Ancient Chinese Tea History and Fascinating Facts

Chinese Tea Ceremony

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In The Art of Tea Drinking, Olivia Yang opens with the words: "The Chinese people are without a doubt the ones who best understand the nature of tea." It's hard to exaggerate the importance of tea in Chinese culture. At various points throughout history, China's national drink has been designated as the state currency and used as cash.

The Origins of Tea

While references to tea in Chinese literature go back approximately 5,000 years, the origin of tea's use as a beverage is unclear. Ancient folklore placed the creation of the brew at 2737 BC when a camellia blossom drifted into a cup of boiled drinking water belonging to Emperor Shen Nung. However, most scholars credit a reference found in Erh Ya, an ancient Chinese dictionary, dated about 350 BC.

Originally, tea was valued for its medicinal qualities. It has long been known that tea aids in digestion, which is why many Chinese prefer to consume it after their meal. (Another interesting side effect for smokers is that tea hastens the discharge of nicotine from the body.) The elevation of tea drinking to an art form began in the 8th century, with the publication of Lu Yu's "The Classic Art of Tea." The highly esteemed poet and former Buddhist priest had strict notions about the proper procedure for brewing, steeping, and serving tea. For example, only water from a slow-moving stream was acceptable, and the tea leaves had to be placed in a porcelain cup. The perfect milieu for enjoying the finished product was in a pavilion next to a water lily pond, preferably in the company of a desirable woman. (To be fair, his work also contained several practical tips for manufacturing tea, many of which are still in use today).

In the centuries following the publication of Yu's work, tea's popularity spread rapidly throughout China. Not only did tea drinking become a fitting subject for books and poems; Emperors bestowed gifts of tea upon grateful recipients. Later, teahouses began dotting the landscape. While the Chinese have never developed a ritualistic ceremony surrounding tea drinking resembling the Japanese tea ceremony, they have a healthy respect for its role in their daily lives.

Types of Tea

Tea aficionados are often surprised to learn that all tea comes from the same source: the Camellia Sinensis bush. While there are hundreds are varieties of Chinese teas, most fall into four basic categories:

  • White tea: White tea is made from immature tea leaves that are picked shortly before the buds have fully opened. Its reputation is as the tea with the most health benefits.
  • Green tea: Green tea is not fermented during processing and thus retains the original color of the tea leaves. The most famous green tea is the expensive Dragon Well tea, grown on the hillsides of Hangzhou.
  • Black tea: Also known as "red tea," black teas are made from fermented leaves, which accounts for their darker color. Popular varieties of black tea include Bo lei, a Cantonese tea often drunk with dim sum, and luk on—a milder tea that is favored by the elderly.
  • Oolong tea: Finally, oolong teas are partially fermented, resulting in a black-green tea. Examples of oolong tea include Soi sin, a bitter-tasting brew cultivated in the Fukien province.

There is also a fifth category known as "scented teas," made by mixing various flowers and petals with green or oolong teas. The best known among these is jasmine tea. And white tea, made with unripened tea leaves that are still covered with a downy, silvery fuzz, is becoming quite popular.

While most of us have neither a pavilion nor a lily pond conveniently situated in our backyard, we can still indulge our penchant for this centuries-old beverage. With a little practice, it's easy to brew the perfect cup of tea. And budding fortune-tellers who eschew tea bags can hone their skills in the art of tasseomancy (reading tea leaves).