Monday, August 18, 2008

The History of Tea in China

Numerous volumes have been devoted to the development of tea in China. Below is a brief outline of the history of tea in China.

Early History It's interesting to note that with all the attention given today to the health benefits of tea, this wonderful plant began in China not as a beverage, but as a medicinal herb. Have we come full circle? Early historical accounts of tea are unclear, for the Chinese character for tea had not been standardized, and several other Chinese characters appear in books referring very likely to the same plant, Camellia Sinensis, what we now call tea.

Nearly every Chinese language book about tea begins with the story that it was the Emperor Shen Nong (probably mythical), who discovered the medicinal benefits of tea around 2700 BC. He is also credited with inventing agriculture and discovering many plants used for food or medicine. But are there clear records of the earliest use of tea? The scholar Gu Yanwu (1613-1681) noted that the use of tea in China began when the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) conquered the region of Ba Shu, modern day Sichuan, indicating that Sichuan had already established the custom and production of tea. Scholars seem to agree on this early date.

Tea spread through the subsequent Han Dynasty (202 BC--AD 220) as a widely used medicinal herb noted for its ability to clear the mind and cleanse the body of poisons, among other things. After the Han Dynasty broke up, China underwent 370 years of disunity with different dynasties ruling different regions, known as the Six Dynasties. Chaotic, yes, but culturally it was a lively period. Buddhism gained a foothold, and monasteries began growing tea to aid in meditation. Tea was also seen as a better way to entertain guests than serving alcohol. But tea's real history as the beverage we all know and love really takes off during the "Golden Age of Tea," the Tang Dynasty.

Tang Dynasty (618-907) Poetry, Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, landscape painting, & Buddhism

When you hear the name Tang Dynasty, keep in mind that this is a 300 year-plus long dynasty best known for its size (the largest empire in the world), the development of China's greatest poetry (which kids are still required to memorize), the invention of landscape painting (though almost nothing extant survives), the busy-ness of the Silk Road (silks, porcelain, etc.), and the cosmopolitan/international character of its capital Chang' an (modern day Xi'an). It was an era when the aristocracy dressed colorfully, women road horses, and Buddhism spread like wildfire.

As for tea, remember two things about the Tang Dynasty: 1) the tea consumed was green tea pressed into bricks, and was boiled with other spices (juniper berries, ginger, scallions, salt, etc.) and poured from a pitcher (no teapots yet); and 2) the great "tea sage" Lu Yu, who after growing up in a Buddhist monastery as an orphan, traveled far and wide to write the most influential book on tea in history, the Cha Jing, or "Classic of Tea." Lu Yu's careful documentation of tea production, growing areas, equipment, etc. would help spread the influence of tea and raise the beverage to new heights.

During the Tang period, tea spread throughout China as a popular beverage consumed by all classes, while the aristocracy raised tea drinking to an art form. In fact, so popular was tea that the government began collecting a special tea tax, set up a government bureau to regulate the tea trade, and used tea as a currency in its tributary relations with nomadic peoples living along China's borders. It was also during the Tang that tea was first grown in Japan as well as in Tibet.

Sung Dynasty (907-1279) Monumental landscape paintings, exquisite porcelain, & the rise of the scholar-official class

The Sung Dynasty was culturally brilliant , but politically weak. The Sung is usually divided into two periods: the Northern Sung, when China was united and the capital was in the north, and the Southern Sung, when the northern half was taken over by tribal kingdoms and the capital fled to modern day Hangzhou, near Shanghai. Despite the weakness of the period, this 500 year dynasty marks the development of the "classical" China we think of today: educated mandarins who passed exams based on the classics, philosophy and history, and were then appointed to rule districts throughout the empire. These men enjoyed sitting in elegant gardens while listening to music, composing poetry, and creating paintings for friends. They also loved tea!

During the Sung, green tea was ground into a powder and whisked into a frothy drink with a bamboo whisk. You've probably seen this kind of tea made in the Japanese tea ceremony where the custom still survives (visiting monks from Japan took the custom back home). Tea continued to be enjoyed by all classes. In fact, the government official Wang An-shih said that tea equals rice and salt in that you can't have a day without it. During the Sung, tea production spread to the southeast region of Fujian, which is now a major tea growing area.

High quality tea produced during the Sung gave rise to the interesting custom of "dou cha" or "competition tea," where people competed not only over the quality of tea leaf, equipment, and water, but also the final frothed bowl of tea. People competed to see who could produce the most beautiful and delicious bowl of tea. Because there was an emphasis on the froth, black and brown bowls were highly prized, as they highlighted the color of the tea and froth. Loose tea, as opposed to brick or pressed tea of earlier dynasties, becomes increasingly common. The teapot, however, had yet to make its appearance.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) "Literati-style" painting, blue/white porcelain, steeped tea

A brief but traumatic 90 year period of history followed the Sung Dynasty when the Mongols ruled all of China. Their period of rule is not terribly important in understanding tea. By the time the strong and harshly draconian Ming Dynasty was established in 1368, teapots had appeared and the custom of brewing with loose tea leaf was established. Steaming tea as a part of processing fresh tea leaves was largely replaced by dry pan frying, a common practice even today. Powdered tea, so popular during the Sung, faded away, while new teas appeared from Fujian's Wuyi Mountains, as well as scented teas. Teahouse culture was popular with all classes, and performers entertained while tea was served in teahouses and in opera houses.

The Ming period is also famous for producing perhaps half of all pre-20th century books about tea. During the Ming Dynasty, blue and white porcelain was first produced at Jingdezhen and the famous unglazed, reddish-brown teapots from Yixing became well known. Because Europeans arrived at this time to purchase tea, the west also adopted the Ming custom of using teapots to steep tea. Because the English imported their tea through the Fujian port of Xiamen (Amoy), the English adopted the Fujian dialect word "te" for this drink. Elsewhere in China, "cha" was and is the most common word for tea.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Manchu ethnic group governs China, ornate decorative tastes popular, diverse styles of porcelain, Peking Opera develops

The borders of China extended farther than any previous period during the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty. Throughout the period, China continued to develop new teas, including oolong tea and more varieties of scented teas. Lung Jing or "Dragon Well" tea was popularized after the Emperor Qianlong visited the tea area near Hangzhou in 1751. Fujian's famous oolong growing region of Anxi converted almost entirely to oolong production in the mid-1800s, while Taiwan's oolong tea became a famous export product in the 1860s. The fragrant and lightly oxidized Baozhong (Pao Chong) tea appeared in Taiwan in 1881.

The tremendous amount of silver paid by Europeans to import tea triggered two important events: 1) selling opium in China as a product to stem the drain of silver, which would in turn trigger the Opium Wars and devastate China; and 2) the British decided to grow tea in India to replace China as a cheaper source for tea. This adversely affected China and led to the further colonial development of India.


It's difficult to discuss tea in China over the past century, for it was dealt serious setbacks by political chaos and warfare from 1912 to 1949, and by the Communist collectivization of tea fields and closing of teahouses from 1949 to the 1990s. Today, the picture is changing dramatically as privatized family operations are producing higher quality teas, Taiwan tea farmers are investing in tea operations in China, and teahouse culture is being revived in cities. Two other trends of interest are the development of organic tea farms, as well as the production of famous teas, such as Hangzhou's Dragon Well tea, in other regions of China. Right now, we are living through an interesting transition in China, and the future of tea looks positive and exciting.


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