It can be green, black, white or red and, after water, is the most widely consumed drink on the planet.
Tea as we know it was born in China 4,000 years ago and a newly opened exhibition at a Paris museum traces the highlights of its history and how it conquered the world.
The exhibition concentrates on China and, according to its curator Jean-Paul Desroches, reveals “distant treasures” such as paintings from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan, and “others which were hidden in the storerooms” of host museum, the Guimet Museum of Asian Art.
The show includes Ton of Tea — a dense block of tea leaves compressed into a cube by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), and a short film by the Franco-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya).
His subject is one of the world’s few masters of the elaborate Chinese tea ceremony: Tseng Yu-hui (曾玉惠) from Taiwan, the only woman in the world performing the job.
Tseng is one of the few people qualified to test the quality of tea in the presence of the highest authorities.
Like a wine sommelier, she speaks of “the spirit of tea,” its tastes and its odors — up to 600 in a single tea. She conducts a meticulous ritual to smell and taste it.
The exhibition also includes sections displaying utensils, manuscripts, calligraphy, paintings and rare books.
The history of tea is explained, from the “boiled tea” of medieval China, Tibet and Mongolia, to the “beaten tea” of classical China and Japan, and the “infused tea” of modern China, Europe and the rest of the world.
It emerges that in China, wine and tea were forever at odds, their conflict inspiring literature and arts.
“Ancient China revolved around wine, tea came in with Buddhism,” Desroches said. “From that was born the confrontation between the world of scholars who liked drunkenness and that which sought serenity.”
In the eighth century, the first specialist work on tea appeared, the Chajing (茶經), or Classical Book of Tea by Lu Yu (陸羽). Tea leaves, made into bricks, ceased to be regarded as having only medicinal qualities.
They became the ingredients of a drink used by Buddhist monks and Confucian scholars. This was the age of “boiled tea,” a compound of mashed leaves mixed with boiled water, butter and spices.
The Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) saw the age of “boiled tea”: cakes of compressed green tea turned into powder. Whipped, it became a drink much appreciated by emperors and its consumption gave rise to a sophisticated porcelain industry.
Buddhist monks introduced it into Japan and gave birth to the tea ceremony.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), tea-drinking in China returned to its more austere style. The leaves were dried and roasted and then brewed. As it became more widely drunk and began to be exported, teapots made their appearance.
The last part of the exhibition charts the spread of tea across the world.
In 1848, the British discovered the secret of China’s tea-making — thanks to industrial espionage at Darjeeling in India.
Since 1887, Indian tea has been in competition with its Chinese counterpart. Today China produces 29 percent of the world’s output, India 25 percent, Sri Lanka 9 percent and Japan 3 percent.