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 grades of oxidation 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 the seven indispensable necessities of Chinese life. In modern China, virtually every dwelling – from marbled palace to the simplest mud 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 the 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.
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. Historically, these provinces played a pivotal role in introducing tea to the West through the newly developed maritime trade routes of the 17th century.
Tea experienced its first heyday in what is known as one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization: the Tang dynasty. During this era, which lasted around 3 centuries from 618 to 907, tea experienced an unprecedented development as an art form along with painting, calligraphy and poetry. Strong economic growth, a rich cultural life and an abundance of trade across East Asia created the perfect environment for tea culture to spread across the Chinese empire and its bordering regions in Central and Eastern Asia.
The Tang era also saw the introduction of Tribute Teas: a system by which the finest teas were offered as a tribute to the imperial court. This clever blend of royal praise and proto-product advertising gave tea makers the opportunity to present their most prized leaves to the imperial court. Once tried and tested, the most delicious brews became court staples and earned their makers a generous reward. This royal litmus test soon spurred healthy competition between China’s greatest tea makers – and helped to spread and standardize best practices throughout the entire production process.
Despite its royal standing, tea, by this time, had become a widespread beverage among the general population establishing itself as a fundamental part of any social conduct. This, in turn, gave rise to the first tea houses that satisfied the unquenchable thirst of artists, poets and philosophers for the invigorating brew and quickly developed into the number-one places for the exchange of ideas and business.
The rise of tea in China has been associated with the flourishing of literature, fine arts along with Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. But the person who best personifies tea’s growing popularity is the Chinese patron saint of tea trade and culture, the Tang poet and writer Lu Yu. In his seminal treatise on tea, Cha Jing, Lu Yu is the first to devote an entire book to the fragrantly invigorating beverage, lauding its beneficial effects on body and mind as well as its wealth of delicate flavors. It is from this monograph that we know so much about how tea was cultivated, processed and consumed more than 1000 years ago.
From Lu Yu we know that tea, during the Tang era, was not prepared the same way as today. Tea, back then was compressed into tea brick to facilitate easier transport from their growing regions in the south to the northern provinces as well as China’s western and eastern neighbors, Mongolia and Korea, where tea was becoming increasingly popular. So important was tea as a trading commodity that it gave rise to a special institution that oversaw the trade of Chinese tea bricks for Mongolian horses, the Ministry of Horses and Tea.
Though immensely practical for transportation, these tightly compressed bricks were by no means ready to steep and required quite a range of utensils to prepare them for their hot bath. Softened with fire or steam, a small chunk had to be broken out with a hammer and needle and was then crushed to a fine powder with mortar and pestle. This was then mixed with salt water and sometimes ginger, onion, orange zest and rice before being boiled resembling a soup more than today’s infusions.
One of the first to popularize the idea of drinking tea on its own was our beloved tea patron, Lu Yu, who vociferously condemned the mish-mash drinks of his time as “no better than rinsing water of gutters.” However, it wasn’t until the Song dynasty (960-1279) that important changes were made in the way tea was manufactured and consumed: this was the age of beaten tea. The dried leaves were ground with a millstone to obtain a fine powder that was then beaten in a bowl with a bamboo whisk until “jade foam” appeared. This practice can still be seen today in Japan as part of the chanoyu, or matcha tea ceremony, that also hails form this time.
A prominent figure in Song-era China and great patron of the arts known for his promotion of Taoism and tea culture is the emperor Huizong. During his reign, cultural life in China experienced a golden age bringing forth, among other things, new varieties of tea. One outstanding example for the teas developed in this cultural heyday and personal favorite of the poet emperor is our Happy Huizong. In his treatise on tea, Daguan Chalun, Huizong praises the invigorating brew and lists the many new varieties of his age. Along with this, he offers a detailed description on how to properly prepare the delicate jade foam, elegizing its negligent brewing as one of the three cardinal sins of his time in the following verse:
“Three things are highly lamentable: the corruption of fine youth through improper education, the debasing of fine paintings through vulgar gawking and the waste of fine tea through negligent preparation.”
During the Song era, tea’s prominence as an important commodity in trade increased further as more and more peoples were developing a taste for the invigorating brew. All along the Silk Road, tea was now being consumed as far afield as the Maghreb countries in Northern Africa spanning the lengths of both continents. Along with its geographical expansion, came new methods of processing tea that reflected a transition of tastes – a shift that, to this day, distinguishes Japanese from Chinese tea culture. While Japan has retained its passion for grassy, steamed green teas, the Chinese preference for richly nutty and sweet roasted leaves date back to this era. Examples of this aromatic innovation is our Imperial Dragon and Happy Huizong, honorary members of the illustrious group of China’s ‘famous teas’. The cultural and economic developments of the Song era came to a sudden standstill with the Mongol invasion of China in the 13th century. For the first time in Chinese history, the entire empire fell under the rule of a foreign leader.
It wasn’t until the beginning of China’s “third golden age” almost a century later, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), that tea culture was revitalized and reshaped to the form we know today: dried whole leaves steeped in simmering water. Not only did this new mode of preparation simplify and democratize the preparation of tea, but it also fostered a more varied and specialized tea landscape giving rise to many of the teas we know today.
By the end of the 14th century, whole leaves were the tea of choice not only of the imperial court but also most of the general population. This new form of preparing and consuming tea necessitated a further development that has become synonymous with Ming-era China: a highly specialized porcelain industry that gave rise to a wide range of novel tea wares. Most of the tea wares we know and hold dear today are, in fact, a product of the porcelain artisans of the Ming era. Kettles, teapots, gaiwans and cups without handles are among the most important contributions to today’s tea culture, the foundation of which goes back to this period.
With the Qing dynasty (1644-1914) came another important period in Chinese history in which trade between China and the West gradually expanded fueled by a growing European thirst for tea. Most of the tea exported to Europe came from the tea gardens of the southeastern coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian whose port cities became increasingly important hubs of commerce and innovation in tea processing. Many of the variants we hold dear today are actually a product of the wily merchants of the Qing era looking to develop teas that were easier to transport and wouldn’t spoil on the long voyages to Europe. Both partially oxidized oolongs and fully oxidized black teas are the aromatic result of these mercantile developments. Named after the year of its development, our 1876, is a shining example of the new developments of the Qing era and quickly became the favorite British breakfast tea. Another wonderful example of the innovations of this time is our Yunnan Gold, a Chinese black tea particularly rich in golden tender buds producing a milder honey-like aroma.
The Qing era also marks the gradual decline of the Chinese tea monopoly. Sparked by high demands in Europe, the British Empire was quick to discover the secrets of tea cultivation, planting tea gardens all across the Indian subcontinent and eastern Africa. The dissemination of tea cultivation to new regions across the world coincided with China’s dwindling influence and power.
With its political revolutions and societal turmoil, the 20th century marks a very bleak period for Chinese tea culture. The demise of imperial rule, the Japanese invasion and the civil war followed by the communist revolution of 1949 constitute a series of fundamental changes that have shaped the face of modern Chinese society and customs today. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), with its slogans like “we must forget the past and march toward the future,” was especially detrimental to tea culture. Most teahouses closed, tea farmers were appointed different tasks and resettled to distant provinces. Industrial production also saw the introduction of tea bags to China.
Things have been looking up, though, since the late 80s with a revitalized specialty tea scene drawing from the almost 5000-year history. Tea houses have reopened, agricultural schools are specializing in the study of tea along with the founding of the Institute for Research into the Culture of Tea in China 1993 in Hangzhou. Much like Taiwan, museums devoted to tea and tea wares were founded along with cultural associations and festivals to emphasize the importance of the cultivation of tea and tea culture in China.