The earliest extensive English-language account of tea?

From: The Modern Part of an Universal History, From the Earliest Account of Time, Compiled from Original Writers - Vol. VIII - The History of China. S. Richardson, London, 1759. (Contributors included George Sale, George Psalmanazar, Archibald Bower, George Shelvocke, John Campbell and John Swinton.)

[page 226] They have no less a variety of shrubs, which we have not room to particularize in a work like this : but shall content ourselves with singling out those that are most worth notice, [page 227] at the head of which we may justly place that famed and most profitable one which they call Cha; and corruptly, in some maritime provinces, Tha, or Tcha; from which the Europeans have given it the name of Tea, or Te. The profit which the Chinese make of this plant, since it is become of such universal use in Europe, is immense; and the virtues which both they, and some of our European writers, have ascribed to it, are very extraordinary, if true. The reader may see a larger account of them in Father Le Compte, and others of his society, than we dare vouch for; neither is it possible for us to judge of them from that which is brought to us from thence; and which we are assured, by good hands, is so adulterated, and mixed with other leaves, which, though they bear a resemblance to it, may have quite different qualities, that we need not wonder if it comes so vastly short of that which they use upon the spot. We may add, that, since such vast exports have been made of it, they are neither so curious in cultivating, nor in curing of it, as they were formerly; and that which is so, they take care not to let go abroad in its purity, but either keep it for their own use, or mix it with some of a worse sort. What other frauds, and abominable tricks, are used in it by our retailers, after it is thus brought to us, are too sadly known and felt to need mentioning here; all which, put together, have so debased and corrupted that leaf, that it is impossible for us to find in it the tenth part of the good qualities which are ascribed to it; or indeed not to experience many ill effects from the use of it, which it would be wholly free from, could we have it in its purity and perfection, as the Hollanders have theirs from Japan, and be more careful and prudent in the use of it. (A)


De his, vid. Magaillan, Careri, Martini, Le Compte, Nieuhoff, Du Halde, & al. vid. & Ten. Rhin. de frutice Tchia. Jacob. Breynius in hort. Malabar.& al.


Footnote (A) It is indeed rather a wonder, all things rightly weighed, that it is not attended with more dangerous effects, considering that most people among us help to corrupt and adulterate it still more, in their constant use of it, either by the immoderate quantity of sugar they drink, and the pretended correctives they mix with it, such as chemical drops, saffron, spirituous liquors, etc. to say nothing of their irregular and indiscriminate use of it, without regard to particular tempers and constitutions; and, by some, both stronger, and in larger quantities, than even the Chinese do their pure and genuine sort. Hence we may reasonably infer, that those flatulencies, indigestions, vapours, colics, lowness of spirits, diabetes, and other disasters, which commonly attend it, may be no less owing to our indiscretion in using it, than to the cheats that are practised in it. See the next note.


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It is certain that no nation takes more care in cultivating their tea than the Japaners, nor is more honest in selling it pure and uncorrupt; neither do any people drink it more plentifully than the Dutch, yet so far are they from feeling those inconveniencies from it which most of ours do, that they reap the greatest benefit from it; and indeed, considering the dampness of their climate, and their high and gross way of feeding, it is to be questioned whether they could be so healthy, and free from diseases, as they are, without such a fine diluter, and purifier of the blood. But then it must be owned, on the other hand, that the good effects they receive from it are in part owing to their drinking it in its genuine purity, and without those correctives mentioned under the last note; so that, without running too far into panegyric in favour of that plant, we may safely affirm, that tea, duly cultivated and cured, and drunk moderately, both as to quantity and strength (B), and especially either without, or at least with only a small quantity of sugar, and without any additional correctives, is a singular diluter, and purifier of the blood, a strengthener of the brain and stomach, a promoter of digestion and


Footnote (B) It is plain that neither the Chinese, Japaners, nor any other eastern nation, drink it either so strong, or in such quantities, nor so hot, as we do in England; but use it rather as their common drink, and without any sugar, or other sweetener. They commonly keep, especially in large families, a boiler, or some other vessel, over a fire; and, whenever they are thirsty or faint, they put a few leaves of it in a bason, and pour the hot water upon it, and, as soon as it is cool enough to drink, swallow it down, and go about their business; so that the custom of sitting so long at the tea-table, as we do, is unknown unto them, and is only an idle, luxurious refinement (or rather abuse), we have made upon their way of using it.

               We are likewise assured, that the discovery of that infusion was originally owing to the brackishness of their water, especially in the lower provinces, where they were not only very unpleasant, but unwholesome to drink; till, after a multitude of experiments tried, in order to correct them, they tumbled upon this shrub, which not only answered the end, but was found to have several other qualities to recommend the use of it, such as those which we have particularly mentioned above; upon which it gradually became in great esteem and vogue all over the empire (27).


(27) Martini, Le Compte, Nieuhoff, Kaempfer, Du Halde, & al.


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circulation, of perspiration, and other secretions, a cleanser of the reins and urethra, and a great preservative against chronic diseases, as well as an effectual, tho' slow, remedy against them. The Chinese make no scruple to give it in great quantities in high fevers, colics, and other acute distempers. Neither are those rare virtues confined to its native soil, but extend their efficacy to any other country or climate, where it is used, particularly in England, France, and Holland. And thus much may suffice concerning the genuine virtues of that plant, could we have it as genuinely conveyed to us.

There is now a great variety of teas in China, which, as it still increased in the great exports of it, hath obliged the natives to propagate the growth of it in several parts, where the soil or climate was more or less agreeable to that shrub; for most of their difference is owing to that, they being originally derived from, and are in all other respects, the same plant. Hence proceeds that difference of taste, flavour, colour, and other qualities, we find in them; some being very rough to the taste and stomach, and others as smooth; some exhaling an extraordinary fragrancy, and others having scarce any smell; some being found more balsamic, others more stomachic, diuretic, etc. than others : and hence also that variety of names they are called by, either from their different qualities, or the places they grow in. Thus the Songlo, which is a most elegant sort of green, and much esteemed and drunk by the richer sort, hath its name from a mountain in the province of Kyang-nan, which is quite covered with it; and the Vu-i, or, as we call it, Bohea, from the mountain of Vu-i-soan, in the province of Fo-kyen, where it grows in great quantities and is excellent in its kind (C).

             This last is the most universally, and we may add justly, esteemed, not only for its fine taste and flavour, but much more


Footnote (C) So say Le Compte, Du Halde, and others; but some are more inclined to think it hath its name from the dark-brown colour it bears, in which it differs from all other sorts, both in the leaf, and in its infusion. Nor is it a wonder that the mountain above-mentioned should produce such plenty of it, and of a better sort than common, seeing it is covered, we are told, with temples and monasteries, and inhabited by bonzas, who are fond of that excellent infusion, and, having so much time on their hands, may spend some part of it in cultivating, and bringing it to that perfection; unless we should rather chuse to suppose them to have been the inventors of this new way of cultivating; concerning which, see the next note.


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for its medicinal and other excellent qualities, particularly that of its rectifying the blood, recovering decayed constitutions, and being so friendly and agreeable to the weakest stomachs. Hence it is that they give it in large quantities to sick people, valetudinarians, and in all cases of an inward decay; whilst those that are in health forbear to drink of it in the winter, as being apt to open the pores too much, and to bring colds and coughs upon them; but in summer indulge themselves with it in large quantities, in order to supply those liquids, which are exhausted by perspiration, with its cherishing and balsamic juices, to which they mostly ascribe that fat corpulency which is so common and admired amongst them.

               Whether this and the green tea were originally different plants, or whether the same, only differently cultivated, is a question that hath for a long time exercised the talents of the curious, and is not as yet thoroughly agreed on. The Chinese could easily resolve it, if they pleased; but are too shy of the Europeans, to give them any the least light into it; so that we are wholly left to resolve it from the best observation we can make upon them. According to which, the former hypothesis seems the most probable, from the manifest difference not only of their colour, taste, flavour, etc. but much more from their different effects; the one being rough, and grating to the palate and stomach, even to the degree of an emetic, if taken too strong; the other smooth, pleasant, and healing, and in no case offensive to it : the one a stomachic, and strong diuretic; the other rather a sweetener and purger of the blood by gentle perspiration, and nourishing and inriching it by its balsamic quality : yet, after all, the latter notion hath at length prevailed; and this difference of their effects has been, with no small probability, supposed to proceed from the different times in which the leaf is gathered, viz. that of the bohea about a month or five weeks earlier, whilst the plant is in its full flow, and the leaves full of its juice; whereas the green, by being left so much longer on the tree, and that sweet juice either dried up or inspissated by the warmth of the sun, changes its colour into a fine green, and contracts that bitterness and roughness which we find it to have. What seems to confirm this hypothesis is, that the cultivating the bohea in the above-mentioned manner seems to be a discovery and improvement of a century or two's standing, before which they knew nothing of it : at least it is plain, from the account which Mr. Ten Rhine, who resided sometime in Japan, and was physician to the emperor about a century and half ago, hath given of it, that it was not then [page 231] known in Japan (D), though it hath been since introduced and cultivated there to a much greater perfection than any we ever had from China; so that it is supposed that this discovery, being then but recent, had not yet reached Japan when that celebrated botanist wrote his account of the tea of that country, which mentions no other but the various sorts of green*. We shall only add, that as none of their ancient herbals speak of the Vu-i, or Bohea, and some of the natives speak of it as a more modern discovery, there is reason to think it an improvement on that old sort; but whether found out by study or chance, we can no-where find. But it is agreed,


* Willielm Ten Rhein. excerpt. de Observat. suis Japonic,

de frutice Tchia, ad fin. et al. ab eo citat. in hort. Malabaric.


Footnote (D) That learned botanist tells us expressly, at the end of his description of that plant, that though he had heard of a certain sort of black or brown tea in use among the Chinese, yet he never saw any; only he had observed, that the coarser the leaves of the tea were, the more yellowish or reddish infusion they gave, and the more disagreeable to the palate, as well as to the eye; by which it is plain he speaks only of the coarser sort of green (28).

               It is plain, moreover, to every curious observer, that there is no difference of shape between the leaves of the green and bohea, except that the latter is somewhat more roundish; but whether the reason of that be, as some suppose, its being gathered so much earlier, and before it hath expanded itself to its full length, we dare not affirm, tho' we think it far from improbable. We are indeed told by some travellers who have been in China, and pretend to have been particularly curious in examining this point, that they had seen plantations of both sorts, and apart from each other, and never observed any thing like both sorts of leaves being gathered from the same tree, and at different times. But admitting there were nothing like that done now, it will not follow that it was not so formerly, and by way of trial, in order to discover the difference of their virtues; and that being afterwards fully satisfied, that those leaves, which were gathered earlier, had a more smooth and balsamic taste and virtue, they might not, by way of improvement, examine which trees, or what climate and grounds, produced the best bohea, and which the best green, and so appropriate them accordingly, and dispose them into different plantations; only observing the old method of stripping those of the former so much the earlier in the year, as they do to this day.

See the next note.


(28) Martini, Le Compte, Nieuhoff, Kaempfer, Du Halde, etc.


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that the different degrees of its goodness and fineness are owing to the earliness of the season in which it is gathered (E).

               The Chinese not only use the infusion of it by way of common or diet drink, but take it also in powder, either in water, or mixed with other ingredients, and made into a bolus or electuary. Their physical books ascribe almost as many virtues to it as our quacks do to their pretended panaceas. They prescribe it against the tenesmus and haemorrhages, against costiveness, pains of the head or heart, lowness of spirits, itching of the small-pox, impostumes in the head, reins, bladder, etc. stoppage of the menses, against coughs, phthisic, and other rheumatic defluxions and aches, and a number of other diseases; and, to conclude with one of their most singular prescriptions, they tell you that the Yu-chu, or finest tea, powdered, and mixed with an equal quantity of alum, and taken in a glass of water, is a remedy against all sorts of poisons.*


* See Du Halde, vol. ii. p. 223.


Footnote (E) This we have confirmed by several hands, particularly from the account which Mr. Cunningham, physician to the English at Chusan, sent of it to the Royal Society; wherein he tells them, that the finest, or that which is called the first bud, is gathered in March; the Bing, or Imperial, in April or May; the Senglo, or Green, in May or June. To this in a great measure agrees Father Du Halde (29); who adds only, that that called the Imperial, or Mau-cha, is the leaf gathered from the shrubs newly planted, or, as the Chinese style it, the first points of the leaves : but this sort is so scarce and precious, that it is seldom used but in presents, or sent to the emperor.

               The same almost may be said of the flower of tea, which bears an excessive price, and is only used by the richer sort, and that chiefly on particular occasions as feasts, marriages, grand entertainments, etc. This last is indeed best when mixed with the finest leaves, otherwise it hardly colours the water, and rather gives a fragrance than a taste to it; and that is the reason why the Mau-cha, or Imperial, is preferred to it at court.

               All that need be farther observed on this head is, that what Mr. Cunningham, and others, call the first, or earliest bud, is indeed the finest of the bohea kind; but that there are a great many degrees below it of fineness or coarseness in the leaves, according as they are more or less blown and spread, and according to the part of the tree from which they are gathered; for, during all the time of their being on the tree, the leaves on the top are always the smallest and finest, and consequently the dearest, and grow proportionably larger and coarser the nearer they come to the bottom. The same may be said of the trees, that the older they are, the coarser their leaves (30).


(30) Vid. auct. sup. citat.


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               Tea is propagated chiefly by sowing; for that which grows wild and spontaneous is both raking, and hath such a disagreeable taste, that none but the poorer sort, who have not the nicest palates, care to use it. The time of sowing it is in the second moon of the year; at which time, having prepared their ground, they throw nine or ten seeds into a hole, from which sometimes only one or two, and sometimes more, shrubs will spring; which, at a proper season, are transplanted into another ground, which is also prepared by proper manuring. The plant is cultivated with great care; and that which grows on the lightest ground, and hath the greatest share of the south sun, is reckoned the finest, and thrives best. The shrub or plant hath been variously described by authors, some raising it to the height of a tall tree, and others lowering it beneath the degree of a common shrub. The truth is, that, if it be left to run up to its full height, some of them will shoot up above that of our tallest filberds, and, by that means, quite degenerate : but the Chinese take care to prevent it, by stinting them to that of six or seven feet. They commonly transplant them in regular rows upon little hills, and about three or four feet from each other. When they have once taken deep root, they will grow in spite of rain, snow, or any weather.

               They have several ways of curing and drying the leaves when stript, in order to make them fit for use, which we cannot dwell upon. The bohea is at first dried in the shade; after which, the leaves are again expanded by the steam of hot water, and exposed to the warm sun, or, if that fails, over a slow fire, in copper or earthen pans well glazed, till the heat hath crisped and contracted them into the small compass they come to us in. But those of the green sort being commonly less juicy, are dried up and crisped in the same manner as soon as gathered. As for other niceties relating to their management of that shrub, and its leaves, we must refer our readers to the more copious account given of them by the authors often quoted. The tea-root is commonly large and well-spread; but, if we may believe Nieuhoff, is only fit for burning, tho' the Chinese ascribe some great virtues to it.

               The tree commonly bears leaves from the top to the bottom; but the nearer to the top, the finer. The leaf is oblong, and sharp at the end, and indented round like those of our rose or sweetbrier; and the flower not unlike that of the latter, only hath more leaves; or, according to others, is like that of the double jessamin, with six upper and six under leaves. The fruit or apple is of the bigness of a small pippin, but more finely flavoured; and hath a spicy taste, not unlike that of a clove, the seed is blackish, round, and of the [page 234] bigness of a small hazel when green, or of a large pea when dry. When put into one's mouth, it yields at first a sweet, but, being kept longer in it, a bitterish, taste. The Chinese extract an oil out of it, which they, especially in the province of Fo-kyen, use as a kind of sauce to their victuals. They likewise have a way of pickling the fine green tea-leaves, after they have been infused, and eat them with their meat.