The history of tea-drinkers and tea

Fresh new tea comes onto the market in spring March.


Originally, tea was widely used only as beverages. However, after being infiltrated in the human society for thousands of years, it has partaken the characters and fickleness of human beings, and been endowed with more meanings and functions…


The Chinese intellectuals and Buddhist scholars advocate the tea-drinking culture. The Classic of Tea written in the Tang Dynasty is seen as a landmark of the tea culture history. As an old Chinese saying goes, “firewood, rice, cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea.” Tea is seen nothing more than a daily necessity by the ordinary Chinese people. It is the Chinese literati class endows tea with more characters and meanings.

In the Wei-Jin periods, China fell into great chaos. The Chinese literati could not do anything to save the country and serve the people, so they began to advocate the “pure conversations”. At first the intellectuals advocating “pure conversations” were mostly drinkers, such as the famous “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove”. Then as time went by, many tea drinkers joined the “pure conversationalists”, and used tea to add fun to their conversations. In this way, they combined the tea-drinking behavior with more spiritual meanings.


The Taoist pursuit of immortality requires people to refine their “inner alchemy”, which is actually a practice of “qigong”. Tea can help people to stay sober, ascend lucidity and descend turbidity, dredge the meridian, and eventually help people to refine their “inner alchemy”. Therefore, the Taoists also love to drink tea.


One of the most influential stream of the Chinese Buddhism is the Zen Buddhism. The master of Zen, Bodhidharma, advocated the Zen practice of “Mahayana wall view”. This view suggests people to concentrate their minds on understanding the Zen ideas by sitting and meditating against the wall. It is said that Bodhidharma himself eventually reached the spiritual state of immortal after facing the wall for a whole decade. It is recorded in history books that “During the years of Kaiyuan, there was a master who was well-known for vanquishing the demons. He devoted his whole life to fostering the Zen Buddhism. He practiced Zen by never sleeping or eating but only drinking tea. He boiled tea wherever he went, so people there learned to drink tea from him. Eventually drinking tea became a custom.”


Metaphysicians, Taoists, and Zen Buddhists all played an important role in promoting the tea drinking culture. But it is the masterpiece The Classic of Tea by “Tea Sage” Lu Yu of Tang dynasty that epitomized the tea culture previously in history and finally established the decent taste of tea drinking culture.


During the Kaiyuan years in Tang dynasty, Master Jizhi of the Longgai Temple in Tianmen County, Hubei adopted a three-year-old orphan. This orphan was then well-known as Lu Yu. Lu Yu was very clever and well-read when he was a child, and had an unusual talent in writing. It is said that he “was ashamed of failing to fully explore the subtleties of a certain thing”.


Lu Yu lived in the Buddhist temples, so he forged an indissoluble bond with Buddhism, as well as the tea-drinking culture. Master Zhiji loved tea and had a very good taste of it. It is said that because Lu Yu was very good at making tea, Master Zhiji only drank tea that was made by Lu Yu. Later after Lu Yu left the Longgai Temple and became a wanderer, Master Zhiji gave up the habit of drinking tea. The emperor of that time, Daizong, did not believe in this when he heard about this anecdote, so he called Zhiji to his palace and treated him with some rare and precious tea. Master Zhiji refused to drink any more after only a small sip. Then Daizong secretly called Lu Yu to his palace and asked him to make some tea. Without knowing that the tea he was drinking was actually made by Lu Yu, Master Zhiji drank up the whole cup and rained praises to this tea, “it tastes so much like the tea made by Lu Yu!”


The Classic of Tea was published in the Jianzhong years of Tang dynasty (780 AD). Although there are only approximately 7000 words in the whole book, it covered every subtle aspect of the art of tea. The three-volume, ten-chapter book records the origins of tea trees, the evolution of the title “tea”, its efficacy, the methods of plucking, making and evaluating tea, the tools and containers that are used for plucking, making, storing and drinking tea, the evaluation of the waters that can be used to boil tea, and the evaluation of the producing areas of the famous tea.


The publication of The Classic of Tea is a landmark in the tea history. Ever since then, tea drinking became more popular than ever among the Chinese literati class. Here we have to mention a Chinese emperor, Zhao Ji, who is also known as Emperor Huizong of Song dynasty. Zhao Ji was more of a literatus than a qualified emperor. In spite of painting and calligraphy, he was also very skillful at the tea art. His masterpiece, Treatise on Tea, is the only book on tea that is written by an emperor in the Chinese history. As an emperor, he even put the status aside and made tea for his ministers. Maybe in his eye, making and tasting tea was really an elegant thing that had nothing to do with status or dignity. He was truly a man that loved and understood tea art of tea.


The Tang and Song dynasties are truly the time of poetry. The Chinese literati of that time left us with so many beautiful poems and verses. Su Shi, a respectful poet of Song dynasty once wrote a poem called Boiling Tea on Jijiang River:


Flowing water and free flame to make the best tea, I brought the deep clean water by the fishing rock.


The spring water and the moon were brought to me by the bailer, and I put them into bottles with small spoon.


I poured the tea into cups when the white foam appeared on the surface, the pouring sound was like the pine trees blown over by the breeze.


Having drunken up three cups of tea, I sat quietly listening to the night watch sounds from the remote hamlet.


In The Classis of Tea, Lu Yu linked tea with the personalities of people for the first time, saying that “tea is the thing of frugal and elegant people.” However, the late generations extended his words by saying that “tea is used to wash off the impurities in one’s soul. People who do not read books or cultivate themselves should not drink tea, and they would never experience the true taste tea even when they are drinking tea.” This is obviously too affected.


The Chinese tea was seen as luxuries in Europe.


Before the 19th century, it was widely acknowledged among the world that the tea trees originated from China. In the year of 1753, the world-renowned plant taxonomist Linnaeus decided on the scientific name of tea as “Theasinensis”, which means the tea tree that originated from China. However, after the 19th century, this truth was once blurred somehow. In 1824, British Colonel Robert Bruce discovered a wild tea tree in the Assam Mountains in northeast India. This tea tree was of 13 meters in height and had a diameter of 1 meter. Therefore it was inferred that India is the origin of tea trees.


After some investigations and debates, especially with the development the modern genetic technology, the truth has been restored gradually. In the 1980s, two Japanese scientists revealed that the Chinese and Indian tea trees have the same number of chromosomes in their cells, so that there was basically no genetic difference between them. Their field research later then showed that the tea trees were spread to other places from the center of Yunan and Sichuan. The tea trees spreading towards south were developing towards big trees with large leaves, while those spreading towards north were developing towards small bushes with tiny leaves.


Some people may argue that it is still debatable whether China is the origin of wild tea trees, but they can never reject the truth that the artificial cultivation and utilization originated in China and were spread towards the whole world from China. It is recorded in The Classic of Tea that “Shennong was the first person to use tea as a drink”. It is also recorded in Shennong Ben Cao Jing (also The Classic of Herbal Medicine) that “when Shennong was trying the hundreds of herbal medicines by himself, he was poisoned by 72 drugs in one day. He cleared all these poisons in his body solely by drinking tea”. From this case, we can see that originally the Chinese people used tea as a kind of medicine. However, since Shennong is just a legendary figure, this anecdote may not be that reliable. According to the researchers, before the Qin dynasty, only the Sichuan and Chongqing area produced and utilized tea. As early as the time of Emperor Wu of Zhou dynasty, people in that area had already used tea as a tribute and devote it to the emperor.


The famous Scholar Gu Yanwu of Qing dynasty wrote in his book Ri Zhi Lu that “After the Qin people conquered the Sichuan area, they started to drink tea”. After Qin dynasty united the whole China, the closed environment of Sichuan area was broken, and the tree peoduces and tee seeds were spread towards other places in China by land and water, which populated the tea drinking habit in China.


The long history of Chinese tea spreading towards the world.


During the Kai Huang years of Emperor Wen in Sui dynasty, tea started to be transported to Japan. In 805 AD, Japanese Buddhist master Zuicheng went to Temple Guojing in Zhejiang province to learn the Chinese classics. When he came back to Japan, he brought some tea seeds with him and planted them in Shiga. Since then tea was spread to central and southern Japan. In Song hynasty, the Arabic merchants living in Quanzhou, Fujian started to transport and trade tea. In Ming dynasty, transported by the ships of Zheng He, tea was sold to Southeast Asian and South Africa. The earliest record about Chinese tea in Europe is The Travels of Marco Polo. It is written in this book that “There is a plant in Qing dynasty. The leaves of this plant can be boiled to make a kind of drink, the Chinese tea, which is truly a luxury”.


In the late Ming dynasty, the Dutch merchant ships transported Macao tea to Europe, opening the door to Chinese tea sold in the west. In 1636, tea was spread to Paris. In 1650, it was spread to London. Tea was so popular among the Europeans that it was seen as an upper class luxury. In 1708, the East India Company brought the tea tree seeds of Guangzhou and Fujian province to the plantations of Calcutta and initiated the tea planting history of India.



In the 19th century, because of the huge amount of imported Chinese tea, silk and porcelain, the United Kingdom’s trade deficit with China surged greatly. In the 1930s, UK’s trade deficit with China reached as much as 2 million to 3 million taels of silver per year. To compensate for this trade deficit, the East India Company dumped opium to China, which then became the origin of the Opium War.


How tea is named in other countries is also influenced by China in direct and indirect ways. The influences are manifested in two ways. First, tea was transported by water to some countries in South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Therefore, in these countries, tea was pronounced more like te or ti, as it was pronounced by people of the Fujian coastal area. Second, tea was transported towards the countries in the north and west by land, so people in these countries pronounce tea as cha, just like people would do in Guangdong and Northeast China.


From daily drink to an important functioning social agency


Drinking tea is a very elegant thing to do. The aroma and taste of tea can help people to forget about the daily trifles and feel relaxed. However, it is inevitable that tea would be tainted with the worldly sophistication and ugliness during its journey in human society.


Sit down, please be seated, please take the seat of honor.

Tea, have some tea, have a nice cup of tea.


Many people know about the above couplets. It is said that Zheng Banqiao, a famous artist in Ming dynasty, once came to visit the Jinshan Temple in Zhenjiang. Judging from its frugal clothing, the abbot of that temple thought that he was nothing more than an ordinary tourist. The abbot then said to him, “sit down, tea.” Zheng Banqiao was not affected by his bad attitude. He continued to appreciate the paintings and calligraphy on the walls of the temple. The abbot was astonished. He then thought that maybe this man was not just an ordinary person. So he became more polite towards Zheng Banqiao and said to him, “please be seated, and have some tea.” Then when he was told by other people that this man was the famous artist Zheng Banqiao, he suddenly became extremely deferential and respectful and said to Zheng Banqiao, “please take the seat of honor and have a nice cup of tea.” When Zheng Banqiao was about to leave, the abbot took out the writing brush and some paper, and asked him to leave his calligraphy for Jinshan Temple. Then Zheng Banqiao wrote down the couplets that we mentioned above.


Even Buddhism advocates that all beings are equal, there are still some monks who classify the guests according to their social status and use tea of different qualities to treat them. How powerful is the worldly society! Tea was originally a kind of daily drink, but it is endowed with social functions when used to treat guests. Later, when tea shops and teahouses appeared, tea was even endowed with functions of social interactions and entertainment. Its original function of a drink seems to be not that important.


“Set up the Qixing stove, and boil the water from different rivers in the cover kettle. Lay out the tea ware on the table, and serve the guests from different places.” The teahouse industry was started in Tang dynasty, and flourished in Song dynasty. In the famous painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, the painter Zhang Zeduan described the image that the banks of Bian River were bristled with so many teahouses and taverns, which showed that the service industry of the capital Bianliang was very advanced. Teahouses then became more popular during the Miang and Qing dynasties.


As the social places of the ordinaries, teahouses were full of people of all kinds of occupations. Some teahouses were designed specifically for business talk, or for friend parties. There were even some teahouses were actually brothels. These teahouses were called “flower teahouse” or “water teahouse”. For example, Mrs. Wang, the landlady of a tea house, is the pimp for XiMen qing and Pan jinlian in the well-known Chinese novel The Water Margin.


The social functions of teahouses further developed, while at the same time they are endowed with social judgment function and arbitration function. In some places where the government capacity is insufficient, when some disputes occurred among ordinary people, the two parties would come to the teahouse and ask an acknowledged arbiter to judge and mediate for them according to the reasons and social oral standards. This kind of arbitration has a stronger deterrent than the official bureaucratic decision. However, when it is controlled by vicious power, it becomes a way to oppress people


From tea and the tea culture, you can see so many things of the world. Tea has witnessed fluctuating relationships in the society since it comes into the world, so no one can ever finish the story of tea.