Tea History of China

Tea History of China

China is where tea was born. Chinese legends that speak of its discovery are so ancient it would be easy to believe that tea has always existed there. But if tea has been known in China since time immemorial, it has not always been in its current form. Indeed, different ways of growing and drinking it have evolved overtime and according to changing customs.


Among the Chinese legends that recount the discovery of tea, the oldest dates from 2737 BCE. It involves the mythic Emperor Shen Nong (known as the "Divine Emperor"), who, it is said, habitually tried new plants to discover their curative properties. Suffering from an unusual malady, he sat under a tree, put some water on to boil to purify it and then fell asleep from exhaustion. When he awoke, he noticed that some leaves had fallen into the water Intrigued, he tasted the infusion and realized that in spite of its bitter taste, it was able to both detoxify and stimulate him.

Taking this legend into account it is possible to say that tea has been used in the Chinese pharmacopoeia for over 4,000 years. According to Lu Yu, author of the first work devoted to tea, it was in the time of the Zhou dynasty (1121 -256 BCE) that tea became a popular drink. Until then tea had been used medicinally or as a food, mixed into soup or with other foods. It was not until the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) that tea was considered a beverage in its own right.


Chinese feudal society was at its peak in the pros-perous days of the lang dynasty (618-907). During this era, the art of tea was developing along with the arts of painting, calligraphy and poetry. Strong economic growth a rich social life and the abundance of cultural exchanges combined to create the conditions necessary for the spread of a culture centered on tea. More and more plantations appeared, the art of tea growing progressed and more specialized techniques for the processing of tea were developed.

It is also during this dynasty that tea was democratized. Whereas courtiers, nobles, intellectual? and monks had always been accustomed to receiving their visitors over a serene cup of tea, this privilege now became a popular pastime. The custom quickly spread through every level of society. Tea became the beverage of choice for poets, artists and philosophers, as it was cheaper and more stimulating than alcohol. In addition, tea became an essential element of nomadic peoples' diets, which was very poor in vitamins. This growing popularity triggered, among other things, the founding of the first teahouses. Poetry, ceramics and painting also contributed to the burgeoning of tea culture as a true art.

During the Tang dynasty, tea was not prepared in the same way it is today. At that time, tea was compressed into bricks that were then, softened so they could be crumbled with a mortar and pestle. The resulting powder was mixed with salt water and sometimes with ginger, onion, orange zest and rice before being boiled. The broth was drunk from small wooden bowls and was more like a soup than an infusion. For Lu Yu, who was largely responsible for spreading the idea that tea should be consumed without the addition of any other ingredients, "These drinks were no better than the rinsing water of gutters." Tea was also shaped into bricks to make it easier to transport because, from the south of China to the north of Tibet, tea traveled more than 900 miles (1,500 km). It would have been extremely bulky to carry several pounds, of loose-leaf tea on the back of a donkey.

During this time, the popularity of tea was expanding beyond China. Entranced with the taste and the benefits of tea, neighboring countries, such as Korea and Mongolia, and many nomadic tribes became major consumers. Recognizing that trading in tea bricks could increase court revenues, tea became a valuable exchange currency. Under the Tang dynasty, the Ministry of Horses and Tea was set up so that the Chinese could exchange their tea bricks for Mongolian horses, a trade that allowed them, among other things, to create their cavalry regiment.

During the Song dynasty (960 - 1279), important changes occurred in the way tea was manufactured and consumed: it 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 whip until "jade foam" appeared. The Japanese, who were introduced to tea during this period by Buddhist monks, still use this process during the chanoyu, the tea ceremony.

Among the general population, using and drinking tea was becoming an easier process. It grew in popularity as its processing time was reduced and its preparation was simplified. The custom of "precious" harvests began, when only the bud and the first leaf of the first spring harvest were picked. These were called imperial harvests, and the crop was reserved for the emperors. More luxurious accessories also appeared. Finished with a dark glaze that enhanced the jade green hue of the tea, wide and flat ceramic bowls gradually replaced wooden bowls.

Unfortunately, the end of the 13th century was marked in China by the invasion of Mongol hordes, which slowed down the diffusion of tea. It was not until the cultural renaissance of the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), almost a century later, that tea culture was reborn. It was at this time that tea began to be prepared as we do it today, by pouring simmering water over dried leaves, marking the beginning of the age of brewed tea. Most of the instruments that serve to brew tea today (kettles, teapots, gaiwans, cups without handles, etc.) were invented during this period.

The Qing dynasty (1644 - 1914) was another important period in the history of tea in China. Indeed, several prestigious teas were named during the Qing dynasty. The famous Bi Luo Chun and Long Jing were named by the Emperor Qianlong. During this time the Chinese also lost their monopoly over the tea trade. High demand in Europe encouraged the cultivation of tea in other parts of Eastern Asia and in India, Africa and Sri Lanka. Having discovered the secrets of tea, the British no longer needed to rely on China to satisfy their thirst for it.

Throughout the 20th century - with the demise of the imperial era, the Japanese invasion of China and the civil war followed by the communist revolution of 1949 - China underwent fundamental changes in its society and customs. The Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976) in particular, with its slogans like "we must forget the past and march toward the future,," was especially detrimental to tea culture. Most teahouses closed. Tea growers, most of them the bearers of a long family tradition, were set to other tasks, often in distant provinces. During this century, the use of intensive production and industrial processing techniques for tea were greatly expanded. Tea bags and iced tea in cans also appeared on the Chinese market.

With the softening of the regime since the late 1980s, we have seen a renewed vigor in the tea industry in China. Several prestigious teahouses have reappeared. Universities and agricultural schools are specializing in the study of tea. In order to develop the culture of tea on a more scientific basis, the Institute for Research into the Culture of Tea in China was founded in 1993 in Hangzhou. Museums devoted to tea and teapots are also being opened. Cultural associations, festivals and various activities are organized in order to emphasize the importance of the cultivation of tea in Chinese culture and to further stimulate the industry.

Today, with the emergence of a newly affluent level of society in China, lifestyles arc changing and the demands of the nouveau riche in regard to tea are encouraging the growth of an increasingly refined market.


Abandoned on the banks of a river, Lu Yu was adopted by a Zen monk from the Dragon Cloud monastery. Despite the influence of the environment in which he was raised, Lu Yu remained indifferent to Zen teachings and quickly discovered other interests. According to the story, he took advantage of a traveling theater troupe to flee the monastery and join the actors as they traveled throughout China. Lu Yu became famous for his talents as a teataster, his mastery of the method to prepare tea and for having written Cha Jing, the first book devoted to tea. The book was published around 780 and different versions, translated into several languages, are still available today. This was a unique moment in the history of tea.