Tea – The East Meets West
The fall of Rome in 476 CE is regarded as the start of the Dark Ages for western civilization. But in China, the Han Dynasty that began in 206 BCE lasted until 220 CE and laid the foundation for a continuation of culture, arts and sciences under Imperial rule until the early 20th century. One of the most consistent goods throughout this two thousand year history, from the lowest caste to the palaces of the emperors was tea.
The Han was also the dynasty that first had trade with the west. The Roman empire made contact with China by sea in 166 AD and the Chinese emperor Wu pushed the Huns back far enough to establish the fabled Silk Road. During this time tea in China was also being used in brick form as a trade item with other people. The Mongol tribes used Chinese tea as a medicine, food and currency. This practice continued even up through the 11th century when China introduced paper money. But the tea never seemed to catch on in the west, taking a distant place behind silk and spices.
The introduction of tea took until the Dutch East Indies Company began to explore trade for multiple unique items from the mysterious east. The first record of tea being brought to Europe was in in the early 17th century, by which time it had already become part of everyday live throughout China and Japan for several centuries.
Tea began to replace coffee houses in England and many of the colonies because of a royal wedding. During the reign of Charles the Second, tea was introduced thanks to his wedding to Catherine of Braganza in 1662. She was in the habit of drinking tea and her habit became an accepted part of court life. The alliance with the Dutch and England also enabled tea to be imported to England without the English having to invest in their own ships. Thus tea became part of English life.
This introduction was not without some hesitation. Any new item in a culture will meet with resistance, and tea was not immune to its own success. By the middle of the 18th century, the taxes collected on beer and ale had dropped dramatically. This was due to the increase in the popularity of tea. It was seen as healthier and less destructive to a persons character and family. Unfortunately, the revenue was made up by increasing the taxes on tea to over 100%. This was to have major influence on the very stability of the English Empire.
Europe, once tea was introduced, commercialized the plant that was still highly revered in China and Japan. The importation of Chinese pottery during this time created an industry in China. It was said that a potter could add his skill to clay and turn it into gold. Fortunate for the Chinese, labor and clay were plentiful. After the prices of Chinese pottery increased, craftsmen throughout Europe rushed to fill the void. They created pots and cups specifically for the brewing and serving of tea.
In many ways, tea unified segments of Chinese and Japanese society, both internally and with each other. Once it reached Europe and England, it became a major factor in industry and politics. Very few other leaves have ever done so.
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