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Teacups don’t just hold pools of amber within them. They hold the power to bring the world together, to erase boundaries and barriers. They hold culture, love and life.

Tea Culture of China

The story of tea began one afternoon back in 2737 BC when Emperor Shen Nong was resting with his army on a distant land. One of his servants was boiling water for him to drink, when a cool breeze blew some dry leaves into the pot. Unknowingly, the servant served a cup to the Emperor. The water had changed color and a delicate aroma engulfed him. Curious, he took a sip of this mysterious infusion and mankind tasted tea for the first time in history. It isn’t surprising that this wild tree gained a holy status in China. Tea was soon made famous by Emperor Shen Nong and it was being studied for its unique properties. As the years passed, it became deeply rooted in Chinese medicine.

Centuries later, during the Tung Dynasty, tea evolved from being a medicinal plant to a soul stirring experience. The simple tree began to inspire painters, potters and poets across the nation. And with their works of art, a universe of sophistication around tea was born.

Lu Yu, considered today as the Sage of Tea, was the first to understand the nuances of tea. In his early years, he stumbled upon a spring under a 6-foot rock. The water from this spring was surprisingly clear and he so decided to use some of it to brew tea. The result was an unexpectedly better brew. That’s when he realized the quality of water mattered greatly. Lu Yu was rather good at brewing tea, and his obsession led him to write a book called Chajing or The Classic of Tea. It was the first definitive work on cultivating tea and refine the process of preparing and drinking it.

Since then, China has celebrated tea in numerous ways. It has taken the form of formal tea ceremonies and has an important part to play in social settings like family gatherings and wedding rituals. Today, it is an integral part of daily life, social events, and business transactions and in fact, the Chinese economy.

The Chinese differ from the rest of the world when it comes to tea as they focus on the whole, unbroken leaf as a measure of quality.

Gongfu Ceremony

This is China’s most famous tea ceremony. During this ritual, small proportions of meticulously prepared tea is served in a circular manner to everyone present. It is poured from a Yixing tea pot (a traditional porcelain tea pot) or a covered bowl called Giawan. Before drinking the tea, it is essential to appreciate the aroma and this is done by pouring tea into sniffing cups and sealing in the aroma by placing the drinking cup upside down. The cups are then inverted and the sniffing cup is removed to release the aroma. Only after this, can you drink the tea.

Tea Culture of Japan

Ancient scripts tell us that Japan was first introduced to tea in the 7th century. During this time, large envoys of Buddhist monks were sent to China to learn about its rich culture. At times, these envoys were accompanied by Japanese scholars. Saicho, Kukai and Eichu, were the first Japanese to be introduced to tea. Bringing back seeds of tea, Saicho introduced Japan to China’s popular beverage. Emperor Saga loved this royal beverage for its vegetal aroma and briskness. He encouraged the growth of tea trees, giving Japan its now most-loved beverage.

For close to six centuries tea remained an imperial drink. In the 14th century tea master and Zen practitioner Murato Shuko uncovered the meditative qualities of tea. Set on a mission to bring peace to people, he created a Tea Hut which stood for simplicity and equality. Graced with tatami or the rice straw mats, these rooms ensured that everyone sat together, leaving aside their differences, experiencing Zen while sipping on tea.

Another scholar, Shuck, introduced Japan to tea ceremonies which are today, very popular in Japan. However, it takes years to master the rituals. The act of making tea in these ceremonies should be performed in the most perfect, polite and charming manner. There are two prevailing philosophies that run through Japanese tea ceremonies:

Ichigo Ichie: Every human encounter is believed to be 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.

These philosophies changed the outlook of the Japanese towards tea; making it more than just a medicine or beverage of entertainment. The Japanese started revering tea as sacred.

Matcha Ceremony

Matcha ceremonies are conducted in Tea Huts that were first started by Master Shuo. With respect, the master of the tea ceremony scoops some matcha using a traditional ladle and puts it into a handcrafted matcha bowl. Adding hot water to this, the master mixes it with a bamboo whisk until it attains a smooth consistency. The tea is to be consumed immediately. This process is repeated for every individual present at the tea ceremony, making every cup of matcha different from the other. This ensures that everyone attending the tea ceremony has a unique experience even though they are drinking tea from the same leaves.

Tea Culture of India

Tea and India go back a long way. In fact, it first appeared in the ancient scripts of the Ramayana. According to legend, Lakshman, the brother of Lord Rama was injured in a battle with Ravana. Hanuman, Lord Rama’s pupil was sent to bring the ‘Sanjeevani Booti’, a plant found only in the Himalayas. The leaves of this plant were applied to Lakshman’s wounds and he healed miraculously. Sanskrit scholars believe the ‘Sanjeevani Booti’ is tea itself.

The tribal in India enjoyed a hot cup of tea by brewing the tea leaves in hot water. Deeming the leaves as valuable, they started trading the leaves for other goods. It was in one such trade market that a young Scottish adventurer, Robert Bruce encountered these leaves. He noticed the locals brew the leaves of this wild plant. Intrigued by this practice, Bruce met the local chief Bessa Gam and arranged to procure the leaves to get them scientifically examined.

Unfortunately, before he could send the leaves for testing, Robert passed away. Seven years later, Robert’s brother, Charles arranged for the leaves to be tested at the Calcutta botanical gardens. There, the plant was identified as a variety of Camellia Sinensis, a popular Chinese tea plant.

Soon, a tea board was formed in India and tea was advertised. Its popularity and consumption increased two-fold with North Indians adding milk to the brew and South Indians adding spices to the infusion. The world’s leading tea producing nation made tea a part of everyday life. Today, you’ll find a tea stall at every nook and corner of major cities in India with each having their own version of the tea. People from Delhi prefer the ‘Malai-maarke’ version which is Indian Masala Chai served with a dallop of fresh cream while Mumbaikars love their ‘cutting chai’ or half a cup of tea. The highways of Northern India are marked by smaller outlets that brew and serve tea in earthen pots called ‘khullad’. Wherever you go in India, you’ll always find tea.

Tea Culture of Sri Lanka

The British colonized the beautiful nation of Sri Lanka and made it a leading coffee-producing nation. Suddenly, a plague hit and the coffee production across the land was destroyed. The economy suffered and British did not know what to do to salvage the collapsing economy of their colony. They looked for solutions and stopped when they found James Taylor, a Scottish farmer who had expertise in another plant – tea.

He started growing and processing tea in the 1870s. Skilled with the art of tea making, Taylor had a fully equipped tea factory by 1872 and by 1875, started exporting the Sri Lankan tea to London. The exquisite tea caught the attention of the world at an auction in London. Soon, Sir Thomas Lipton struck a business deal with James Taylor and Sri Lankan Tea Industry boomed with Lipton’s marketing and Taylor’s exquisite blends.

Knowing that this leaf saved their economy from collapsing, Sri Lankans have great respect for tea. Today, it has become an important part of festivals and family celebrations.

Tea Culture of Taiwan

The Dutch ruled the Chinese province of Fujian from 1624 to 1662. During this time, the Chinese citizens were forcefully sent to Taiwan to work as general labor. These men and women took over Taiwanese land, making it their home. Armed with the skills of tea farming, they set up tea farms in Taiwan, which were originally harvested by aboriginal people. Tides turned and the Chinese were successful in expelling the Dutch by mid-17th century. Upon the pleadings of the citizens, the Fujianese were allowed to immigrate to Taiwan to set up tea estates and factories.

This immigration resulted in a strong oolong tea industry that was heady blend of both Chinese and Japanese practices. And by the late 20th century, this industry grew to become a large-scale industry. Till date, the Taiwanese love their oolong. They believe that tea provides them with energy and vigor. According to a fable, a tea farmer’s pet monkey ran away but returned after three days because he missed the tea that his owner used to brew.

Wu Wo Ceremony

Until 1980s, the Taiwanese tea ceremony was similar to the Chinese Gongfu presentation until ‘Wu Wo’ ceremony gained popularity. Referred to as a selfless tea ceremony, this a celebration 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 serves and everyone receives.

Tea Culture of Africa

A continent full of lush forests, sipped on the infusion of the Rooibus tree for hundreds of years. Unknown to the pleasures of tea leaves, Africa experienced tea only after South Africa was colonized by the British. Tea was introduced to South Africa in 1850 when the seeds of the Assam Tea were imported from Calcutta and grown here for commercial purposes. The Orchardson brothers, the sons of the famous artist Sir William Orchardson were the first ones to plant tea trees in Africa. Soon, Kenya became famous for growing teas and established the Kenya Tea Growers Association in 1933.

Attaya: The African Tea Ceremony

In West Africa, the tea ceremony goes by the name ‘attaya’, and is anything but formal. In fact, tea culture in the continent's western nations of Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal are the polar opposite of Japan's ceremonies. Every attaya consists of three rounds of tea drinking. According to a legend, the first round of tea is very bitter and it represents the beginning of life and the pains of growing up. The second round is sweeter with a hint of mint. This symbolizes the sweetness of mid-life, love and marriage. The third round is a weak tea which represents old age.

Tea Culture of United Kingdom

The year 1600 changed UK forever. The Dutch introduced the British to tea and the country fell in love with it. When the East India Company started its trade with rest of the world, they stumbled upon tea leaves in Japan. In 1650s, tea was imported to England and started appearing in coffee houses. Tea became even more popular due to King Charles II and his wife Catherine de Breganza, from Portugal. Tea drinking was widely popular amongst port nobility, and the port city of Bombay was part of Catherine’s dowry. This had a major impact on the development of the British Empire and the history of India.

The British started adding a dash of milk to the tea in the 17th and 18th century. The fine bone china crockery was always at a risk of cracking with the heat of the freshly brewed tea. This led to the adding of milk which reduced the temperature of the beverage and prevented the tea cups from breaking. They also did this to reduce the astringency of the black tea that they loved so much.

Afternoon Tea Ceremony

Soon, the British started their own tea ceremony of sorts - the afternoon tea. A novel concept, afternoon tea was introduced by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Earlier, the British used to have two meals a day - breakfast and dinner. By late noon, the Duchess would feel low on energy. As a solution, she started having tea with a light snack in her personal boudoir during the afternoon. Soon, she started inviting her friends for the afternoon sessions and moved these sessions to the drawing room. Other hostesses started following the Duchess by holding their own Afternoon Tea parties. This craze broke out to the commoners and they started enjoying high teas in the evening. The name ‘high tea’ was given because of the height of the tables that the common people used.

The British continued their romance with tea by naming it their national drink. A country deeply in love with tea, United Kingdom has changed the way tea is perceived across the world.

Tea Culture of Russia

The cold land of Russia first encountered tea when a Mongolian ruler gifted it to the Russian tsar Michael I (Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov) in the 1630s. A few years later, this luxury beverage was gifted by a Chinese ambassador to Alexis I (Aleksey Mikhailovich) during trade negotiations with Russia. And it was this second round of gifting that got Russians to like tea.

A privilege in the 1600s, tea went on to become an integral part of the Russian culture. It is typically brewed in a samovar and served in unique handcrafted porcelain tea ware. In the 19th century, it was Russia’s favorite afternoon beverage. It inspired poets like Karamzin and writers like Alexander Ostrovsky. And as the centuries passes, the tea drinking habits evolved. Today, tea is consumed as an all-day beverage and it is considered the national drink of Russia due to its popularity. The Russians prefer their tea strong and sweet, and sometimes, served with mint or lemon, or sweetened with fruit jam.

Tea Culture of Argentina

For a country that is one of the major producers of tea, it is a tisane that has caught the fancy of its people. The yerba mate has been popular among the locals since time immemorial. Folklore suggests the plant was a gift from the Gods themselves. It all began when an aging man was unable to keep up with his migrating tribe. He stayed back and with him, his youngest daughter Jary. One day, a shaman arrived at their doorstep and asked Jary what she wanted to stay happy. Before Jary could utter a word, her father spoke up and wished for good heath so that he could reunite Jary with the tribe. He believed she would find true happiness only among their tribe. The shaman gifted him a green plant and gave him instructions on nurturing and brewing its leaves in water. The aged man sipped on this brew every day and soon had enough strength to catch up with the tribe and reunite his daughter with them. Ever since, this mate plant is consumed by Argentinians to reinvigorate themselves.

As tea grew popular across the world, the Argentinian Government imported tea seeds from China and urged farmers to cultivate it. This was in 1924, when Argentina was importing a variety of teas. By the 1950s, Argentina became one of the leading producers of tea and the beverage found its place right next to the yerba mate.

Welsh Tea Shops

Back in the 19th century, the British suppressed people from speaking the Welsh language. Seeking cultural freedom, several Welsh people migrated to Argentina. With them came the British way of drinking tea – with a dash of milk and sugar, and the concept of High Tea. Over the years, the Welsh set up several tea shops across Argentina and today, they are extremely popular even among Argentinians.

Drinking the Mate

The Yerba Mate has become a part of every social gathering. Argentinians brew the mate and pour it into a big mug which is passed on to everyone in the group. As a gesture of respect to the other members of the group, the host, known as the cebador, brews the mate, takes the first sip and passes it to others only after he/she is satisfied with the brew. The first person to be offered the drink by the cebador takes 5-6 sips and passes the mate cup back to the host. The host then adds water to the brew and rest of the group enjoys this drink.

Tea Culture of USA

Known for its love for coffee, the USA once was a hotspot for tea. The Dutch introduced the United States of America to tea in the 1650s when they imported it to their colonies. The Americans took a liking to the beverage and soon began to cultivate and consume it. Then when the British colonized America, they wanted a monopoly on tea trade and imposed high taxes on tea. This fueled the Boston Tea Party uprising where colonists destroyed shipments from British companies and there was a strong movement to boycott all tea consumption. This led to the downfall of the British rule as well as tea consumption in America.

Tea Culture of Vietnam

Vietnam has a long history of tea consumption. However, it wasn’t until 1880s that a formalized tea industry was set up in the country. The French established the first cultivated tea gardens while they were ruling a part of Vietnam. By 1945, the French were successful in cultivating more than 33,000 acres of tea farms.

Today, tea is part of everyday life. You’ll see farmers carrying a tea pot with them to work every day. Sipping on the beverage they quench their thirst and believe that tea can ward off several common ailments. Starkly different from their Chinese and Japanese counterparts, the Vietnamese love their teas plain and ‘down to earth’. It is also now part of celebrations, right from weddings to birthdays.

Vietnamese Weddings

As part of the wedding ritual, Vietnamese have their own tea ceremony. The bride and groom serve tea to their parents and each parent will give advice to the young couple about marriage.

Tea Houses

Tea connoisseurs gather in tea houses for a formal ritual. The host boils water in a brazen and waits for it to cool down to 90° before adding tea leaves. The connoisseurs will comment on the aroma while the tea brews. Tea is first poured into a large ‘soldier-cup’ to ensure even distribution of flavors and then into individual cups for tasting. The Vietnamese believe that four words describe the tea drinking experience: Hoa (peace), Kinh (respect for the elderly and friends), Thanh (tranquillity) and Tich (leisure).