PNG images: Tea

Tea is an aromatic beverage commonly prepared by pouring hot or boiling water over cured leaves of the Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to Asia. After water, it is the most widely consumed drink in the world. There are many different types of tea; some teas, like Darjeeling and Chinese greens, have a cooling, slightly bitter, and astringent flavour, while others have vastly different profiles that include sweet, nutty, floral or grassy notes.

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Tea originated in Southwest China, where it was used as a medicinal drink. It was popularised as a recreational drink during the Chinese Tang dynasty, and tea drinking spread to other East Asian countries. Portuguese priests and merchants introduced it to Europe during the 16th century. During the 17th century, drinking tea became fashionable among Britons, who started large-scale production and commercialisation of the plant in India to bypass the Chinese monopoly.

The term herbal tea usually refers to infusions of fruit or herbs made without the tea plant, such as steeps of rosehip, chamomile, or rooibos. These are sometimes called tisanes or herbal infusions to prevent confusion with tea made from the tea plant.

The Chinese character for tea is 茶, originally written with an extra stroke as 荼 (pronounced tú, used as a word for a bitter herb), and acquired its current form during the Tang Dynasty. The word is pronounced differently in the different varieties of Chinese, such as chá in Mandarin, zo and dzo in Wu Chinese, and ta and te in Min Chinese. One suggestion is that the different pronunciations may have arisen from the different words for tea in ancient China, for example tú (荼) may have given rise to tê; historical phonologists however argued that the cha, te and dzo all arose from the same root with a reconstructed pronunciation dra, which changed due to sound shift through the centuries. There were other ancient words for tea, though ming (茗) is the only other one still in common use. It has been proposed that the Chinese words for tea, tu, cha and ming, may have been borrowed from the Austro-Asiatic languages of people who inhabited southwest China; cha for example may have been derived from an archaic Austro-Asiatic root *la, meaning "leaf". Most Chinese languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, pronounce it along the lines of cha, but Hokkien varieties along the Southern coast of China and in Southeast Asia pronounce it like teh. These two pronunciations have made their separate ways into other languages around the world.

Starting in the early seventeen century, the Dutch played a dominant role in the early European tea trade via the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch borrowed the word for "tea" (thee) from Min Chinese, either through trade directly from Fujian or Formosa where they had established a port, or from Malay traders in Bantam, Java. The Dutch then introduced to other European languages this Min pronunciation for tea, including English tea, French thé, Spanish té, and German Tee. This pronunciation is also the most common form worldwide. The Cha pronunciation came from the Cantonese chàh of Guangzhou (Canton) and the ports of Hong Kong and Macau, which were also major points of contact, especially with the Portuguese traders who settled Macau in the 16th century. The Portuguese adopted the Cantonese pronunciation "chá", and spread it to India. The Korean and Japanese pronunciations of cha were borrowed into Korean and Japanese during earlier periods of Chinese history.

A third form, the increasingly widespread chai, came from Persian چای [t͡ʃɒːi] chay. Both the châ and chây forms are found in Persian dictionaries. They are derived from the Northern Chinese pronunciation of chá, which passed overland to Central Asia and Persia, where it picked up the Persian grammatical suffix -yi before passing on to Russian as чай ([t͡ɕɑj], chay), Arabic as شاي (pronounced shay [ʃæiː] due to the lack of a /t͡ʃ/ sound in Arabic), Urdu as چائے chay, Hindi as चाय chāy, Turkish as çay, etc. The few exceptions of words for tea that do not fall into the three broad groups of te, cha and chai are mostly from the minor languages from the botanical homeland of the tea plant from which the Chinese words for tea might have been borrowed originally. English has all three forms: cha or char (both pronounced /ˈtʃɑː/), attested from the 16th century; tea, from the 17th; and chai, from the 20th. However, the form chai refers specifically to a black tea mixed with honey, spices and milk in contemporary English.

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