The history of tea in China
is long and complex. The Chinese have enjoyed tea for millennia. Scholars hailed the brew as a cure for a variety of ailments; the nobility considered the consumption of good tea as a mark of their status, and the common people simply enjoyed its flavor.
Tea was first discovered by the Chinese Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC. It is said that the emperor liked his drinking water boiled before he drank it so it would be clean, so that is what his servants did. One day, on a trip to a distant region, he and his army stopped to rest. A servant began boiling water for him to drink, and a dead leaf from the wild tea bush fell into the water. It turned a brownish color, but it was unnoticed and presented to the emperor anyway. The emperor drank it and found it very refreshing, and cha (tea) was born.
While historically the origin of tea as a medicinal herb useful for staying awake is unclear, China is considered to have the earliest records of tea drinking, with recorded tea use in its history dating back to the first millennium BC. The Han Dynasty used tea as medicine. The use of tea as a beverage drunk for pleasure on social occasions dates from the Tang Dynasty or earlier.
The Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu's 陸羽 (729-804) Cha Jing 茶經 is an early work on the subject. (See also Tea Classics) According to Cha Jing writing, around AD 760, tea drinking was widespread. The book describes how tea plants were grown, the leaves processed, and tea prepared as a beverage. It also describes how tea was evaluated. The book also discusses where the best tea leaves were produced.
At this time in tea's history, the nature of the beverage and style of tea preparation were quite different from the way we experience tea today. Tea leaves were processed into compressed cakes form. The dried teacake, generally called brick tea was ground in a stone mortar. Hot water was added to the powdered teacake, or the powdered teacake was boiled in earthenware kettles then consumed as a hot beverage.
A form of compressed tea referred to as white tea was being produced as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). This special white tea of Tang was picked in early spring, when the tea bushes had abundant growths which resembled silver needles. These "first flushes" were used as the raw material to make the compressed tea.
Roasting and brewing
Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea. After the transition from compressed tea to the powdered form, the production of tea for trade and distribution changed once again. The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-13th century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. This is the origin of today's loose teas and the practice of brewed tea.
In 1391, the Ming court issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a "tribute". As a result, loose tea production increased and processing techniques advanced. Soon, most tea was distributed in full-leaf, loose form and steeped in earthenware vessels. This was a effective process.
After cutting, tea is subjected to a so-called "fermentation." This process is not actually a fermentation
, which is an anaerobic
process, but rather an enzymatic oxidization
of the polyphenols
in the tea leaves, yielding theaflavins
. When the tea leaves are dry, fermentation stops, allowing some control of the process by manipulation of the drying rate or adding water after drying. Fermentation can also be interrupted by heat, for example by steaming tea leaves. In 17th century China numerous advances were made in tea production. In the southern part of China, tea leaves were sun dried and then half fermented, producing Black Dragon teas or Oolongs. However, this method was not common in the rest of China.
Tea in mythology
- Lu Yu wrote in Cha Jing: "Tea as a beverage was originated from Shen Nung"
- A medicine book "Shen Nung Ben Chao" stated that "Shen Nung tasted hundreds of herbs, he encountered seventy two poisons daily, he used tea as antidote"
- In Chinese legend, Shen Nung died in Tea Hill (Cha Lin) county of Hunan province.
Origins of the tea plant in China
- In 760 AD, Lu Yu already noted: Tea is a grand tree from the South, tall from one, two, and up to several dozen Chi. Some with circumference up two meters.
- A. Wilson in his exploration of the south east area of China discovered tea bushes up to ten feet tall in mountains in Sichuan
- In 1939, botanists discovered a 7.5 meter wild tea tree in Wuchuang county of Guizhou province.
- In 1940, on the Old Eagle mountain of Wuchuang county, a 6.6 meter tall wild tea tree was discovered.
- In 1957, a 12 meter wild tea tree was discovered in Cheshui county of Guizhou.
- In 1961, a one thousand seven hundred years old, thirty two meters tall and more than one meter diameter wild tea tree was found in the rain forest of Yunnan, this is the king of tea trees.
- In 1976, a 13 meter wild tea tree was found on Daozhen county, on a mountain at 1400 meter elevation.
- More wild tea trees were found in the mountains of Sichuan, Yunnan,and Guzhou provincies, many of them more than ten meters tall.
The origin of the word Cha
- Tea was called "tu" (荼) (in the Chinese ancient classic Shi Jing (The book of Songs).
- Tea was also called 'jia' (檟) in the ancient Chinese classic Er Ya compiled during the early Han Dynasty : " Jia is bitter tu". The word tu was further annotated by a Jin scholar, Guo Pu (276-324 AD): " Tu is a small plant, its leaves can be brewed into a beverage".
- Tea was also called "She' (蔎) in a West Han monograph on dialect: Fang Yian.
- During the Han Dynasty, the word tu took on a new pronunciation, 'cha', in addition to its old pronunciation 'tu'.
The phoneme 'tu' (荼) later developed into 'te' in the Fujian dialect, and later 'tea', 'te'.
The phoneme 'she' (蔎) later became 'soh' in Jiangsu province, Suleiman's 'Sakh' also came from
The phoneme "jia' (檟) later became 'cha' and 'chai' (Russia, India).
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, drinking tea became a widespread custom, then spread west to Tibet.
The first use of the word Cha instead of 'tu' for tea was in Lu Yu's Cha Jing, The Classic of Tea of 760 AD.
Periods in the history of tea
- From prehistoric time to Spring and Autumn Period (221 BC) Tu was used as sacrifice for ceremony
- According to Chinese historical record, ca 1000 BC, there were already tea farms in Sichuan and Yunnan
- From end of Spring and Autumn Period to early Western Han dynasty, Tu was used as vegetable food on table
- From the historical annal "Yianzhi Chunchiu": the prime minister of Chi (547 BC-490 BC) had egg and tea food on his table.
- Xia Zhong's Treatise on Food : "Since Jin dynasty, the people of Wu (now Suzhou city) cooked tea leaves as food, and called it tea broth".
- From the beginning of Western Han to middle Western Han, Tu was used as medicine
- From the late Western Han Dynasty to the Three Kingdom Period, tea was imperial beverage
- From the Western Jin dynasty to Sui dynasty, the use of tea as beverage spread in the Chinese population
- From the Tang period onward, tea became one of the seven essentials of daily life
- During the Southern Song Dynasty a Japanese monk 明菴栄西 Eisai (Yosai): came to Tiantai mountain of Zhejiang to study Chan (Zen) Buddhism (1168 AD); when he returned home in 1193 AD , he brought tea from China to Japan, planted it and wrote the first Japanese book on Tea:喫茶養生記, Treatise on Drinking Tea for Health. This was the beginning of tea cultivation and tea culture in Japan
- In the Song Dynasty, tea was a major export good, through the Silk Road on land and Silk Road on the sea, tea spread to Arab countries and Africa.
- In the mid ninth century, traveller Suleiman mentioned that people in China drink "Sakh", sold in cities of Empire.
- Some historians believe Marco Polo encountered tea in his travel. Other historians point out that his writings fail to mention tea at all.
- In 1559, Giovanni ta Ramusio mentioned "chai" in "Delle Navigatione et Viaggi," Vol 6.
- 1579, Two Russian travellers introduced Cha to Russia
Mass production of white tea
Modern-day white teas can be traced to the Qing Dynasty
in 1796. Back then, teas were processed and distributed as loose tea that was to be steeped, and they were produced from "chaicha," a mixed-variety tea bush. They differed from other China green teas in that the white tea process did not incorporate de-enzyming by steaming or pan-firing, and the leaves were shaped. The silver needle white teas that were produced from the "chaicha" tea bushes were thin, small and did not have much silvery-white hair.
It wasn't until 1885 that specific varietals of tea bushes were selected to make "Silver Needles" and other white teas. The large, fleshy buds of the "Big White," "Small White" and "Narcissus" tea bushes were selected to make white teas and are still used today as the raw material for the production of white tea. By 1891, the large, silvery-white down-covered Silver Needle was exported, and the production of White Peony started around 1922.
The first tea monograph
The first tea monograph Cha Jing by Tang dynasty writer Lu Yu
was completed around 760 AD. This is more than four hundred years earlier than the first Japanese tea monograph by Eisai
No known ancient Indian monograph on tea exists.
There were about one hundred tea monographs from the Tang dynasty to Qing dynasty. This treasure
about tea culture is only beginning to attract the interest of western scholars.
- Cha Jing (《茶经》), ISBN 957-763-053-7
- The Classic of Tea: Origins & Rituals (ISBN 0-88001-416-4) Lu, Yu; Carpenter, Francis Ross; New York, U.S.A.: Ecco Press. 1995