Tea Cultures

Teacups don’t just hold pools of amber within them.

They hold powers to bring the world together, to erase boundaries and barriers.

They hold culture, love and life.


Legend has it that the Emperor Shen Nong discovered tea in 2737 BC while boiling water under the cooling shade of a tree. A light breeze brew, making a few leaves saunter into his pot of boiling water, creating a delicate perfume and liquor. Storytellers say that when the Emperor took a sip of this liquid, he found it to be delicious.

That tree that brought the world to its feet was a wild tea plant. And tea was born.

Until the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD), tea was largely consumed for medicinal purposes. But, the Tang Dynasty brought with it winds of change. Tea became more than just medicine for the body, it became medicine for the soul. It became a much-loved pasting and an inspiration for painters, potters and poets. And with their works of art, a universe of sophistication built around the humble teacup was born.

Tea making and drinking was elevated to an art form when Luyu (723-804 AD) wrote a treatise called “Chajing” or “Traditions of Tea.”

Since then, China has been privy to various cultures celebrating tea in various ways. From a simple bowl of hot water on which fresh leaves float (grandpa-style) to a formal Gongfu ceremony (which literally means “the art of making tea skilfully”). In China, tea is an important part of everyday life, of social events, business transactions and in fact, of the Chinese economy.

An important way in which the Chinese differ from the rest of the world is that

the Chinese focus on the whole, unbroken leaf as a measure of quality.


Buddhist monks introduced Japan to the golden elixir in the 7th century. It wasn’t until eight centuries later, in the 15th century that the Japanese started growing it. Despite being grown for centuries in the country, the Japanese still associate tea with Zen Buddhism.

Murato Shuko, famous tea master (1423-1502) was a Zen practitioner. He believed that tea should be more than entertainment, and started creating the Tea Hut 4 ½ Mat Tatami Room, which stood for simplicity and equality.

Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591) was Japan’s first grand tea master.

With him, tea was elevated to a religion, an art, a philosophy.

Years of practise are required to perfect the Japanese tea ceremony. Where the simple act of making tea should be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most charming and most graceful manner. There are two prevailing philosophies that run through the Japanese tea ceremony.

Ichigo Ichie: Recognition is given that every human encounter is a singular occasion which can and will never recur in the same way ever again.

Wabi: Emphasis is placed on finding beauty in the imperfect and appreciating the profound in all things nature.

Japanese tea ceremonies

Cha-no-yu: It literally means “hot water for tea” and usually refers to either a single ceremony or a ritual. Cha-ji or Chakai: It literally means “tea meeting” and refers to the full tea ceremony with kaiseki (a light meal), usucha (thin tea) and koicha (thick tea) lasting for approximately four hours.


Tea in India may have been documented in the Ramayanaa the way back between 750 and 500 BC, it wasn’t recorded until 1598 by a Dutchman named Jan hughen van Linschoten during his travels through the country.

Years later, in 1788, British botanist Joseph Banks reported that the climate in North Eastern India was ideal for the cultivation of tea.

Cut to 1823, when Robert Bruce discovered tea growing wild in Assam. Bruce died two years later, but he had passed his knowledge on to his brother Charles. Charles, in 1830, sent samples to Calcutta, which were confirmed as Camellia Sinensis Var Assamica.

British East India Company made several attempts to grow plants imported from China. But, it was finally found, after fourteen long years, that the indigenous plant thrived much more successfully. And in 1838, the first shipment of non-Chinese tea was shipped to England. In Darjeeling, Dr. Campbell, a superintendent of the territory, took care of planting tea..

As tea became a significant industry for India, it became a significant part of Indian culture, too.

One distinctive way that tea is enjoyed in India is called masala chai or spiced tea, where black tea is boiled into a strong infusion and mixed with hand ground spices.


In early 1800s, what was then known as Ceylon, was home to a thriving coffee industry. That was until 1869, when the coffee blight devastated the economy. And left the coffee fields abandoned. Enter James Taylor, a Scottish farmer, who is now credited with transforming the fields into thriving tea plantations. And thus a tea culture strongly influenced by European tastes was born in Sri Lanka.

By 1872, he had a fully equipped tea factory. Come 1875, the first shipment of Ceylon tea sent to the London auction. In 1888, Sir Thomas Lipton struck business deals with James Taylor, and struck a goldmine. Through his genius marketing, grew an industry that became synonymous with Ceylon teas.

Sri Lankans take great pride in their tea industry, knowing that it saved their devastated economy, and that it is still largely responsible for their country’s continued wellbeing. They consume a great deal of tea on a daily basis.

But tea is more than just an everyday habit in Sri Lanka, it has become and important part of Sri Lankan festivals and family celebrations.


Under the Dutch rule between 1624 and 1662, Fujianese Chinese citizens from China were forcefully sent to Taiwan to work as general labour and build colonies, The Fujianese were already experienced in tea cultivation, and they established various gardens in the interior mountainous parts and plains of the island with cuttings from mainland China.

Wild tea tress did exist before this and were harvested by the aboriginal people. The Chinese expelled the Dutch by the mid- 17th century, allowing the Fujianese people to immigrate and populate Taiwan.

What resulted was a strong oolong tea industry that was a heady blend of both Chinese and Japanese practices. An industry that grew to become a large scale industry by the late 20th century.

The traditional Taiwanese tea ceremony is similar to the Chinese Gongfu presentation. But, in the 1980s, a new practice called the Wu-Wo ceremony was created. It is also referred to as a selfless tea ceremony, where participants bring their own tea and equipage to a scheduled event, take their place in a large circle, and then silently prepare their own tea. There is no leader, but there is an established pattern of sharing around the circle, so that everyone is a server and a guest.


Tea was first introduced in the Natal Province (South Africa) in 1850. In 1877, Assam tea seeds from Calcutta were successfully imported and subsequently, grown for commercial purposes.

The first settlers to plant tea were the Orchardson brothers, sons of the famous artist Sir William Orchardson.

In 1933, the Kenyan Tea Growers Association was established. And soon after Kenya was declared a republic in 1964, the Kenyan Tea Development Authority was established.

Kenya produces primarily CTC tea and some orthodox tea. And Kenyan tea production is geared more towards use in tea bags.


England was the last of the tea faring nations to break into the Chinese and East Indian routes.

Tea became the national drink after it was introduced by the Dutch in the 1600s. Tea owes much of its popularity to King Charles II and his wife Catherine de Breganza, who was from Portugal. Part of Catherine’s dowry included the port city of Bombay (Mumbai), which had major impact on the development of the British Empire and the history of India, as drinking tea was widely popular amongst port nobility.

The British Empire played a significant role in the spread of tea farming and the development of tea culture around the world.


In Russia, the first tea was delivered to the Russian tsar Michael I (Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov) in the 1630s by a Mongolian ruler. A second gift of tea was made around 1680 to Alexis I (Aleksey Mikhailovich) by a Chinese ambassador who was negotiating trade relationships with Russia. Back then, tea was a luxury item, but today, it is an essential beverage in Russia, served in unique teaware.

The Russians prefer their tea strong and sweet, and sometimes, served with mint or lemon, or sweetened with fruit jam.


Argentina is one of the largest tea producers in the world. And though almost every tea drinker has sipped on Argentinian tea, not too many tea drinkers are aware that they have.

This is because tea from Argentina is usually cut and blended into a bulk of the tea sold by major brands. Within Argentina, the culture of drinking tea is associated more with a beverage made with the yerbamate plant (ilex paraguariensis), an evergreen in the holly family. The tea is traditionally served warm in a gourd and drunk through a metal straw called bomba or bombilla.


In 1650, the Dutch imported tea to the colonies, around the same time that it was introduced to Europe. When it became controlled by the British and highly taxed, it also became a symbol of British rule, fuelling protests like the Boston Tea Party uprising. Colonists turned away and destroyed shipments from British companies and there was a strong movement to boycott all tea consumption. It is said by some that this led to the United States of America being home to a coffee culture.

The most successful tea farming to date is in the Charleston tea plantations, established in the latter half of the 20th century.