How Ch'a Became Tea

By James Norwood Pratt

Apart from a stray Marco Polo or so, very few Occidentals and Orientals had ever met face to face before Vasco da Gama of Portugal sailed around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and reached India in 1498. True, the first Europeans to trade with the Chinese were the Romans, even though this trade was carried on indirectly via Persian and other middlemen. One theory blames Rome's decline and fall on the constant flow of Roman gold over the caravan routes to China in exchange for silks. But it was some twenty years after da Gama's voyage that, for the first time, a European vessel stood to off the coast of China. The ship was Portuguese and was over fifteen thousand sea miles and almost two years' sail from home. To return, her captain had to find his way through a maze of uncharted rocks, shoals, and islands, cross the Indian Ocean, beat his way back around the Cape into the Atlantic, and then face a still-considerable voyage to Lisbon, all in a small, square-rigged ship that was hard to handle under the best of circumstances and absolutely helpless in a storm or against a headwind.

Since there was no question of sailing so far without places to put in for repairs and fresh supplies, the Portuguese' first order of business was to found in China a base like those they had established in Africa and India. In sign language, one supposes, permission was denied. The Chinese authorities greeted these yang-kuei-tze or "foreign devils" (what a name for the courteous Portuguese!) with the suspicion and disdain they reserved for all outsiders. But if East and West did not exactly meet, at least they'd made contact-and somehow the Portuguese maintained that contact.

The Portuguese carried on a sort of buccaneering trade up and down the coast of China for forty years, until the Ming emperor finally relented and granted them a legal port of entry and base of operations, a rocky peninsula about three miles long that jutted off an island in the Pearl River delta, some miles down river from the major port of Canton. In 1557

A weed from Catholic Europe took root
Between the yellow mountains and the sea
And grew on China imperceptibly

as W.H. Auden said of Macao, which Portugal was to hold until the year 1999. There the Emperor hoped at least to receive the import and export duties he was losing otherwise, while keeping the "foreign devils" under the Ming thumb. They traded there, not for tea, but for the silks, brocades and velvets, the exotic wares and condiments to season food and drink that the European upper classes had hitherto received, when at all, through Venice. When Portugal received the exclusive right to trade in Macao in 1557, the Venetian connection was doomed. More and more oriental products were shipped to Lisbon whence they were transported to the ports of France, Holland, and the Baltic mainly by the Dutch. After almost fifty years of this commerce, Dutch ships also ventured East.

For years Europe heard rumors of tea from the missionaries who accompanied the explorers and traders to the Far East; the first definitive account is from the Italian Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, a remarkable linguist, scientist, and Christian teacher who lived in China from 1583 until his death there in 1610. He wrote home from Beijing about tea: "This beverage is always drunk, or rather sipped, hot, and on account of a peculiar mild bitterness, is not disagreeable to the taste; but on the contrary is positively wholesome for many ailments if used often. And there is not alone a single quality of excellence in the leaf, for one surpasses the other..."

In 1610 the Dutch not only brought the first tea to Europe but also the name by which it has been known ever since. As we have seen, tea is cb'a (or cha) to the Chinese-but not to all of them. Denied access to Canton or Macao, the Dutch conducted their early China trade from Java in what is now Indonesia. Java was then a regular port of call for Chinese merchant junks and the Dutch obviously obtained their first tea from junks out of Fujian, the Chinese province opposite Taiwan. The Hokien or Fujian dialect word t'e descends from that used anciently by Confucius and is pronounced "tay." Although Portuguese retains the Cantonese derived cha to this day, all other European countries, except Russia, bought their first tea from the Dutch and learned from them to call it "tay" as well.