History of Chinese Tea Culture

The Origin of Tea Culture

Shennong Discovered the Tea

The history of tea dates back to ancient China, almost 5,000 years ago. Shennong (Chinese: 神农), whose name means the Divine Farmer — and who is considered as the ancient Chinese Father of Agriculture, is honored with the discovery of tea. According to legend, one fall afternoon, Shennong decided to take a rest under a Camellia tree and boiled some water to drink. Dried leaves from the tree above floated down into the pot of boiling water and infused with the water, creating a pot of tea, marking the first ever infusion of the tea leaf. Intrigued by the delightful fragrance, Shennong took a sip and found it refreshing. Shennong named the brew “ch’a”, the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate.

Whether this story is true or not, China has a long and fascinating history with tea. Tea as a plant originates in the mountain wilderness of Southwestern China, in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Before they were ever cultivated as a cash crop, tea trees grew large and wild in this southern frontier. These trees were the beginnings of the first Chinese tea.

Tea Was For Medical Use in Han Dynasty

In 200 B.C. a Han Dynasty Emperor ruled that when referring to tea, a special written character must be used illustrating wooden branches, grass, and a man between the two. This written character, also pronounced “ch’a” symbolized the way tea brought humankind into balance with nature for the Chinese culture.The Chinese began to use tea as a medicinal drink to help keep a person awake longer at this time. At this point, tea was highly expensive and usually only available for the Emperor and other high ranking nobles. Most tea from this time was still grown in Sichuan and Yunnan. Tea was brought up out of these mountainous regions to the capital for the emperor’s consumption. 

The Development of Tea Culture 

Tea Went Popular in Sui, Tang, Song Dynasty

The popularity of tea in China continued to grow rapidly from the 4th through the 8th century. No longer merely used for its medicinal properties, tea became valued for everyday pleasure and refreshment. Tea plantations spread throughout China, tea merchants became rich, and expensive, elegant tea wares became the banner for the wealth and status of their owners.The Chinese empire tightly controlled the preparation and cultivation of the crop. It was even specified that only young women, presumably because of their purity, were to handle the tea leaves. These young female handlers were not to eat garlic, onions, or strong spices in case the odor on their fingertips might contaminate the precious tea leaves.

During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), tea was used for its medicinal qualities. In the fourth and fifth centuries, rice,salt, spices, ginger and orange peel, among other ingredients, were added to tea. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea drinking became an art form and a drink enjoyed by all social classes.

Tea became a popular drink in Buddhist monasteries after the caffeine proved to keep the monks awake during long hours of meditation. For this reason, many monasteries cultivated vast tea fields. Lu Yu (Chinese: 陆羽), author of The Book of Tea, was an orphan brought up and educated in a monastery. It is likely that his experience growing up surrounded by tea inspired his book written during the Tang Dynasty. In The Book of Tea, Lu Yu recorded a detailed account of ways to cultivate and prepare tea, tea drinking customs, the best water for tea brewing and different classifications of tea.

Whipped powdered tea became fashionable during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but disappeared completely from Chinese culture after the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), when many other aspects of Song culture were erased during foreign rule.

The Invention of Black Tea 

Up to the mid-17th century, all Chinese tea was Green tea. As foreign trade increased, though, the Chinese growers discovered that they could preserve the tea leaves with a special fermentation process. The resulting Black tea kept its flavor and aroma longer than the more delicate Green teas and was better equipped for the export journeys to other countries.

Tea in Modern Day China

Tea has remained an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years; it was popular before the Egyptians built the great pyramids and was traded with Asian countries even before Europe left the dark ages. The importance and popularity of tea in China continues in modern day and has become a symbol of the country’s history, religion, and culture.

Today, students compete to attend the very selective and exceptional Shanghai Tea Institute. The highest level students are required to play the traditional Guzheng stringed instrument, perform a flawless tea-serving ceremony, speak a foreign language to entertain overseas guests, and distinguish between about 1,000 different types of Chinese tea…to date fewer than 75 students have been awarded a Tea Art certificate. There is also an entire amusement park called the Tenfu Tea Museum – China’s equivalent of Disneyland – that honors the Chinese tea-drinking traditions.

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Edited by Ziwei Chen/陈紫薇