Basic history of tea - Mindful Tea Ceremony in Auckland

In January 2023, I started to host regular mindful tea ceremonies in Auckland. My intention was to share this art of tea as a meditation practice from Vietnam, my birth country, to New Zealand, my current home. Tea is the 2nd largest consumed drink in the whole world, just after water. Tea is also the beverage choice of the Buddhist monks to support their meditation practice. It is believed that tea has been around since 2737 BCE.

What is tea? What is not tea? How many types of tea out there?

Tea, or cha is originally used to refer to beverage from leaves of tea plants Camellia sinesis, and sometimes also from Camellia taliensis.

The word "tea" in English came directly from the word te in Min Chinese and teh in Malay. The word "chai" also originated from a northern Chinese pronunciation of cha. In Vietnam, tea is called tra` which is also similar to the pronunciation of cha from China.

Regardless of the rising popularity of herbal tea, the term herbal tea refers to drinks not made from Camellia sinensis. In Asian culture, herbal tea is not tea, they are tisane.

Similarly, there are meat and vegan meat, vegan meat isn't meat from animal at all but has been also called meat. Imagining in the next 100 years when modern language evolves and forgets the original meaning of some certain words. That has been the case with the word tea and herbal tea. Herbal tea isn't tea if there is no "tea" in it, it's herbal being drank as tea. This fact only becomes important when the tea industry has gotten so big with commercial tea brands making million if not billion dollars from their tea products. Quite often, there are a lot of tisanes (herbal teas) being marketed as high end and luxury products but with artificial flavors.

In this article, we won't dive too deep on the effects on the environment of tea industry. However, in mentioning what is tea and what is not tea, my intention is to raise more awareness on conscious consumption of tea. Getting to know the difference of tea and tisane is part of knowing what type of plants we are putting into our bodies. It is about connecting with our body with love and respect as well as connecting with nature by understanding different tea & herbs and potentially what properties they contain.

More information on the etymology of tea here.

There are 6 types of tea: white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, puer tea. They are all tea from the tea plants (camellia sinensis) but being processed with different methods. The ways they being oxidised created different flavors, fragrances and colors. Most of the 6 types of tea have been around for thousands years and stood the test of time with their benefits on human body. Most popular benefits of tea that has been scientific proved are enhancing mood, supporting brain health and supporting gut health.


The ancient story of tea

The ancient history of tea started with the legend of Shennong in China in 2737 BCE. Shennong, the ancient Chinese emperor who is considered the agriculture hero of the nation. He the one that asked people to drink only boiled water. The story shared Shennong discovered tea when some tea leaves felt into the water he was boiling.

However, the very first mentioned of tea in written text was found only in the publication of Lu Yu's "The classic of tea". Therefore, for historians, the period of "The classic of tea" 760-780 CE is the official mark of the history of tea. During this time, tea started to spread over the Han & Tang dynasty in China be very popular amongst the elite. Neighbor countries like Vietnam, Japan, Korea had their scholars and governors being sent to the ancient China kingdom to learn about their culture and also Buddhism. Tea has spread to Northern Vietnam potentially when the ancient China invaded the ancient Northern Vietnam for a thousand years (from Vietnamese historians point of views, Northern Vietnam was heavily influenced by Chinese culture as that was a part of ancient China's ruling strategies to bring in Chinese culture, language and belief).

In ancient China, tea was in competition with wine to be a popular drink. And at some point, tea was encouraged to plant to replace the use of all rice to make wine. This was when the country was facing the threat of lacking food when everyone making wine from rice. Tea was planted more and got even more popular. There are many tea houses started to pop up and became the gathering places for artists, politicians and poets. There are also a famous text written called "The debate between tea & wine" or 茶酒論 in Chinese, a satirical text of the Tang dynasty which shares a dialogue between the personified substances of tea and wine (or alcohol). The text revealed the customs and ideas associated with the two popular beverages and also the metaphor representing a discussion of philosophy and spirituality in using tea comparing to wine (or alcohol).

The tea seeds got taken to Japan & Korea to grow tea plants. And the Tea Horse road also started for the Chinese to trade tea with the Tibetan for their horses. Tea became such a good addition to a Tibetans' diet as it helped digesting heavy food better. Then tea was also traded to Middle East along the famous Silk road.

In the Song dynasty, tea would be ground and whisk. The Japanese developed this tradition into their Japanese tea ceremony. The Ming dynasty came with many innovations of clay pots, gaiwan and small cups. This was the first modern era of tea in which the whole tea leaf was used, the ways of making oolong tea & black tea came around this time.

In the 16th and 17th century, tea started to be brought to Europe through trade ship. The princess of Portugal got the experience tea and felt in love with the beverage. She later married into the British royal family and became Queen Catherine. Tea was first imported to England in 1650s. Queen Catherine popularised tea in the high society of England in that everyone wanted to drink the fancy beverage especially in high class gatherings.

Tea kept spreading in the West from here.

Tea ceremony in Auckland

My first public Tea ceremony with the tradition of Northern Vietnam was held in January 2023 in Auckland Central. It was the first time I was being able to share the art of Vietnamese mindful tea offering with 5 other women.

Growing up with this tradition, I was never curious to learn about where it originally came from. Only when I started to share the tradition, I realised there was so much I didn't know about this part of the culture.

Before my first tea ceremony in Auckland, I was lucky enough to spend the whole month in Vietnam to learn more about the art of tea at different tea houses and tea farms. My studying on tea has been going over a year since with reading, researching and participating in courses. There are so much more to learn and it has been so fun & fascinating.

Thank you so much for reading this little sharing.


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