15 December 2010

Accidents: Tea, From Antiquity to Modern Times

By Jeannie Lin

There are two legends about the discovery of tea: First, that it was discovered accidentally by Shen Nung, the second Emperor of China when leaves from a tea plant accidentally fell into his cup of hot water. He tasted the brew and found that it not only tasted good, but had medicinal properties.

The second legend is more fantastic. A legend dating back to the Tang dynasty states that the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma fell asleep while meditating. When he woke up, he was so upset with himself that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Tea plants grew where they landed, providing a beverage that would keep monks and other people refreshed and alert.

In either case, tea has a long and complex history that spans the globe and includes many happy accidents:

Tea was introduced to Europe in the 17th century by Dutch and Portuguese merchants trading in China. It was originally scarce and available only to the aristocracy.

In the 19th century, China remained the sole exporter of tea to the British empire until tea was "rediscovered" also growing naturally in the Assam region of India. In 1823, Robert Bruce, a Scottish explorer traveling through, noted that the local tribespeople would brew a drink from the leaves of a local plant. He sent the leaves to botanical experts for classification and it wasn't until after his death that the verdict was returned: this was indeed a variety of the tea plant previously only found to grow in China.

Indian black tea had a stronger, darker taste than the China green tea. As a result, tea drinking habits evolved to incorporate milk and sugar.

The invention of the tea bag was itself an accident. Thomas Sullivan, a coffee merchant, sent out samples of tea in small silk sachets. He meant for the customers to open the bags and empty the contents into a teapot to steep. Instead people put the entire bag into hot water and the tea bag was born.

The tea trade influenced much of the history of East/West relations. Have you heard of any other tea "accidents" that shaped the world?

Jeannie Lin writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China, featuring sword play, politics, and, above all, honor. Her Golden Heart award winning debut, BUTTERFLY SWORDS, and the linked short story "THE TAMING OF MEI LIN" are currently available from Harlequin Historical.