In the first major treatise on the subject of tea Chajing (The Classic of Tea) (8th century), Lu Yu categorized the different varieties of the drink by name: When tea has a sweet flavour, it may be called chia. If it is less than sweet and of a bitter or strong taste, it is called ch’uan. If it is bitter or strong when sipped, but sweet when swallowed, it is called ch’a. Since the Tang Dynasty, the nomenclature of tea has simplified somewhat. Although the Chinese still recognise many different types of tea, the general term for the character ²è in Mandarin and Cantonese, give or take a few tones, has settled on the last of Lu Yu’s terms, ch’a, or cha. Today similar words for tea can be seen throughout much of Asia. For those familiar with Japanese or Korean, cha should be easily identifiable as the transliteration of tea. Similarly, ch’a is not hard to see in the Hindi chai, the Tagalog (Pilipino) tsaa or the Nepali (chiya).
The similarity of these names for tea is of course no etymological accident, and their close variations reveal the drink’s Chinese roots. Tea was first consumed in Southern China, probably in Yunnan. Exactly how and when people began to boil its leaves with hot water remains mysterious, a fact reflected by the numerous myths surroundings its discovery. If tea’s ancient culinary past is cloudy, its early linguistic history is only slightly better understood. The word ch’a likely derives from the Chinese character Ý± (tú), which is nearly identical to that for tea ²è except for one stroke. Tú signified various things, including a type of bitter herb, but at some point may have come to represent tea. How the character and name for the drink ultimately made the jump from t’u to ch’a is not entirely understood, although neither seems a great leap. Whatever the arcane verbal transformations that eventually led to the use of ch’a and its cognates, however, it was surely these words that spread along with the drink to much of the continent.
It should be noted that not all Asian languages use a variation of cha to signify tea. There is another branch of words for the plant, which can be seen in the Javenese teh, Sinhalese thé and the words used in most European languages, including English. (One notable exception is in Portuguese, which adopted the word chá from Cantonese speakers in Macau). Once again, however, the taproot of this linguistic tree is probably tú. Its origin is clearly seen in tê, the pronunciation of the character for tea used in Amoy Min Nan, a Chinese dialect of Fujian province. It was this name that Dutch sailors, trading with Fujianese merchants, likely picked up along with the drink and took back to Europe. That these merchants were the source of much of the early tea brought to England is probably the reason that English now uses the word tea, not a variation of cha, as might have been expected considering British involvement in Canton and Hong Kong.
And yet even in English, cha has made its appearances. For example, the English merchant R. L. Wickham wrote in 1615 “I pray you buy for me a pot of the best chaw.” Likewise, cha appears in char, an old British slang word for tea probably picked from either Cantonese or Mandarin. More recently, cha has reentered the English language, this time as chai, a kind of spiced Indian tea. That this Hindi word has been spread by Starbucks and its clones speaks to the fact that tea has become a thoroughly globalized drink. Today its consumption easily equals that of all other manufactured beverages combined, including coffee, soda and alcohol. This international popularity, however, is nothing new. Tea has been at the centre of the global economy since the colonial era. The terms Ceylon Tea and The Boston Tea Party are enough to remind us of the leaf’s central role in the British Empire and how far and wide it spread along its trade routes.
Ultimately, however, these routes almost always led back to Asia. And when all is said and done, tea remains a quintessentially Asian drink. Its near ubiquity on much of the continent certainly speaks to its fundamental position in the region’s social and cultural life. (It surely also goes a long way to explaining tea’s preeminence in the world’s beverage market.) Some writers, eager to stress tea’s Chinese heritage, have seen this popularity as representative of the Middle Kingdom’s cultural influence throughout Asia. Others, writing in a much similar vein, have sought to stress its fundamentally Chinese character. Although it is certainly impossible to deny cha’s Chinese roots or its role in the country’s culture, one does not need to spend much time on the continent to see that such arguments, apart from having a slightly bitter taste of Han superiority, are wanting. Cha has clearly become a unique element of many Asian cultures. On this matter, there is no more eloquent source than Okakura Kakuz¨’s classic commentary on the central role of tea in Japanese life The Book of Tea (1906). Describing the effect that the culture of tea, or Teaism, had come to play in his country, Kakuz¨ wrote that “Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting—our very literature—all have been subject to its influence. No student of Japanese culture could ever ignore its presence. It has permeated the elegance of noble boudoirs, and entered the abode of the humble.”
But in the end, one need not scour high-minded philosophical tracks to understand tea’s central position in Asia—a few minutes spent on the ground on the continent would suffice. Try taking a train ride in India without a hawker offering you a cup of chai or visiting a Korean household without being offered some cha, hot or cold. Cha may have Chinese roots, but in myriad local variations, it has gone well beyond this heritage. It is a taste of these variations that we hope to capture in our journal.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming & Jeff Zroback / Co-editors
7 May 2008