Tea 101: Origination

Part 2 - Chinese Genealogy of Tea

 

“A simple cup of tea is far from a simple matter.” 
― Mary Lou HeissThe Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide

 

The Camellia Sinensis Tea plant is indigenous of East Asia, evidence suggests that tea drinking likely originated in the boarderlands of north Burma (Myanmar) and southwest China. The earliest written records of tea come from China. 

 

China

Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BC)

Tea drinking may have begun in the Yunnan region during the Shang Dynasty in China, when it was used for medicinal purposes. It is also believed that in Sichuan, "people began to boil tea leaves for consumption into a concentrated liquid without the addition of other leaves or herbs, thereby using tea as a bitter yet stimulating drink, rather than as a medicinal concoction."
 

Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC)

The earliest reference to tea was the word tu 荼 which appeared in Shijing and other ancient texts to signify a kind of "bitter vegetable" (苦菜), and it is possible that it referred to a number of different plants, such as sowthistle, chicory, or smartweed, including tea.
In the Chronicles of Huayang, it was recorded that the Ba people in Sichuan presented tu to the Zhou king.

Laozi, the classical Chinese philosopher, was said to describe tea as "the froth of the liquid jade" and named it an indispensable ingredient to the elixir of life. Legend has it that master Lao was saddened by society's moral decay and, sensing that the end of the dynasty was near, he journeyed westward to the unsettled territories, never to be seen again. While passing along the nation's border, he encountered and was offered tea by a customs inspector named Yin Hsi. Yin Hsi encouraged him to compile his teachings into a single book so that future generations might benefit from his wisdom. This then became known as the Dao De Jing, a collection of Laozi's sayings.


Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC)

The state of Ba and its neighbour Shu were later conquered by the Qin, and according to the 17th century scholar Gu Yanwu who wrote in Ri Zhi Lu (日知錄): "It was after the Qin had taken Shu that they learned how to drink tea." Another possible early reference to tea is found in a letter written by the Qin Dynasty general Liu Kun who requested that some "real tea" to be sent to him.

During this Dynasty, in ancient China, various emperors sought the fabled elixir with varying results. Qin Shi Huangsent Taoist alchemist Xu Fu with 500 young men and 500 young women to the eastern seas to find the elixir, but he never came back (legend has it that he found Japan instead). When Shi Huang Di visited, he brought 3000 young girls and boys, but none of them ever returned.


Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD)

The earliest known physical evidence of tea was discovered in 2016 in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi'an, indicating that tea from the genus Camellia was drunk by Han Dynasty emperors as early as the 2nd century BC. 
The Han dynasty work "The Contract for a Youth", written by Wang Bao in 59 BC, contains the first known reference to boiling tea. Among the tasks listed to be undertaken by the youth, the contract states that "he shall boil tea and fill the utensils" and "he shall buy tea at Wuyang".


The first record of tea cultivation is also dated to this period (the reign of Emperor Xuan of Han), during which tea was cultivated on Meng Mountain (蒙山) near Chengdu.
Another early credible record of tea drinking dates to the third century AD, in a medical text by Hua Tuo, who stated, "to drink bitter t'u constantly makes one think better.
However, before the mid-8th century Tang dynasty, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese practice.


Sui Dynasty (589 - 618 AD)

During the Sui Dynasty tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks.


Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD)

Before the mid-8th century Tang dynasty, tea-drinking was primarily a southern Chinese practice. It became widely popular during the Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 

Tea became a more popular pastime – became a source of artistic inspiration – painters, potters and poets created a sophisticated universe around tea filled with symbolism.
The Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu's Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea) is an early work on the subject. According to Cha Jing 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. Teas produced in this period were mainly tea bricks which were often used as currency, especially further from the centre of the empire where coins lost their value. In this period, tea leaves were steamed, then pounded and shaped into cake or brick forms.


Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD)

During the Song Dynasty, production and preparation of all tea changed. The tea of Song included many loose-leaf styles (to preserve the delicate character favoured by court society), and it is the origin of today's loose teas and the practice of brewed tea. A new powdered form of tea also emerged. 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.
 

Yuan & Ming Dynasties (1271 - 1644 AD)

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. By the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stops the oxidation process which turns the leaves dark and allows tea to remain green. In the 15th century, Oolong tea, where the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying, was developed. Western taste, however, preferred the fully oxidized black tea, and the leaves were allowed to ferment further. Yellow tea was an accidental discovery in the production of green tea during the Ming dynasty, when apparently sloppy practices allowed the leaves to turn yellow, but yielded a different flavour as a result.

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.

Vanessa ChislettComment