Origin of Tea

By most reports, tea was first consumed as a beverage in China sometime between 2700 BC and 220 AD. (This remarkably broad estimate is in part attributable to the difficulty of establishing historical references to tea in the absence of a character in written Chinese specific to tea until sometime in the Tang dynasty.) In any event, by early 8th century, tea was clearly an important part of daily life in China and was first taxed in 780 AD. In the same year the first work specific to tea was published. The The Classic of Tea (Cha Jing) was written by Lu Yu, a poet and scholar commissioned by tea merchants to produce a volume encompassing the sum of contemporary tea knowledge. The work includes information about tea growing, processing, brewing, serving and drinking. Tea has remained a vital part of Chinese life and culture since this era. The style of cultivation, processing and consumption has undergone numerous changes, each succeeding dynasty imparting some of the flavor of the contemporary period to all aspects of the product. The now traditional styles of green, black and oolong teas first made an appearance in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the art of tea came into being and took its place side by side with painting, calligraphy, poetic composition, lute-playing, the martial arts, incense appreciation parties, landscape gardening and other scholarly pastimes.

Tea began to travel as a trade item as early as the fifth century with some sources indicating Turkish traders bartering for tea on the Mongolian and Tibet borders. Tea made its way to Japan late in the sixth century, along with another famous Chinese export - Buddhism. By the end of the seventh century, Buddhist monks were planting tea in Japan. Tea first arrived in the west via overland trade into Russia and to Holland via Japan. Certainly Arab traders had dealt in tea prior to this time, but no Europeans had a hand in tea as a trade item until the Dutch began an active and lucrative trade early in the 17th century. From Holland, tea spread relatively quickly throughout Europe. Oddly enough, although Russia had access to tea, it got off to a very slow start, and tea was already very popular in Europe before being embraced by Czarist Russia. In the New World, tea made an early appearance in New Amsterdam, brought by the Dutch in the mid-17th century. Tea remained a very popular beverage throughout the newly colonized territories until the passage of the infamous 1765 Stamp Act and other taxation vehicles. Ultimately, the American resistance to tea taxes lead to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and since then tea has been forever associated with British imperialism in the minds of Americans.

There are a wide variety of legends surrounding the discovery of tea as a beverage. Here are two favorites. The first, a Japanese legend, has it that Bodhidharma, the Buddhist saint, had meditated for nine years when in a moment of extreme tiredness he had fallen asleep. Angered at his weakness, he tore off his eyelids and cast them to the ground where they sprouted the tea plant whose leaves eventually would aid other Buddhists in successfully staying awake while meditating. According to Chinese, tea was discovered by Shen Nung (2737-2697 BC), a legendary emperor, referred to as the "Father of Agriculture" and "Divine Husbandman," thought to have ruled about 2737 BC. The emperor is also credited with inventing the plow, refining agriculture and animal husbandry, developing herbal medicine and a host of other ideas that led to Chinese civilization. Legend has, while the emperor was boiling water to drink, a tea leaf fell from a nearby plant and infused in the water. The resulting drink was pleasant and became a part of Shen Nung's herbal medicine.

Where did the Name "Tea" Come From?

The word for tea in most of mainland China and in Japan is "cha." (Hence its frequency in names of Japanese teas - Sencha, Houjicha, etc.) But the word for tea in Fujian province is "te" (pronounced "tay"). As luck would have it, the first mass marketers of tea in the West were the Dutch whose contacts were in Fujian. They adopted this name and handed it on to most other European countries. The two exceptions are Russia and Portugal who had independent trade links to China. The Portuguese call it "cha," the Russians "chai." Other areas (such as Turkey, South Asia and the Arab countries) have some version of "chai" or "shai." "Tay" was the pronunciation when the word first entered Britain, and it still is in Scotland and Ireland. For unknown reasons, at some time in the early eighteenth century the English changed their pronunciation to "tee." Virtually every other European language, however, retains the original pronunciation of "tay."

The Monkey Legend

The first Monkey tea allegedly came from Mount Ying-T'ang near Wenchow in Chekiang Province. It is a lonely place haunted by wild beasts, but in the hidden valleys there were numerous monasteries with monks or tenants engaged in farming and fruit growing. According to the legend, a very young novice from Heavenly Wisdom Monastery was looking after some pear trees covered with ripening fruit. Suddenly a large tribe of monkeys came swarming from the forest and set about gobbling up the pears. By the time a few monks came running over in response to the little novice's piercing cries for help, the trees had been stripped and the branches broken. They returned to the monastery with heads held low, expecting a severe scolding from the abbot. Instead, the old man said resignedly, "Heaven commands us to show compassion to all living creatures, and so does the teaching of the Buddha. Things come and go. Moreover, monkeys, like all sentient beings, have a spiritual nature. They have taken our pears. Well, so be it."

Henceforward those holy men allowed the mischievous animals to come and go freely, and the latter, gradually losing their inborn fear of humans, came to regard the monks as friends. The winter that year was unusually cold - heavy falls of snow lay upon trees and mountains and hundreds of pitiful beasts starved to death. After some weeks a horde of ravenous monkeys invaded the monastery grounds and, in an agitated state, ran about half-pleading, half menacing, as though to say, "Please give us food, or else we shall just have to break in and take it." So the abbot ordered that bags of food be taken out and distributed to the monkeys whereupon the animals, responding in loud cries, seized the bags and ran back into the forest.

With the arrival of spring came the time for harvesting tea leaves. While this arduous labor was being performed, monkeys came swarming down from the peak dragging along the old food bags which now bulged with freshly picked young tea leaves. It was as though one's friends were to come back with baskets of peaches to make return for a gift of pears! The tea, having been picked in places inaccessible to the monks, was found to be of unrivaled quality. In view of these circumstances, fine tea from that locality became known as Monkey tea.

Tea Legends

Pi Lo Chun

Bi Luo Chun is one of the ten most famous teas in China. The tea is also known as "Spiral of Spring Jade" or "Green Snail Spring." Bi Luo Chun is mainly produced in Dongting East and West hills near the beautiful Taihu Lake. The best tea is picked at Emerald Spiral Peak in the Dong Ting Mountains. The climate by the lake is humid and the mountains are often enshrouded in mist which keeps the young tea leaves very moist and contributes to the flavor. Among the tea bushes plum, peach, and apricot trees are grown and they are thought to contribute to Bi Luo Chun's sweet aroma and unique taste.

Bi Luo Chun has a history of more than a thousand years. As early as the late Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) the tea was listed as a tribute to the emperors. Originally it was called "Xia Sha Ren Xiang" or "Scaring Tea." There are many legends about how this tea got its first name. One legend says that a nun picked several tea leaves and soaked them with boiled water. The striking fragrance made her say, "what a scary fragrance."

One other legend says that the origin of this name comes from when tea pickers secretly hid leaves in their clothes with the intention of selling it themselves. The combination of the fresh tea leaves and body heat produced a terrible smell. By another account of the same story it was also called "Astounding Fragrance Tea."

In the late seventeenth century Kang Xi, a Manchurian emperor, visited Taihu Lake on his inspection in the south. The governor of Jiangsu served the emperor with Scaring Tea. Kang Xi highly appreciated it but he thought the name was not elegant enough. Since the tea was produced in Biluo Peak in Dongting East Hill, he called it Bi Luo Chun or Green Snail Spring.

The prime time to pick the tea leaves is during the Pure Brightness festival when the buds are jade-green tinged with white. Bi Luo Chun is picked during the spring until April when the spring rains begin. Only one leaf and the bud are plucked. Harvesting is done completely by hand and great skill is required to roll and fire the leaves.


Dragonwell or Lung Ching is the most renowned green tea in China and one of the finest. It is grown on the high peaks of the Tieh Mu mountains near Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province. The best infusions are supposed to be made with water from the Hupao Spring (Tiger Run Spring) from the Tiyun Mountains. Dragonwell is known for its four unique characteristics - the flat shaped leaves, pale jade green color, soft and mellow flavor and its fresh aroma.

The dried leaves are flat and smooth but when it is infused it opens up and one can see that the leaf consists almost entirely of intact buds. The tea is considered to have a cooling effect and is served during the summer and in hot weather. When the tea is steeped, the leaves float with the bud pointing straight up, resembling a pointed spear. This is called Qiqiang, meaning "flagged spear."

According to a legend there was a great drought which threatened crops of tea tended by monks high on the Lion's Peak mountain in 250 AD. A young monk had heard tales of a dragon who lived in a spring near the old monastery. He went to the dragon and prayed for rain. In an instant, clouds rolled over the mountains and the rains came, saving the crop of tea. The spring, which never dried out again, was thus called Dragon's well. Lung Ching was mentioned by Lu Yu in his book.

The best tea is picked before the Clear Light Festival and before the spring rains (Qing Ming and Guyu seasons). The next best grade is called Queshe, meaning "sparrow's tongue."

Lung Ching has four categories: Shi represents Shifeng, Long represents Lung Ching, Yun represents Wuyunshan and Hu represents Hupao. The Shifeng Lung Ching tea accounts for the best. The tea leaves are processed in a hot wok and the tea is not rolled. Pan-frying the leaves requires great skill to match the temperature to the tenderness of the leaves. It is said that one pound of the best Dragonwell contains around 25,000 buds and 25,000 leaves.

Story of Earl Grey

Earl Grey of Howick Hall, near Craster, was one of Britain's most popular Prime Ministers. His 1832 Reform Act completely changed the democratic system in Britain to the system that is used today.

There are many stories about the tea that carries the name of this Prime Minister. In the most popular tale, the tea and recipe was a gift from a wealthy Mandarin to a British envoy either for concluding a successful diplomatic mission or for saving the Mandarin's life. Earl Grey was delighted and in the future always asked his tea merchant, Twinings, for that blend. It became known that the blend was readily available and people would therefore ask for "Earl Grey's tea," hence the name.

Today, Earl Grey is the world's most popular blend and is sold in more than 90 countries. It is blended variously from China tea, Indian

Darjeeling, Ceylon and sometimes even a hint of Lapsang Souchong. Its unique bouquet is a result of the addition of oil of bergamot, a citrus fruit classed between an orange and a lemon in taste.