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Part 1: The History of Tea and Tea-Leaf Readings

Both tea and tea-leaf readings have a long and fascinating history. Even in today’s hectic world, there are few things as soothing as a good cup of tea made the old fashioned way, and few past times more entertaining than interpreting the shape of the tea leaves afterward. So, before we get into the details of how to prepare and perform your own tea-leaf reading, let’s take a brief a detour into the rich history of this soothing drink. Feel free to stop, boil some water, and gather your loose tea leaves. We’ll be waiting!

All the Tea in China

Perhaps you have heard someone say, “Not for all the tea in China.” This well-known phrase implies that someone will not comply with a request, regardless of the price that is offered. The association between tea and China is strong, and with good reason – the drink originated in China many, many years ago.

There are a number of myths about the origin of tea-drinking, and the legend of emperor Shen Nung is one of the most prominent. As the legend goes, this Chinese emperor was sitting beneath a tea tree around 2737 BC, waiting for his servant to prepare a drink of boiled water. As the servant worked, a few of the leaves from the tree fell into the emperor’s drink. Feeling adventerous, emperor Shen Nung decided to drink his water without removing the tea-leaves. He enjoyed this new concoction, and tea drinking was born.

We at My Psychic Readings are suckers for a good origin story, so we’ll keep on believing (and thanking!) the good emperor. However, some of you may be interested in a better documented history of tea, and we’d hate to disappoint. The first written mention of this drink occurred in 350 AD in a dictionary, and by 780 AD an author by the name of Lu Yu wrote the first book on tea and tea-drinking.

During the time of the T’ang dynasty (approximately 618-907 AD), tea reached its status as China’s national drink. Buddhist priests are widely credited with popularizing the drink throughout China and beyond. The priests enjoyed tea for a number of reasons, including the effects of its caffeine. One Buddhist myth states that Bodhidharma, who created Zen Buddhism, created the first tea tree. He began to feel sleepy after seven years of sleeplessness, and responded by cutting off his eyelids. He threw the eyelids to the ground and they turned into the world’s first tea tree.

To Japan, Europe, and Beyond!

Although we do not know for sure how tea made its way to Japan, the most enduring origin is that a Japanese Buddhist priest known as Eisai brought tea seeds back to Japan around 1192. Eisai wrote the oldest known book about tea in Japan in 1211. Its popularity quickly spread, especially after Emperor Saga endorsed it and encouraged Japanese to grow tea plants. The Japanese tea ceremony, known as chanoyu, developed over the next few centuries, and it is still practiced today. Elaborate tea gatherings known as chaji can last up to four hours.

Europeans first learned of tea in the 16th century, and it began its life as an expensive luxury good imported by the Dutch. As importers began to open new trade routes and import higher quantities of tea, the price fell and the drink reached a far wider audience. Great Britain, a country commonly associated with tea drinking, first imported the drink in the 1650’s.

Soon after tea became a widely popular drink, the British government began imposing punitive taxes, and by the middle of the 1700’s tax rates were over 100%. This led to widespread smuggling and adulteration of tea in the UK, sometimes with items as disgusting as sheep manure. Britain also imposed taxes on tea in the colonies that would become the United States of America, leading to the infamous Boston Tea Party in 1773.

The Rise of the Teabag

Until 1908, tea was only sold in its loose leaf form. Although perfect for tea-leaf reading, this could be inconvenient for consumers who wanted to quickly prepare the tea, and also tedious for merchants to stock and sell the goods. A businessman in New York by the name of Thomas Sullivan solved this problem in 1908. He originally created the teabag as a way to send out samples of his merchandise, which he believed that local restaurants would cut open and use as traditional loose leaf tea. However, restaurant owners loved preparing the tea without taking it out of the teabag.

Teabags caught on, and though they were lower quality in the beginning, you can now make a great cup of tea using a teabag. However, purists still prefer the taste of loose leaf tea, and tea drinkers who are interested in performing a tea-leaf reading have no use for teabags. Even if you were to cut open the bag as Mr. Sullivan originally intended, the tea-leafs are identically shaped and too small to perform a quality reading.

What’s in a Name?

How did this drink get its name? The answer, naturally, has its origins in ancient China as well. In China, tea was known as t’e, which was pronounced “tay.” Those who spoke Cantonese called the drink ch’a, which is pronounced “chah.” As the drink spread throughout the world, it took on one of these two names. In Japan, India, Russia, and Persia, tea was known as chah. In most of Europe, it become known as tay, then tee, which has the same pronunciation as the word tea that we use today.

Next Chapters

Part 2: How to Prepare for a Tea Leaf Reading
Part 3: How to Perform a Tea-Leaf Reading
Part 4: Occasions to Perform a Tea-Leaf Reading
Part 5: Common Tea-Leaf Symbols and Meaning

Or, if you’d like, you can return to previous installments of this series.


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