History of Tea; How Tea became Essential in Families around the World!

Written by: Azka Yamin & Dee Champ

Do you ever wonder how your morning cup of tea came to be such an essential part of your routine? Well like everything in this world tea has a story, tea has evolved over centuries to get to your tea pot. They say tea leaves have stories to tell, let’s today hear about these magic leaves that are found in basically every kitchen of this world in one form or the other.

Tea is said to be a discovery of the legendary Chinese emperor Shennong (Wexler, 2019). He is known to be the founder of traditional Chinese medicine. Legends have it that Shennong had a transparent body and could test the effect of different herbs on himself. This was what laid the foundation of herbal medicine. Once he was burning some twigs and the leaves on fire were carried by hot air into a burning cauldron of water resting close by (Gaden S Robinson, 1994). He loved the taste of the infusion so much, it compelled him to research about the medicinal properties of the tea. The stories of tea’s origin vary in different parts of the world. Indian folk tales say it was an Indian saint, Prince Bodhi Dharma, who is attributed to the discovery of tea. Prince Dharma is also the founder of Zen school of Buddhism. He vowed to meditate for nine years and towards the end of his meditation he fell asleep. Distraught, he cut his eyelids off and threw them on the ground. It is said that a tea plant sprouted the place where those cut-off eyelids fell as a symbol of the sanctity of his sacrifice (Watts, 1957). The plant that sprung up is today scientifically known as Camellia sinensis, more commonly known as ‘the tea plant’ or ‘the tea shrub’.

Tea plants originated in the eastern parts of Asia, Burma and China. The tradition emerged there and then travelled around the globe making it the second most popular drink after water. An ancient Chinese physician Hua Tuo used cannabis plant leaves as an anesthetic during surgeries and later went on to study other plant infusions for their therapeutic purposes (Li, 2008). It was later until in 628 A.D in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D) that tea actually became so popular that the government had to impose tea tax. At this point in history, tea was officially recognized as the national drink of China (Benn, 2004).

Japan was introduced to tea in the 9th century. This was done by a Buddhist monk Saicho who was travelling and studying in China. On his way back home, he brought back some seeds and grew them at his monastery. When the plants sprouted, and his fellow monks liked how those leaves tasted when infused and decided to follow in his steps. In this way tea plants took up spaces at different monasteries (Watts, 1957). Tea actually became popular in Japan in the thirteenth century and today the Japanese way of brewing tea is famous all around the world.

Tea making has taken multiple forms to the present day. We make tea in different ways around the globe, but the one common practice is for us to steep tea leaves in water and let them brew. We let them sit for a while and when the taste of the leaves has gotten to the water, we drink it out of the pot. It’s a ritual for most people but this started in the Ming Dynasty in China in the fourteenth century. They called it ‘the sinking tea’. Tea was considered an essential part of advocacy because it allowed them to think straight (Benn J. A., 2015). Tea was and still is an essential part that honors the Chinese culture.

The time period between 15th to 17th centuries is termed as the Age of Exploration. This is the time when European ships sailed in all different directions looking for new trade routes. Tea did not make a lasting appearance in the west until then, the age of discovery and exploration. A Portuguese merchant is attributed to bringing tea to the western part of the world when he was campaigning between Portugal and China (Anderson, 2000). This is when the Dutch come into the picture. While they were also travelling the world for trade, they traded tea from China and Japan to Europe. Similarly, the Russians got their tea via camels as opposed to the Dutch ship. Their tea took the Silk Road from China to get to them. So, by the 16th century tea had at least been introduced to the world; East and West. Since most of it was being imported from the east the imported plant came away expensive and was available to noblemen of the areas.

When the Dutch imported tea made it to Britain an Englishman, Thomas Garraway, in 1657 opened a shop in London to sell the imported tea. He was the first tea retailer in London (BBC, 2020). Then began the birth of the English tea love affair. Coffee and tea on two scales of the balance, tea won the hearts of English people. Further legitimacy to this affair was lent by the marriage of English king Charles the second with the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, who adored tea. She also introduced the concept of ‘Tea time’ in English courtrooms (Wynne, n.d.).

From there on tea travelled with the British to different parts of the world. With this new vector, tea took different forms in Africa, India and Oceania. This started in the 19th century. It first originated in South Africa where the English started its cultivation to ensure there were new sources of supply. Then, German settlers experimented with tea cultivation on the slopes of Mount Cameroon and in Tanzania. Today Kenya in Africa is the third largest tea producer in the world after China and India (Chen, 2020). The British with East India Company set up the tea trade between China, India and the rest of the world. Trade expanded and so did their power and control over these areas until the trade was threatened by the American colonies. In the later part of the eighteenth-century Americans took over the tea trade with the Boston Tea Party. The power monopoly played on for a few decades. New powers came and went on to see their demise, the only thing that stood the test of time was the public’s love of tea.

Tea contains various different antioxidants that have the ability to fight off all invasive attacks on your body. It strengthens the body to deal with such attacks in a diluted way that adds to the profit of your health daily, little by little. It helps deal with allergies. How many times have you simply resorted to a cup of tea after a piercing headache because sometimes there’s more to it than just the morphological pain. in those moments all you need is to catch your breath in the storm of this world and have a cup of tea with a moment’s peace. Recently the world has been engulfed by a pandemic. The Corona Virus Disease 2019(CoViD-19) has been a challenge for every single person around the world, for some more than others. This respiratory disease starts with a sore throat and flu-like symptoms. Different home remedies have been recommended by health professionals to boost your immune system.

Homemade teas of plants like camellia sinensis, ginger, lemon and cinnamon have topped those lists because of their richness in antioxidants. This respiratory disease causes breathing to become uncomfortable and a hot cup of tea with a shot of honey can work wonders in both treating and boosting the immune system. It is known to have antiviral properties and helps fight off cardiovascular diseases, dementia and fine tunes brain towards a healthy mental health system. This shows how important both mental and physical health are; none can do without the other.

Tea today is found in various forms around the world; with and without milk, plain old hot tea, iced tea and the very common commercially available tea bags. Today it comes in different flavors with cinnamon, lemon, lemon grass, jasmine, cardamom and various others added to the original mixes commercially available. The first thing one looks forward to after a tiring day at work is a relaxing time with a good cup of tea. Tea parties are a center stage of socializing all over the world. The cup of tea might look insignificant, but it brings people close in the world that is hell bent on putting them apart. It lends the reality that every modern technology has taken away. What started as a therapeutic Chinese legend has become an essential part of human life today, second to water. This is a perfect example of mistakes breeding rituals.




Anderson, J. M. (2000). The History of Portugal.

BBC. (2020). Time for a cuppa: Eight things you didn't know about tea. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3YkCpF7l9ySDf1cQCRffxwN/time-for-a-cuppa-eight-things-you-didnt-know-about-tea

Benn, C. D. (2004). China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang dynasty.

Benn, J. A. (2015). Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History. doi:10.21313/hawaii/9780824839635.001.0001

Chen, A. (2020, September 17). The World's Top Tea-Producing Countries. Retrieved from world atlas: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-worlds-top-10-tea-producing-nations.html

Gaden S Robinson, J. R. (1994). 365 Days of Nature and Discovery.

Li, H. (2008). The origin and use of cannabis in eastern asia linguistic-cultural implications. doi:10.1007/BF02861426

Watts, A. (1957). The Way of Zen. Vintage Books.

Wexler, P. (2019). Toxicology in Antiquity. Wyomissing, Pennsylvania: Elsevier Inc. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/C2017-0-01672-5

Wynne, S. M. (n.d.). Catherine [Catherine of Braganza, Catarina Henriqueta de Bragança]. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/4894