When writing and/or speaking about tea in Burma, or any other country for that matter, it is inevitable to depart on the journey into the realm of tea in China – in south-west China to be precise – for that is as I will explain in the following definitely from where tea is originally coming from.
The discussion on whether or not the history of Burmese tea and the drinking of tea in Burma have originated in China has probably more to do with at least some Bamars’/Burmans’ reluctance to admit that the origin of tea is China and that the drinking of tea was adopted by them later from the Shan, than with tea, tea drinking and tea culture itself. The facts are that tea both as plant and beverage was discovered and had become important part of Chinese and later Shan culture already at a time when no Bamar/Burman had ever set foot into what is nowadays Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar).
In other words the first kingdom of the Bamar hiru gossip the ‘kingdom of Pagan’ (that was actually founded by the Pyu, and while we are at it, Anawrahta, the 42nd king of Pagan who is by the Bamar/Burman considered the founder of the 1st Burman kingdom was a Pyu, not a Bamar/Burman) did back then not exist what is already the definite answer to the question of the origin of tea, tea drinking and tea culture in Burma; Burma or any predecessor of it simply didn’t exist in or during the era in question, period. But why are there still people (not so many of them, though) who in the face of all facts and logic say that Burmese tea, tea drinking and tea culture are not originated in China? Short answer: Because the area that was in pre-Bamar time inhabited by the Shan is now laying partly within the far north east of Burma. However, that these areas are nowadays located within Burma’s boundaries does not necessarily mean that the exact area in which Camellia sinensis was initially found and from where it then spread to India, through all of south-east Asia and, finally, throughout the world lies within north-east Burma. It is possible but it is also possible that Camellia sinensis – translated from Latin into English the name means ‘Tea flower’ (camellia) ‘from China’ (sinensis) – has at a later point in time extended into the area now covered by the north-eastern part of Burma.
The book of tea is a book with many pages and chapters starting shrouded in the mist of myth and legend some time back in 3000 BC. There is even the concrete date 2725 BC mentioned what is linking the (accidental) discovery and the later drinking of tea to the Chinese emperor Shen Nung about who I will tell you more a bit later. No one really knows when it was that the drinking of tea (what back then was always green tea because it was unfermented also called unoxidised) began to become part of Chinese culture. That is why it cannot be within the scope of this article to (as interesting as this may be) deal with related myths, legends and folklore in order to reveal tea history’s secret of when and where this was and how it happened. The answer to this question will never be found anyway what means that it will for always remain hidden behind the curtain of legend. Therefore we have to find facts in the form of written records and archaeological finds that will give us tea related information we are looking for. And as far as that is concerned we do not have to search for long.
We are given the first reliable information in a Chinese encyclopaedia that was started to be compiled and written during the Han Dynasty sometime around 325 BC and further expanded from then on: its name is Erya also spelled Erh-ya. The author of the Erya is unknown but it is among scholars accepted that this have been disciples of Confucius. Here we find records letting us know that tea was already known and drunken at least at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC, probably earlier. However, it is not specified whether it was tea brewed from camellia sinensis leaves and drunken for pleasure or some herbal probably not very delicious tea drunken for medical purposes only.
From later records we know that brewing and drinking tea was already part of the Chinese people’s everyday life at the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 206 B.C. or even earlier. That the drinking of tea has so relatively quick permeated the Chinese culture would certainly not have been possible without Buddhist monks. It was the Buddhist monk orders that have not only spread the drinking of tea among the population but that had also taken over the planting and processing of tea. Soon after tea as beverage had been introduced during the Han Dynasty, Buddhism was associated with tea. The Buddhist monks have very early recognised that tea was a cheap and refreshing beverage with good taste and fragrance that kept them awake.
From the by Lu Yu during the Tang Dynasty written and at about 760 AD published book ‘The Classic of Tea’ (Cha Jing in Chinese) we can take that green tea was known and drunken throughout all of China for pleasure from 618 AD, or earlier on. For Lu Yu tea was the symbol of harmony and mysterious unity of the Universe from which we can see how highly he thought of tea.
A sensational discovery would (at the time of this writing in 2016) 1255 years later prove Lu Yun wrong in so far as green tea was already a popular beverage in south and west China earlier than 141 BC. The a.m. sensational discovery was that it was proven that leaves found in the tomb of the 6th Emperor of the western Han Dynasty, Emperor Jin of Han (Liu Qi), where actual (Camellia sinensis) tea leaves that were given him along with thousands of clay soldiers and many other things as grave good for the journey into his afterlife. To avoid confusion, the emperor’s tomb was already discovered in the 1990s during road construction work, which in itself (not the road construction but the discovery of the Emperor’s tomb) was a world sensation. However, with respect to the contents of this article the finding of the tea leaves was even more sensational because these tea leaves are the most ancient and finest tea leaves ever discovered what has earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘The world’s oldest tea leaves’.
As with so many other things the beginning of drinking tea is steeped in legend. There are different stories about how the first chapter of the book of tea begins and having read them I have come to the conclusion that 99.99 percent of them belong into the realm of legends. One of the most popular Chinese legends is the with great pleasure again and again told legend about an emperor’s pot of hot water that happened to be placed exactly under a tea tree where tea leaves were sure to drop into the pot. Naturally, oh wonder (how could it be any different) tea leaves fell into the pot with boiling water whereupon the emperor took out of curiosity a sip of the previously unknown now slightly yellowish-brown coloured water. He was, as the legend goes, so excited about the fragrance and taste that from then on he made tea his favourite beverage and the drinking of tea became part of Chinese culture. The emperor in this legend is the mythological emperor Shen Nung also spelled Shannong, Shen Nong who is by the Chinese worshipped as the ‘Divine Farmer’ and the ‘Father of Chinese Herbal Medicine’. He was what is nowadays called ‘pharmacologist’, and it is believed that he has ‘lived’ 140 years, from 2838 BC to 2698 BC. This is no doubt all pure legend but its origin might be seen against the backdrop of the fact that Shen Nung was herbalist and that tea was at the beginning used as herbal medicine in both solid (as vegetable or salad) and/or liquid form (as tea).
What is tea and where is it originated? Briefly put, tea is a beverage commonly comprising of water and natural (uncured) and cured tea leaves of the species camellia sinensis. This is, as previously said, an evergreen shrub native to Asia that can when it remains untouched grow in the wilderness into a tree with a height of some 55 ft/ 17 m. By the way, why do we call tea, tea? Let me briefly explain where the name ‘tea’ originated and from where it spread around the world. The name ‘tea’ has its origin in China where 2 names are used for the same beverage. It is called ‘Cha’ in Mandarin dialect and ‘Tay’ in Xiamenese dialect. In 1644 the British established a trading post in Xiamen and anglicised the Xiamenese ‘tay’ what, subsequently, became ‘tea’ a name that in the following time quickly spread through and was accepted by the English speaking world.
Where exactly is Camellia sinensis originated? As unbelievable as it sounds and whatever we might think about it, extensive and detailed research has led to the result that this tea plant – the Camellia sinensis – was not a plant that had or could have evolved and grown independently in several parts of the world but astonishingly enough only within a relatively small area located in and confined to a region that does include parts of what is nowadays the Shan state (as north and north-eastern part of the back then not existing Burma) and the Chinese provinces Yunnan and Sichuan.
But whether ‘Burmese’ tea has its origin in China (what it has) or not, or whether or not the drinking of tea became part of the Burman’s culture only after it was introduced to them by the Shan (what it was) or whether or not the famous ‘Burmese milk tea is actually Indian tea introduced by the Indian – and NOT British – people during British colonial times (what it was and is) does really not matter much – if anything at all – because the fact remains that ‘tea’ has over time (trough all the Bamar/Burman kingdoms, the British colonial times and the past-independence time) developed into an integral part of the so-called ‘Burmese drink and food culture’ what it remains to be to this day and will always be wherewith I have now ‘beamed’ us from the ancient past into the present.
Prior to our arrival at one of the many Burmese tea shops in Yangon – no joke, they are literally at every corner, what is true for every place with more than two houses in all of Burma – to enjoy a cup or two of the famous ‘Burmese Milk Tea’ and one of the delicious Burmese tea leave salads called ‘Lahpet Thoke’ at the end of this article let us start at the beginning, by briefly answering questions such as, where tea is growing within the boundaries of present-day Burma, what kind of tea it is, how it is processed after being plugged, of what quality Burmese tea is compared to the qualities of e.g. China, India and other Asian countries, and so on.
Where is tea grown in Burma?
In Burma more than 80 percent of the cultivated tea is grown in the Shan state located in north-eastern and eastern part of Burma. Namhsan, Kyaukme, Namkham, Kutkai, Kalaw, Yatsouth, Mong Hsu and Mong Tone townships in Shan State are the major tea growing areas.
What kind of tea is grown in Burma?
In Burma are almost exclusively grown Camellia sinensis, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia var. assamica. Camellia assamica is extending into Burma from Assam/India in the west and Camellia sinensis from south-west and east China.
Quite recently I have read somewhere in a magazine an article that was as far as I can remember promoting Burmese tea in the context of which ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ was mentioned as a tea species native to and grown in Burma. In case you should also read something like that I want you to know that ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ with its blossoms comprising of white petals, a yellow centre (pretty much like ‘giant’ buttercup flowers) and dark green leaves may be nice to look at in the garden but it is nothing for the tea cup because ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ Is a so-called ‘Non-tea’ tea. This means that the total absence of caffeine in ‘Camellia irrawadiensis’ and a very unfavourable biochemical composition does not allow the plant to produce any liquid that comes even near a quality that would pass as tea.