Flipping aimlessly through a recipe book, I stumbled across a page that looked suspiciously like a timeline. In a recipe book. At least, I was fairly sure it was a recipe book (the previous 23 pages had, at any rate, been populated with recipes). I shut the book and looked at the title – TEA. Oh.
That would explain why all the recipes were for tea, and why it was in the house in the first place. I briefly contemplated testing one of the recipes, but decided that the timeline deserved my attention first, if it indeed was a timeline.
Cue flipping back through the 23 pages to the timeline, which stretched across two pages (24 and 25). It was titled, nearly as succinctly as the book that housed it – “Tea Timeline.” Well, then.
The first point on the timeline was 2737 BC. “Shen Nung, the Second Emperor of China, discovered tea.” Shen Nung sounds like an interesting person. Naturally, there’s only one way to test this: google him.
The first search results turn up the following gem: “Shen Nung, the Father of Chinese medicine, (approximately 2695 BCE) noted for tasting 365 herbs and dying from a toxic overdose …” Oh, lovely. At least I’d found the person who probably inspired the “I Eat Poisonous Herbs Every So Often” myth I shared in October 2010. Now we have a pretty good guess as to how he discovered tea: “Oh look! Here’s an interesting new plant. Let me eat it and hope I don’t die! Oh, it tastes pretty good, and I’m not dead. Let’s call it ‘tea.’”
Time to go back to the book and move past tea’s somewhat shady beginnings. Another key date range on the timeline was 400-600 AD – “The demand for tea rose steadily. Farmers began to cultivate tea, rather than harvest leaves from wild trees.” Time to google “cultivation of tea.” I don’t get much history this time, although I do get a brief overview of what tea needs to grow. “Tea requires a moderately hot and humid climate. Climate influences yield, crop distribution and quality. Therefore, before cultivating tea in a new area, the suitability of the climate is the first point to be considered. Tea grows best on well-drained fertile acid soil on high lands.”
All of which essentially tells me that tea wouldn’t grow particularly well in my backyard. It’s probably good it was discovered in China then, or the idea probably wouldn’t have taken off. Of course, tea probably wouldn’t have been discovered in a place where it didn’t grow well.
Moving onward, then. I skip a couple of the less important dates and make it to 805 AD. “Buddhist monk, Saicho, brought tea seeds from Japan to China.” I’m abruptly confused – wasn’t tea discovered in China, by a Chinese emperor? Naturally, I’m back to the search engine. A quick search of “where was tea first discovered” confirms it was, indeed, China. I glare briefly at the timeline, but push onward anyway.
1206-1368 AD. “Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan conquered Chinese territories and established a Mongolian dynasty. Tea fell from high status and became an ordinary drink.” This sounds like a bad thing at first, until you consider the fact that as an “ordinary drink” it would be consumed much more regularly by many more people. So perhaps tea’s “fall” from high status was a good thing?
Maybe the timeline will tell us. Onward to the next vital point in tea’s evolution: 1610. The Dutch traded dried sage for tea and brought the drink to Europe. And England, which folks often think of when tea comes to mind, apparently didn’t have it until 1657, when “tea was first served in England at Garway’s Coffee House in London.” This implies that coffee was a part of English culture before tea, and yet no one thinks of England when coffee comes up in the conversation.
Moving past the things I already know, I skip the Revolutionary War period and the East India Company and move into the more modern evolution of tea, beginning in 1904, when “Richard Blechynden created iced tea for the St. Louis World Fair.” Or a few years later in 1909, when “Thomas Sullivan invented tea bags by mistake. He sent tea to clients in New York wrapped in silk bags, which they steeped in hot water without opening them.”
The most recent date on the timeline is 2003: “India is the country with the most tea consumption in the world, averaging 651,000 metric tons per year. The USA is the number one consumer of iced tea, consuming between 80% and 85% of our tea in that manner.”
Well, tea’s lasted a long time. And as I flip a few pages forward in the book, I find a quote that sums it up pretty well:
“Steam rises from a cup of tea and we are wrapped in history, inhaling ancient times and lands, comfort of ages in our hands.” – Faith Greenbowl
This article was originally published to T Ching in January of 2012.