17 Titillating Facts about the History of Tea

As one of the most important commodities in the world, tea has serious implications, and its history is filled with exotic and interesting facts.

Feb 4, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

history of tea facts


It is a well-established fact that the history of tea starts in China, but the beverage has been so sought after that it has conquered the whole world. Tea has become the staple drink of many countries. It has infused itself with cultures and has prompted the creation of deep-seated traditions integral to the cultures in which they exist.


So important is tea that wars have been fought over it and fierce competition developed to secure the product and the trade routes required to get to countries far from where it was grown.


The history of tea forms a massive part of human history, and along with its history, have emerged stories and facts that describe the importance of tea to human civilization.


Here are 17 facts about tea, its history, and its cultivation.


1. According to Legend, Tea was Discovered in the 3rd Millennium BCE

carrie waller sakura tea
Sakura Tea by Carrie Waller. Source: Daniel Smith

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The legendary (or perhaps mythical) Shennong, referred to as the first Yan Emperor, is credited with having discovered tea in 2732 BCE when leaves from a wild tea plant blew into his pot of boiling water. He enjoyed the result so much that he discovered where the leaves came from and added them to his boiling water thereafter.


Shennong is now revered as a folk god in China and Vietnam.


2. Tea Was Used as Money


Before the Ming Dynasty came to power in 1368 CE in China, tea leaves were compressed into bricks and used as a form of currency. The practice spread to Tibet, Mongolia, and even parts of Russia. It was eventually superseded by standardized currency in the form of coins.


3. A Buddhist Monk Introduced Tea to Japan


Saichō, a Japanese Buddhist monk, went to China in 1804. Among the things he brought back was tea. The product would, throughout the next few decades and centuries, become hugely popular in Japan, and by the 1300s, tea had become an integral part of Japanese culture.


4. Tea Was Very Expensive in England


When tea first arrived in England during the mid-17th century, it was an extremely expensive commodity, and only the wealthy elite could afford it. Little teapots were made that could be carried around so that tea buyers could test the product before they bought it.


5. Tea Gardens Were A Popular Meeting Place in England

george morland the tea garden
The Tea Garden by George Morland 1790. Source: Tate London


During the 18th century, tea gardens became extremely popular in England. These were garden spaces where tea and other light refreshments could be served to the public in an open atmosphere. These places became important in English upper-class culture and represented places where men and women could meet without criticism.


6. Tea Cups in England Didn’t Have Handles


Originally, the cups used for drinking tea in England did not have handles. They were fashioned after the handle-less cups used in China. In the early 19th century, handles began to appear on teacups and were inspired by the handles on cups used to drink chocolate.


7. The British & the Chinese Went to War Because of Tea

fort canton river
A fort on the Canton River during the First Opium War, artist unknown, 1840. Source: National Army Museum


In the 1830s, British demand for tea was incredibly high, and the only source for it was China. Britain’s problem was that the Chinese government decreed that all exports had to be paid for in silver, and as a result, British silver reserves began to suffer. They wanted their silver back and devised a plan to get it.


The British started growing opium in Bengal, which they then sold to the Chinese in return for silver. They then used the silver to buy more tea. This created the problems of opium addicts and dwindling silver supplies in China, and as a result, the Chinese banned opium.


The British then turned to the use of force to resolve the situation, and the First Opium War was fought between 1839 and 1842. Conflicts would continue throughout the next decades, and despite having won the war, the British decided to take matters into their own hands and start their own tea plantations in India.


8. The Cutty Sark was an Incredibly Fast Tea Clipper


Laid down in 1869, the Cutty Sark was a type of ship called a tea clipper and was renowned as the fastest of her type. Its cargo hold was large enough to carry 10,000 chests of tea, or enough tea to produce 200 million cups!


9. Iced Tea Was Invented in the 19th Century

iced tea photo
Iced tea. Source: Wallpaper Flare


The earliest record of iced tea is from Irish novelist and journalist Marguerite Countess of Blessington, who, in 1823, wrote about drinking iced tea in Naples. The beverage, however, got its real kickstart in the United States.


Flavored and sweetened with honey or sugar, many recipes began to appear from the 1870s onwards. At the World Fair in St. Louis in 1904, the beverage really took off. Hot weather and good marketing made iced tea a huge success when Englishman Richard Blechynden sold his cold tea to patrons. This style of tea began its rapid ascent to become the incredibly popular beverage it is today.


Iced tea is now popular in many countries around the world, especially with the introduction of brands such as Lipton and Nestea. Of particular note is the iced tea market in South Africa, where the drink is widely consumed. Apart from the teas made from Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis), iced tea is also extremely popular and sold in all supermarkets.


10. The Most Expensive Tea is over $1,000


A rare Chinese variety of tea called Tieguanyin is the most expensive tea in the world, named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guan Yin. It is a type of Oolong tea, and one pound of the leaves costs around $ 1,500. The upside is that the leaves are so flavorful that they can be brewed up seven times before they lose their flavor.


11. The Most Expensive Tea Bag Sold For Over $13,000


In 2005, the British jewelry chain Boodles created a tea bag encrusted with 280 diamonds to commemorate the 75th anniversary of tea giant PG Tips. The bag, filled with Darjeeling tea, was sold for £7,500 (over  $13,000 at the time) at a charity event, and the proceeds went to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, which was chosen by the workers at PG Tips.


12. Etymology of the Term: “Tea if by Sea, Cha if by Land”

Map of té or cha? Source: Simeon Netchev/World History Encyclopedia/Creative Commons


Most languages in the world refer to tea by one of two derivatives. The English “tea” comes from the Min Nan Chinese language. The original word is “té” and has influenced the Dutch “thee,” Italian “tè,” Afrikaans “tee,” and German “Tee,” among others.


In Russian, the word for tea is “chay.” In Turkish, it’s “çay.” In Arabic, it’s “shay.” In Swahili, it’s “chai.” These words all come from the original Mandarin word “cha.” Land-based trade routes (usually the Silk Road) that brought tea to countries via the Mandarin-speaking part of China spread this word, which became the etymological root, while countries that received tea via sea routes got their tea from people who called it “té.”


13. Not all Tea is Tea


There is more than one idea of what constitutes “tea.” In its strictest sense, tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. This is the tea plant, and anything else simply isn’t tea. However, in a broader sense, “tea” can be used in English to describe any drink infused with plants. There are many teas around the world that fit into this category, and they can be found in the same supermarket aisle as all the genuine teas!


Yerba mate from South America and Rooibos tea from South Africa are two such examples that are relatively well-known throughout the world.


14. Tall Tea Trees are Tall!

tea food produce tourism spain andalusia
Different teas being sold in Spain. Source: Px Here


When picturing tea, most people think of the tea plant as being waist-height, but in the wild, tea plants can grow to stupendous heights. Tens of feet is not uncommon, and in 1991, a tea tree was discovered that was 84 feet tall. It was found in the Ailao Mountains near Qiangzha Village in the Yunnan province of China, and it’s not just the height that is incredible.


The tree is estimated to be 2,700 years old, making it one of the oldest trees in the world!


15. Darjeeling Tea is the Most Well-Renowned


Grown in the Himalayan foothills, where the climate is perfect for the Camellia Sinensis plant, Darjeeling tea has become known as the “Champagne of teas.” The climate also makes the tea difficult to harvest, and pure Darjeeling tea can fetch a high price on the market.


Most teas that are labeled as Darjeeling are blends of Darjeeling and other teas, so the price may not be as steep as one could expect. For true tea connoisseurs, reading the label on the packaging is important!


16. Turkey Drinks the Most Tea

turkish tea photo
Turkish tea. Source: Pexels/Creative Commons


One would assume that the United Kingdom drinks the most tea per capita, but it actually comes in 3rd place. The biggest tea-drinking nation is Turkey, followed by Ireland. The Turks consume a whopping 6.04 pounds of tea per person annually!


17. Tea is the Second-Most Consumed Beverage in the World!

history tea teacup
Cup of tea. Source: Rob Dawson/Bloomberg


Tea is so popular that it is the second-most popular beverage in the world, and the most popular isn’t coffee either! It’s water.


Beloved the world over, whether a sweet black tea or a bitter green tea, whether piping hot or ice-cold, tea is a versatile drink that has been quenching thirst for thousands of years and will continue to do so far into the future!

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.