The History of Afternoon Tea

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Afternoon tea has its roots going back to the 1800s, where it is thought to have been invented by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Since during that time there were only two generally accepted meals throughout the day (one at the beginning and the other at the end), the Duchess found that a “sinking feeling” would become apparent, from hunger and fatigue. To combat this feeling, she decided that she’d invite some of her friends over for a light meal of tea and snacks. This began afternoon tea as a very exclusive meal to high society.

Afternoon tea was also enjoyed by the lower-middle class, but not nearly as often as people belonging to higher classes; long working schedules and a lack of money often prevented this meal from taking place.

After Duchess Anna began holding her afternoon tea and snacks as a daily ritual, the upper-class of Britain took hold and began offering their own afternoon teas. They would invite their friends to lounge around their gardens during the summer and drink tea, eat tiny cakes, enjoy finger sandwiches, and slather scones in cream and jam. The ritual was a slice of decadence, but was treated as more of a snack than a meal; it was only ever meant to fill the gap between lunch and dinner.

Britain during the 1800s was a place where women were expected to have rule of the house, while men were expected to work. Women would usually leave the house with a male escort, as they were considered far too delicate to be out on their own. Teahouses would serve tea to those with their escorts, but a woman without a man by her side would not be served. Therefore, many women decided to play out the ritual of afternoon tea within their own homes, still avoiding much contact with the outside world but still able to meet with her friends. Afternoon tea would often be served at 3:30pm.

Afternoon tea had very strict rules of etiquette, to the point where many people nowadays would question the need for them. However, they were followed near-religiously by the British, and a violation of etiquette during afternoon tea would be considered quite rude, indeed (see Afternoon Tea Etiquette).

Today, afternoon tea has taken quite a fall from where it previously stood. In Britain it is rarely served every day, even by the economic elite. This is due at least partially to the fact that women are no longer considered as delicate, and are allowed to go out and work without being subjected to social ridicule. Many women simply aren’t home during the time afternoon tea is served, and the rush of life itself often robs people of the time to conduct it even when not at work. Thus, it has become a tradition that is rarely practiced except on weekends, and even then only by the especially eager. Special occasions, however, will often still involve an afternoon tea.

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Other Theories on the Origin of Tea

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Similar stories to the tale of Shen-Nung have cropped up from within Chinese tradition; while it is unknown if any of these legends have a true basis in fact, their effect upon Chinese culture and the origins of tea itself remains worthy of remark.

Another tea origin tale about Shen-Nung also sprung forth into legend, this time particularly due to his qualities as a herbalist. It is told that he wished to unlock any medical properties and applications particular herbs would offer, and so he would, almost without discrimination, pick the leaves, roots and stems from plants and chew them. Tea was among the herbs found, however the curious emperor would sometimes chew upon a poisonous plant variety. He soon found that, apparently, tea worked as a good remedy for the poison he had consumed.

Similar legend – originally found in Cha Jing, a very early manuscript by Lu Yu – has recorded the above myth but with the God of Agriculture in place of Shen-Nung.

The only other well-known myth that does not depict Shen-Nung (or what could very well be a form of him, as with the fabled God of Agriculture described by Lu Yu) is a rather irksome myth that appears to have first been told from within the Tang Dynasty. This dynasty stretched from the years 618 to 907 AD. In this legend, the founder of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma, was under a very strict meditation regime that had lasted for nine years in front of a wall. He ended this session when he accidentally fell asleep, and when he woke up again he became ashamed by his weakness. He then made the assertion that if he couldn’t close his eyes, then he wouldn’t have nearly as much of an issue with accidentally falling asleep again, and so cut off his very own eyelids as a preventative measure. These eyelids were then left abandoned on the ground, where they grew roots and became the first seeds of tea bushes. Two tea plants then grew where Bodhidharma’s eyelids once lay.

Much in the same manner that the God of Agriculture took the place of Shen-Nung during his medical-property testing myth, the Guatama Buddha sometimes takes the place of Bodhidharma in the previous myth.

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2,737 BCE: The Very Beginning

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The beginning of tea is so old, and so far before anyone sought to properly record anything, that it has become as myth; no one is sure whether this is the way tea’s discovery occurred or not. Regardless, it is nonetheless one of the most accepted explanations available, and thus remains prominent in almost all tea history books as well as Chinese tradition.

The tale begins with the Emperor Shen-Nung. This particular emperor liked his water to be as clean as possible – something that wasn’t always easy to obtain in his time – and so would order his servants to boil his water before it was drunk. Emperor Shen-Nung was quite happy to drink it hot, and would do so on a regular basis. All of his subjects were also instructed to boil their water.

The legend has it that Shen-Nung had taken his army on an expedition to a relatively distant location, and had stopped to rest for a while. Obediently, one of his servants began the preparation of a cup of boiled water, failing to notice the stray, wild tea leaf fall into the drink he was preparing. The servant also failed still to notice that the water had become brown in colour, and served it to the emperor anyway.

Shen-Nung then proceeded to drink the infusion, and with surprise and delight found it to be a very refreshing drink. He christened the new concoction “cha” (tea, in Chinese), and was the first to spread knowledge of it among his homeland.

During these early days, only green tea (arguably tea’s most traditional form) was produced.

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