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The origin of tea

The origin of tea

Tea has a history that dates back thousands of years and its spread extends far beyond the regions along the Silk Road, reaching a global scale. Since the 16th century, tea has become a prominent product in cross-cultural exchanges between European ports and the Far East. However, long before the formation of the Silk Road, tea and tea culture held significant importance in the exchanges along the Silk Road. Tea leaves come from the tea plant (scientific name: Camellia sinensis). Although today we have various types of tea such as black tea, oolong tea, green tea, and white tea, they all come from the same plant. There are different theories about the origin of the tea plant, but it is generally believed to have originated in the central part of Southeast Asia, specifically the border area of present-day Northeast India, northern Myanmar, and southwestern China.

In China, according to historical records from the Shang Dynasty (1500-1046 BC), people have been consuming tea for thousands of years. Initially, in Yunnan, tea was used as a medicinal herb. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), tea became a popular beverage, enjoyed for its refreshing qualities, and tea leaves were soaked and compressed into tea bricks. Legend has it that in the 8th century, there were numerous prosperous tea shops in the city of Chang’an, where merchants promoted the health benefits of tea. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), tea powder gradually replaced tea bricks, and additional ingredients were increasingly added to create different flavors. As time went on, tea houses started appearing in major cities, making tea accessible to people beyond the elite class. With tea becoming more popular and easily obtainable, it became a common beverage for daily consumption and entertaining guests through the development of complex trade routes. Tea was introduced from China to Japan and the Korean Peninsula through the eastern end of the Silk Road. In Japan, tea became closely associated with religious and social customs as Buddhist monks frequently consumed tea. In the 6th century, Japan sent envoys to China to learn the art of tea and imported tea tree seeds through the Silk Road to cultivate in Japan.

Indeed, the exchanges and social customs associated with tea have been an integral part of daily life and communities from ancient times to the present. Tea quickly became a subject in the arts, including poetry and literature, as poets and artists expressed the joy of drinking tea in their works, exploring the customs and traditions related to tea. As a result, tea rapidly gained popularity along the eastern regions of the Silk Road, particularly during the Muromachi period (14th to 15th century) in Japan, giving rise to a renowned tea-drinking aesthetic culture. The production of tea and the culture of drinking tea not only continued to be passed down through generations but also spread to the West, across continents, and eventually throughout the world. The tea trade exported from China and Mongolia reached the Indian subcontinent, Anatolia, the Iranian plateau, and subsequently reached Europe and North Africa. Tea also had close ties with other flourishing trades on the Silk Road and served as a foundation for various exchanges, including art and the trade of ceramics, particularly porcelain. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), tea utensils became an important art form, including teapots and various forms of ceramic products. Many ceramic items became coveted luxury goods traded through the Silk Road.


While customs may vary in different regions, many areas along the Silk Road have traditions and cultures associated with tea-drinking. Today, different cultures and regions around the world incorporate tea, this ubiquitous product, into their own culture according to their social customs, brewing methods, and flavors. Various teas have emerged along the Silk Road, such as “kahwa” in the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, often consumed on special occasions such as weddings and festivals. It is prepared by boiling tea leaves with added cardamom, cinnamon, almonds, and saffron. In present-day Afghanistan, there is a refined tea called “qymaq chai” that is consumed during weddings or engagements. It has a slight pink color and includes milk and cardamom. The British and the Dutch also integrated tea into their cultural habits, where tea represents hospitality, mutual understanding, local traditions, and communities.

The complex cross-cultural exchanges associated with tea and tea culture are a direct result of the interactions among traders, missionaries, and doctors who embarked on the Silk Road. They traversed the vast Eurasian continent, introducing different cultural elements to the East and the West. Tea is just one typical example that demonstrates how foreign commodities or social customs are redefined according to local practices and then incorporated into the local culture. The free flow of ideas, goods, and artist

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