It is known that the first origins of growing and drinking tea began in China some 4,500 years ago. The Yunnan Province of China is the actual birthplace of tea where people learned they could brew and enjoy tea. Yunnan is the home of the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree found in the rain forest, known as the king of tea trees and about 3,200 years old.
During the last 4,500 years, tea drinking has spread worldwide, with an amazing story of trade and some very interesting clandestine operations in 1848 by Scottish tea botanist, Robert Fortune. The plan? to make tea accessible to the western world.
Here is a brief progression of tea development leading up to the story of Robert Fortune’s journey to China:
2737BC ~Legend claims that the discovery of tea by the Emperor of China. People drank tea for its medicinal qualities and flavor.
1046-256BC ~During Zhou Dynasty tea is part of religious offerings.
202BC ~During the Han Dynasty, tea plants were quite limited and primarily enjoyed by royalty and those who could afford the tea.
618-907AD ~During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monks take seeds to Japan for medicinal use. Monks learned that tea would keep them awake for meditation. Tea is prepared in ceremonial style, called the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Eventually, tea would be made available to more people and enjoyed throughout Japan.
1557 ~A trading port in Macau is operated by Portuguese merchants where the Chinese drink “chá” becomes known.
1800’s ~The Dutch East India Company brought green tea leaves to Amsterdam from China. Tea became available in coffeehouses in Europe.
1839 ~The British East India Company lost its monopoly on tea trade in China. The Emperor of China is concerned about his citizens increasing addiction to opium and cut off tea/opium trade with the British. In the above picture, the mandarin called Li is ordering the destruction of 20,291 bales of opium.
1848 Enter, Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, engaged by the East India Company to make a secret journey deep into China to discover the secrets of growing and manufacturing tea. Fortune’s job is to obtain some of China’s best tea plants and safely smuggle them to India, ending the Chinese monopoly on tea.
Sarah Rose, in her book, ‘For All the Tea in China,” picks up here with the story of Robert Fortune, where we learn how England stole the world’s favorite drink and changed world history. Rose tells the tale of how Robert Fortune is disguised in Mandarin robes and secretly ventured deep into China. Traveling many dangerous roads to the Wu Yi Shan hills, Fortune’s story of the pursuit of tea is certainly a thrilling tale of one of the most daring acts of corporate espionage in history. His success would determine the fate of empires!
Vintage Photos: Belgium doc – Robert Fortune, The Tea Thief (Les Films de la Mémoire) by Diane Perelsztejn
Tea History/ Destroying Opium- Wikipedia
The Origins of Tea/ Teavana
All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose