2737BC. The passage of time from 2737BC to 2014 is almost incomprehensible to me. The change, the modernisation, the evolution. What is the significance of this date?
This is the year tea was discovered.
Yes, in 2737BC, in China, the Chinese emperor stumbled across a mysterious potion after leaves from the camellia sinensis plant accidentally fell into the water his servant was boiling for him to drink. As a herbalist, he embraced the opportunity to try a new concoction, sipped the delicate liqueur and immediately fell in love; a love that has been shared by billions of people since.
But it is mind blowing to think that tea has been consumed by people for over 4000 years. And perhaps even stranger to think that in Britain, we have only been drinking tea (our saviour, our comfort, our ‘pack-your-kettle-last-so-it’s-the-first-thing-out-the-lorry’) for a short 400 years.
Even so, this is an incredible amount of time to develop the traditions and conventions associated with drinking it, and the tea drinking ritual is one steeped in cultural customs.
It is perhaps a generalisation, but when we think of tea drinking rituals, it is the Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies that immediately spring to mind: formality, silence, connections to nature, tea as a gift, a way of offering thanks or apologies to a relative.
Rule-governed and purposeful tea drinking? The officialism appears alien to us.
On reflection though, perhaps there is ritualism in our own tea consumption. Doesn’t tea follow meal times, help calm our nerves, welcome us home after work, or welcome friends over (imagine not offering a friend a brew after knocking on your door. Ultimate social faux pas), lift our spirits and console us? Although we do not wear robes or kneel down, tea does have significance: comfort, safety, friendship. If this isn’t our tradition, then I don’t know what is.
Tea is not just enjoyed in the countries mentioned above. Tea has successfully bewitched people in every continent across the globe, which has led to it being branded as the second most widely consumed beverage on the planet after water. Tea’s ability to permeate cultures has arguably enabled it to survive these 4000 years, each bringing their own traditions and quirks in which to celebrate this distinctive liquid.
And this is what we will here explore; how tea drinking traditions differ in some of the top tea drinking regions of the world.
As mentioned above, in China the consumption of tea is ceremonial. Not only do the Chinese people celebrate tea, but they use tea to formally celebrate or consolidate occasions, such as serving tea at family gatherings, as a symbol of formal apology and as a way of politely addressing and thanking parents for the giving and receiving of partners at weddings.
It is the tastes and aromas of the tea which are at the heart of the ritual. Each utensil is carefully washed or cleansed using the first infusion of the green tea leaves to ensure that the second infusion’s taste is not coloured by any 茶葉 foreign bodies, like dust particles, so the tea is pure.
Importantly as well is the way the tea is poured; slowly, in one motion, across all cups (which are small clay pots) and only half full. The other half of the cup is said to be filled with friendship and affection; therefore binding host and guest in their tea drinking experience.
In Japan, the tea ceremony centres around the making of Japanese Matcha tea; a green tea ground to a fine powder which is world renowned for its excellent healing powers, high concentration of antioxidants and rather bitter taste.
The ceremony is named Chanoyu and focuses on the aesthetics of tea making rather than the taste or smells, making the experience more of a choreographed performance than a quenching of thirst.
The ceremony’s composition dates back to the twelfth century and involves the host’s serving of the tea, as well as the presentation of the utensils and ceramics used to prepare it, the arrangement of flowers in the space and calligraphy. These items can all be modified by the host to best fit the occasion for which the tea is served. It is also the host’s task to have considered their guests’ view of the tea at every angle in the space, to ensure that their experience will be one of purity, serenity and tranquility: a weighty responsibility.
The thoughtful consideration that is required for a successful ceremony often ensures that the bonds of friendship between the hosts and their guests are strengthened after the experience is concluded.