Credit: Susan Burghart
An evergreen shrub from China.
Tea drinking began in China centuries before it was heard of in the west. Legend claims that emperor Shen Nung and his servant found the leaves could be boiled to make a pleasant beverage around 2737 BC. Ancient tea caddies date from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), that tea became the national drink of China.
Tea was introduced to Japan from China around 1200 AD by Japanese Buddhist monks who had travelled there to study. Tea drinking has become a vital part of Japanese culture, as seen in the development of the Tea Ceremony.
It was the Dutch East India Company which first brought tea in bulk to Europe in 1606 from Japan. Imports to England were heavily taxed and expensive. Its monopoly lasted until the 1800s but the British East India Company then overtook the Dutch to be the biggest importer of tea from China. British consumption of tea was around 2lb per person, but by 1901, fuelled by cheaper imports from British colonies in India and Ceylon it had trebled to over 6lbs. Tea was firmly established as part of the British way of life.