A brief history of Chinese Tea Culture

A saint once said: “Different dynasty has different officer, people, culture and clothing.” Therefore, the Chinese tea culture changes largely in different dynasties.

The tea trees origin from China, known by the world since ancient time. The old Chinese encyclopedia “Erya” has mentioned wild tea tree. According to current data, big wild tea trees are found in 198 locates in 10 provinces, one of which is located in Yunan. The age of the tree is around 1,700 years old. In Yunnan alone, the number of trees with a tree trunk more than 1-meter diameter is more than 10. In some region, the wild tea trees cover a few acres.

Therefore, since ancient times, China has discovered wild tea trees, earlies in time, biggest in size, most in quantity, widest in distribution, most different in traits, which is the world the most. China has the longest tea drinking history. The drinking habits and planting habits of the other places in the world are directly or indirectly are from China. Therefore, China is indeed the home country of tea and tea culture.

China’s tea culture has experience several changes. The strange with history lead most of people now don’t know how ancient people drink teas. Also, they don’t know people from different dynasty has different drinking habits. Now, let me explain briefly the development of Chinese Tea Culture. First, we need to know, in ancient time, tea has other names as “Ming”, “Tu” and other names. Otherwise, you might not be able to understand the description about tea in ancient books.

Shennong era

It is said tea was first discovered by human been in 28 century BC, the era of Shennong. The Classic of Herbal Medicine has “Shennong tries hundreds of herbals, encountered 72 poisons. He was saved by tea.” Lu Yu says in “The Classic of Tea”: “Tea drinking is discovered by Shennong, getting famous by Emperor Lu.” Tea has caught great attention due to its implication in medicine. It is verified that people at that time still chewing fresh tea leaves.

Western Zhou

The Chronicles of Huayang, written by Chang Qu during the Jin Dynasty, says:” Emperor Wu from Zhou Dynasty get the army of Bashu… Tea… all used to tribute.” This record shows that when Emperor of Zhou Dynasty was trying to conquer Zhou, Ba State has already use tea and other treasures to tribute to Emperor Wu. The Chronicles of Huayang also recorded during that time, there is already tea garden cultivated by human beings. However, back then, people don’t know how to eat tea leaves.

Eastern Zhou Dynasty

The Annals of Master Yan recorded that “Yanzi eats the grain without husk, three kinds of grilled bird, and five kinds of livestock, drink tea. That’s all.” In “Erya”, the bitter tea is noted as “tea leaves can use to cook and drink.” In the old books of “Tongjun List”, it has the record of cooking tea and ginger together. At the same time, the way of using tea has moved a step forward. Use the cooking technique at that time, they have already noticed to use tea as flavor. This is the stage of eating tea, which means using tea to cook dishes, boiling tea leaves as drinks. After tea leaves are fully cooked, they were eating by with rice. The aim of tea is to increase nutrition and serve as detoxification.

Yunan Jino has kept custom of eating “cold tea” till now. They put fresh tea leaves in the bowl, smashing them, adding a little bit yellow fruit leaves, garlic, pepper, and salt as ingredients, then mix them well with spring water.

Qing Han era

During Qing Han era, the simple processing of tea has appeared: fresh tea leaves smashed with wooden sticks into the shape of pie, then dried, in order to store. This is the earlies tea cake. When drinking, it first broke the tea cake and put them into the teapot. Put the boiling water, adding onion and orange for flavor. At this time, tea leaves are no longer the antidote of the daily life, but the foods for treating guest.

Since Emperor Qin has unified Bashu (the region where the tea drinking was spreading early), promoting the knowledge and custom of tea to expand to east. During Western Han Dynasty, tea has become an elegant entertainment in palace and government official’s family. “Tongyue” written by Wang Bao has the record of “Wuyang Purchasing Tea”. During the Three Kingdoms, the admiration of tea has developed further. People started to pay attention to the brewing method of tea, which indicates tea drinking is relatively common in China.

Eastern Han Dynasty, the Three Kindgoms era of physician Hua Tuo proposed in his book “Theory of Food” that “Drinking tea for a long time is good for health”. It is the first time the effect of tea is ever recorded.

Three Kingdoms era

History book “Three Kingdoms” describe that the emperor Sun Hao of Wu started to use tea to replace alcohol after believing in Buddhism. This is the first record of using “tea to replace alcohol”.

The Book of Jin wrote “People of Wu collect tea leaves and cook them, which are called tea porridge”. Even when it got to Tang Dynasty, people still had the habit of eating tea porridge.

Two Jin Dynastys, Northern and Southern Dynasties

With the spread and development of Jinchu tea industry and tea culture, also the geographical conditions, middle of the Yangtze River and central part of China, Jinchu has gradually replaced Bachu in its position of tea culture spreading.

At the same time, the scale and scope of the tea tree planted in South has gained great development. The drinking of tea has also spread to the rich families in north.

The development of tea industry in middle Yangtze River of Western Jin Dynasty can also be proved in “Jinzhou Local Record”. It wrote “seven counties in Wulin has the best tea”, which indicates the development of tea industry in Jinhan region was obvious. The advantage of Bashu had in leading the country is no longer existing. Tea leaves has become common beverage, and no longer the luxury product.

After Western Jin Dynasty went south, the rich families of North cross the river to settle down. Nanjing has become the political center of south China. During this period, because the popularity of tea drinking in upper society, the tea drinking and tea culture has big development in South, especially in Jiangdong, which has further promoted the tea industry into the southeast direction. The tea planting in southeast has expanded from west Zhejiang to the coastal side, which is now Wenzhou, Ningbo. Moreover, as recorded in “Tongjun list”, “Xiyang, Wuchang, Jinlin also produce good tea”. Jinlin is what is now Changzhou. The tea is produced from Yixing. It shows that West Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties, the tea industries in the lower part of the Yangtze River is getting famous.

However, during this period, the tea producing method and drinking method has not changed much.

Sui Dynasty

Wen Emperor of Sui was sick. Some told him to eat tea, which worked. So people started to compete for adopt the tea drinking, which began to gain popularity.

Tang Dyansty

When it reached Tang Dynasty, tea drinking has become common practice, and accepted by general public. After middle Tang Dynasty, as it recorded in “the Manuscript of the Diet Minister’s Classic” – “Now every village in Guanxi, Shandong, Lu Yan all eat tea leaves. They eat them every day and cannot live without them”. Central China and Northwest Minority Regions has grown the habit of tea drinking. Therefore, the tea production in South has become flourish unprecedented. The production of tea is developed particularly well due to the convenient transportation between north and Jiangnan, Huainan tea regions.

The tea drinking method has progressed largely. Also, the bitterness of the tea has been improved. Mints, salt, and dates has started be added. The emerge of Lu Yu’s Classic Book of Tea in 8th Century AD has detailed description on tea drinking and brewing. Therefore, in Song Dynasty, there is poem says “ever since Lu yu was born, people start to learn about spring tea.” Since then, the choice of tea and water, brewing method, drinking environment, and the quality of tea is getting more and more delicate, forming into tea ceremony, which is a big jump in Chinese tea culture.

The producing process of tea cakes has progressed largely. After initial processing, the tea cakes still have strong flavor of grass. After repeated experiments, the tea steaming and producing method was improved (The elimination of the flavor of grass is called fermentation, which can be divided into “steaming tea” and “Frying tea”. “Frying tea” is what used in modern tea.) To make tea cakes by steaming is to crush the tea leaves after steaming the fresh leaves, pressing them into the shape of cake. Punching holes in the tea cake, and dry them up to eliminate the flavor of grass. But the bitterness is still there. Therefore, in Tang Dynasty it added the process of getting rid of the juice after pressing, which has reduced the bitterness largely.

From Tang Dynasty to Song Dynasty, tribute tea has raised, setting up the academy of tribute tea, which is the tea factory. Officials were organized together to research the techniques of tea producing. This has promoted the continuous evolution of the tea production.

The method of making tea cakes in Tang Dynasty was gradually improved. Lu Yu wrote in his Classic Book of Tea: “Sunny day, harvesting, steaming, crushing, padding, roasting, punching, sealing, tea dried.” This has completed recorded the process of tea making.

Yongzhen Emperor of Tang Dynasty (805 AD), Japanese monk Saicho has brought tea seeds back. It is the earliest record on when the tea was introduced in Japan.

By the time of Yizong Emperor of Tang Dynasty, special tea wares started to appear. There are approximately hammer (breaking tea cakes), a small roller (making tea fragments into powder), furnace (boiling tea powder), sieve (filter)

Tea Frying appeared since Tang Dynasty, which was not popular. Liu Yu Xi wrote in his “Tea testing songs in Xi Mountain”: “There are several tee trees back at the mountain, the flavor will fill the room after frying.” This explained the tea leaves after frying will produce flavor filling the room, which is the earliest discovery of written record of frying green tea.

Song Dynasty

“Tea origins from Tang and gets popular in Song.” In Song Dynasty, the producing method has changed, which has brought deeper influence to the tea drinking. At early Song Dynasty, tea was mainly made into tea cakes, crushed while drinking, adding spices while cooking, or you can leave it out. With the increasingly rich and sophisticated tea products, it emphasizes more on the original color and taste of tea. Additionally, the loose tea made of steaming were getting more. The brewing method was getting simpler. The traditional brewing method and habits has changed a lot starts from Song Dynasty to Ming, Qing Dynasties.

In Song Dynasty, the tea producing methods has developed rapidly. The new products continued emerging. During Northern Song Dynasty, the tea made into group of Dragon and Phoenix (the pattern of dragon and phoenix is used in upper society) is popular. The “Xunhe BeiYuan Tirbute Tea Record” has wrote “During the peaceful time of the early Song Dynasty, the Dragon and Phoenix patter was specially designed for royalty in order to distinguish with one drank by public. The Dragon-Phoenix tea started from here.”

The making technique of Dragon-Phoneix tea has 6 steps according to “Beiyuan Record”: steaming, pressing, stirring, making, fermentation, roasting. The tea buds will be soaked into water after collected. It will choose tea leaves in full shape to steam. After steaming, the cold water will be used to wash the tea. Then, fried slightly to eliminate the water, then fried largely to reduce the tea juice. After the juice is reduced, the tea leaves will be put into the pot, added with water and stirred. The dragon-phoenix shaped mold will be used to press the tea and dry.

Emperor Taizong of Song Dynasty started to build palace for baking (976 AD). The Beiyuan Tribute Tea was set up, since then the dragon-phoenix tea has development greatly.

Zhao Ji, Emperor Huizong of Song Dynasty advocate the tea ceremony and tea culture as the emperor.

In the process of steaming, to improve the difficult in elimination the bitterness, it has gradually adopted a method of drying the tea directly after steaming without pressing. By making the loose tea instead of tea cakes, it keeps the flavor of tea. Simultaneously, the tasting methods and quality requirement on loose tea were emerged.

This change appeared in Song Dynasty. “Song History – Journal of Food’ has recorded that “there are two types of tea, one is tea tablet, one is loose tea.” Tea tablet is tea cake. Wang Zhen of Yuan Dynasty said in “Agricultural Book – Volume 10 – Hundred Food”, the detailed process of making loose tea through steaming.

In comparison with tea cake, the flavor of tea leaves has preserved better in loose tea. However, the method of steaming has also flaws of not having strong flavors. Therefore, the method of using dried heat started to get popular.

Cai Xiang of Song Dynasty mentioned in “Tea Green” about spiced tea “Tea has real flavor, adding a little bit dragon brain, can help with their fragrance.” South Song Dynasty has record of using jasmine in baking tea. Shi Yu “Jasmine” wrote: “Jasmine…ancient people use this flower to bake tea.” This is the earliest record on spiced tea and flower tea.

Yuan Dynasty

Tea cake and loose tea still coexist. The tea making technology has no obvious development. The loose tea has developed further. During Song and Yuan Dynasties, tea has become the major exporting products to Southeast Asia and other places.

Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty, due to the order of the Zhu Yuanzhang in 1391, the dragon-phoenix tea and loose tea was abolished. Since then, tribute tea has changed from tea cake to tea buds (loose tea). It has positive effect on tea frying. The eating method has started to develop from cooking to brewing.

Ming Dynasty (1373 AD), tea department was set up focused on the tea trading business.

With the further developments in Tang, Song, Yuan Dynasties, frying tea is getting more and more. When it was Ming Dynasty, the frying method is almost perfect. In “Tea record”, “Tea Shu” and “Tea Explanation”, they all have detailed record. The method is generally, high-temperature fermentation, rolling, frying, baking till dry. This method is similar to the one used currently.

Beside green tea, yellow tea, dark tea and black tea are appeared. The technique of flower tea is getting better. The types of flower can be used to make flower tea are getting more. According to the “Tea recipes”, there are 9 flowers: Osmanthus, jasmine, rose, roses, cymbidiums, orange blossom, gardenia, woody, and plum. Additionally, there are Prynne, hawksbill, Zhu Lan and others.

People in Ming Dynasty likes to add flavor in to the tea: such as milk, goat’s milk, lemon, sugar, orange juice and other ten.

In 1610, Dutch exported tea from Macau and transported tea into Europe. In 1616, Chinese tea was sold in Denmark. In 1618, the ambassador was send to Russia, and send the emperor of Russia tea as gift. Since then, tea starts to spread around the world.

Qing Dynasty

The tea cakes have almost disappeared. In some minority region, tea cakes have developed to tea brick. The fermentation process of steaming was replaced by frying technically. The dark green tea that in between green tea and black tea was born in Qing Dynasty. The dark green tea first used the method of green tea, then the method of black tea.

People’s taste of tea has changed in Qing Dynasty. They don’t add any other flavor at all (except for flower tea). They prefer light and natural taste, which fits the traditional methodology of “pure”. It is the characteristics of drinking tea.

The tea wares emphasize “red pottery is the best, lid should not take away the flavor.”

In 1657, Chinese tea sold on French market. In 1669, British East India Company has exported tea directly into Britain through Wandan. In 1689, the tea exported from Xiamen Fujian is 150 catties, which is the first in the history to sell directly to the British market in mainland China. Tea has been distributed widely in the word. Tea has become the one of the three beverage in the world (Tea, coffee, cocoa).

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