Tea: its strange history and curious folklore

Dreams, gods, ghost guards, emperors, a lovestruck moon – tea has a rich and often macabre heritage of superstition and stories.

Surreal art of a tea party with a cat in a top, a woman and a violin player with a rose bush for a head.

A tea party for a cat by Anton Constantin https://www.instagram.com/antonconstantinart/

The origins of tea

One of the most known legends about tea tells the story of its origins. In 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shennong was drinking boiled water when leaves fell from a nearby tree. One sip later and the rest is a rich, complex and romantic history.

A more macabre legend recounts how Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, fell asleep after meditating for nine years. When he woke up he was so disgusted by his weakness that he cut off his eyelids and they fell to the ground to take root as tea bushes.

The actual origins of tea remain elusive. Tea probably originated from the regions around southwest China, northern India, Myanmar and Tibet. Evidence suggests it was first drunk during the Shang dynasty 1600-1046 BC and the earliest written records of tea come from China. Drinking tea became widespread during the Tang dynasty (618-907), an era of innovation, art and poetry.

The Iron Goddess of Mercy tea

During the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799), in Fujian Province there was a dilapidated Buddhist temple dedicated to Bodhisattva Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. A farmer started cleaning the temple and burning incense in offering to Guanyin. One night Guanyin appeared to the farmer and told him of a cave located behind the temple with wonderful treasure to share with others.

When he woke up, the farmer found the cave and inside was growing a single tea shoot which he grew into a large bush. The tea from this bush was unlike any tea he had ever tasted. The farmer shared cuttings of the bush with all of his neighbours and began selling the plant as Tieguanyin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy. The tea tree still exists and is considered a national treasure.

The British and tea

The British are known for their love of tea but in owe its introduction to the Dutch and Portugueuse. Tea only first started appearing in coffee houses in the late 17th century. It’s probable that early imports were smuggled via Amsterdam or through sailors arriving on eastern boats. The first tea shop opened in 1657 and it was supplied by Dutch merchants who contributed to its growing popularity in cafes.

Tea gained royal legitimacy when Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, who introduced the concept of tea time to the court in 1662. Soon afterwards, the British East India Trade Company established their first foothold in the East by securing a tea factory in Macao. At first, tea was a an expensive commodity enjoyed by the elite and it was not until around 1750 that it became the national drink. By the end of the 18th century it was a mainstay in Britain’s global trade and dominance.

Black and white photo of surreal tea party with owman, baby doll, monkeys, and dogs

Surreal tea party (origin unknown)

Earl Grey tea

Bergamot-flavoured Earl Grey tea has been known in England since at least the 1820s and is assumed to be named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, British Prime Minister in the 1830s. There are differing accounts of how he acquired the tea, but according to the family it was specially blended at the family estate, Howick Hall in Northumberland, to offset the lime in the local water. The political hostess, Lady Grey, introduced it to society when she entertained in London.

Milk Oolong tea

Milk Oolong originates from when the moon fell in love with a comet passing through the night sky. The comet, passed by, burned out and vanished. The moon, in her sorrow, caused a great wind to blow through the hills and valleys, causing a quick drop in temperature. The next morning, local tea pluckers went out to collect their fresh leaf. To their surprise, when the tea was processed it had developed a milky character, which was attributed to the motherly character of the old moon.

British tea folklore

In 19th century England, people would scatter loose tea leaves in front of their home for luck and protection from evil spirits.

Throwing used tea leaves on the fire is said to keep poverty away. Accidentally spilling tea leaves could bring good luck.

In Scotland it‘s considered bad luck to stir tea with anything other than a spoon – anything else is said to stir up trouble. Another variant discourages stirring at all for fear of stirring up bad luck or arguments with friends.

If you make your tea weaker than normal you are about to lose a friend. On the other hand If you make your tea stronger, you’re about to gain one.

Accidentally leaving the lid off the teapot means a stranger will visit you with bad news. This slightly contradicts the tip to leave the lid off to allow oxygen to help the brewing. It’s also a bad omen if you forget to put the tea leaves in before you pour in the hot water. Again, this contradicts the good practice of warming the teapot before making the tea.

When at sea, English fishermen would never empty a pot of tea fully as this symbolised pouring away the fish they hoped to catch. Meanwhile their families back home wouldn’t empty their teapots on the day the fisherman set sail for fear of causing the boat to sink.

Tea and fertility

“Shall I be mother?” Does anyone ever say this phrase anymore other than for a good line in a comedy or a drama? It comes from an old English superstition that if two women are drinking tea together and one of the women wanted to have a baby, they’d do the pouring and therefore become a mother within a year. Likewise, if a man and a woman take turn turns pouring from the same teapot, they will have a baby together.

Another superstition believed that whilst setting the table, if two spoons are placed on the same saucer, the drinker will marry twice or, if a young girl, will go on to have twins.

Bubbles at the edge of your teacup means romance and kisses while at the centre means money.

Tea and death

Tea leaves have been used in burial services by royalty and common people alike. It was believed that tea leaves served to cleanse and dehumidify the deceased. Tea leaves helped absorb odours in the tombs and ensured the preservation of the remains.

In Hunan Province, tea leaves were stuffed in the pillows of the deceased so that they could make tea in the afterlife.

The people of Anhui Province believed that if the deceased were given a bag of tea leaves, they would not have to drink a magic potion at Meng Po’s booth. After death, ghost guards from the netherworld gave the deceased a magic potion that would not just erase any memories of their past life, but also confuse them so that they could be tortured in the afterlife. If the deceased drank the tea instead of the magic potion, they could stay aware, and not be fooled by the ghost guards, or forget their past lives.

The final cup

No-one can challenge the sheer drama and ceremony of Rikyū’s final cup of tea. Rikyū was a 16th century tea master who profoundly influenced the Japanese tradition of the Way of Tea,  the ceremonial preparation and presentation of green tea.

When Rikyū fell out with his lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he was ordered to commit ritual suicide. Rikyū went out in the only way he could – by holding an exquisite tea ceremony. According to Okakura Kakuzō in The Book of Tea, after serving all his guests tea, Rikyū presented each piece of tea-making equipment for their inspection, along with an exquisite kakemono silk scroll, described as “a wonderful writing by an ancient monk dealing with the evanescence of all things”.

Rikyū gave each guest a piece of the equipment as a souvenir, with the exception of the bowl, which he shattered, uttering the words: “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.” As the guests left, one remained to witness Rikyū’s death. Rikyū’s last words, which he wrote down as a death poem, were addressed to the dagger with which he took his own life:

Welcome to thee,

O sword of eternity!

Through Buddha

And through Daruma alike

Thou hast cleft thy way.

It was said that Hideyoshi regretted his treatment of Rikyū. Rikyū is buried in Kyoto and memorials for him are observed annually by many schools of Japanese tea ceremony.

According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, the British drink 165 million cups of tea every day. The largest per capita tea drinking nation is the Republic of Ireland, followed by Britain.

Further information and tea folklore

Tea if by sea, cha if by land: Why the world only has two words for tea

Tea legends – more excellent stories

Superstitions about tea

Tea superstitions from Twinings

Tea – A Brief History of the Nation’s Favourite Beverage

20 thoughts on “Tea: its strange history and curious folklore

  1. I’d love to be invited to a surreal tea party…or better yet, throw my own. I love the eclectic legends and traditions that you’ve gathered here. No surprise that tea has such a fascinating history. I wonder if the same could be said about coffee.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m going to look into coffee and see if it does. Love coffee but always think tea has the romance and ceremony. Then again I’m British so I would say that. I love the idea of designing and throwing a surreal tea party although I have drunk tea at some pretty surreal moments in my life! My children threw some surreal tea parties when they were young.


  2. Pingback: Saturday Saunter: 12th January 2019 – Walking Talking

    • Thanks Christine – as is often the case, it’s fascinating trawling through old historical photos of tea. Putting surreal tea party into a search engine is also fun! That top illustration is wonderful!


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