The origins of Tea are shrouded in mystery every country has its own legends surrounding its origins. Perhaps the most famous is the Chinese story of the Emperor Shen Nong. One day, in the year 2737 BC, he was boiling some water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron, giving the water a golden hue. Intrigued, the emperor exclaimed:
“That which Heaven sends, brings harmony into our soul.”
With that, he tasted the resulting brew, and the beverage of tea was born.

Tea is one of the major Chinese contributions to humanity and civilization. China is without doubt the tea plant’s country of origin, and the Chinese people the first to discover and use it. Over the centuries, the custom of drinking tea has given rise to an immense industry populated with many unique products. Here is a taste of how it all began and the spread of the use of tea in China


Tea has been consumed in China since time immemorial. The leaves of the tea plant, native to the area bordering with China, Laos and Myanmar, were already used as a bitter medicinal herb between the eleventh and the eighth century BC, as revealed in early sources, in which the ancient word “tu” is used to denote the tea plant as a healing remedy. The Chinese consider the area of Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan, the birthplace of tea, and here many wild tea plants can still be found to this day. The first plantations were established in the fourth century AD, in Yunnan and Sichuan. Originally, tea was only consumed as a beverage in the ancient Ba-Shu, in southwest China. When trade and cultural exchanges intensified, the practice of drinking tea spread along the Yangtze River and in the Central Plains. Tea culture made its first shy appearance during the Wei and Jin dynasties and the Southern and Northern Dynasties, when economic and cultural exchanges and the unification of north and south spread consumption further north. During the ancient Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the provinces of Changsha, Hunan and Chaling became tea production hubs.


The powerful Tang dynasty (618-907) boasted a strong economy and a flourishing culture. Tea became fashionable at this time and further prospered under the Song dynasty. The reasons are to be found in the birth and spread of the Chan Buddhist sect. The followers of this sect had to refrain from eating and sleeping at night, but were allowed to drink tea. As the sect’s following increased, the practice became a habit. Another reason why the tea culture began to flourish during this period was the custom of offering tea as a tribute to the emperor. This period saw the publication of the first book dedicated to this drink, the renowned The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu, which was a landmark event in the establishment of the tea culture.

Venerated as the god of tea, Lu Yu (733-804) provided a broad overview of the origins, history, production, processing, infusion and tasting of tea, based on the teachings of his predecessors and the extensive research to which he devoted his life. His first monograph raised tea tasting to an art form. Many tea varieties existed at this time. Mainly produced in round “cakes,” the drink was generally prepared though boiling. Moreover, attractive preparation and serving sets began to make their appearance at the Tang imperial court.
In 641, Princess Wencheng brought tea to Tibet as part of her dowry. From that moment on, tea began to be sold in large quantities on the border with China, and was introduced in the north east and south east as a valuable asset. Tea started to be traded in exchange for horses, a practice that lasted for over a thousand years, through the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. The Tibetans, who lived on a high plain feeding primarily on butter, beef and mutton, willingly bought tea to aid digestion and keep warm. Tibet did not produce tea, and so a robust trade was established based upon an exchange of tea for horses. The ancient Tea-Horse Road became an established trade route.


The Song dynasty (960-1279) introduced a highly developed tea culture, tending towards refinement and luxury. Greater importance was given to civil rather than military affairs. Consequently, a refined intellectual class blossomed, which produced several works of literature on the tea ritual. Emperor Hui Zong, born Zhao Ji (1 082-1135), wrote the famous Treatise on Tea (Da Guan Cha Lu), the most detailed and authoritative description of the sophisticated tea ceremony in vogue during the Song Dynasty. Methods for preparing tea evolved from boiling, to infusion, a technique that involves both artistic and technical skills.

Song tea was characterized by round bundles known as dragon and phoenix tea cakes. Production of these cakes evolved on such a wide scale that as many as 4000 varieties developed. Another distinctive feature of the time was given by competitions in the art of tea preparation and serving, which became universally popular among aristocrats, scholars and ordinary people alike. The popularity of these competitions triggered an intense production of tea pottery, such as the black glazed cups typically used during the preparation rite. Tea houses flourished during this period. Many tea houses traded in dresses and paintings, in addition to offering tea. During the Southern Song dynasty, the japanese monks Enni Bernen and Nanpo Jomin studied Buddhism in Zhejiang, respectively in 1235 and 1259. Upon returning home, they brought back tea seeds and the dictates of tea serving.

Eisai, a prominent Japanese monk, also went to China to study the Buddhist scriptures, once in 1169 and then again in 1187, and he too returned to his motherland with seeds and the art of tea making. He later wrote a book called Kicha Yojoki (How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea), the first ever Japanese book on tea. To this day, the Japanese tea ceremony, Cha No Yu, is based on the tea powder and brush technique in vogue at the time of the Song Dynasty.


During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the art of tasting tea underwent substantial changes. The practice in use during the Tang and Song dynasties of boiling or infusing tea powder was replaced by the infusion of tea leaves in boiling water. In 1391, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang issued an edict according to which loose tea could be offered in tribute instead of tea cakes. This was because loose tea was becoming appreciated for its simplicity and for the way it preserved the natural flavor of tea. Tea competitions fell out of fashion, and as powdered leaves were no longer in use, accessories such as metal or stone mortars, stoves and brushes, were abandoned in favor of terracotta and porcelain teapots. A particularly fine and permeable clay, rich in iron, was discovered roughly midway through the Ming dynasty in Fixing, in the jiangsu province. Since then, the best teapots are made with this clay, which helps to enhance the natural flavor of tea.

During the Ming dynasty, monarchical absolutism and centralization of power reached their peak, making it impossible for many intellectuals and artists to express their talent. As a result, they turned to other activities, such as travelling, music, chess, painting and calligraphy, all practices that coexist harmoniously with tea drinking. Many tea experts in the Ming dynasty were, in fact, eminent scholars.


During the early phase of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), tea spread throughout the world. Chinese tea exports increased rapidly, reaching a record production in 1886. Chinese tea had monopolized the world market, although shortly afterwards exports experienced a significant drop as China lost its overseas markets in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Japan, where local cultivations had taken root. During the Qing dynasty, the Chinese tea culture became a part of family life. Gradually, the Chinese tea ceremony also became widespread in the Western world.
There was a great proliferation of tea houses, public tea houses became pivotal to the everyday life of Chinese subjects, and fulfilled the function of meeting and entertainment centers. This led to the development of an extraordinary and diverse tea house culture.
Many specialized shops also began to crop up. The early twentieth century saw a significant boost in the tea industry in the regions of Jiangxi, Anhui and Zhejiang, where new tea cultivation and processing techniques were designed and developed. In 1940, the Agricultural College of Fudan University, in Shanghai, set up the first specialized tea training course.


The Portuguese and the Dutch are responsible for bringing tea to Europe. The Portuguese were the first to taste the drink, but the Dutch, were the main importers of goods from the East. Tea was loaded into the holds of Dutch ships to fill in any space left over by other goods. It wasn’t until 1637 that the Dutch East India Company sensed its profit potential. The Dutch soon became aficionados of the drink. Gradually, tea began to take hold in Germany and France. News about the Eastern drink and its health benefits also reached England, where it was warmly greeted.

Tea had already been in use in Russia since 1567, imported from China via caravan routes, and indeed the country had developed an original method for its preparation through the use of the samovar. Tea reached America in the mid 1600’s, when the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, or present day New York. Tea is thought to have reached Italy at the hands of the Bersaglieri veterans of the Crimean War in 1855.