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The History of the Tea Ceremony

Updated on January 17, 2017
Japanese tea ceremony.
Japanese tea ceremony. | Source
Iron tea set.
Iron tea set. | Source
Just as there seems to be an endless variety of teas, there is also an endless variety of teapots and tea sets.
Just as there seems to be an endless variety of teas, there is also an endless variety of teapots and tea sets. | Source

History of the Tea Ceremony

Camellia sinensis or tea, is intricately woven into the customs and practices around the world and throughout the history of tea and the art of drinking tea - the tea ceremony - has produced special utensils and vessels especially designed for use during consumption. Drinking tea can be a solitary experience, one that is enjoyed by a cozy, warm fire but it is probably enjoyed just as much as an elaborate social event lasting for as much as four hours as it is in Tea Ceremonies.

In China tea masters teach the art of the gong fu Tea Ceremony, an elaborate form of tea service involving specific steps and etiquette behind serving guests. The ceremony involves washing the service pieces at the table, infusing the tea repeatedly, educationg the guest, enjoying the first fragrance of the tea and, lastly, enjoying the delicate taste of the oolong tea. It is an involved process requiring mindfulness, patience and skill.

The Japanese culture is similar to the Chinese in the development of its reverence for tea over the centuries. The origins of Japanese tea drinking goes back as far as the eighth century or the Nara Period, dating from 710-794 A.D. according Mary Lous Heiss and Robert J. Heiss in The Story of Tea. Because of the expense of importing it from China, as usually happens, tea began as the drink of the few - the religious monks, the imperial family and the nobility.

By the 1600's, the custom of drinking tea had spread throughout Japan and, as in China, distinct and often complicated ceremonies became attached to tea drinking. The monks of Japan developed ceremonies that were very austere and in keeping with Zen practices. In fact, the important Chanoyu (The Way of Tea) drinking ceremony was created within Zen Buddahism. It represented "spiritual refreshment and harmony with the Universe." The nobility had ceremonies that were much more robust and the makeup of the ceremonies was much closer to parties or celebrations rather than formal ceremonies.

To support their elaborate forms of tea drinking ceremonies and to teach others how to correctly perform the ceremonies, schools dedicated to The Way of Tea were created and exist today. Often these schools were associated with families and the art learned by early family members was taught to successive generations.

The Chinese were not alone in creating beautiful vessels for tea, the Japanese also developed distinctive designs and styles of tea pots and drinking cups. Like those of the Chinese, these different styles can be traced back the the various periods of Japanese history and ruling empires, identifiable by the shape and the kinds of adornments on the teapots, making them sought after by collectors.

The Sencha Tea Ceremony developed in Japan during the 1600's. This simplified tea ceremony and style of brewing became increasingly popular until it is widely practiced throughout Japan today. In the book The Tea Companion, Jane Pettigrew beautifully summed up the Tea Ceremony saying "[It] captures all the essential elements of Japanese philosophy and artistic beauty, and interweaves four principles - harmony (with people), purity (of the heart and mind), and tranquility."

Afternoon Tea

The English developed their own ritual in the form of Afternoon Tea and the practice has its place in the history of tea. The Afternoon Tea is said to have been introduced to English Society because of hunger pangs. During the early 1800's, the dinner hour was as late as 8 or 9 o'clock at night. Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford felt it was a long time from lunch to dinner and asked her kitchen to provide a small morsel to tide her over until dinner. The kitchen did as she asked, preparing tea along with small sweet meats and dainty sandwiches. It soon became a custom for the Duchess to invite her friends to share this afternoon ritual with her. They enjoyed the novelty so much that they then began to share the experience with their friends.

Not surprisingly, the enjoyable habit spread among her friends and eventually became commonplace throughout England. It didn't hurt that the tea was often delicious and the sweets served with them had been carefully prepared to delete the palate. Soon the Afternoon Tea became so important in English society that "Victorian ladies were judged by the quality of their Afternoon Tea." As you can imagine, etiquette, proper menu, tea services and linens soon emerged as an industry supporting the Afternoon Tea. Beautifully designed tea sets and silver were coveted by every lady of the house with "means" and social standing.

Afternoon Tea flourished until after World War II when life became more hectic. Today's busy pace and long days makes eating any meal difficult, let alone trying to find time for Afternoon Tea. Yet, many do find the time for this tradition of drinking tea, even if only for special occasions. Most hotels in England still provide the Afternoon Tea. There are some hotels, such as the Ritz Carlton, that prepare a wonderful Afternoon Tea which is available in America and across the globe. More individuals are finding it to be a great way to refresh for the remainder of the demands of the day. It is even becoming popular for the occasional business meeting.

Tea parties can be formal and ceremonial, but not the one that Alice attended in Wonderland.
Tea parties can be formal and ceremonial, but not the one that Alice attended in Wonderland. | Source

"Drinking tea bespeaks a quest that one offers to his friends for the beauty of gestures, of objects and the heart."

— Sogaku of the Hayami School

Experiment with a variety of teas like the ones here.


Start Your Own Tea Drinking Customs

Afternoon Tea lends itself beautifully to special occasions, particularly bridal showers and gathering of old friends. The warmth and aroma of the tea, the beauty and elegance of the tea service, create an ambiance that solidifies friendships and creates memories. If you are the hostess for this special event, afternoon tea, why not send out invitations, dress your best, bring out your best linen, table setting and China. Display the tea caddy and choose a tea you think will complement your delicacies. Create an affair to remember in your home.

When indulging in drinking tea sans company, experiment with a variety of teas. All tea is from one plant source, the camillia sinensis. However, tea is now grown in 45 different countries - Vet Nam, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Iran, Turkey, New Zealand, China, Japan, India and South Carolina in the U. S. are a few- and the varieties and grades seem endless.

While the varieties are many, they are derived from the basic green tea, oolong tea, Black tea, Pur-erh and scented teas including Jasmine and Earl Grey. (It should be noted that herbal teas are not included because they are not true teas.)

All tea is not created equal however. Like wine, it's in the preparation and the region it is grown in that determines a really good tea versus mediocre or a really bad tea. There are master tasters who grade the tea. As you are experimenting with the taste of different teas and introducing them at your own tea ceremonies or parties, don't be afraid to ask for assistance in choosing your tea. Consult someone who is familiar with grading teas. An easy way to identify top quality tea is to look for teas that have the number one added after the grading letters.

Health Benefits of Drinking Tea

Aside from its refreshing quality, tea has health benefits. Some are well documented, while other benefits are anecdotal or have no hard evidence attesting to veracity of the claims. What is known is that tea is full of antioxidants that can reduce free radicals. There are almost no calories if no milk or sugar is added. Tea naturally contains fluoride which makes it excellent for the teeth. Current studies suggest that green and black tea may have an impact on the reduction of lung, colon and skin cancers. The caffeine in tea is known to increase concentration, alertness, accuracy, and enhance the sense of taste and smell. Tea also stimulates digestion and the metabolism while helping to eliminate toxins from the liver and the kidneys. In short, tea was introduced as a drink with medicinal properties and voila! Many of those early claims are being scientifically proven today.

Tea Ceremony

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 months ago from Queensland Australia

      This was very interesting and comprehensive. My wife loves tea but I am mainly a coffee drinker. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading about the tea ceremonies.

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 3 months ago from Georgia

      Thank you for taking a look, Jodah. I appreciate the comment. The tea ceremonies are fascinating. There is so much mindfulness that goes into the preparation. As for which I prefer, tea or coffee? I like both. Take care.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I've always been fascinated with the formal tea beautiful, delicate, and meaningful. I have a Shimizu Bizan tea set, which I cherish. Tea is also one of the healthiest drinks we can consume. I love it. Thank you for this. :-)

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 3 months ago from Georgia

      Hi Genna, Thank you for leaving a comment. The Tea Ceremony is a beautiful ritual filled with so much meaning and respect for the guest and for the tea. Isn't it wonderful when something that is so good for you is also delicious? Take care.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 months ago from Shelton

      I read somewhere Cyndi that the Way of Tea, is a Japanese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of a ritual.. but I didn't get so involved in that article as I did your hub.. thank you.. I think I really learned something interesting... Frank

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 3 months ago from Georgia

      Hi Frank, I always appreciate your comments. Thank you so much for taking a moment to read about the ceremonial aspect of drinking tea. Take care!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 8 weeks ago from England

      How fascinating! I always think of tea being a British thing but of course its not. I even watched the video all the way through, and to be honest I do understand why they do it, but I was thinking to myself, of for goodness sake just put the tea in the cup and drink it! LOL!

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 8 weeks ago from Georgia

      Hi Nell, Lol. The tea ceremony is a good way to slow you down, but, yeah, it's hard to do. I'm with you on putting the tea in the cup....

      Thanks for taking the time to read, watch and leave a comment. Take care!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 7 weeks ago from California

      Tea ceremonies are gorgeous and so filled with meaning--hope you are doing well!

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 7 weeks ago from Georgia

      Hi Audrey, Good to hear from you.

      Yes, tea ceremonies are beautiful. It's fascinating that such intricate rituals are developed around such a simple activity as drinking tea. But then, rituals are a part of who we are as humans. Thank you for leaving your comment. Take care.

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