Tea in Folklore and History

This article appeared in the North Clare Local in December. 


Image by Katie Essick via Flickr

I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a bit of a strange one. So let’s sooth our frayed nerves with the last article of the year. Stick on the kettle, it’s all about tea.

In recent years, coffee has become more popular among the Irish. Despite this, we are still the second biggest tea consumers in the world per capita, only behind Turkey. Tea is important to us; the Barry’s versus Lyons debate rumbles on, and many of us firmly believe tea is a cure for all ills. But we are far from the only nation to worship at the altar of tea.

Tea is so ancient that we cannot be sure when it started. It began in China, that much is clear, and the southern Chinese probably began drinking it in at least the 2nd century BC. The Chinese became as fond of it as we did, and one origin story that is told concerns the legendary emperor Shennong. He had decreed that water needed to be boiled before it could be drunk. One day, some tea leaves blew into his cup, and he discovered that it tasted very pleasant indeed.

Shennong was said to be the inventor of Chinese medicine, and he chewed tea leaves to counteract the effects of poisonous plants he tested. (Please do not try this at home!) Another version has the god of agriculture doing this, rather than the emperor. Another tea origin states that tea bushes sprang from a Buddhist monk’s eyelids. He’d cut them off in annoyance at himself for falling asleep during meditation. (Again, something not to try at home).


Image by Bia Ramalho via Flickr

The eighth-century Chinese philosopher Lu Yu became known as the Tea Sage due to his obsession with the drink, and he wrote a book, The Classic of Tea, on the very subject. Tea’s Asian pedigree is noble indeed, and as it spread throughout the continent, its renown only grew. Later in Hong Kong, tea would be mixed with milk (due, doubtlessly, to British colonial influence) and specialist tea houses would begin. Back in the early days, tea spread to Japan from China in the 8th century and established a firm foothold there. It was favoured by priests and royalty. Not to be outdone by Lu Yu, Japanese Zen priest Eisai wrote his own treatise on the benefits of tea, Kissa Yojoki (How to Stay Healthy By Drinking Tea) in the 12th century. He also introduced it to the samurai class as a hangover cure.

Tea was, at this stage, the preserve of the upper classes, who had time to enjoy it with painting, conversation, calligraphy and other such leisurely pursuits. These evolved into the beautiful tea ceremonies that the Japanese are famous for.

It’s a million miles from the hurried mug of builder’s tea many Irish people gulp before heading out to work, and indeed the European attitude to tea is quite different. In the beginning, it too was the preserve of the wealthy, unsurprisingly given the cost of importing it. But soon enough, Europeans- especially in Britain and Ireland- were addicted. In the 18th century, tea smuggling was big business. As this tea was often poor quality, milk and sugar were added to counteract the bitterness. Before long, tariffs on tea had been cut and it was far more popular among the working classes. Some English reformers thought that tea drinking led to “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.  According to Dr Helen O’Connell at Durham University, tea drinking among the Irish concerned British authorities as it seen to make them “more Irish, and less English”. In Britain itself, there was a class divide between those who put their milk in before pouring the tea, and those who poured tea, then milk. One theory is that the hot water would crack cheaper china, and therefore if you poured milk first you could not afford proper porcelain. And of course, protests over a tax on tea- The Boston Tea Party- became one of the sparks of the American Revolution.


Image by Christine Pereira via Flickr

To us in the 21st century, associating tea with innocuous family gatherings, it seems bizarre that tea could ignite such passions in people. But then there is something special about tea. Tasseography, or the reading of fortunes in tea leaves, begun almost as soon as tea arrived in Europe. Reading shapes from candle wax, lead, and even entrails has a long history in Europe. With the patterns left by tea leaves, it was almost too good to resist. We must also not underestimate the exotic nature of tea to our forefathers; the idea of this refreshing drink, travelling all the way from the Far East for weeks before ending up in your cup is almost mystical. And anyone taking that first sip after a stressful day might well agree.

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