analytics to better understand consumer behavior, optimize supply chains and improve decisions to enhance operations.
The story of tea is one of discovery, trade, culture and community. In each sip, one tastes not just the brew, but the essence of centuries of history, tradition and humble yet remarkable influence.
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