Saturday, April 15, 2006

The global spread of tea

Here's an interesting quote from Alan and Iris Macfarlane's Green Gold: The Empire of Tea:

No one on earth drank tea a few thousand years ago. A few small tribal groups in the jungles of south-east Asia chewed the leaves of the plant, but that was the nearest anyone came to tea drinking. Two thousand years ago it was drunk in a handful of religious communities. By a thousand years ago it was drunk by millions of Chinese. Five hundred years ago over half of the world’s population was drinking tea as their main alternative to water. [pgs. 31-32]

The authors (a mother-and-son team) point out that tea's spread was due to its meeting all of the requirements for an alternative to water, which was made dangerous by waterborne pathogens as humans began forming city-based civilizations:

True tea, made from the Camellia sinensis plant ... can be produced cheaply. The plant which yields it is very productive, giving new leaf every six weeks or so. It grows over quite a range of climatic zones, from central China to East Africa. Just a few leaves are needed to make a good pot of tea and they can be re-used. Dry tea is very light and stores well. It is easily prepared for drinking, but its preparation is sufficiently elaborate to encourage the human love of play and ceremony. It is extremely safe to drink and indeed many believe it has special health benefits. It is attractive because it makes the drinker feel stimulated and relaxed, optimistic and focused. It is mild enough to be drunk throughout the day without any harmful side effects. [pg. 39]

These same reasons explain green tea's growing (or, depending on where you are, continued) popularity today—for green tea is simply Camellia sinensis leaves in their least-processed form.


—Mellow Monk


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