Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre


"H AVE you ever examined carefully the grounds in the bottom of a pot of tea? A pinch of tiny round bluish-black grains is put into hot water; after steeping these round grains are found to have turned into easily recognizable little leaves."


Branch with Flowers of Tea

"Yes, indeed," Marie made haste to reply, "I have seen the grains of tea swell in hot water, unfold, and finally spread out into little leaves. Tea must come, then, from the foliage of some sort of plant."

"You are right: tea is the leaf of a shrub of which this picture will give you an idea. It is an evergreen shrub, two meters or more in height, its foliage tuftlike and shiny, its flowers white, and its seeds in the form of small capsules in clusters of three. Its cultivation is confined to China and Japan.

"In China the tea plantations occupy sunny hillsides in the vicinity of watercourses. The leaves are gathered, not by the handful, but one by one and with the utmost care. Minute as such work appears, it is done rapidly by trained hands, one person being able to pick from five to six kilograms a day. The first picking occurs toward the end of winter, when the buds open and let the nascent leaves expand. This harvest, considered the best of all, is called imperial tea, being reserved for the princes and rich families of China. The second picking takes place in the spring. At this time some of the leaves have finished growing, while others have not yet reached their full size; nevertheless they are all gathered indiscriminately and then picked over and assorted according to their age, dimensions, and quality. The third and last picking is made toward the middle of summer, when the leaves are of tuftlike appearance and have attained their full growth. This is the coarsest and least-esteemed kind of tea. When the harvest is over, its completion is celebrated by public festivals and rejoicings."

"The harvesting of this leaf must then be a very important event to the Chinese," observed Claire.

"Yes, because tea is the customary drink of the Chinese, being to them what wine is to us; and tea also furnishes them one of their most important articles of commerce. Isn't that reason enough for public rejoicing, especially in a country where everything pertaining to agriculture is held in high honor?

"Before taking the form of tea as we know it, the leaves have to undergo a certain preparation. This work is done in public establishments where there are little furnaces about a meter high, on each of which is placed an iron plate. When the plate is hot enough the operator spreads the newly gathered leaves on it in a thin layer. While they are shriveling and crackling in contact with the burning iron, they are stirred briskly with the naked hand until the heat can no longer be endured. Then the operator removes the leaves with a sort of fan-shaped shovel and throws them on to a table covered with mats. Around this table sit other workers who take the hot leaves in small quantities and roll them between their hands, always in the same direction. Still others fan them continually after they are rolled, so as to cool them as quickly as possible and thus preserve the curled shape they have just received. This manipulation is repeated two or three times in order to drive out all moisture from the leaves and give them a permanent curl. Each time the plate is heated less and the drying time is conducted more carefully and slowly.

"The use of tea spread to Europe toward the middle of the seventeenth century. It is said that about this time some Dutch adventurers, knowing that the Chinese made their customary drink from the leaves of a shrub grown in their country, took it into their heads to carry them a European plant, sage, to which great virtues were attributed in those days. The Chinese accepted this new article of commerce and in exchange gave them some tea, which the Dutch took back to Europe. But the use of the European herb was of short duration in China, whereas tea was so highly appreciated in Europe that it soon came into general use.

"There is a tradition in China much like the one current in Arabia concerning coffee. According to this tradition, a certain pious and noble personage, Dharma by name, went from India to China thirteen or fourteen centuries ago to spread the knowledge of the true God in that country. In order to stimulate the people by his own example he led a very austere life, imposing the severest mortifications on himself and consecrating his days and nights to prayer. Worn out by fatigue after a few years, and finally overcome by drowsiness, it sometimes happened that, in spite of himself, he would fall asleep in the very midst of his meditations. In order to keep himself awake and continue his pious exercises without interruption, he had recourse to the frightful expedient of cutting off his eyelids, which he threw on the ground. Heaven was moved to pity by this heroic sacrifice: the holy man's eyelids took root in the soil as if they had been seeds, and there sprang from them during the night a graceful shrub covered with leaves. That was the first tea-plant. The next morning, passing by the same place, the mutilated holy man glanced down at the spot where he had thrown his eyelids. He could not find them, but in their place he saw the divine shrub to which they had given birth. A secret inspiration prompted him to eat of the leaves of this miraculous shrub, and he obeyed the impulse. To his great satisfaction he soon found that this nourishment strengthened him, drove sleep away, and kept his mind active. He advised his disciples to eat of the shrub also, and the fame of tea spread far and wide, its general use in China dating from that time.

"I need not tell you that this tradition is really only a fable emphasizing the dominant properties of tea, just as the Arabian legend concerning the capering of goats and the wakefulness of the dervish is based on those of coffee. A shrub sprung from the eyelids which a holy man had cut off in order not to succumb to sleep ought, above all, to prevent sleep. Tea shares this singular property with coffee. An infusion of its leaves acts on the nerves when it is taken strong and in considerable doses. Taken in moderation, it is an agreeable drink, stimulating the stomach and aiding the process of digestion.

"The various kinds of tea known to commerce are classed, according to the size of their grains, as pearl teas and gunpowder teas, the former having larger grains than the latter. They are divided again according to the color into green and black teas. Green teas have a bitter and pungent taste and a strong odor, excite the nerves and prevent sleep. Black teas do not have this property in so pronounced a degree, being less stimulating, weaker, and not so strongly scented. The preparation of tea calls for the same care as that of coffee: it should not be boiled, as that would dissipate the odor and take away the crowning excellence of the beverage.

"With us tea is hardly more than a medicine used to alleviate certain stomach troubles; but in many countries besides China it is a daily drink, appearing on the table several times in the twenty-four hours. In England, the European country most addicted to this drink, the annual consumption amounts to twenty-five million kilograms."