TEA … what a strange name for a beverage. A beverage which originated in China over 5,000 years ago. A beverage which comes from infusing the leaves of a specific plant into hot water. A beverage which has been drunk and enjoyed around the world for centuries. Where did this simple name come from?
The word for “tea” can be quite different in many languages. In China, the word for tea is “cha”. In India and other Far East countries, the word for tea is very similar … “chai”. In Great Britain and parts of Europe, however, the word for this amber-colored liquor is the word we in the U.S. use … “tea”. How is it that this, the most popular beverage in the world, can have two completely different names?
Legend tells us that more than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor, Shen Nung, was sitting under a tree in his garden boiling water when the wind picked up and leaves from the tree drifted down into his pot. Intrigued by the fragrant aroma and beauty of the golden liquid, he drank the infusion and enjoyed it. Tea has played a vital role in the Chinese culture ever since.
The Chinese character for tea is 茶. Written from top to bottom, this calligraphic character is quite beautiful. The top strokes, which I’ve always thought were shaped like a house, really represents “grass” or a “plant”. Although Mandarin is the most common language in China, there are over 300 different languages and dialects. In Mandarin Chinese this “house-shaped” character is pronounced “cha”. In Min Chinese, however, this very same character is pronounced “te”.
Why is this important? Because China is a very large country, with different languages spoken in different regions, and depending upon the port from which the tea was shipped, is how this beverage got its name.
China had two primary shipping locations: Guangzhou (Canton) to the North, and Xiamen in Fujian Province, to the South. If the tea leaves were exported from the northern route, they went overland, and they were referred to by their Mandarin name, “cha”. If the very same leaves were exported from the southern route, they went by sea and were referred to by their Min name, “te”.
The northern route, known as the Tea-Horse Road, traveled over 6000 rugged miles through Tibet and on to India, eventually linking up with the infamous Silk Road. Ultimately this route became vital for, not only trade, but for the sharing of information, religion, and the arts. The Silk Road crossed into the Middle East, where some goods, including tea … “cha” … were loaded onto ships destined for Mediterranean ports. With the introduction of the faster and more efficient Clipper ships in 1840, however, the use of this road lessened.
The southern trade route, which was discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century, actually introduced England to tea. This dangerous and long voyage traveled from China through Java to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope up the coast of Africa to Europe. It was these very same Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea … “te” … into Europe. Regular shipments of “te” had begun reaching England by 1610. And with the use of Clipper ships, traveling at over 250 miles a day, the race was on.
So, if you lived along the Northern route and into the Middle East, your beverage of choice was “cha” taken from the Mandarin name. If you lived along the Southern route and into Europe, your beverage of choice was “te” taken from the Min name. But regardless of where you live and whether you refer to this wonderful elixir as thé in Paris …or tè in Rome … chay in Moscow … or chai in Nairobi, just know that you are enjoying the oldest and most popular beverage in the world.