Drinking tea in China is a practice that has existed for millennia. Tea forms one of the basic foundations of the Chinese culture for the past 5000 years or so. According to “The Art of Tea Drinking” by Olivia Yang, the Chinese are, without any doubt, the right people to understand everything about tea. They are the custodians of all knowledge regarding the cultivation, preparation, and consumption of this popular beverage.
As a matter of fact, it’s extremely difficult to exaggerate the role played by tea in Chinese culture. That is why at various points in history, this China’s national drink (tea has been used as cash after being designated as the Chinese state currency. Read on to learn more about the history of tea in China and how it became part of Chinese culture.
The Birthplace of Tea
The history of tea in China dates back to approximately 5000 years ago. According to the Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Nung (in 2732 B.C.) accidentally discovered tea. This happened when leaves from one of the wild trees around where he was taking a rest blew into a pot of boiling water. Normally, the emperor preferred drinking boiled water and when this incident occurred, he was preparing to quench his thirst.
The leaves were infused in water, changing it into a brown color. Upon drinking boiled water, the emperor was intrigued by the pleasant scent and taste of the brew he had just drunk. Legend says he went further to describe how he felt after drinking the brew. To him, the drink gave a warm feeling in a manner that seemed to investigate every organ in his body. Emperor Shen named the new drink “Ch’a”, which loosely translates as an act of checking or investigating.
At the height of the Han Dynasty in 200 B.C., the Emperor ruled that tea should be referred to using a special written character. The character was to illustrate grass, wooden branches and an image of a man standing between the two. The special character is pronounced “ch’a” and it symbolizes the importance of tea and how it brought human beings and nature into balance as far as the Chinese culture is concerned.
The Chinese Tea History
After the discovery of tea in China in 2732 B.C. as the legend says, its popularity grew exponentially. This tremendous shift to this new beverage in China became widespread between the 4th and 8th centuries.
Initially, the drink was used for medicinal purposes but later this was changed as more and more people started using it. In other words, tea was highly valued among the Chinese their everyday refreshment and pleasure.
As popularity increased, the demand for tea grew, leading to the establishment of large tea plantations in different parts of China. This led to an increase in the number of tea merchants from one part of the country to another. The merchants became wealthy just by selling tea and this resulted in the demand for classic and expensive tea wares.
These elegant tea wares, however, became a symbol of status for the wealthy and influential people in China. For some, owning several elegant tea wares was a great achievement and a shift in status.
As more Chinese embraced the idea of drinking tea in their culture, the empire, on the other hand, gained tight control over the cultivation, use, and preparation of this popular drink. Given that tea was part and parcel of their culture, the emperor imposed rules and regulations that directed people on how to handle China’s national drink.
For instance, young women were the only group of very few selected individuals to handle all the tea leaves. This was the case on the assumption that young women were pure and clean, thus the right people to get into contact with tea before anyone could use it.
Further, these young and pretty Chinese female tea handlers were not permitted to eat onions, garlic or any type of strong spice just before they handle the leaves. The main reason they were forbidden from eating any of the mentioned products is because of their strong aroma which could contaminate the tea leaves. This shows how precious tea was regarded among different social classes of the Chinese.
Initially, tea was consumed for medical reasons. Ever since many consumers took tea to help them with digestion. That explains why most of the Chinese consume tea immediately after their main meal. Apart from that, smokers drank this beverage in their belief that it could speed up the nicotine discharge process from their bodies.
Tea in China was elevated to what many Chinese scholars referred to as the art form of drinking tea. This new development came into practice at the onset of the 8th century following the publication of “The Classic Art of Tea” by Lu Yu.
This highly respected and retired Buddhist priest insisted on the strict procedures to be followed by everyone when brewing, steeping or even serving tea. Lu Yu insisted that only water sourced from slow-moving streams was the only one accepted in the preparation for tea. Also, this poet suggested that all the tea leaves were to be kept in porcelain cups.
The most preferred location to enjoy this drink was at the pavilion just next to a water lily pond. During the drinking of tea, men were advised to be in a company of at least a desirable woman. Most importantly, Lu Yu’s writings contained a number of practical tips that were to be used when manufacturing tea. Surprisingly, some of those tips are used even today.
A few centuries after the publication of LuYu’s literature on preparation and serving of tea, popularity for this drink spread far and wide including every home in China. On top of that, tea drinking became the main subject of discussion in several books and poems that were written thereafter. In fact, emperors bestowed valuable gifts of tea upon any grateful recipient.
It did not take long before teahouses started dotting different landscapes in China. Unlike the Japanese who developed the famous Japanese tea ceremony, the Chinese maintain a healthy respect for their tea throughout.
The Black Tea Invention in China
Before the beginning of the 17th century, the Chinese knew only the Green tea and nothing else. But as the foreign trade became widespread across the country and Asia in particular, the Chinese tea growers found new means of preserving their tea leaves.
They discovered that their tea could be preserved using a special fermentation technique. Through fermentation, green tea leaves yielded black tea that maintained its original aroma and flavor compared to the more delicate green tea. In addition, the black tea was nicely preserved and prepared for export to far places outside China.
Different Types Teas
Despite the emergence of different types of teas, some tea enthusiasts world over are surprised to find out that all tea comes from one source which is the Camellia Sinensis bush. However, there are four basic categories of Chinese teas known so far out of the hundreds of varieties used today. These categories include:
1. White Tea
There is nothing white about this type of Chinese tea as many people might think. Instead, this variety of tea is prepared from young or immature tea leaves. These young leaves are picked shortly before their buds are fully open. Experts say that white tea is preferred for its great health benefits. White tea that is prepared from unripened green tea leaves covered with a silvery, downy fuzz is increasingly becoming popular with several tea lovers in China and across the globe.
Related Article: What is White Tea? Origins, Taste and More
2. Green Tea
From the chronological events following the discovery of tea, green tea is regarded as the first type of tea used among the Chinese. Green tea is prepared through the fermentation process and this helps it to retain its original green color of the leaves. Dragon Well tea is the most famous green tea and is cultivated mainly on the hills of Hangzhou.
Related Article: What is Green Tea? Origins, Taste and More
3. Black Tea
Sometimes black tea is referred to as “red tea” and is made through the fermentation of green leaves. This process turns green leaves into their darker color, hence the name. The most popular varieties of this type of tea include the Cantonese Bo Lei tea which is often taken with dim sum or luk on (a type of milder tea commonly drank by the elderly)
Related Article: What is BlackTea? Origins, Taste and More
4. Oolong Tea
Another category of Chinese teas is Oolong tea. This tea is prepared by partially fermenting green tea leaves which turn into a black-green tea. The best example of Oolong tea is Soi sin or a bitter-tasting brew grown in China’s Fukien Province.
There’s another category of the Chinese tea known as the “scented teas”. This is prepared by mixing different types of flowers and petals with oolong or green teas. A good example of scented teas is the famous Jasmine tea.
Related Article: What is Oolong Tea? Origins, Taste and More
Tea Preparation Methods
1. Roasting and Brewing
For so many centuries steaming tea leaves was used as a technique in the preparation of different types of teas. But after transitioning from compressed tea, there was a change in the production and distribution of tea for trade.
The Chinese learned the technique of processing tea in a completely different way by the mid 13th century. Their tea leaves were roasted as opposed to steaming techniques used today. The roasting process is the origin of the modern-day loose teas as well as the practice of brewing tea.
Fermentation takes place after the tea has been cut. In reality the process is not a true fermentation technique that involves an anaerobic process, instead, it uses the enzymatic oxidation of certain elements in the tea leaves.
If tea leaves become dry, the fermentation process stops, paving the way for the control of the process by changing the rate of drying or adding some water after drying. The fermentation of tea leaves can also be manipulated using heat, a process known as dry-panning or steaming of tea leaves.
In the 17th century, there were so many advancements in the production of tea in China. In some parts, tea leaves underwent sun-drying followed by partial fermentation to produce black dragon tea or Oolong tea. This technique was only used in the southern region of China and not the rest of the country.
In some techniques, salt and other elements were added to the tea leaves during the preparation to alter the bitter taste. In most cases, tea was drunk to cure different ailments among different people especially the nobility.
Related Article: Tea Fermentation vs Oxidation – Knowing the Difference
The Chinese Modern Day Tea
Since the discovery of tea in China 5000 years ago, this drink has remained popular besides being an integral part of the current Chinese culture. Much to the surprise of many people, tea became popular in China way before the Ancient Egyptians built their great pyramids.
Back then the Chinese traded their tea with other Asian countries before Europe transitioned from the dark ages to a modern way of life. Even after all those years, the importance of taking tea in different parts of China continues to these days. As a result, tea has become an important element and symbol of the entire country’s history, culture, and religion.
In this era, students in China compete to secure places in the exceptional and prestigious Shanghai Tea Institute. Any student who attains the highest levels is required to showcase their skills in playing the traditional Guzheng (a type of stringed instrument), perform flawless tea serving ceremony, identify correctly about 1000 different kinds of Chinese tea and speak at least one foreign language to entertain guests from far places. Until now, not more than 75 students have successfully passed this test and awarded the Tea Art Certificates.
Also, there’s an entire amusement park commonly referred to as Tenfu Tea Museum. This is equivalent to Disneyland and it was established to honor the Chinese tea-drinking traditions as a way of maintaining the culture of drinking tea in China. To this day, tea is consumed widely across China and other parts of the world, thus joining the ranks of the most popular beverages on the planet.