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Listen to part of a lecture in a world history class.
Professor: Now, according to Chinese legend, the first person to drink tea was a Chinese emperor who lived nearly 5000 years ago. This emperor was, oh, you could call him an amateur scientist. And he wisely required all drinking water to be boiled for hygiene. So, once, emm, when visiting some distant part of his empire, he noticed that a breeze had blown some leaves into his pot of boiling water and these leaves turned the water kind of brown. So, well, would it be your first impulse to drink this? Probably not. But he thought the resulting brews smell pretty good. And in the name of science and discovery, he tasted it. And the practice of drinking tea was born.
Oh, well, a good story. But actually we cannot say with any certainty just who first discovered how to make tea. We can be confident though, that the Chinese have been using it in some form for close to 5000 years. And from those earliest times, more and more tea was cultivated to meet the growing demand, and tea became an important part of the economy of China. In fact, it was formed into sort of bricks, and used as a common type of currency for trade. But its effect on Chinese culture was even more profound. Tea became extremely popular in China, and scholars even wrote works discussing how to grow tea, prepare it, drink it, really championing tea; one of them saying it was like the sweetest dew of heaven.
Now, recommendations like this could only add to its huge popularity there. But tea was also spreading throughout Asia. In Japan, perhaps even more than in China, tea became a major cultural symbol, and one of refinement of etiquette and aesthetics. Well, best seen in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which is still performed today. This is an intricate formal ritual, emm, ceremony that can take hours to complete.Clearly, tea became not just a beverage in Japanese culture but much much more. Tea eventually got to western Europe, after European traders, mainly Portuguese and Dutch, brought the first small commercial shipment of tea back to Europe. Unfortunately, it was mostly just treated as a curiosity, since no one knew quite how it was supposed to be used.
A few has some pretty strong opinions though. One German doctor wrote a book saying tea was harmful, actually poisonous. But at about the same time, another doctor from Holland wrote another book calling tea ‘a miracle cure for just about everything’. Who to believe?
So, anyway, tea didn’t really catch on in Germany or France, as something just to enjoy drinking, they seem to prefer coffee. But England did take to tea. And to an extent that nobody could have foreseen. Such that, even today we tend to associate England, Great Britain with tea. And, well, a bit of perspective, at the start of the 18th century, almost nobody in England drank tea. But by the end of it, almost everybody did. By the 1750s, official records show tea imports up from almost nothing to about 20 million kilos. And those records didn’t even begin to account for all the tea smuggled into the country illegally to avoid paying taxes. And as for reasons for the popularity of tea there, well, tea first became fashionable after the king of England married a Portuguese princess who loved tea. And pretty soon, more and more people started copying her and drinking tea. Later, when a direct trade route was established between China and England, the supply of tea greatly increased. Most important though, tea drinking became sociable. And although coffee houses or tavern were generally considered to be for men only, tea shops became places where women could come. And even bring their families. And soon there were tea parties, books on tea etiquette, and even tea gardens—parks filled with lights and walkways and venues for musical performances, places where people of all social classes could go to drink tea and socialize. By the end of the 18th century, all classes of English society drank tea, from royalty to common workers. Tea became a staple of everyday life, part of the common culture, and traditionally considered by many, the very mark of being English.
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