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238

A Short History Of Tea

Feb 18, 2022
History
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22
minutes

It's the second most popular drink in the world after water, with 3.7 billion cups drunk every single day.

In this episode, we explore tea's fascinating history, how it changed global politics, caused countries to go to war with each other, and literally changed the world

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about tea.

[00:00:28] It is the second most popular drink in the world, second only to water, and it’s estimated that 3.7 billion cups of tea are consumed every single day.

[00:00:41] I’m drinking one right now, as are hundreds of millions of other people, including, perhaps, even you.

[00:00:48] So, in this episode we are going to look at how tea became such a global sensation

[00:00:56] It is an amazing story, it’s one of global trade, East vs. West, opium, theft, addiction, wars, international espionage, smuggling and a Portuguese Princess.

[00:01:11] If you would like to press pause and put the kettle on, now is the time to do so, as this episode is best listened to with an accompanying cup of your favourite tea.

[00:01:24] OK then, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:28] Great Britain is said to be a nation of tea drinkers. We drink it at breakfast, we drink it in the mid-morning, and we drink it in the afternoon. 

[00:01:39] The average person in Britain drinks about one and a half kilos of the stuff every year, which will make you about 700 cups, or almost two cups of tea every single day.

[00:01:52] And it has become part of British culture, so much so that during World War II, as things were not going well for the Allies, the British government bought up all the tea available in Europe in a bid to keep up morale.

[00:02:09] But there is, of course, nothing actually British about tea.

[00:02:14] Tea, as you will probably know, originates from China.

[00:02:19] There are several myths about the discovery of tea. 

[00:02:23] One has a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, about to drink from a bowl of boiling water, and magically some leaves blow into it, he drinks this newly flavoured water and thinks, hmm, that was nice.

[00:02:39] Another has Shen Nung accidentally poisoning himself, and just as he was about to die a leaf blew into his mouth, he chewed it, and he was saved. 

[00:02:51] While I’ll leave you to decide whether you believe either of these two stories, there is evidence of tea being drunk in China going back to the second century BC. 

[00:03:03] Tea was mainly grown in south-western China, in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. 

[00:03:10] And it is thought to have initially been considered to be a medicinal drink, a drink to be mixed with things like onion, ginger and salt, and drunk for its health benefits.

[00:03:24] But as China continued to grow in power, especially during the Tang dynasty from the 7th to 10th century, people looked for other uses for tea.

[00:03:36] It turned from a medicinal drink to one drunk for similar reasons as it is drunk today, because it was enjoyable, because it was tasty, and because the caffeine in it gave you a little buzz of energy.

[00:03:51] And as the popularity of tea continued to grow within Imperial China, it was increasingly exported to neighbouring countries: Japan to the east, and the Tibetan empire to the south. 

[00:04:04] And with the growth of the Silk Road, tea was also introduced to central Asia and the Middle East.

[00:04:13] It was a popular drink, and countries began to put their own mark on how tea should be drunk.

[00:04:20] In China, it was typically drunk plain - green tea mixed with hot water. 

[00:04:27] In the mountainous Tibetan region they added Yak milk to it. 

[00:04:32] In Japan there was an intricate ritual developed to do with the preparation of tea.

[00:04:39] But it was to be in 1610 that tea took its first step to becoming a drink that would literally change the world. 

[00:04:49] Dutch merchants brought tea to Amsterdam, the first tea leaves arrived on northern European shores.

[00:04:57] When it first arrived, people weren’t so convinced

[00:05:02] Sure, it was exotic, and therefore there was interest in trying it. 

[00:05:07] But it was incredibly expensive, and it was, like coffee, initially thought to be a medicinal drink by Europeans.

[00:05:17] The first records of tea arriving in Britain came shortly after, but the Brits weren’t overly convinced about these new, green leaves either.

[00:05:27] Tea only really started to take off in Britain after Charles II took the throne in 1660. 

[00:05:36] To briefly remind you, Charles II was the king nicknamed “The Merry Monarch”. 

[00:05:43] He was crowned king after the country had spent 11 years experimenting with life without a monarch, and after it had decided to restore the monarchy, the crown was placed on Charles’ head.

[00:05:57] The country was ready for a good time, and Charles was a party animal

[00:06:02] He reopened the theatres, allowed music to be played again, and there was a general mood of celebration in the air.

[00:06:12] His wife was Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess. Now, Portuguese merchants had brought tea back a little earlier than the Dutch, so the Portuguese nobility had had a bit more time to develop a taste for the stuff.

[00:06:29] And Catherine of Braganza was someone who had certainly developed a taste for it. She was a huge fan of tea, and she brought it with her when she moved to England to marry Charles II.

[00:06:43] In those days the King and Queen were the most fashionable people in the country, and if you wanted to show that you were fashionable and a person of high reputation, you did what the King and Queen did.

[00:06:56] You went to the same places as they did, you wore the same clothes, and you drank the same drinks.

[00:07:03] So all of high society, in an attempt to do what Catherine of Braganza was doing, started to drink tea. 

[00:07:12] Demand for tea did increase, but given that it was such an expensive drink few people could afford it.

[00:07:20] The only place in the world that produced tea at this time was China, so British merchants needed to go to China to get it. 

[00:07:30] And at the time a monopoly on British trade with China had been given to an organisation called The East India Company. The East India Company, given that British aristocrats had started to develop a taste for the stuff, started to buy tea from Chinese merchants in Canton, modern day Guangzhou. 

[00:07:53] This was the only port with which foreign trade was allowed - so the entire tea trade needed to pass through here.

[00:08:01] But for the first 30 years or so of its existence in Britain, tea was so expensive that only the richest in society could afford it.

[00:08:11] Then, over the next 50 years, so this is from around 1690 to 1740, tea went from the preserve of the upper classes to a truly national drink.

[00:08:26] In 1690 around 50 tonnes of tea were imported to Britain, but by 1740 it had gone to 2,500 tonnes, an increase of 50 times.

[00:08:40] Given the amount that was being imported, the cost had reduced, meaning that it was now something that normal people could afford. 

[00:08:49] It was also a very easy drink to make, you simply boil water and add it to the tea. 

[00:08:56] If you compare this to the other hot drinks available, coffee or hot chocolate, hot cocoa, tea was much easier to prepare, and it became part of British culture.

[00:09:09] The British also added their own twist, their own unique style, to tea preparation. They added sugar, and unlike in east Asia, tea became a sweet drink.

[00:09:23] Indeed, if you look at the amount of tea imported to Britain every year, it increases at almost exactly the same rate as the imports of sugar.

[00:09:34] Now, we are still in the early 18th century here, but we can already see quite how interlinked the global economy already is. 

[00:09:43] Sugar is being exported from the Caribbean, after having been produced in plantations filled with slaves taken from west Africa, who were bought from European slave traders with wool and metal goods. 

[00:09:58] The sugar then makes its way back to Britain, where it is drunk with a leaf exported from China.

[00:10:05] It is quite horrific to think about, and this is evidently a gross simplification, but globalisation was already well underway.

[00:10:16] Now, a functioning global trade system requires countries to produce things that other countries want. 

[00:10:24] I make product A, you make product B, and then I give you some of product A in exchange for product B. 

[00:10:33] The only problem with this was that China, the global centre of tea production, wasn’t really interested in products that Britain was producing - wool, textiles, and machinery. 

[00:10:48] In a famous letter to the British King George III, the Emperor of Imperial China, Qianlong, in 1793 wrote: "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” 

[00:11:14] Translation: “we don’t need or want anything you make”.

[00:11:20] And Britain had, to date, been paying for tea with silver, but the silver was running out.

[00:11:28] Britain needed to find a product that it could sell to China in exchange for tea.

[00:11:35] The product was opium.

[00:11:38] Now, opium was illegal in China, but this didn’t stop the British smuggling it into the country. More and more Chinese became addicted to the drug, and by 1840 there were an estimated 10 million Chinese opium addicts.

[00:11:57] You may know the story of what happened next, The Opium Wars. 

[00:12:02] We actually made an episode on this, it’s episode number 93, so if you want the long version of that story, I’d recommend listening to that.

[00:12:12] But here’s the short version.

[00:12:15] In 1839, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu destroyed 1,000 tonnes of opium that had been seized from British smugglers

[00:12:26] Britain rushed to the defense of these drug smugglers, and between 1839 and 1860 there were two different wars between Britain and China. 

[00:12:39] China wanted Britain to stop flooding its country with opium

[00:12:44] Britain needed the opium trade to continue, because its population was also addicted, albeit to tea.

[00:12:54] To cut a long story short, these wars were won by Britain, and resulted in the so-called Century of Humiliation for China.

[00:13:04] As far as tea is concerned, the British continued to flood China with opium, which allowed them to continue to buy vast quantities of tea. 

[00:13:16] But this wasn’t a long term solution.

[00:13:20] While all of this had been going on, Britain had been desperately trying to find a way to produce tea in its rapidly-growing empire.

[00:13:30] The problem was that Britain had no idea how tea was actually produced. 

[00:13:36] Given that the British traders only saw the final version of tea, the dried out leaves ready to be exported, they had no real idea how tea actually went from being a plant growing on a bush to the final product that you add to hot water.

[00:13:55] The British even thought that green and black tea were two completely different plants, and that different varieties of tea came from a very large variety of plants.

[00:14:08] In case you didn’t know, black tea is oxidised, when green tea isn’t - they come from the same plant.

[00:14:17] So, what did the British do?

[00:14:20] They sent spies deep into China to try to see tea production for themselves.

[00:14:27] The most famous of these spies was a Scotsman called Robert Fortune, who travelled deep into China, disguised as a Chinese peasant, and learned how tea was actually made. 

[00:14:41] I’m not quite sure how a very Caucasian-looking Scotsman managed to successfully disguise himself as a Chinese peasant, but apparently it worked.

[00:14:52] He managed to learn the secrets of tea production, and escape from China with tea plants.

[00:15:00] And it was with the tea plants that Fortune had taken from China, and with the knowledge he had gained from witnessing the production of tea, that tea started to be produced in British India, specifically, in Assam, in northern India.

[00:15:18] The Chinese stronghold on global tea production was coming to an end, and tea production in India continued to grow.

[00:15:27] Armed now with the knowledge of how to produce tea, the British brought it to other parts of the empire, for example Sri Lanka and East Africa.

[00:15:37] And the rest is, as they say, history. 

[00:15:41] Tea is as popular as it ever has been, and as we heard, literally billions of people drink it every day.

[00:15:50] Now, I want to finish off this episode with three curiosities about tea.

[00:15:56] The first is linguistic, and it’s about what the word for tea tells you in any language.

[00:16:04] There are three broad groups of ways of saying tea: 

[00:16:09] The first is “te”, so in English we say “tea”, in French you say “thé”, in Spanish it’s “té”, and so on.

[00:16:18] The second is “cha”, so in Mandarin it’s “chá”, in Japanese it’s “cha”, and in Portuguese it’s also “chá”.

[00:16:28] And the third is more like “chai”, so in Russian, Arabic, and Persian, the word for tea sounds a bit like chai.

[00:16:38] The interesting thing about this is that the way a language says “tea” tells you about how tea probably entered the country.

[00:16:49] If the word is something like “tea”, it will have come from south-east China, in or around Fujian province, as “te” is the word in the Min group of languages spoken in this area of China.

[00:17:03] If the word is something like “cha”, it will either have come from the original Chinese word, in the case of Japanese or Korean, or have come from the traders in Canton, in southern China. 

[00:17:17] Interestingly, the reason that Portuguese is the only European language to have this root is thanks to early Portuguese traders in Macau.

[00:17:28] And if the word is something like “chai”, it will likely have come overland, through the Silk Road, which explains why Middle Eastern and Slavic languages typically use this version.

[00:17:42] OK, our second curiosity about tea is the story of tea bags.

[00:17:49] Nowadays, most pre-packaged tea, certainly in Europe, comes in tea bags. You put the tea bag in a cup, add water, then take it out, and you don’t need to worry about dealing with all of the little leaves. 

[00:18:04] It’s convenient.

[00:18:06] But it might surprise you that tea bags were discovered completely by accident. 

[00:18:13] In 1908, an American tea merchant called Thomas Sullivan sent small samples of tea to his customers. He enclosed them in little silk bags, assuming that the customers would take the tea leaves out and prepare the tea in a metal infuser.

[00:18:32] But the customers just put the entire bag into hot water, not realising that they were meant to take the tea leaves out. It tasted just as good, and there was none of the mess.

[00:18:46] So, Sullivan started mass-producing these little bags, no longer made out of silk, of course, and that was how the tea bag was invented.

[00:18:57] Our final curiosity is perhaps more of a point of debate, and that is about how you actually make a cup of tea. 

[00:19:06] Do you put the water in first, the milk first, the bag first, and how long do you leave it to brew, how long do you leave the bag in there?

[00:19:17] Well, I can assure you that there are conversations happening about this very topic in British households right now, but here are three tips from a so-called tea-making expert.

[00:19:29] Firstly, always drink from a porcelain or ceramic cup, never from a styrofoam one. The styrofoam actually absorbs flavour molecules, reducing the taste.

[00:19:44] Secondly, always use filtered water, as if you use hardened water then the flavour of the tea will react with the calcium. And add the water first, then the tea, and then the milk.

[00:19:58] And the final tip, which some of you might find surprising, is to leave the teabag in the hot water for at least 5 minutes. You might think that the tea would be horrendously strong and disgusting, but according to a literal expert in the science of tea making, this is the way to do it.

[00:20:21] So, that is our not-so-short history of tea, a drink with mysterious origins, one that went from the preserve of emperors and the ultra-rich to being the second most popular drink in the world. Along the way it altered global politics, caused countries to go to war with each other, and changed the world.

[00:20:44] It’s certainly something to think about when you next put the kettle on, ready to enjoy a refreshing cup of tea.

[00:20:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on tea.

[00:20:58] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:06] We do have an increasing number of members from China, so I would particularly love to know what your thoughts on this were. 

[00:21:13] What do you see as the role of tea in Chinese culture today, and is it strange for you that it has been semi-adopted as a national drink by a country on the other side of the world?

[00:21:27] And for everyone else, from whichever country you are from, what role does tea play in your culture? 

[00:21:34] I know we have focussed on Britain and tea here, so I’d love to hear any interesting stories about tea and your country.

[00:21:43] Let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:45] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:55] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about tea.

[00:00:28] It is the second most popular drink in the world, second only to water, and it’s estimated that 3.7 billion cups of tea are consumed every single day.

[00:00:41] I’m drinking one right now, as are hundreds of millions of other people, including, perhaps, even you.

[00:00:48] So, in this episode we are going to look at how tea became such a global sensation

[00:00:56] It is an amazing story, it’s one of global trade, East vs. West, opium, theft, addiction, wars, international espionage, smuggling and a Portuguese Princess.

[00:01:11] If you would like to press pause and put the kettle on, now is the time to do so, as this episode is best listened to with an accompanying cup of your favourite tea.

[00:01:24] OK then, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:28] Great Britain is said to be a nation of tea drinkers. We drink it at breakfast, we drink it in the mid-morning, and we drink it in the afternoon. 

[00:01:39] The average person in Britain drinks about one and a half kilos of the stuff every year, which will make you about 700 cups, or almost two cups of tea every single day.

[00:01:52] And it has become part of British culture, so much so that during World War II, as things were not going well for the Allies, the British government bought up all the tea available in Europe in a bid to keep up morale.

[00:02:09] But there is, of course, nothing actually British about tea.

[00:02:14] Tea, as you will probably know, originates from China.

[00:02:19] There are several myths about the discovery of tea. 

[00:02:23] One has a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, about to drink from a bowl of boiling water, and magically some leaves blow into it, he drinks this newly flavoured water and thinks, hmm, that was nice.

[00:02:39] Another has Shen Nung accidentally poisoning himself, and just as he was about to die a leaf blew into his mouth, he chewed it, and he was saved. 

[00:02:51] While I’ll leave you to decide whether you believe either of these two stories, there is evidence of tea being drunk in China going back to the second century BC. 

[00:03:03] Tea was mainly grown in south-western China, in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. 

[00:03:10] And it is thought to have initially been considered to be a medicinal drink, a drink to be mixed with things like onion, ginger and salt, and drunk for its health benefits.

[00:03:24] But as China continued to grow in power, especially during the Tang dynasty from the 7th to 10th century, people looked for other uses for tea.

[00:03:36] It turned from a medicinal drink to one drunk for similar reasons as it is drunk today, because it was enjoyable, because it was tasty, and because the caffeine in it gave you a little buzz of energy.

[00:03:51] And as the popularity of tea continued to grow within Imperial China, it was increasingly exported to neighbouring countries: Japan to the east, and the Tibetan empire to the south. 

[00:04:04] And with the growth of the Silk Road, tea was also introduced to central Asia and the Middle East.

[00:04:13] It was a popular drink, and countries began to put their own mark on how tea should be drunk.

[00:04:20] In China, it was typically drunk plain - green tea mixed with hot water. 

[00:04:27] In the mountainous Tibetan region they added Yak milk to it. 

[00:04:32] In Japan there was an intricate ritual developed to do with the preparation of tea.

[00:04:39] But it was to be in 1610 that tea took its first step to becoming a drink that would literally change the world. 

[00:04:49] Dutch merchants brought tea to Amsterdam, the first tea leaves arrived on northern European shores.

[00:04:57] When it first arrived, people weren’t so convinced

[00:05:02] Sure, it was exotic, and therefore there was interest in trying it. 

[00:05:07] But it was incredibly expensive, and it was, like coffee, initially thought to be a medicinal drink by Europeans.

[00:05:17] The first records of tea arriving in Britain came shortly after, but the Brits weren’t overly convinced about these new, green leaves either.

[00:05:27] Tea only really started to take off in Britain after Charles II took the throne in 1660. 

[00:05:36] To briefly remind you, Charles II was the king nicknamed “The Merry Monarch”. 

[00:05:43] He was crowned king after the country had spent 11 years experimenting with life without a monarch, and after it had decided to restore the monarchy, the crown was placed on Charles’ head.

[00:05:57] The country was ready for a good time, and Charles was a party animal

[00:06:02] He reopened the theatres, allowed music to be played again, and there was a general mood of celebration in the air.

[00:06:12] His wife was Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess. Now, Portuguese merchants had brought tea back a little earlier than the Dutch, so the Portuguese nobility had had a bit more time to develop a taste for the stuff.

[00:06:29] And Catherine of Braganza was someone who had certainly developed a taste for it. She was a huge fan of tea, and she brought it with her when she moved to England to marry Charles II.

[00:06:43] In those days the King and Queen were the most fashionable people in the country, and if you wanted to show that you were fashionable and a person of high reputation, you did what the King and Queen did.

[00:06:56] You went to the same places as they did, you wore the same clothes, and you drank the same drinks.

[00:07:03] So all of high society, in an attempt to do what Catherine of Braganza was doing, started to drink tea. 

[00:07:12] Demand for tea did increase, but given that it was such an expensive drink few people could afford it.

[00:07:20] The only place in the world that produced tea at this time was China, so British merchants needed to go to China to get it. 

[00:07:30] And at the time a monopoly on British trade with China had been given to an organisation called The East India Company. The East India Company, given that British aristocrats had started to develop a taste for the stuff, started to buy tea from Chinese merchants in Canton, modern day Guangzhou. 

[00:07:53] This was the only port with which foreign trade was allowed - so the entire tea trade needed to pass through here.

[00:08:01] But for the first 30 years or so of its existence in Britain, tea was so expensive that only the richest in society could afford it.

[00:08:11] Then, over the next 50 years, so this is from around 1690 to 1740, tea went from the preserve of the upper classes to a truly national drink.

[00:08:26] In 1690 around 50 tonnes of tea were imported to Britain, but by 1740 it had gone to 2,500 tonnes, an increase of 50 times.

[00:08:40] Given the amount that was being imported, the cost had reduced, meaning that it was now something that normal people could afford. 

[00:08:49] It was also a very easy drink to make, you simply boil water and add it to the tea. 

[00:08:56] If you compare this to the other hot drinks available, coffee or hot chocolate, hot cocoa, tea was much easier to prepare, and it became part of British culture.

[00:09:09] The British also added their own twist, their own unique style, to tea preparation. They added sugar, and unlike in east Asia, tea became a sweet drink.

[00:09:23] Indeed, if you look at the amount of tea imported to Britain every year, it increases at almost exactly the same rate as the imports of sugar.

[00:09:34] Now, we are still in the early 18th century here, but we can already see quite how interlinked the global economy already is. 

[00:09:43] Sugar is being exported from the Caribbean, after having been produced in plantations filled with slaves taken from west Africa, who were bought from European slave traders with wool and metal goods. 

[00:09:58] The sugar then makes its way back to Britain, where it is drunk with a leaf exported from China.

[00:10:05] It is quite horrific to think about, and this is evidently a gross simplification, but globalisation was already well underway.

[00:10:16] Now, a functioning global trade system requires countries to produce things that other countries want. 

[00:10:24] I make product A, you make product B, and then I give you some of product A in exchange for product B. 

[00:10:33] The only problem with this was that China, the global centre of tea production, wasn’t really interested in products that Britain was producing - wool, textiles, and machinery. 

[00:10:48] In a famous letter to the British King George III, the Emperor of Imperial China, Qianlong, in 1793 wrote: "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” 

[00:11:14] Translation: “we don’t need or want anything you make”.

[00:11:20] And Britain had, to date, been paying for tea with silver, but the silver was running out.

[00:11:28] Britain needed to find a product that it could sell to China in exchange for tea.

[00:11:35] The product was opium.

[00:11:38] Now, opium was illegal in China, but this didn’t stop the British smuggling it into the country. More and more Chinese became addicted to the drug, and by 1840 there were an estimated 10 million Chinese opium addicts.

[00:11:57] You may know the story of what happened next, The Opium Wars. 

[00:12:02] We actually made an episode on this, it’s episode number 93, so if you want the long version of that story, I’d recommend listening to that.

[00:12:12] But here’s the short version.

[00:12:15] In 1839, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu destroyed 1,000 tonnes of opium that had been seized from British smugglers

[00:12:26] Britain rushed to the defense of these drug smugglers, and between 1839 and 1860 there were two different wars between Britain and China. 

[00:12:39] China wanted Britain to stop flooding its country with opium

[00:12:44] Britain needed the opium trade to continue, because its population was also addicted, albeit to tea.

[00:12:54] To cut a long story short, these wars were won by Britain, and resulted in the so-called Century of Humiliation for China.

[00:13:04] As far as tea is concerned, the British continued to flood China with opium, which allowed them to continue to buy vast quantities of tea. 

[00:13:16] But this wasn’t a long term solution.

[00:13:20] While all of this had been going on, Britain had been desperately trying to find a way to produce tea in its rapidly-growing empire.

[00:13:30] The problem was that Britain had no idea how tea was actually produced. 

[00:13:36] Given that the British traders only saw the final version of tea, the dried out leaves ready to be exported, they had no real idea how tea actually went from being a plant growing on a bush to the final product that you add to hot water.

[00:13:55] The British even thought that green and black tea were two completely different plants, and that different varieties of tea came from a very large variety of plants.

[00:14:08] In case you didn’t know, black tea is oxidised, when green tea isn’t - they come from the same plant.

[00:14:17] So, what did the British do?

[00:14:20] They sent spies deep into China to try to see tea production for themselves.

[00:14:27] The most famous of these spies was a Scotsman called Robert Fortune, who travelled deep into China, disguised as a Chinese peasant, and learned how tea was actually made. 

[00:14:41] I’m not quite sure how a very Caucasian-looking Scotsman managed to successfully disguise himself as a Chinese peasant, but apparently it worked.

[00:14:52] He managed to learn the secrets of tea production, and escape from China with tea plants.

[00:15:00] And it was with the tea plants that Fortune had taken from China, and with the knowledge he had gained from witnessing the production of tea, that tea started to be produced in British India, specifically, in Assam, in northern India.

[00:15:18] The Chinese stronghold on global tea production was coming to an end, and tea production in India continued to grow.

[00:15:27] Armed now with the knowledge of how to produce tea, the British brought it to other parts of the empire, for example Sri Lanka and East Africa.

[00:15:37] And the rest is, as they say, history. 

[00:15:41] Tea is as popular as it ever has been, and as we heard, literally billions of people drink it every day.

[00:15:50] Now, I want to finish off this episode with three curiosities about tea.

[00:15:56] The first is linguistic, and it’s about what the word for tea tells you in any language.

[00:16:04] There are three broad groups of ways of saying tea: 

[00:16:09] The first is “te”, so in English we say “tea”, in French you say “thé”, in Spanish it’s “té”, and so on.

[00:16:18] The second is “cha”, so in Mandarin it’s “chá”, in Japanese it’s “cha”, and in Portuguese it’s also “chá”.

[00:16:28] And the third is more like “chai”, so in Russian, Arabic, and Persian, the word for tea sounds a bit like chai.

[00:16:38] The interesting thing about this is that the way a language says “tea” tells you about how tea probably entered the country.

[00:16:49] If the word is something like “tea”, it will have come from south-east China, in or around Fujian province, as “te” is the word in the Min group of languages spoken in this area of China.

[00:17:03] If the word is something like “cha”, it will either have come from the original Chinese word, in the case of Japanese or Korean, or have come from the traders in Canton, in southern China. 

[00:17:17] Interestingly, the reason that Portuguese is the only European language to have this root is thanks to early Portuguese traders in Macau.

[00:17:28] And if the word is something like “chai”, it will likely have come overland, through the Silk Road, which explains why Middle Eastern and Slavic languages typically use this version.

[00:17:42] OK, our second curiosity about tea is the story of tea bags.

[00:17:49] Nowadays, most pre-packaged tea, certainly in Europe, comes in tea bags. You put the tea bag in a cup, add water, then take it out, and you don’t need to worry about dealing with all of the little leaves. 

[00:18:04] It’s convenient.

[00:18:06] But it might surprise you that tea bags were discovered completely by accident. 

[00:18:13] In 1908, an American tea merchant called Thomas Sullivan sent small samples of tea to his customers. He enclosed them in little silk bags, assuming that the customers would take the tea leaves out and prepare the tea in a metal infuser.

[00:18:32] But the customers just put the entire bag into hot water, not realising that they were meant to take the tea leaves out. It tasted just as good, and there was none of the mess.

[00:18:46] So, Sullivan started mass-producing these little bags, no longer made out of silk, of course, and that was how the tea bag was invented.

[00:18:57] Our final curiosity is perhaps more of a point of debate, and that is about how you actually make a cup of tea. 

[00:19:06] Do you put the water in first, the milk first, the bag first, and how long do you leave it to brew, how long do you leave the bag in there?

[00:19:17] Well, I can assure you that there are conversations happening about this very topic in British households right now, but here are three tips from a so-called tea-making expert.

[00:19:29] Firstly, always drink from a porcelain or ceramic cup, never from a styrofoam one. The styrofoam actually absorbs flavour molecules, reducing the taste.

[00:19:44] Secondly, always use filtered water, as if you use hardened water then the flavour of the tea will react with the calcium. And add the water first, then the tea, and then the milk.

[00:19:58] And the final tip, which some of you might find surprising, is to leave the teabag in the hot water for at least 5 minutes. You might think that the tea would be horrendously strong and disgusting, but according to a literal expert in the science of tea making, this is the way to do it.

[00:20:21] So, that is our not-so-short history of tea, a drink with mysterious origins, one that went from the preserve of emperors and the ultra-rich to being the second most popular drink in the world. Along the way it altered global politics, caused countries to go to war with each other, and changed the world.

[00:20:44] It’s certainly something to think about when you next put the kettle on, ready to enjoy a refreshing cup of tea.

[00:20:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on tea.

[00:20:58] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:06] We do have an increasing number of members from China, so I would particularly love to know what your thoughts on this were. 

[00:21:13] What do you see as the role of tea in Chinese culture today, and is it strange for you that it has been semi-adopted as a national drink by a country on the other side of the world?

[00:21:27] And for everyone else, from whichever country you are from, what role does tea play in your culture? 

[00:21:34] I know we have focussed on Britain and tea here, so I’d love to hear any interesting stories about tea and your country.

[00:21:43] Let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:45] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:55] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about tea.

[00:00:28] It is the second most popular drink in the world, second only to water, and it’s estimated that 3.7 billion cups of tea are consumed every single day.

[00:00:41] I’m drinking one right now, as are hundreds of millions of other people, including, perhaps, even you.

[00:00:48] So, in this episode we are going to look at how tea became such a global sensation

[00:00:56] It is an amazing story, it’s one of global trade, East vs. West, opium, theft, addiction, wars, international espionage, smuggling and a Portuguese Princess.

[00:01:11] If you would like to press pause and put the kettle on, now is the time to do so, as this episode is best listened to with an accompanying cup of your favourite tea.

[00:01:24] OK then, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:28] Great Britain is said to be a nation of tea drinkers. We drink it at breakfast, we drink it in the mid-morning, and we drink it in the afternoon. 

[00:01:39] The average person in Britain drinks about one and a half kilos of the stuff every year, which will make you about 700 cups, or almost two cups of tea every single day.

[00:01:52] And it has become part of British culture, so much so that during World War II, as things were not going well for the Allies, the British government bought up all the tea available in Europe in a bid to keep up morale.

[00:02:09] But there is, of course, nothing actually British about tea.

[00:02:14] Tea, as you will probably know, originates from China.

[00:02:19] There are several myths about the discovery of tea. 

[00:02:23] One has a Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, about to drink from a bowl of boiling water, and magically some leaves blow into it, he drinks this newly flavoured water and thinks, hmm, that was nice.

[00:02:39] Another has Shen Nung accidentally poisoning himself, and just as he was about to die a leaf blew into his mouth, he chewed it, and he was saved. 

[00:02:51] While I’ll leave you to decide whether you believe either of these two stories, there is evidence of tea being drunk in China going back to the second century BC. 

[00:03:03] Tea was mainly grown in south-western China, in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. 

[00:03:10] And it is thought to have initially been considered to be a medicinal drink, a drink to be mixed with things like onion, ginger and salt, and drunk for its health benefits.

[00:03:24] But as China continued to grow in power, especially during the Tang dynasty from the 7th to 10th century, people looked for other uses for tea.

[00:03:36] It turned from a medicinal drink to one drunk for similar reasons as it is drunk today, because it was enjoyable, because it was tasty, and because the caffeine in it gave you a little buzz of energy.

[00:03:51] And as the popularity of tea continued to grow within Imperial China, it was increasingly exported to neighbouring countries: Japan to the east, and the Tibetan empire to the south. 

[00:04:04] And with the growth of the Silk Road, tea was also introduced to central Asia and the Middle East.

[00:04:13] It was a popular drink, and countries began to put their own mark on how tea should be drunk.

[00:04:20] In China, it was typically drunk plain - green tea mixed with hot water. 

[00:04:27] In the mountainous Tibetan region they added Yak milk to it. 

[00:04:32] In Japan there was an intricate ritual developed to do with the preparation of tea.

[00:04:39] But it was to be in 1610 that tea took its first step to becoming a drink that would literally change the world. 

[00:04:49] Dutch merchants brought tea to Amsterdam, the first tea leaves arrived on northern European shores.

[00:04:57] When it first arrived, people weren’t so convinced

[00:05:02] Sure, it was exotic, and therefore there was interest in trying it. 

[00:05:07] But it was incredibly expensive, and it was, like coffee, initially thought to be a medicinal drink by Europeans.

[00:05:17] The first records of tea arriving in Britain came shortly after, but the Brits weren’t overly convinced about these new, green leaves either.

[00:05:27] Tea only really started to take off in Britain after Charles II took the throne in 1660. 

[00:05:36] To briefly remind you, Charles II was the king nicknamed “The Merry Monarch”. 

[00:05:43] He was crowned king after the country had spent 11 years experimenting with life without a monarch, and after it had decided to restore the monarchy, the crown was placed on Charles’ head.

[00:05:57] The country was ready for a good time, and Charles was a party animal

[00:06:02] He reopened the theatres, allowed music to be played again, and there was a general mood of celebration in the air.

[00:06:12] His wife was Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess. Now, Portuguese merchants had brought tea back a little earlier than the Dutch, so the Portuguese nobility had had a bit more time to develop a taste for the stuff.

[00:06:29] And Catherine of Braganza was someone who had certainly developed a taste for it. She was a huge fan of tea, and she brought it with her when she moved to England to marry Charles II.

[00:06:43] In those days the King and Queen were the most fashionable people in the country, and if you wanted to show that you were fashionable and a person of high reputation, you did what the King and Queen did.

[00:06:56] You went to the same places as they did, you wore the same clothes, and you drank the same drinks.

[00:07:03] So all of high society, in an attempt to do what Catherine of Braganza was doing, started to drink tea. 

[00:07:12] Demand for tea did increase, but given that it was such an expensive drink few people could afford it.

[00:07:20] The only place in the world that produced tea at this time was China, so British merchants needed to go to China to get it. 

[00:07:30] And at the time a monopoly on British trade with China had been given to an organisation called The East India Company. The East India Company, given that British aristocrats had started to develop a taste for the stuff, started to buy tea from Chinese merchants in Canton, modern day Guangzhou. 

[00:07:53] This was the only port with which foreign trade was allowed - so the entire tea trade needed to pass through here.

[00:08:01] But for the first 30 years or so of its existence in Britain, tea was so expensive that only the richest in society could afford it.

[00:08:11] Then, over the next 50 years, so this is from around 1690 to 1740, tea went from the preserve of the upper classes to a truly national drink.

[00:08:26] In 1690 around 50 tonnes of tea were imported to Britain, but by 1740 it had gone to 2,500 tonnes, an increase of 50 times.

[00:08:40] Given the amount that was being imported, the cost had reduced, meaning that it was now something that normal people could afford. 

[00:08:49] It was also a very easy drink to make, you simply boil water and add it to the tea. 

[00:08:56] If you compare this to the other hot drinks available, coffee or hot chocolate, hot cocoa, tea was much easier to prepare, and it became part of British culture.

[00:09:09] The British also added their own twist, their own unique style, to tea preparation. They added sugar, and unlike in east Asia, tea became a sweet drink.

[00:09:23] Indeed, if you look at the amount of tea imported to Britain every year, it increases at almost exactly the same rate as the imports of sugar.

[00:09:34] Now, we are still in the early 18th century here, but we can already see quite how interlinked the global economy already is. 

[00:09:43] Sugar is being exported from the Caribbean, after having been produced in plantations filled with slaves taken from west Africa, who were bought from European slave traders with wool and metal goods. 

[00:09:58] The sugar then makes its way back to Britain, where it is drunk with a leaf exported from China.

[00:10:05] It is quite horrific to think about, and this is evidently a gross simplification, but globalisation was already well underway.

[00:10:16] Now, a functioning global trade system requires countries to produce things that other countries want. 

[00:10:24] I make product A, you make product B, and then I give you some of product A in exchange for product B. 

[00:10:33] The only problem with this was that China, the global centre of tea production, wasn’t really interested in products that Britain was producing - wool, textiles, and machinery. 

[00:10:48] In a famous letter to the British King George III, the Emperor of Imperial China, Qianlong, in 1793 wrote: "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” 

[00:11:14] Translation: “we don’t need or want anything you make”.

[00:11:20] And Britain had, to date, been paying for tea with silver, but the silver was running out.

[00:11:28] Britain needed to find a product that it could sell to China in exchange for tea.

[00:11:35] The product was opium.

[00:11:38] Now, opium was illegal in China, but this didn’t stop the British smuggling it into the country. More and more Chinese became addicted to the drug, and by 1840 there were an estimated 10 million Chinese opium addicts.

[00:11:57] You may know the story of what happened next, The Opium Wars. 

[00:12:02] We actually made an episode on this, it’s episode number 93, so if you want the long version of that story, I’d recommend listening to that.

[00:12:12] But here’s the short version.

[00:12:15] In 1839, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu destroyed 1,000 tonnes of opium that had been seized from British smugglers

[00:12:26] Britain rushed to the defense of these drug smugglers, and between 1839 and 1860 there were two different wars between Britain and China. 

[00:12:39] China wanted Britain to stop flooding its country with opium

[00:12:44] Britain needed the opium trade to continue, because its population was also addicted, albeit to tea.

[00:12:54] To cut a long story short, these wars were won by Britain, and resulted in the so-called Century of Humiliation for China.

[00:13:04] As far as tea is concerned, the British continued to flood China with opium, which allowed them to continue to buy vast quantities of tea. 

[00:13:16] But this wasn’t a long term solution.

[00:13:20] While all of this had been going on, Britain had been desperately trying to find a way to produce tea in its rapidly-growing empire.

[00:13:30] The problem was that Britain had no idea how tea was actually produced. 

[00:13:36] Given that the British traders only saw the final version of tea, the dried out leaves ready to be exported, they had no real idea how tea actually went from being a plant growing on a bush to the final product that you add to hot water.

[00:13:55] The British even thought that green and black tea were two completely different plants, and that different varieties of tea came from a very large variety of plants.

[00:14:08] In case you didn’t know, black tea is oxidised, when green tea isn’t - they come from the same plant.

[00:14:17] So, what did the British do?

[00:14:20] They sent spies deep into China to try to see tea production for themselves.

[00:14:27] The most famous of these spies was a Scotsman called Robert Fortune, who travelled deep into China, disguised as a Chinese peasant, and learned how tea was actually made. 

[00:14:41] I’m not quite sure how a very Caucasian-looking Scotsman managed to successfully disguise himself as a Chinese peasant, but apparently it worked.

[00:14:52] He managed to learn the secrets of tea production, and escape from China with tea plants.

[00:15:00] And it was with the tea plants that Fortune had taken from China, and with the knowledge he had gained from witnessing the production of tea, that tea started to be produced in British India, specifically, in Assam, in northern India.

[00:15:18] The Chinese stronghold on global tea production was coming to an end, and tea production in India continued to grow.

[00:15:27] Armed now with the knowledge of how to produce tea, the British brought it to other parts of the empire, for example Sri Lanka and East Africa.

[00:15:37] And the rest is, as they say, history. 

[00:15:41] Tea is as popular as it ever has been, and as we heard, literally billions of people drink it every day.

[00:15:50] Now, I want to finish off this episode with three curiosities about tea.

[00:15:56] The first is linguistic, and it’s about what the word for tea tells you in any language.

[00:16:04] There are three broad groups of ways of saying tea: 

[00:16:09] The first is “te”, so in English we say “tea”, in French you say “thé”, in Spanish it’s “té”, and so on.

[00:16:18] The second is “cha”, so in Mandarin it’s “chá”, in Japanese it’s “cha”, and in Portuguese it’s also “chá”.

[00:16:28] And the third is more like “chai”, so in Russian, Arabic, and Persian, the word for tea sounds a bit like chai.

[00:16:38] The interesting thing about this is that the way a language says “tea” tells you about how tea probably entered the country.

[00:16:49] If the word is something like “tea”, it will have come from south-east China, in or around Fujian province, as “te” is the word in the Min group of languages spoken in this area of China.

[00:17:03] If the word is something like “cha”, it will either have come from the original Chinese word, in the case of Japanese or Korean, or have come from the traders in Canton, in southern China. 

[00:17:17] Interestingly, the reason that Portuguese is the only European language to have this root is thanks to early Portuguese traders in Macau.

[00:17:28] And if the word is something like “chai”, it will likely have come overland, through the Silk Road, which explains why Middle Eastern and Slavic languages typically use this version.

[00:17:42] OK, our second curiosity about tea is the story of tea bags.

[00:17:49] Nowadays, most pre-packaged tea, certainly in Europe, comes in tea bags. You put the tea bag in a cup, add water, then take it out, and you don’t need to worry about dealing with all of the little leaves. 

[00:18:04] It’s convenient.

[00:18:06] But it might surprise you that tea bags were discovered completely by accident. 

[00:18:13] In 1908, an American tea merchant called Thomas Sullivan sent small samples of tea to his customers. He enclosed them in little silk bags, assuming that the customers would take the tea leaves out and prepare the tea in a metal infuser.

[00:18:32] But the customers just put the entire bag into hot water, not realising that they were meant to take the tea leaves out. It tasted just as good, and there was none of the mess.

[00:18:46] So, Sullivan started mass-producing these little bags, no longer made out of silk, of course, and that was how the tea bag was invented.

[00:18:57] Our final curiosity is perhaps more of a point of debate, and that is about how you actually make a cup of tea. 

[00:19:06] Do you put the water in first, the milk first, the bag first, and how long do you leave it to brew, how long do you leave the bag in there?

[00:19:17] Well, I can assure you that there are conversations happening about this very topic in British households right now, but here are three tips from a so-called tea-making expert.

[00:19:29] Firstly, always drink from a porcelain or ceramic cup, never from a styrofoam one. The styrofoam actually absorbs flavour molecules, reducing the taste.

[00:19:44] Secondly, always use filtered water, as if you use hardened water then the flavour of the tea will react with the calcium. And add the water first, then the tea, and then the milk.

[00:19:58] And the final tip, which some of you might find surprising, is to leave the teabag in the hot water for at least 5 minutes. You might think that the tea would be horrendously strong and disgusting, but according to a literal expert in the science of tea making, this is the way to do it.

[00:20:21] So, that is our not-so-short history of tea, a drink with mysterious origins, one that went from the preserve of emperors and the ultra-rich to being the second most popular drink in the world. Along the way it altered global politics, caused countries to go to war with each other, and changed the world.

[00:20:44] It’s certainly something to think about when you next put the kettle on, ready to enjoy a refreshing cup of tea.

[00:20:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on tea.

[00:20:58] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:21:02] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:06] We do have an increasing number of members from China, so I would particularly love to know what your thoughts on this were. 

[00:21:13] What do you see as the role of tea in Chinese culture today, and is it strange for you that it has been semi-adopted as a national drink by a country on the other side of the world?

[00:21:27] And for everyone else, from whichever country you are from, what role does tea play in your culture? 

[00:21:34] I know we have focussed on Britain and tea here, so I’d love to hear any interesting stories about tea and your country.

[00:21:43] Let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:45] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:55] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]