A drink that predates written record, boasts impressive variety, and claims numerous health benefits, is sure to leave us with questions. First thing’s first—where did this popular beverage come from? How did it get here? Dive into the questions, the myths, and the answers. In our new monthly series, we’ll be addressing the most commonly asked questions about tea. Read more to expand your breadth of tea knowledge, starting with the origins of tea.
You Ask, We Answer
Q: Where did tea actually originate?
A: The history of tea is long and complex but based on records, it is thought that tea originated in southwest China during the Shang dynasty as a medicinal drink.
Q: When did people start drinking tea?
A: The earliest physical evidence known to date, comes from the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an. This evidence indicates that tea was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC.
Q: Is there some ancient legend about how someone discovered tea?
A: According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting under a tree while his servant boiled water when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.
Q: What about Japan? When did tea drinking start there?
A: Tea use spread to Japan about the sixth century AD.
Q: How did tea make its way from China to Japan?
A: According to records, a Japanese priest by the name of Saichō, along with other religious figures, were sent to China to learn about the culture and brought batches of tea to Japan.
Q: Has tea been in Korea as long as China and Japan?
A: The first historical record documenting tea in Korea was a ceremonial offering of tea to an ancestral god in the year 661.
Q: We can’t forget about British tea drinking. When did tea become so popular in the United Kingdom?
A: Drinking tea became popular in Britain during the 17th century.
Q: How did tea make its way to the UK?
A: The first record of tea in English came from English merchants abroad. In 1615, Richard Wickham, who ran an East India Company office in Japan, wrote in a letter to merchants in Macao requesting that they bring him “a pot of the best sort of chaw”.
Q: How did tea end up being the most widely consumed in the UK?
A: It was between 1872 and 1884 the supply of tea to the British Empire increased with the expansion of the railway to the east. Then in the first half of the 20th century, London became the center of the international tea trade.
Q: Did the British really bring tea to India?
A: In India, tea has been drunk for medicinal purposes for a long (but uncertain) period, but apart from the Himalayan region it seems not to have been used as a beverage until
The British introduced tea production and consumption to India in order to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea.
Q: What about here in Canada?
A: British colonization brought the consumption of tea with it. After the Second World War Canadians began transitioning from tea drinking to coffee drinking (similar to their neighbours to the south in the United States). The tea consumption in Canada began to increase again in the 1990’s as indicated by a spike in specialty tea sales and success of tea retailers.
- Alan Macfarlane; Iris Macfarlane (2004). The Empire of Tea. The Overlook Press. p. 32. ISBN 1-58567-493-1.
- Chrystal, Paul (October 17, 2014). Tea: A Very British Beverage. Amberley Publishing Limited.
- Houyuan Lu et al. (7 January 2016). “Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau”. Nature. doi:10.1038/srep18955. Retrieved 11 January 2016.
- Liu Tong (2005). Chinese tea. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press. p. 137. ISBN 7-5085-0835-1.
- Mary Lou Heiss; Robert J. Heiss (23 March 2011). The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Random House. p. 31. ISBN 978-1-60774-172-5.
- Nguyen, D. T.; Rose, M. (1987). “Demand for tea in the UK 1874-1938: An econometric study”. Journal of Development Studies. 24 (1): 43. doi:10.1080/00220388708422054.