A Chinese proverb states that one life is not enough to learn the names of all the teas in China. Indeed, with more than 1000 varieties and almost 5000 years of tea culture, it’s no wonder China is considered the heartland of tea and tea culture. Accounting for almost a third of total global production, the country has played a leading role in the advancement of processing techniques and has brought forth a tea landscape that is as varied as it is prolific – giving rise to each and every one of the six tea families we know today. So deeply is the fragrant beverage woven into the cultural and historical fabric that, for more than 1000 years, tea has been considered one of the seven indispensable necessities of Chinese life. Told in the old Chinese saying, ‘’Kai men qi jian shi’’ - opening the door to 7 objects: firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar, and tea, to start each day.
Even a simple meal is finished off with tea, which means that, in modern China, virtually every dwelling – from the marbled palace to the simplest hut – has a set of implements for brewing a hot pot of tea. As a mark of hospitality it is customary to offer every visitor a cup.
As with anything so deeply entwined in everyday culture, the exact origins of tea are shrouded in the lore of a mythical age. According to popular legend, tea was discovered by the Chinese Emperor and “great heavenly gardener” Shennong in 2737 BC when a leaf from a nearby shrub fluttered into his cup. Upon drinking the unknown brew, he was surprised to find that despite its bitter taste, it left a pleasant, lingering sweetness and stimulated body and mind. Thrilled about his serendipitous discovery, the emperor quickly incorporated these miraculous leaves into the ancient Chinese pharmacopoeia. A body of observations on nature’s healing properties that founded Traditional Chinese Medicine we know today.
One ancient Chinese folklore tells the story of a plant healer, who over the course of his life, discovered 68 thousand healing properties in plants. He had passed on 46 thousand properties to his son when he died suddenly, leaving with him only a fragment of his completed work. The son’s father returned to him in a dream and upon visiting his father's tomb, the son discovered none but a single tea tree, containing the remaining 22 thousand healing properties he thought he had lost.
Though it is unclear how and when the ancient Chinese discovered tea, what we know, today, is that the tea tree, camellia sinensis, originated in the tropical jungles of the Chinese province of Yunnan. From here it spread across China along that most important of trade arteries, the Yangtze river, to the eastern coastal provinces which, today, account for more than two-thirds of China’s entire tea production. On this route follows a trail of tea growing regions, carrying the memory fabric of Chinese teas. The distinctions in terroir across the vast country shape the nature of the plant, making tea much like wine, considered for the region it comes from.
Yunnan (Birthplace of tea)
Famous for their dark teas (fermented), white tea, and black teas
Famous for their black and green teas
Famous for smoked black teas, white tea, oolong, & jasmine green tea.
Famous for producing the best green teas of China
Famous for their green teas, black teas, and dark teas
Image by vhines200 (flickr)