Tea Culture in the Han Dynasty

Even though the Tang poet and intellectual Lu Yu thought that tea drinking was started by Shen Nong Shi, roughly 5000 years ago, the earliest written record of tea drinking dates back to the time of the Western Han Dynasty, 59 B.C.E. The book itself is called <<Servant Obligations>>, and it makes mention of brewing tea and preparing a clean tea set. The precise passage is as follows:

“There are guests in the house, so pick up your kettle to buy some wine, draw water from the well to help with swallowing the food, wash the bottles and clear the tables, pull the garlic from the garden, cut the firewood and slice the jerky, ground up the meat and steam the taro, hack up the fish and broil the river turtle, cook the tea and prepare clean dishes, arrange the cups and put them away after use, there are trees in the backyard, cut them up and make a boat, so that I can travel northward towards Jiangzhou (Present day Chongqing) and visit the county government there, and apply for the position of junior government official, in order to make money. Push the millstone, sell palm rope, go to Mian Ting township to buy some mattresses, when traveling in between Xin Du and the Luo river, buy creams and lotions for use by women and sell them piece by piece in the small city, carry hemp back to Chengdu, take the small mountain road to Pangcuo, and sell things on the way, take away the dogs and sell the geese, then go to Wu Yang to buy some high quality tea, go to the Yangshi Pond to grab some lotus, then go to the markets, and watch out for theft.” As one can see from the above passage, tea was well integrated into the overall Han lifestyle.

According to the <<Er Ya>>, interpretations of grass Chapter 13: “Tea is a bitter vegetable.” Bitter vegetables can also be the Chinese name for Ixeris Chinensis Nakai, a variety of bitter flowering plant found in the rural fields of China, which belongs in the Dandelion family. In the <<Er Ya>>, Interpretations of wood, Chapter 14, the text says: “a small Evergreen shrub is bitter tea.” And that is how we derive the conclusion that bitter tea is not Ixeris, which belongs in the grass family, but is instead, Camellia, which belongs in the wood family. The <<Er Ya>> text manuscript was finished in the Western Han dynasty (202 B.C.E. – 9 C.E.), where the Chinese character for tea already started to appear, albeit with minor differences in appearance.

There were many intellectuals and people of fame who were into tea drinking in the Han dynasty, names such as Si Ma Xiang Ru and Yang Xiong come to mind, it was also used as a form of tribute paid to the emperor and other members of the royalty. Of course, back then, tea drinking still retained flavors of its past history, i.e. it was still being thought of as a form of medicine, and many famous tea drinkers approached the subject with a doctor’s view and thoughts of clinical application, as opposed to looking at tea drinking as a recreational pursuit.

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