Turner Joseph Mallord William
Grand Canal, Venice
Oil on Canvas,
London, 1794

While tea was at this high level of development in both * Japan and * China, information concerning this then unknown beverage began to filter back to Europe by Arabs via * Venetians. Because of its strategic position Venice became the major transit port for Europe.


By the 10th century Venice was beginning to prosper in the trade of the Levant. By the early part of the 13th century it enjoyed a monopoly of the trade of the Middle East, and by the 15th century it was a formidable power in Europe. Part of Venice's great wealth came from trading in the spices of the East, which it obtained in Alexandria and sold to northern and western European buyer-distributors at exorbitant prices. Earlier caravan leaders had mentioned tea, but were unclear as to its service format or appearance (One reference suggests the leaves be boiled, salted, buttered, and eaten!).

The earliest mention of tea in the literature of Europe was in 1559. It appears as "Chai Catai'(Tea of China) in the book 'Delle Navigatione et Viaggi (Voyages and Travels) by Giambattista Ramusio (1485-1557). He served in diplomatic posts for the Venetian state and eventually filled the position of secretary in the Council of Ten. In the republic of Venice, a special tribunal created (1310) to avert plots and crimes against the state. It was a direct result of the unsuccessful Tiepolo conspiracy against the Venetian oligarchy. In 1335 the body was given permanent status. It consisted actually of 17 members : the doge, 10 members chosen by the grand council, and 6 elected by the lesser council. After 1539 three members served as inquisitors of state and investigated, by means of a secret police, all criminal, moral, religious, and political offenses. The inquisitors reported their findings to the Ten, who rendered an irrevocable verdict. As the power of the Council of Ten expanded, it came to control foreign relations and financial matters. In 1582 the conservative nobles attempted to reduce its authority but failed; the Ten remained the most important governing body of the state until the fall (1797) of the republic. Although the mystery that veiled its operations gave it an aura of tyrannical despotism, it was in general an efficient and highly effective body.

Ramusio's book was a collection of narratives of voyages and discoveries in ancient and modern times, including those of the Persian merchant Hajji Mahommed, who visited Venice, who is credited with first bringing tea to Europe. The reference describing tea says, 'One or two cups of this decoction taken on an empty stomach removes fever, headache, stomach ache, pain in the side or in the joints . . . besides that, it is good for no end of other ailments, which he could not remember, but gout was one of them. He said 'it is so highly valued and esteemed that everyone going on a journey takes it with him, and those people would gladly give a sack of rhubarb for one ounce of Chai Catai'. The beverage was first called Cha, from the Cantonese slang for tea. The name changed later to Tay, or Tee, when the British trading post moved from * Canton(Guangzhou) to * Amoy(Xiamen), where the word for tea is T'e.

The Catholic missioners of the Society of Jesus were the first to do research on Sinology in Italy, the most wellknown of whom was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). He was studying in a school of the Society of Jesus when he was young and joined the Society of Jesus at the age of 21, receiving the education for ministry at the Rome College. After he studied in Portugal, he was sent to India to do his missionary work. He came to Macau in 1582, and when he died in Beijing in 1610, he had spent 28 years in China. Charged with the mission to spread Christianity in China, Ricci felt obliged to learn the Chinese language, its writing system, and the * Confucian classics as basic tools to communicate with his potential Chinese converts. He also felt the need to acquaint himself with Chinese social customs and daily life so that he could work out a better strategy for the reception of a religion alien to the Chinese mind. His discerning observations of late sixteenth-century China and his own life experience as a foreign missionary were recorded in his journals, written in Italian in his later years. Ricci's knowledge of tea and tea drinking is mostly first hand. His accounts of the history, manufacturing process, and drinking habits of tea are general and reasonably accurate by sixteenth-century standard, although they become fuzzy insofar as detailed knowledge is concerned. Ricci also states that the use of tea "cannot be of long duration among the Chinese," because "no ideography in their old books designates this particular drink and their writing characters are all ancient." This bold statement that Chinese didn't drink tea until much later in their long history is interesting, but perplexingly misleading. It is true, however, that the word for tea, cha, never appeared in ancient Chinese texts; the character cha was created by Lu Yu in the eighth century during the Tang dynasty. Ricci knew that the ideograph cha did not exist in ancient Chinese texts, and for a foreigner, his knowledge of Chinese is quite impressive. However, the fact that the ancient texts do not contain the ideograph cha does not necessarily preclude the actual use of tea as a beverage in ancient times. Based on written records and more recently excavated archaeological evidences, we know that tea as a beverage had become rather popular in Central China along the Yangzi River and its tributaries during * the Western Han period, or by the second century B.C. at the latest. All in all, Ricci's accounts of tea are basically accurate, provided his observations are confined to sixteenth- century practices. He made one major mistake, however. He believed that the tea plant could be found in the fields of Europe. Let's see how it really has got there.

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Last updated : 16-Nov-05