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Food Culture: Drink your Tea

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 26 May 2014

A history of tea in 488 words.

Teapot, Tibet, China: E61159

Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Food Culture is a blog series with stories that sketch broader context for various cultural practices and artefacts in our collection.

A humble cup of tea is the most common drink in the world - after water. A plant Camellia sinensis – native to Burma and central southern Chinese provinces was first used in China for medicinal purposes. Tea’s health benefits, recognised by modern medicine, are attributed to its antioxidant properties. Tea is helpful in lowering cholesterol levels and reducing body weight, has potential as an anti-cancerous agent, in treating asthma, angina pectoris and a vascular disease.

The idea of tea drinking, in Chinese folklore, is credited to a legendary Emperor Shennong, five thousand years ago. But tea became relatively popular in the second millennium before the Common Era. Later, tea drinking was introduced to Japan (9th century) and also central Asia, including northern India.

Colonial Portuguese adopted tea with enthusiasm and even established the first plantations in the Azores Islands in the Atlantic (over 1600km west of Portugal). It is often asserted that Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705) a Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland and a wife of King Charles II brought tea to the country and to her monarch’s attention.

Tea grew increasingly popular and by 1750 had become the national drink in the United Kingdom. The success of tea had various links in trade, colonialism and the politics of that time. At first it was imported from China as a cargo to stock some half empty merchant ships returning from the East Indies. It soon became a valuable commodity, even more so when drinking tea with sugar, a practice common in England, increased demand for sugar imported from the West Indies - the Caribbean colonies.

For most of the 18th century taxation on tea hovered at about 100% or above – making it a great fiscal contribution to the government coffers and ultimately funding further military adventures. The tax reform of 1784 reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5% - widespread tea smuggling stopped overnight but the quantity consumed increased so much that the government revenue actually increased over time.

But the British addiction to tea resulted in a trade deficit with China, two Opium Wars and devastating promotion of opium use and its large-scale production in India. And the British also established the largest tea plantations outside its native China. Tea growing in Sri Lanka and India in the 19th century ended the Chinese monopoly and eventually tea cultivation was adopted by many countries, including Kenya, Turkey, Iran and Argentina. Even today China produces nearly one third and India and Sri Lanka combined the other third of world tea.

The word tea, derived probably from the Min group of China languages, made a significant influence on English language in nouns such as teacup, teapot, tea towel, tea spoon, teatime and metaphorical expressions such as 'my cup of tea', 'storm in a teacup’, 'not for all the tea in China', 'more tea vicar?', 'I could murder a cup of tea', – to name just a few.

Additional information:

Chay borrowed from Mandarin chá is another common term for tea, less frequently used in English but commonly understood.

In Turkey people drink, on average, over 10 cups of tea per day.