Text Tristan Kennedy and Maria Uspenski
As the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing builds up to its spectacular climax on the evening of August 8th, millions of people across the world will be watching on TV, relaxing with a cup of tea in their hands. One of China’s oldest, most successful cultural exports will be enjoyed alongside its newest.
Tea has become an integral part of a multitude of cultures throughout the world, from Taiwan to Turkey. English people like myself have a peculiar obsession with it. Whether you take it with a splash of milk or a slice of lemon; whether you brew it with a teabag in a delicate porcelain cup or in a samovar; whether you’re Japanese, Lebanese, Russian or English, tea is likely to be party of your daily life. In fact, despite the best efforts of the Coca-Cola Company, worldwide, people drink more tea than all other drinks put together (with the exception of water). That sort of popularity raises the status of tea from mere drink to cultural institution.
An ancient legend attributes the discovery of tea to Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. After spending nine years staring at a wall in meditation, he fell asleep — somewhat unsurprisingly. When he awoke, he was so disgusted by his weakness that he chopped off his eyelids and threw them angrily on the floor. They took root where they fell and grew into tea bushes. He then instructed his disciples to boil and drink the leaves, thus giving them a means to stave off tiredness while meditating.
Strange as it might sound, there might be a grain of truth in this myth. Though no one is certain, it’s thought that Camellia Sinensis, the tea plant, originally grew in the Eastern foothills of the Tibetan plateau, the region where Bodhidharma was said to have meditated. The custom of drinking tea probably emerged from the same area around the first millennium B.C. The first exports of tea began from northern China into Mongolia as bricks and bales of compressed tea harnessed to the backs of camels and mules. The warm beverage brewed from the shavings of the tea bricks became crucial to the diets of the Mongolian nomads, as the tea substituted as a vegetable, and was consumed daily. The tea-drinking habit spread fairly rapidly around the region, becoming popular among the tribes of the central Asian steppe and reaching as far as the Middle East.
In Europe, demand for the drink, called te in the southern Chinese Min Nan dialect, led to conflict with China. This came to a head with the Opium Wars of the 19th century, in which the Chinese were forced to open their ports to English tea clippers.
In Asia, however, tea, or chai as the northern Chinese call it, played a very different role. The two great continental empires, Russia and China, have existed peacefully side by side for most of their shared history. Believe it or not, this is largely thanks to the part played by the humble cup of tea.
While a 2005 survey showed that 82 percent of Russians drink at least one cup of tea a day, Russians developed this taste for tea relatively late. It is said to have been introduced to Russia in 1616 when a Cossack by the name of Tyumenets returned from a diplomatic mission to Mongolia with samples of Chinese tea. In 1638, 200 packets of tea were sent as a gift from the Mongol ruler to Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich, who responded that he would have preferred sables.
Initially, the cost of tea was prohibitive in Russia, making it accessible to only the wealthiest Russians. Hearty, warm, and sustaining, tea was ideally suited to Russian life, and Russia’s growth into a major tea-drinking nation owed much to the opening of the overland caravan route across Mongolia following the signing of the Nerchinsk Treaty with China in 1689. Tea in loose-leaf form packed into chests was brought from China to Russia along the “Great Tea Road,” part of the famous Silk Road. The journey was not easy, taking over 16 months for the average caravan of 200 to 300 camels to cover 11,000 miles. The profitability of the tea road also gave Russia and China a very good reason to co-exist peacefully. It led directly to the signing of the 1727 Kiakhta Treaty, a trade agreement which also fixed their borders.
Beginning in the 1860s, this was supplemented and indeed surpassed by brick tea made at Russian factories set up in Hankou, China, a major tea-trading region on the banks of the Yangtze River in Hubei Province. In this bustling market town, the bricks were sold to Russian merchants, who then transported the tea on horse-drawn carts across Siberia to Russia’s metropolitan centers. They followed roughly the same route as the Trans-Siberian railway takes today, avoiding the wild steppe tribes of Kazakhstan, which had not yet been brought under tsarist control. Bricks of tea became so commonplace in Siberia that, even as late as the mid 19th century, they were used as a form of currency.
The completion of the Trans-Siberian railway at the start of the 20th century brought an end to the tea caravans. The product was now shipped from China to Vladivostok and then taken across Russia by rail. In addition, starting in 1892, plantations were established along the Black Sea coast of Georgia, in the northern Caucasus, and in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea.
Both these major developments resulted in increased availability of tea in Russia and helped spread tea-drinking to all members of Russian society. The ballerina Tamara Karsavina even noted the welcome provision of tea on a cold day at a matinee performance by the students of the Mariinsky Theater’s school in St. Petersburg in 1896: “Huge samovars steamed outside the stage door…In the interval tea and refreshments were served in the foyers and the staff wore their gala red livery with the imperial eagles.” Tea was served formally in the social ritual of afternoon tea, an adopted European custom. However, in Russia, sweeteners were never added to tea but taken separately. These could be lumps of sugar, pieces of candied fruit, or preserves.
Russians have become such devoted tea drinkers that as a nation they are the third-largest consumers of tea (behind China and India). Today, Russia’s thirst for tea is satisfied by production in Georgia (which has now developed into the seventh-largest tea producing region in the world) as well as imports from China, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka.
So this month, as you kick back with a refreshing cuppa to watch a little discus-throwing, give a thought to those brewed little leaves in your life.
Tristan Kennedy lives in Moscow, where he works for the Guardian. Maria Uspenski is the founder and owner of The Tea Spot (www.the-tea-spot.com), a specialty tea company based in Boulder, Colorado.