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Steeped in Tradition: The History of Tea

The Origins of Tea

Tea, found in countless coffee shops and home pantries worldwide, has a rich history dating back thousands of years. The history began in 2737 BCE when legend states Emperor Shen Nung of China was sitting under a Camellia Sinensis tree while his servant boiled water. Suddenly, a soft wind blew dried leaves from the tree into the pot, and Shen Nung, a dedicated herbalist, decided to taste the curious concoction.

Although there is no definitive evidence that this story is true, tiny tea leaves dating to as late as 141 BCE were found within the Han Yangling Museum in Xi’an, China. While tea is one of the most popular drinks globally, it also serves an important ceremonial aspect that varies across almost every different culture. Read on to discover its mesmerizing past, evolution and modern usage in society.

Ceremonial Tea in China

Tea Merchants (detail). 19th Century. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Source.
  Tea Merchants (detail). 19th Century. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Source.

Chinese tea culture began in the Han Dynasty as a special drink reserved for the utmost royalty: the Emperor. By the Jin (220-265 CE) and Wei (266-420 CE) periods, tea drinking expanded in popularity to the upper classes, namely scholar-officials, Buddhist monks and other royal family members. Before the Tang Dynasty, refined tea was considered a social drink that was used medicinally, for ceremonial purposes as a sacrifice or tribute, or as an energizer.

The Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) saw the flourishing of tea as both an art form and a daily necessity. At this point, only green tea was consumed. It was during this era that tea culture spread into all parts of society as a social activity, thus marking the beginning of tea houses. People gathered, cups in hand, to enjoy the beverage, engage in stimulating conversation and appreciate performances. In this way, tea became a means of fostering community. Also, during this era, the Tea Horse trade route between China and Tibet expanded greatly, making tea even less expensive.

Between 760 and 762 CE, The Classic of Tea by tea connoisseur Lu Yu was published. The monograph outlined the history of tea and its cultivation and conflated tea drinking with spiritual morality. Lu Yu’s classic book elevated tea drinking to an important civilized element of Chinese culture.

Beyond the casual imbibing at tea houses, more formal tea ceremonies were also performed on special occasions. For example, at a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony, cha dao, the bride and groom serve tea to their respective families. A full set, including a teapot, teacups, tea strainer, kettle, tea leaves and a tea leaf holder, is needed to conduct a ceremony.

Chinese tea ceremonies emphasize mindfulness and respect and the olfactory component of tea, so the aroma of the tea is keenly preserved throughout the entire event. Various teas are used for the ceremonies, such as green, black, oolong, or, in the case of the wedding ceremony, a sweet tea to symbolize happiness in the new union.

Tea Around the World

Tourists are still able to hike along the Ancient Tea Horse Road in central Tibet. 2006. Source.
  Tourists are still able to hike along the Ancient Tea Horse Road in central Tibet. 2006. Source.

In the eighth century, Buddhist monks brought tea from China into Japan for the first time, where it was mainly used for religious purposes in the early years of Japanese tea use. Tea culture in Japan did not increase in popularity until between 1141 and 1215 CE when the Zen monk Eisai planted the first seeds from China.

Japanese monks would drink finely ground tea leaves mixed with hot water to aid with meditation or for medicinal benefits. Eisai also exposed the samurai, or nobility, class to tea when he served tea to young shōgun Minamoto no Sanetomo.
Zen Buddhists argued tea was central to the religion, with one monk exclaiming, “Tea and Zen are one.” With the innovative method of shading the tea trees to increase the color and flavor of the leaves, green tea became a staple among the highest classes of Japan.

In the 15th century, the first shoin chanoyu, or tea room, was constructed by Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa to hold tea ceremonies. Inspired by the study rooms of Zen monks, the room created a serene environment. The architecture and muted decor emphasized simplicity and harmony. The austerity of the shoin chanoyu was the predecessor to the formal chanoyu tea ceremony largely promulgated by tea master Sen no Rikyū.


The Japanese Tea Ritual & Ceremony

Sen no Rikyū is considered the most important developer of the Japanese “Way of Tea,” or tea ceremony. Unlike the extravagant tea ceremonies practiced in politics, Rikyū advocated for the wabicha style, emphasizing a rustic, austere environment.

Based on wabi-sabi, a Japanese worldview centered on accepting transcience and imperfection, the Japanese tea ceremony is held in a chashitsu, or specially designed austere room with a tatami floor, a low ceiling, and separate entrances for guests and the host. Shinto architecture influenced the chashitsu’s architectural style and ensured a harmonious experience for the host and the guest. For example, tea rooms often feature a small entrance, requiring participants to humble themselves as they enter.

Each action in the tea ceremony holds symbolic meaning, and the ritual fosters a sense of presence and appreciation. Among the most treasured artifacts of Japanese earthenware is this exceptional Satsuma vase depicting a tea ceremony, a testament to Japan’s rich artistic heritage.

Blue Satsuma Vase with Tea Ceremony. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.

  Blue Satsuma Vase with Tea Ceremony. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.

Exquisitely hand-painted and gilded, the vase shows a serene tea ceremony replete with intricate patterns and meticulous attention to detail. Such craftsmanship depended on a high price from the artists, with legend suggesting that the finest Satsuma painters would go blind due to the extreme detail of their work.

The striking cobalt blue background, contrasted with the radiant gold gilding, dates this piece to the period after 1870. Satsuma earthenware epitomizes the quintessential art form of the Meiji period. Originating in the 17th century and fully developed by 1790, this luminous style features overglaze enamel and gilded detailing with nature-inspired designs.

By the 19th century, human and architectural details became prominent. While this vase centers around three human figures, a harmonious landscape makes up the background. Satsuma ware, crafted initially near Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island by Korean potters for the Shimazu family, gained international acclaim after being showcased at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Despite the small size, measuring a mere 2 1/4 inches tall, the scene provides a perfect understanding of the choreography of the Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony begins with the host preparing the tea room. Once the guests are seated, the host meticulously cleans each tea utensil, including the tea bowl (chawan), which is depicted in the center of the vase, tea whisk (chasen), and tea caddy (natsume).

The ritual purification underscores the importance of each tool and the mindfulness of the tea ceremony practice. The tea preparation itself also has a specific sequence of steps: the host scoops the powdered green tea (matcha) into the bowl, adds hot water, and uses the whisk to create a frothy mixture.

The tea is then served to the guests with a series of formal gestures. The first guest receives the bowl, bows in gratitude, and admires the bowl’s craftsmanship before taking a sip. This final moment of reflection and appreciation is central to the ceremony’s spiritual depth. The bowl is wiped clean and passed to each guest, repeating the ritual until all have partaken.
Satsuma Tea Jar. Meiji Period (1868-1912). M.S. Rau.

  Satsuma Tea Jar. Meiji Period (1868-1912). M.S. Rau.

Complementing this vase is an enchanting Satsuma tea jar. This ceramic jar features Buddhist monks adorned with gold-gilded halos and intricately patterned clothing set against a backdrop of peaceful mountainous scenery.

The monks seem to be examining a collection of handscrolls that are rolled together in a large jar. The geometric designs executed throughout add a tasteful aesthetic touch that draws the viewer’s eye to the scene. On the underside is a signature for “Kinkozan,” along with the Shimazu family crest, which is the ruling clan of the Satsuma Province in Japan.

In the context of the tea ceremony, the tea jar, or chatsubo, stored the loose-leaf tea, ensuring its freshness and quality. The jar is often brought into the team room in a ceremonial fashion. The detailed depictions of the monks on the jar highlight the spiritual undertones of the ceremony, influenced by Zen Buddhism.

Much like the Satsuma vase and jar capturing its essence, the Japanese tea ceremony blends art, culture and spirituality. The vase and the ceremony reflect a profound attention to detail, an appreciation for wabi-sabi, and a deeply rooted respect for tradition.

Objets d’Art at the Tea Ceremony

Silver Japanese Hand Warmer

  Japanese Silver Rabbit Hand-Warmer. Circa 1890-1900 CE. M.S. Rau.

Given the ritual nature of the tea ceremony, more formal events would take several hours to complete. The simplified nature of the tea room meant only a single hearth warmed the space in the winter.

However, participants in the noble classes often brought special hand warmers to the tea ceremony, such as the stunningly rare Meiji-era rabbit hand warmer. Made from pure silver between 1890 and 1900 CE, this extraordinary object’s interior would have been filled with a mixture of sand, fragrant wood chips, and charcoal. Once warm, the playful design invited the guests to place their hands on the creature's sides during the frigid ceremony.

As finely crafted as it is endearing, this rabbit hand warmer was expertly crafted with 99.9% pure silver. Made during the Meiji period, when metal artisans were finally free from the obligation to produce only metal weaponry for the samurai class, this object showcases one artisan's unique creative endeavor. Signed Eizan in Japanese, the silver rabbit hand-warmer captures the zenith of artistic achievement during the illustrious Meiji period.

Indian Tea Traditions

Much like China and Japan, tea in India has a rich history, dating back to ancient times when it was used for medicinal purposes. However, it was not until the British colonial conquest of India in the 19th century that tea became one of India's major crops and exports.

In the early 1820s, the British East India Company began large-scale tea production in Assam, India, using the traditional tea crops from the Singpho people of northeastern India. By 1840, the Assam Tea Company was established, and commercial production of black tea in the region expanded.

By the turn of the 20th century, Assam became the leading tea-producing region in the world, a title it still holds today. Moreover, tea plants in the Darjeeling region of northern India were first planted in the mid-1800s using a Chinese strain, for the British sought an alternative supply of tea apart from China.

In India, tea preparation involves boiling black tea leaves with spices, milk and sugar to create chai, a staple in Indian households. The ceremonial aspects of chai can vary depending on regional customs and family traditions.

After India gained independence in 1947, the country began asserting greater control over its resources and industries. By the 1950s and 1960s, many British-owned tea plantations had transferred to Indian ownership. This included legislation to support the tea industry and ensure its development under Indian management, such as establishing the Tea Board of India in 1953.

The British Tea Craze

Indian-grown black tea proved extremely popular in Britain because of its strength and its financial value to their empire. The production of tea in India meant prices steadily fell and access increased for the working class. Furthermore, the Temperance movement of the early 19th century promoted tea drinking as an alternative to beer. By the end of the century, tea was the dominant drink for all classes during the Victorian era.

Part of this popularity was the fashionability of afternoon tea, popularized by Anna, Duchess of Bedford. Afternoon tea includes fine china tea sets, a selection of teas that are most often black teas, like Earl Grey, and an array of finger foods such as sandwiches, scones and pastries. This social event not only required a special dishware set but often included particular furniture.
Rosewood Tea Table

  Rosewood Tea Table. Circa 1815. M.S. Rau.

This beautiful table made of rosewood is a fine early example of a tea table produced during the Regency period. Tea tables were a must-have for a British afternoon tea, as they were the central points for people to come together and engage in discussions over a cup of tea.

This table, in excellent condition for its age, features a folding top of a rich patina and delicate sabre legs, the hallmark of high-quality Regency works. The wood is called rosewood not for the color of the exotic wood which came from India or Brazil, but for the sweet odor of roses when it is newly cut.


Tea in the Dinner Service

In Western countries during the 19th and 20th centuries, serving tea became integral to dinner services, symbolizing social refinement and cultural sophistication. Tea was not only a social lubricant but also a comforting beverage that brought people together and offered a soothing conclusion to the meal.

The presentation and consumption of tea were marked by meticulous attention to detail, reflecting the values of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Fine china tea sets and luxurious silver tea services were essential components. Even dinner services, such as the 128-piece set by Fabergé, included tea-drinking elements that added a layer of opulence to the tea ritual.

  128-piece Silver Service by Fabergé. Circa 1894. M.S. Rau.

This Fabergé silver dinner service features six rare samovar teacups and a tea strainer that matches the delicate foliate engravings and partial gilding of the entire set. Fabergé was founded in 1842 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, by Gustav Fabergé. In 1872, Peter Carl Fabergé took over his father's small jewelry atelier and transformed it into the world's most important decorative arts enterprise. The firm developed a devoted clientele, including the Romanov Imperial family. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to the Romanov dynasty, and Peter Carl Fabergé was exiled to Switzerland.

The gleaming silver pieces, with their intricate engravings and polished surfaces, enhanced the aesthetic appeal of the tea table. The choice of tea itself, whether robust black teas like Darjeeling or Assam or more delicate green teas, was carefully curated to complement the accompanying foods. Thus, the ritual of brewing and serving tea with these exquisite silver pieces signified a moment of relaxation and conversation, reinforcing tea's role as a cornerstone of social interaction in Western culture.

Worldwide Appreciation

The journey of tea from ancient China to modern Western dining tables illustrates its universal appeal and cultural significance. From the mystical origins under Emperor Shen Nung to the elaborate ceremonies of Japan, tea has evolved into a symbol of hospitality, mindfulness, and social connection.

The evolution of tea culture showcases the blend of artistry, tradition and social customs that continue to shape our appreciation of this timeless beverage. Whether in a traditional Japanese tea room or a modern-day coffee shop, drinking tea remains a cherished ritual that brings people together, offering moments of conversation and shared enjoyment.


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