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Why is it called “Tea”?
In English it is: tea.
In Dutch, thee.
In Spanish, té.
In German, tee.
In Greek, τσάι (pronounced ‘`tsai’)
In Portuguese, chá.
In Indian, chai
In Japanese, お茶 (pronounced ‘o cha’)

All the words originate from Chinese word: 茶, which pronounces ‘cha’ in mandarin. How come some regions “cha”, other regions “te”?

“茶者, 南方之嘉木也”. This is the first sentence of ”The Classic of Tea” , the world’s first tea book by tea saint Lu Yu (733-804). It means, ”Tea, a beautiful tree which grows in the south”. 茶, tea, was first found during Sheng Nong’s time, 5000 years ago. Tea was firstly used as herbs, vegetables. Tea started as a drink and written in literature from the 3rd century Jing Dynasty, and further developed into a national drink during the 7th century Tang Dynasty.


picture source:

Tea spread worldwide in mainly two ways: the overland Silk Road and maritime routes.

The term ”Silk Road” was coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. Silk, china, and tea had been always the most important commodities.

Silk Road started in West Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-8 B.C.). The overland Silk Road was from the capital city Xian, crisscrossing Gansu, Xingjiang, continuing to middle Asia, west Asia, mediteranian countries until Greece. Silk Road bridged trading and culture among Asia and Europe and connected China, India and Greece three ancient civilizations.


The Chinese along overland Silk Road were mostly from northwest regions, their accent formed today’s Mandarin. Tea in Mandarin, 茶, pronunced ”cha”, which was adopted by the other people during their trading and cultural exchanges.

The map of ancient overland Silk Road picture source:


Year 111 B.C., Han Dynasty Emperor Han Wu sent out envoys to explore southeast sea. The envoys took 28 months adventure on a wood boat, visited today’s Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, India and returned to China from Sri Lanka. This marked the start of Chinese imperial maritime Silk Road.

This trading route stretched from Japan, Korea, southeast Asia to Indian Ocean islands and ended up in northeast Africa.

It echoed other way round when the first European, the Portugese explorer J.Alvares, arrived in China in 1513. Then followed by the British, Dutch and Spanish.

The Europeans met Chinese traders mostly from southeast port cities like today’s Fujian Quanzhou and Canton Guangzhou, where local dialect was used instead of Mandarin, and the Chinese word 茶 was pronounced ”te”.

The map of maritime Silk Road picture source:


Japan is a special case in this history. During Tang Dynasty, from 700s to 900s, Japan sent to China several hundreds of students, scholars and monks to learn Chinese language, culture and religion. Historians call it ”遣唐使”, which means ”The Envoys to Tang”.

Among these envoys, two Zen masters made special contribution to Japanese tea history. One is 最澄, Saichō, the other is 空海, Kūkai.

Saiko learned about tea in Tiantai mountain, Zhejiang. In 804, he returned to Japan and brought back tea and tea seeds. Kaiko studied Buddism at Tang capital city Changan (today‟s Xian). In 806 he returned to Japan, also with tea seeds. A new page on tea was thus opened in Japan.

In both areas, the local accent for the Chinese word 茶 pronounced ”cha”.

The Japan envoys on their way to China. picture source:
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