China - The Birthplace of Tea

According to ancient Chinese legend, tea was discovered by the Chinese emperor Shen-Nong in 2737 B.C., when leaves from a wild tea bush accidentally fell into a pot of water he was boiling. After trying the drink, he felt revived. He subsequently went on to discover the medicinal benefits of tea. From this period onward tea was used as a medicine against headache, weariness, rheumatism, to improve eyesight, to detoxify the body and various other things. The first recorded mention of tea appears in a contract for slaves known as "Tan Yuch," written by Wang Pao, poet laureate to Emperor Husan, in 59 B.C. By 780 A.D., when Lu Yu's The Classic of Tea was published in China, the cultivation and consumption of tea, whose name derives from the Chinese Amoy dialect word "t'e," pronounced "tay," had developed into a fine art. Today, "cha" means tea in Chinese. As this word moved westward into Middle Eastern languages, it sometimes became altered to "chai."

 

The Tang (620-907 AD) Dynasty can be considered as the Golden Age of Tea as tea was widely recognised and socially consumed. During this period, tea's attributed health benefits were becoming known outside of China and "tea culture" was beginning to spread. In 805 A.D. Saicho, a Zen Buddhist monk returned to Japan from China with seeds of the tea plant to be planted in his monastery. The second Golden Age of tea came during the Song Dynasty 960-1279. Tea culture began to thrive and teahouses begin to emerge as tea drinking became a social activity. Improved agriculture techniques lead to cheaper tea prices so that tea started going into common people’s life.

The development of tea went through three periods of tea styles throughout Chinese history:

  • - boiled tea (800 B.C. - 600 A.D)
  • - powdered tea (600 A.D. - 1300 A.D.)
  • - brewed tea (1300 A.D. - present)

The change of styles was gradual and all three types are used today:

Boiled Tea

Begun at around 800 B.C., this style was established at the Han Dynasty (206 B.C – 220 A.D.) and declined at the end of Sui Dynasty (618 A.D.). The tea brick was invented to preserve tea. The leaves were dried, powdered and compressed into brick form, which made the tea more durable and easier to transport. This proved to be essential for the tea trade and the spread of tea. To make tea, a piece was broken off the brick and boiled, often with various other ingredients such as ginger, orange peel, and dried fruits. When boiled with other ingredients the tea was like soup and a meal on its own. At this time tea spread rapidly throughout China (about 600 A.D.). First restricted to the emperors court, government officials and monks it became gradually the drink of choice for the common people.

Powdered Tea

A more sophisticated style - the powdered method was developed after boiled tea had been used for 1500 year. The leaves were dried and pulverized in a mortar.When making tea, the powder was whisked with a split bamboo beater until frothy. It was necessary to drink it "through the foam" because the tea powder does not dissolve in water and would otherwise settle down to the bottom of the cup.

This method became very popular in the 9th century and reached its peak during the Song dynasty (960-1279). This elaborate procedure was known as the Chinese Tea Ceremony, a celebration of living in harmony. It symbolised the unity between nature and humans.

In the Tang (618-907) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279) tea culture thrived. Poetry, painting and calligraphy about tea and tea rituals began to flourish. During this period the Chinese Lu Yu who is still regarded as the Saint of Tea published his "Cha Jing" (The classic of tea) in 780 A.D. This was the first comprehensive book about tea and he describes the origin, cultivation and the use of tea as it was known at the time. For centuries Lu Yu's book became the basic study about Chinese tea.

Brewed Tea

The elaborate tea ceremony of the Song dynasty was eventually simplified and followed a more naturalistic path during the following Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) when the brewing of tea emerged as the dominant method.

Tea was served to guests as a sign of welcome and respect. Today this is still the culture in many parts of China. In China tea symbolises purity, noble love and firmness.

Short History Of Tea Trading

When Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into modern times, China was a refined and sophisticated society with a flourishing tea culture. Tea trading between England and China has a famously troubled history. England eventually found a product they could use to re-balance the huge trade deficits they built up buying Chinese teas in the 18th/Early19th century, and that was Opium.

The subsequent addiction of millions of Chinese people tumbled China in one of the biggest crises of its history, leading to conflict and humiliation in war for China.Today China is experiencing a revival of the tea culture. It is marked by a highly versatile production and the revival of the tea houses with all the old traditions and rites. Good quality tea leaves are considered to be precious and regarded as a luxurious gift.