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Five Thousand Years: A Brief History of Tea

Tea is the most popular beverage in the world other than water and is enjoyed by over 3 billion people across over 150 countries every day. The average amount of tea consumed each year has reached more than 33 million tons.

With its great and widespread cultural, philosophical and social influence tea is not simply a beverage. It has become a symbol of growth and progress in man's physical and spiritual life.

In Chinese culture, tea is connected with different life elements. Since ancient times, 'firewood', 'rice', 'oil', 'salt','soy sauce', 'vinegar', and 'tea' have been regarded as the seven necessities of daily life, and 'playing instruments' 'playing board games' , 'writing calligraphy', 'painting pictures', 'composing poetry', 'singing songs', and 'appreciating tea' have been listed as the seven most elegant activities in life.Moreover, tea is integrated with religion, philosophy, art and literature. For example, Buddhism advocates the notion of 'tea and Zen', Thus, we often say that tea appeals to both popular and refined tastes.

This is the charisma of tea, and when we trace its long and fascinating history, we first remember out Chinese ancestors who originally discovered tea and have come to share its charm and health giving nature with the rest of the world.

A Plant Native to Xishuangbanna, China

Leading paleobotanists and experts on the study of ancient plant fossils, state that Xishuangbanna, in southwest China, is the original native habitat of tea plants. This is the region in which the first tea trees grew, and from there spread geographically to create the various strains of tea around the world today. The three dominant facts supporting this belief are as follows:

  1. Around 60 million years ago, Earth experienced a massive geological upheaval,a volcanic eruption so violent that it rendered the dinosaurs and most other creatures and plants extinct across much of the planet. Living things survived in only a few small I areas, one of which was southwest China. The Earths climate then increased in temperature which stimulated the evolution of the few surviving plants, including the ancestors of modem tea plants, Their seeds took root and spread in the fertile ground.
  2. The oldest wild tea plants in existence are still found in southwest China. They are normally 5 to 30 meters tall, with a trunk of up to 1.5 meters in diameter. Some are said to be more than 2700 years old.
  3. Statistically, Xishuangbanna has the most wild tea plants with the most extensive distribution worldwide. There are approximately 23 genera and 380 species of Camellia plants across the world, and of these 15 genera and over 260 specie (about 70% of all Camellia plants) have been found in China. Most of the a plants are concentrated in Xishuanubanna. According to the theories of E. O. Wilson, the American botanist and ‘father of Sociobiology', the area with most genera and species of a plant is its native habitat, which indicates that Xishuangbanna is the native habitat of tea plants.

TIPS. Menghai Paleozoic Tea Plantation: A World-Renowned Paradise for Tea Plants

The world-renowned 'Menghai Paleozoic Tea Plantation' is located In Xishuangbanna,Yunnan Province, where the plants enjoy a subtropical monsoon climate and grow at elevations of 1000 to 1500 meters. The average annual temperature is between 16℃ to 20℃ and the annual rainfall is about 1500mm, this constitutes the perfect conditions for the growth of big-leaf tea plants.

There we thousands of acres of aged tea plants densely distributed in this area. In the early 1900s, expirations discovered BOO years old tea plants near Nannuo Mountain, and the famous 1700-year-old 'Tea Tree King' was discovered on the Bada Mountain In Menghai.

The Menghai Paleozoic tea plantations are mostly distributed in the intermontane flat lands, wreathed in clouds and mist all year round, therefore the humidity is relatively high, and the sunlight is usually diffused. The tea plants are moistened by vapors and dews so that the buds and leaves are fat and bold, tender and soft with small white tea-hairs on the surface, and they have an abundance of natural amino acids. Menghai is located in an area of low latitude, meaning the days are long. This spares the plants from long-term dormancy, enhances quality, and facilitates tea picking during all four masons.

The Menghai Paleozoic tea plantations are in the centre of the Kailas Range-Tengchong Volcanic Belt formed millions of years ago, and the fertile soil makes this area a paradise for tea plants. For most creatures, violent volcanic activity js a catastrophe,but for the tea plants, it became an opportunity, a catalyst for growth. With the deposit of volcanic ashes, the soil became weakly addle, loose and porous, all very beneficial condition for tea plants. The earth's frequent crush movements helped to form a favorable magnetic field, and abundant microelements dissolved into the soil to provide tea points with nutrition.

First Discovered by Shen Nong

Tea plants have been growing in southwest China for millions of years, but when did the Chinee people discover and make use of tea? The history can be traced back to our ancestor Shen Nang who lived about 5000 years ago.

It is often said that the Chinese people are the descendants of Emperors Yan and Huangs and Emperor Yan is known as Shen Nong. There are many legends of the ways in which Shen Noug brought benefits to future generations' the most famous one being the story of 'Shen Nong testing hundreds of herbs', In this fable, Shen Nong tasted and assessed countless herbs for their beneficial and harmful effects, and risked his own life to find ways to heal the sick. One day he ate some some highly poisonous herbs and lost consciousness beneath a tall tree. Suddenly a gust of wind blew and shook the branches, and a pair of big leaves drifted down towards him, With his last fighting breath, Shen Nong caught and chewed the leaves, and as if by a miracle, he was roused from his coma and found he was able to stand. The leaves of the tall tree were tea leaves, and only these leaves were able to save the life of China ancient Emperor.

Han Dynasty: Tea Drinking Initiated in Southwest China

According to historical records, at the time of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.-256 B.C.),there were tea plantations operated by people in Sichuan Province, and tea was made and offered as a tribute to the Zhou imperial court every year from that time.

However, it has been suggested that, initially, tea was not used to make the popular beverage we drink today. A variety of theories exist on the first uses of tea leaves and the origins of tea as a beverage. One theory proposes that tea leaves were first introduced in combination with a blend of other materials to enhance satisfaction after u meal, and promote a smooth digestion. Other theories suggest that tea leaves were used mainly for detoxification or medical treatments, and there are records of ancient prescriptions using tea as an ingredient. But regardless of these speculations, it is evident that tea only became a daily beverage via the method of decocting the leaves (extraction through boiling) into tasty, thirst-quenching, mind-refreshing tea liquor following a period of being used in other forms.

In the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.- 9 A.D.), a Sichuan resident named Wang Bao wrote an article about a contract signed between himself and his servant, which stipulated the details of the servant's daily work, including tea purchasing and decocting. So we can be certain that people in southwest China were in the habit of drinking tea at that time.

Three Kingdoms: Tea Drinking Custom Spreads to the Southern Yangtze River

Ever since the unification of China in the Qin Dynasty the influence of tea has traveled far beyond southwest China. During the period of the Three Kingdoms (220 A.D. -265 A.D.) tea processing technologies spread along the Yangtze River and further on to the Yangtze Delta. Legends about tea and Zfauge Kongming (the prime minister of the Kingdom Shu) became famous, telling of tea plants in the Six Famous Tea Mountains of Xishuangbanna called 'Kongming trees' because he and his men planted them during the southern march of Kingdom Shu.

After the collapse of the Western Jin Dynasty (265 A.D.- 316 A.D.) the nobles learned a lesson from its reckless administration. When the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 A.D.-420 A.D.) was established southeast of the Yangtze River, they began to advocate the morality of honesty and uprightness. Tea drinking was considered to be a representation of that morality, so it was greatly promoted nationwide, An official named Lu Na, descendant of a well-known general from the Three Kingdoms period, practiced 'Benevolent Governance' and tried to set a good example of moderation by providing only tea and simple refreshments when receiving guests. He once even criticized his nephew for the feast he held on behalf of Lu Na to receive General Xie An.

Tang Dynasty: Tea Becomes the ' National Beverage'

Historical records from the Sui Dynasty (581 A.D.-618 A,D.) reveal that tea helped to cure the encephalopathy (brain disease) of the first Sui emperor. And it was under the Sui Dynasty that the Grand Canal was dug to guarantee the smooth transportation of tea between north and south.

There are four distinct reasons for the prosperity of the tea industry during the Tang Dynasty. Firstly, the nation grew strong. A more solid infrastructure helped promote cultural exchange within society. Tea drinking customs prevailed in the upper classes and tea appreciation gradually developed into a trend. This in turn stimulated the irrepressible development of the tea industry. Secondly, the promotion of Buddhism by Empress Wu Zetian and Taoism by Emperor Xuanzong, meant Buddhist and Taoist temples mushroomed across the vast land of China. Monks and priests not only consumed a great amount of tea,but also actively advocated tea arts and Cha Dao. Thirdly, the third warm period in the Tang Dynasty contributed to tea cultivation, the frigolabile tea plants (easily affected or destroyed by cold) reached a growth peak in the warm climate. Fourthly, the reputation of tea profited vastly from the high opinion and recommendation of a great man - Tea Master Lu Yu. As poets have stated, 'Only since the advocation of tea by Lu Yu, have people pursued tea drinking'.

Lu Yu Founds Chinese Cha Dao

Before the Tang Dynasty, or to be exact, before the years of Lu Yu, there was no tea literature and no authors writing on the subject However, Lu Yu dedicated his entire life to the Study of tea, andspent 30 years roaming about the nation to gather tea knowledge and research Cha Dao so as to complete his masterpiece, The Classic of Tea. Nowadays, Lu Yu is regarded not only as the master of Chinese Cha Dao, but also as a litterateur, poet, calligrapher,and geographer. In addition, Lu Yu was proficient in music and drama, and he was famous for his honesty, reliability, and moral integrity; a man of principle, who always put his theories into practice, and lived up to his word.

He was the world's first true 'Tea Master' the Master of all Tea Masters.

As the first treatise on tea knowledge in the world, The Classic of Tea is considered to be the 'tea encyclopedia'. It is more than 7000 words in length, and is divided into three volumes. The ten chapters Lu Yu covers are, namely, origin (一之源), tools (二之具), making (三之造), utensils (四之器) , boiling (五之煮), drinking (六之饮), history (七之事), growing regions (八之出), nonessential tools (九之略), and illustrations (十之图). The book summarizes the history of tea before the Tang Dynasty, and presents the delicate craft and techniques used in processing making tea, and drinking tea. It puts forward the principles of Cha Dao thought; of establishing one's own morality by honoring the spirit of traditional moralities, and of examining one's own conduct by observing social principles and rules. Lu Yu elevated the daily activity of tea drinking into a means of molding temperament, which makes him the pioneer of Chinese Cha Dao.

According to statistics, there are altogether 109 versions of The Classic of Tea in publication at home and abroad. The overseas versions are published in numerous languages including English, German, Italian, and Korean. It is very rare in the history of publishing for a book to be printed in such a great number of versions. Though The Classic of Tea was completed a thousand years ago, academics consider it a work so inclusive and profound that no other book of its kind has ever been deemed to equal its wisdom and depth. Among scholars, The Classic of Tea is known as a 'cultural enigma'.

Lu Yu's Tea Decocting Method - A Refined Way of Tea Tasting

Before the Tang Dynasty, people made tea like they were boiling cabbages. After the introduction of Lu Yu's tea decocting method in the Tang Dynasty, people began to raise tea drinking to the level of 'tea tasting'. For the first time,tea was understood to be something subtle and refined. In The Classic of Tea, the method of decocting tea is recorded as follows:

  1. Preparing utensils. Arrange 8 categories, 28 pieces of utensils on a table in sequence (imagine the grand scene of such a preparation).
  2. Baking tea. Bake a tea cake on the fire until it becomes dry and emits a pleasing aroma (during the baking process, the tea cake should be kept sometimes near the fire and sometimes far from the fire so as to avoid uneven baking).
  3. Grinding tea. Grind the baked tea cake into dust and sieve the dust in a bamboo sifter (the smaller the boles in the sifter, the better the dust will be sieved).
  4. Boiling water. Make the fire with clean charcoal or dry wood to boil the water (mountain spring water is recommended for a better tasting tea).
  5. Decocting tea. Boil the water three times until hubbies are formed on the top of the water (when the water is boiling for the first time add salt into the cast iron teapot, the second time, add ground tea dust, and the third time, add more water).
  6. Appreciating bubbles. When the process of decocting tea finishes, it is time to relax and appreciate the bubbles on the surface of the tea liquor.
  7. Serving tea. A pot of tea is normally divided into three to five bowls (during the division of tea, the bubbles should be evenly poured into each bowl).
  8. Passing and drinking tea, Each bowl of tea is shared by passing down the bowl from one person to another (the whole pot of tea needs to be drunk up when it is still hot).

When the method of decocting tea became widely accepted in the Tang Dynasty, the set of 28 teawares designed by Lu Yu was reputedly kept by almost every upper-class family.

Song Dynasty: Artistic Tea Drinking

During the Song Dynasty (960 A.D.-1279 A.D.) the imperial court implemented the policy of reinforcing art and restraining force. As a result people's lifestyle became full of artistic elements.

Tea gradually became part of the etiquette and custom of the entire nation, and officially stepped into the palace of art, crowned as the 'trend of a prosperous time'.

Superb crafts and techniques were applied to the method of processing tea during this time, and the resplendency and allure of the finished products is evident from names such as 'Dragon and Phoenix Cake', 'Jade Dragon Outclassing Snow' and 'Dragon Buds Bestowing Eternity'.

Because of their delicacy, people cherished these teas too much to drink them. Within the imperial court, there were even various esoteric ways of appreciating the dry tea leaves, such as 'Xiu Cham' and 'Lou Ying Chun'. 'Xiu Cha' is a way of cutting gold foil into the shape of the dragon, the phoenix, or flowers and grasses. These would be fixed onto tea leaves for appreciation. In 'Lou Ying Chun' these shaped foils would be glued to the inner wall of a teacup, then tea dust sprayed over the entire inner wall and the foils removed to leave a pattern. Flower-shaped foods would then be placed inside the teacup, so that people could first appreciate "dragon and phoenix' and 'flowers' in the teacup, before the ultimate pleasure of drinking tea.

There were also numerous entertaining methods of making tea, the most popular one being 'Dian Cha' or 'tea spotting', 'Dian Cha' involves putting tea dust into a teacup and pouring over it a small quantity of boiling water. The dust and water are then stirred to blend them, and more boiling water is poured over while continually using a bamboo tea whisk until a layer of bubbles floats on the top of the water. People in the Song Dynasty made this method of drinking tea into a competition to see who could stir whiter bubbles, or whose bubbles could remain unbroken and cling to the edge for longer time. Another game 'Fen Cha' 'Cha Bai Xi' required higher techniques, where people shaped the bubbles into patterns or Chinese characters by people or stirring the water in the kungfu teacup. Some master-hands could even shape a poem inside the small space. There is no doubt that the craftsmanship of making tea had reached its peak in the Song Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty: Initiation of the Tea Brewing Method

The popular Chinese proverb goes, 'Boiling in the Tang Dynasty, Stirring in the Song Dynasty, and Brewing in the Ming Dynasty', and, we may confidently say that today's tea drinking habits derive from the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D.-1644 A.D.);-In 1391, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty issued a decree to process loose tea instead of tea cakes. From then on, the method of using ground tea dust to make tea was replaced by the method of brewing tea leaves with boiling water, which is also known as 'Ming brewing' or 'Cuo Pao'.

The new method stimulated the invention of different forms of teaware made of different materials, White porcelain teaware, blue and white porcelain teaware, and purple clay teaware were favored by the people, and the techniques of making teaware became more and more exquisite. Several schools of teaware making emerged as the art of making teaware enjoyed a period of rapid development.

The new method stimulated the invention of different forms of teaware made of different materials, White porcelain teaware, blue and white porcelain teaware, and purple clay teaware were favored by the people, and the techniques of making teaware became more and more exquisite. Several schools of teaware making emerged as the art of making teaware enjoyed a period of rapid development.

The modem technique of processing tea is also derived the Ming Dynasty. Steam fixation of tea leaves was replaced by stir fixation, and the new method made popular the use of buds and tender leaves as raw materials. At the same time the technique of stir fixation attained its highest level; the fixated tea leaves retained the bright green color and high aroma of the fresh leaves. This technique is still adopted nowadays for making high-grade green tea.

Moreover, at the time of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty, the different forms and varieties of tea, such as dark tea, scented tea, green tea, and black tea became fully developed. Pu'er tea was considered one of the most important forms of tea in the Qing Dynasty and its reputation spread all across the nation. After the royals forming their habit of drinking Dragon Well Tea in summer and drinking Pu'er tea in winter, Pu'er tea became a tribute tea for the imperial court as well as a national present for foreign envoys.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

Originally there were no tea plants growing in Japan. In 805 A.D.,a year after Master Lu Yu passed away, the eminent Japanese monk, Saichyo, who was sent as an envoy to the Tang Dynasty, returned to Japan. He took with him tea seeds and cultivated them in Shiga Prefecture in central Japan on the main island of Honshu. This was the first time, tea plants were introduced to Japan.

In the late Southern Song Dynasty (1127 A.D.-1279 A.D.), the Japanese Buddhist priest Nanpo Shomyo came to study Chinese Buddhism at Jingshan Temple near the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, For years he studied the ceremony performed during tea parties held inside the temple. When Shomyo returned home, he introduced Chinese tea ceremony to Japan. Later on, Japanese tea masters incorporated elements of Japanese etiquette, morality and ethics into their tea ceremony, and the practice gradually developed into the Japanese tea ceremony or 'Sado' known today.

The Japanese tea master Sen Rikyu is considered to be the one who made the most profound influence on Japanese tea ceremony. Sen Rikyu put forward the notions of 'harmony, respect, purity, and quiet' as combined making the basic spirit of Japanese tea ceremony. After his death, Sen Rikyu's descendants inherited his thought and practice, and developed it into thousands of schools of Japanese tea ceremony. Of these, the 'three Sen houses' were the most famous, namely, Omotesenke (the front Sen House), Urasenke (the rear Sen House), and Mushakojisenke.

Japanese tea ceremony is divided into Matcha ceremony (powdered tea ceremony) and Sencha ceremony (decocted tea ceremony). The former follows the Song Dynasty method of making tea, and the latter inherits the Ming Dynasty method. If we say Chinese Cha Dao is the source of tea ceremony, then Japanese Sado is the course of tea ceremony. It places emphasis on every detail of the tea making process, as well as on contemplation of the spirit of tea ceremony, thus the whole ceremony usually takes about four hours. Recently, as Chinese tea regains its popularity in Japan, ordinary Japanese households favor the drinking of Chinese tea. There are teahouses selling Chinese tea in Tokyo, and many, especially the younger generation, enjoy drilling Chinese tea and the elegant atmosphere experienced in these teahouses.

Korean Tea Ceremony

In 828 A.D. a Silla envoy named Kim Dae Ryum took tea seeds from China back to Korea and cultivated them at Ji Ri Mountain. During the late Unified Silla Dynasty (668 A.D.-935 A.D.), the Korean people gradually studied the methods of making and drinking tea. On the days of new moon and full moon, at traditional festivals, and at the commemoration of their ancestors, people would hold tea ceremonies or tea rites. 'Five-Element Tea Ceremony' is Korea's highest-level national tea ceremony. Its theme is to commemorate the Chinese tea ancestor ShenNong. During this ceremony, every participant offers their handful of tea respectfully to Shen Nong in unison, this is a magnificent spectacle.

In its spirit of 'Harmony, Respect, Moderation, and Sincerity', the Korean tea ceremony originates from the tea drinking customs of ancient China, and it embraces the moralities of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism as well as the traditional Korean etiquette. In modem times, the Korean people have translated books about Chinese tea culture to find the roots of Korean tea culture within ancient Chinese writings. The Classic of Tea, in particular,is meticulously translated and explained, and it is very popular among Korean tea enthusiasts.

The Korean tea ceremony has penetrated into the activities of all social strata. In recent years, a Tea Culture Renaissance' movement has been actively carried out around the nation. The harmonious elements promoted by the Korean tea ceremony have become a maxim of life for the Korean people.

The British Love of Afternoon Tea

In 1662 Chinese tea was brought to Britain as part of the dowry of the Portuguese Princess,Catherine of Braganza, when she married King Charles II. The Princess introduced the custom of tea drinking within the royal court, and the practice expanded and came to prevail among the nobles and plutocrats. Chinese tea was a representation of social status within upper-class society. Later on, the tea drinking custom gradually spread among the lower classes, and the British public named Catherine the 'tea-drinking queen.'

During Victorian times, the Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria, began to habitually take an extra meal of tea and cakes, sandwiches or biscuits during the afternoon, which she found helped to fill the gap between luncheon and dinner. Daily, she would invite friends for a chat with her light afternoon meal. This light meal was then known as 'afternoon tea' and quickly became a convivial repast in upper-class society, The time for a traditional afternoon tea is usually around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. and for this occasion, a comfortable environment, delicate refreshments, quality tea and top-of-the-range teaware are indispensable.

The afternoon tea culture propelled the development of the tea trade. And to support their new sophisticated pastime the British triggered the Opium War in 1840 to plunder China's tea resources. Today about 80% of the British drink tea every day and half the total annual beverage consumption in Great Britain is attributed to tea. Great Britain is one of the biggest per-capita consumers of tea averaging 3 kg per year, and it has remained one of the biggest importers of tea in the world for centuries.

America and the Tea Bag

In late 17th Century, tea was brought to the American continent by European immigrants and the influence of tea drinking was expanded to the New World., Tea has come to play a significant role in American history. For example, in 1731, the American colonists overturned a British ship in the Boston Harbor, dumping her valuable cargo of tea into the ocean,Their protest was against swindling taxations imposed by the British government and tea importation controls enforced by the British East India Company, and the incident was a factor which led to the American Revolution.

In 1784, the American merchant ship 'Empress of China' sailed for her maiden voyage across the Pacific Ocean to China, and the vessel returned to America filled with a cargo of Chinese tea and other sought-after commodities. The success of this voyage contributed to the development of the tea trade and cultural exchange between America and China, as well as to the popularity of tea drinking across America.

Modern innovation has led to the introduction of the tea bag as a quicker, easier, and more convenient tea brewing method. The first tea bag invented was a hand-sewn silk bag made by tea and coffee wholesaler Thomas Sullivan . He originally put a small quantity of tea into a hand-sewn silk bag as a tea sample. One day a customer of his accidentally infused a bagged sample inside a teapot. But, curious, Sullivan's and his friend poured and tasted the brew. It was delicious. Thomas Sullivan saw a business opportunity and marketed the tea bags home and abroad. Thanks to him, tea bags are widely used and enjoyed by people all around the world today.