Chinese Tea History Over Various Dynasties

China, the birthplace of tea, has seen this beloved beverage travel through history to become one of the top three non-alcoholic beverages worldwide. Every Chinese person takes pride in their tea heritage. Today, I’ll share with you a concise history of Chinese tea. As a tea-loving Chinese person, you can genuinely claim to understand Chinese tea after learning these historical insights.

Development of Ancient Tea Culture

Shennong Era (5,000 years ago): People drank boiled water with raw tea leaves for medicinal purposes.

Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou (3,000 years ago): Tea cultivation began, and tea was used as food.

Qing Dynasty (2,300 years ago): Tea tasting, boiling, and cooking became popular.

Han Dynasty (2,000 years ago):

  • Western Han: Tea started to be commercialized, with Chengdu becoming an early tea distribution center.
  • Eastern Han (1,500 years ago): Tea cakes were produced for easier transportation.

Tang Dynasty (1,200 years ago): The popularity of tea grew during the Tang Dynasty, thanks to the influence of the era and the “Tea Bible” by Lu Yu. Tea competitions became trendy.

Song Dynasty (1,000 years ago): Brewing techniques improved, with a focus on water quality. Tea competitions gained more prominence.

Yuan Dynasty (700 years ago): Unpacked tea appeared, and tea cakes were used by royalty. The practice of brewing tea with boiled water directly laid the foundation for loose tea popularity in the Ming Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty (600 years ago): Zhu Yuanzhang promoted loose tea and the development of techniques for yellow tea, dark tea, and scented tea.

Qing Dynasty (300 years ago): Chinese tea gained global popularity, with China being the sole tea exporter at the time. Roasting and frying techniques produced various tea types, including Oolong, black, dark, scented, green, and white tea.

Development of Modern Tea Culture 

  • 1846 – 1886: The tea industry flourished, with tea gardens expanding and production increasing.
  • 1886 – 1947: Chinese tea declined in terms of politics, economics, and competition on the international tea market.
  • 1950 – 1988: The Chinese tea industry saw a revival, with government support promoting new tea gardens, improved varieties, scientific planting methods, and steady economic growth. This helped China become the world’s second-largest tea producer.

Tea Utility

1. Medical Purpose: Tea’s medicinal use dates back to the Paleolithic era. The first medical book, “The Classical Herbal Medicine,” mentions the detoxification properties of tea.

2. Food Purpose: Tea evolved from being chewed raw to being cooked with rice, creating “tea porridge” or boiled and served with sauce. Even today, some people enjoy tea-infused milk, preserving the tradition of consuming tea as food.

3. Drinking Purpose: Drinking tea emerged from eating tea, as people sought to savor the original flavor of tea. The practice of eating tea is still preserved today, with some adding tea to milk. Minority groups have their traditional teas like Lei Tea and Dayou Tea.

Shift in Tea-Drinking Methods

Tang Dynasty – Tea Boiling Method: Tea leaves were crushed, boiled, and served as a soup, often with spices like salt, green onions, and ginger. This method laid the foundation for the later development of the tea ceremony, emphasizing the original tea flavor.

Song Dynasty – Whisked Tea: During the Song Dynasty, tea drinking reached an aesthetic pinnacle. Tea cakes were intricately decorated and ground into fine powder, whisked with boiled water to create a frothy mixture. This method influenced Japan’s green tea ceremony.

Ming Dynasty – Tea Brewing Method: The tea-making process was further simplified during the Ming Dynasty. Loose tea was promoted, diversifying tea varieties. This simple and enjoyable method focused on savoring the genuine flavor of tea, a tradition continued to this day. Tea wares and methods were also simplified, facilitating the spread of tea culture.