HistoryTea L. Golender, Meditation, 2003

History of Tea : China

* Map of China


Tea is nearly 5,000 years old and was discovered, as legend has it, in 2737 b.c. According to legend, * the Shen Nong (or Shen Nung) , an early emperor was a skilled ruler, creative scientist and patron of the arts. He was called “The Divine Healer.” Numerous other medicinal plants were attributed to this legendary emperor. His far-sighted edicts required, among other things, that all drinking water be boiled as a hygienic precaution. One summer day while visiting a distant region of his realm, he and the court stopped to rest. In accordance with his ruling, the servants began to boil water for the court to drink. Dried leaves from the near by bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown liquid was infused into the water. As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it very refreshing. And so, according to legend, tea was created.

* Shen Nong

Although the famous ninth century Tea Master Lu Yu affirms that tea was discovered by Shen Nong, a king or emperor named Shen Nong probably never lived. In China's remote past, Shennong was the name of a primitive farming tribe. One clever unnamed Shennong chieftain is said to have invented plowing tools and grow crops, thus helping them evolve to an agricultural society from a fishing and hunting economy. In addition, he advocated setting up regular markets on a barter basis. He was believed to have tasted all the local herbs and become expert in the properties of herbal medicines. He taught people how to cure their diseases and collected his prescriptions in a book called Ben Cao Jing (the Materia Medica of Shen Nong). These achievements accorded him the status of a divinity, the name 'king or emperor' Shen Nong, and the title, 'Father of Tea'.

Based on the medical book 'Pen Tsao', attributed to Shen Nung, there are references which credit tea with being 'good for tumors or abscesses that come about the head, or for ailments of the bladder. It dissipates heat caused by the phlegm, or inflammation of the chest. It quenches thirst. It lessens the desire for sleep. It gladdens and cheers the heart'.

Shen Nong is also credited for developing the theory of "opposing natural forces" which would later play an important part in Taoist philosophy.

Almost 3,000 years later, * Confucius was the first to really apply Shen Nong's theory of opposing forces. Confucius declared that it was man's responsibility to live a moral and just life, that by following a code of ethics and behavior, man could influence the opposing poles of good and evil that maintain the order of the universe. Gradually, the theory was expanded to describing everything in the universe as opposite poles - Yin and Yang - hot and cold, black and white, passive and aggressive and so on.

Lao Ziu translated Confucius' views of universal order into his own philosophy. Lao Ziu believed that man shouldn't interfere with fate, that the universe should be allowed to follow its destined the path (Tao). Lao Ziu's theories became hugely popular, gaining many followers, and gathering momentum until the religion called now known as Taoism was born. Despite Lao Ziu's basic theory of noninterference and allowing the natural order of events to take place, Taoists composed guidelines or a path (Tao), which when followed, eventually led to the "Great Tao" or the Absolute External.

Taoism became more than a religion, it became a blueprint of life. Taoists believed that man was a universe unto himself. Not only did a disciple of Taoism learn a moral code to follow to reach universal harmony but he also learned what foods to eat and what herbs to take to reach an internal harmony. Following the principles of Yin and Yang, hot and cold, Taoists began categorizing foods by their properties. They recommended "cold" foods such as fruit, vegetables, crab and fish to reduce heat in the body and "hot" foods such as fatty meats, eggs, spicy and fried foods to increase heat and vitality in the body. They soaked medicinal plants and herbs in alcohol, creating Yin and Yang, hot and cold, balancing tonics. These early tonics are the roots from which evolved the pills, creams and potions that comprise the pharmacopoeia of traditional Chinese herbal medicine today.

* Sui Dynasty

During the Sui Dynasty (581-617), tea started to be drunk more for its taste than for its medicinal benefits. It was also during this period that China began to use tea as a currency, bartering tea bricks with her Mongolian neighbors for items such as herbal medicines, horses, wool and musk. In the far reaches, tea pressed into cakes served as a medium of exchange almost from the beginning of the tea trade. Tea cakes continued in this role even after paper money was introduced in the eleventh century.

* Tang Dynasty

During Tang Dynasty(618-907 A.D.), tea drinking evolved into a form of art. Tea consumption spread throughout the Chinese culture reaching into every aspect of the society. In central Asia, tea was brought from China during the Tang dynasty (7th century); it was given to the nomads of Tibet and Mongolia. Tea was a great source of vitamin C, and these nomads were unable to find green vegetables in the plains of central Asia. As a matter of fact, the Chinese government during the Ming and Ching dynasties was able to manipulate these threatening people by trading tea with them.

In 800 A.D. Lu Yu * wrote the first definitive book on tea, the Ch'a Ching (The Holy Scripture of Tea). Drawing from his vast memory of observed events and places, he codified the various methods of tea cultivation and preparation in ancient China. The pantheistic symbolism of the time was urging one to mirror the Universal in the Particular. Lu Yu, a poet, saw the same harmony and order which reigned through all things in the Tea-service.

Ch'a Ching

By the time Lu Yu wrote the Ch'a Ching, The Classic of Tea, in the eighth century, tea was already a fairly common drink in China. But Lu Yu's work was the single most influential aspect in developing the cultural significance of tea. Ch'a Ching was probably commissioned by a group of tea merchants, wanting to popularise the drink that was the basis of their livelihood.

The Ch'a Ching itself elevates the preparation and drinking of tea to near-religious status. Like a religious ceremony, there is a set ritual, using particular implements which are endowed with individual significance, and there are guidelines on the appropriate state of mind for the tea drinker, and the atmosphere in which tea should be drunk. This similarity to religious ritual is no coincidence; the Taoist faith was central to culture in eighth century China, and with it the belief that every detail of life was an act of living that was worthy of celebration, and that one should attempt to find beauty everywhere in the world. Thus the emphasis on tranquility and harmony in the preparation and drinking of tea was recognition of its part in the masterpiece of life.

An abridged version of the Ch'a Ching's description of the proper tea making process is as follows: After being plucked on a sunny day, the tea leaves must be baked over an even fire, with no wind. After baking they should be placed in a paper bag to cool. When completely cold the leaves can be ground. Then spring water should be heated to just under the boiling point and a pinch of salt added. Then bring it to a second boil, and stir only the middle portion of the liquid. Steep the ground tea leaves in this water in each cup individually and drink before it cools. The first and second cups taste the best, and more than four or five cups should not be consumed. During this time tea was baked in a cake form, and to prepare a cup of tea, a bit was shaved from the edge into boiling water to which salt had been added. Several different preparations were used to make tea, including the addition of onion, ginger, orange, or peppermint. Milk and sugar were never added to tea, although both were available and used in other foods. Different preparations of teas held different medicinal purposes, although by this time tea was primarily thought of as a beverage in spite of its believed healing properties. The tea was typically drunk from bowls or cups that had been glazed blue on the inside, which was thought to bring out the greenness of the tea. By 850 people were also beginning to prepare tea in the form of detached leaves, not compressed into bricks (* Pu-er or Tuocha teas).

Lu Yu's work clearly showed the Zen Buddhist philosophy to which he was exposed as a child. Lu Yu was apparently brought up and educated in a temple or monastery where tea was grown and manufactured. Chinese sources give differing accounts of his life but most agree that he was abandoned as an infant and that a Ch'an(Zen) priest named Zhiji found him near the banks of a lake and raised him at a temple. Even at his chores, the child proved precocious. He passed the time as a cowherd practicing his writing on the backs of the cows with a bamboo stick. His boyhood must have included many hours working in tea fields and manufactories also, for he filled the Ch'a Ching with precise observations and practical directions for cultivating, plucking, and processing tea leaf.

As an adolescent, Lu Yu seems to have rebelled against the pieties and practices of his received religion. He fled the monastery and made his living first as a circus comic and clown, then as a government official of some sort before turning to a life of scholarship and tea. By the time Lu Yu completed the first book on tea, five years in the writing, he had barely entered middle age.

The Ch'a Ching was no mere disquisition on tea-producing regions, tea's efficacy as a medicine, the ways to discriminate between tea varieties, or their processing and preparation. Although he covered such matters masterfully, Lu Yu also managed to convey something of the contemplative life he experienced because of partaking of tea and the transformed world to which that life opened his eyes. He likens tea to the elixir of the immortals in flavor. "The effect of tea is cooling and as a beverage it is most suitable. It is especially fitting for persons of self-restraint and inner worth," he wrote. From start to finish, his wonderfully poetic classical Chinese constantly implies that there was a spiritual dimension to making tea – not that he made any such claim directly.

Lu Yu's work made him not only a celebrity but also a god in the eyes of the tea-drinking public. People in the tea business made offerings to porcelain statues of Lu Yu, praying that the tea crop be large and profitable. When business was bad, the same people would scald the unoffending image with a kettleful of boiling water. The author was befriended by the emperor Taisong (ruled 763—779) and was revered by the intelligentsia, as numerous poems and stories about him demonstrate.

* Song(Sung) Dynasty

During Song Dynasty (690-1279 A.D., ). every aspect of tea was further refined. Tea was originally made in bowls, but pots were introduced during this period. Harvests became carefully regulated affairs. Before the harvest began, sacrifices were made to mountain deities. After a specific day was chosen to harvest the leaves at their peak, the tea pickers picked leaves to the rhythm of a drum or cymbal. The tea pickers were usually young girls who had to keep their fingernails a certain length in order to pick the leaves without touching their skin. The freshly harvested leaves were sorted by grades with the best grades sent to the emperor as tribute. A cake of high grade tea could be worth several pieces of gold while one of the highest grade would be priceless. In the Song dynasty the whipped tea came into fashion and created the second school of Tea. The leaves were ground to fine powder in a small stone mill, and the preparation was whipped in hot water by a delicate whisk made of split bamboo. The new process led to some change in the tea-equippage of Lu Yu, as well as in the choice of leaves. Salt was discarded forever. The enthusiasm of the Song people for tea knew no bounds. Epicures vied with each other in discovering new varieties, and regular tournaments were held to decide their superiority.

Tea Houses

* Elizabeth Keith Scottish , 1887 - 1956, Tea House Native City, Shanghai, 19th - 20th century,Color woodcut

The tea began to be not a poetical pastime, but one of the methods of self-realisation. Tea rooms and houses were built in order to enjoy tea at a social and spiritual level. Tea houses sprung up in the towns and cities. Men would gather there to gossip, and to take part in tea contests, where they would engage in "blind taste tests" of different kinds and qualities of leaves and water. There were even competitions among tea connoisseurs who were judged on the way they conducted their ceremony and on the quality of the tea leaves, water, and brewed tea. They could also listen to music there, and admire works of art. For the aristocrats there were small private pavilions, some of them quite splendid. Within the moveable rice paper walls spaces were tastefully furnished and perfumed with rare incense and flowers, enlivened by music, story tellers, or games, all conspiring to provide a poetic mood suitable for the tasting of tea. One could also have tea served in the public baths, hotels, stores, etc., and vendors walked the streets offering infusions to those who desired them. The art of making ceramic tea equipment was developed a great deal during this period. Tea bowls became deeper and wider to aid in the whipping. Since the prepared tea had a very light green hue, black and deep blue glazes were used on the bowls to enhance the tea color. The most famous style of these bowls was a black bowl with lines running down the bowl called rabbits fur. royal philosophy dominated this period and tea preparation became less complicated and more peaceful. The Japanese art of tea has its roots from this era.

During the 8th century, trade spread the tea habit to the Mongols, Tartars, and Tibetan nomads. These peoples had existed entirely on meat and milk products, so tea quickly became an essential part of their diet, helping them fight diseases occasioned by the lack of fruits and vegetables. Horses and furs were traded to the Chinese in exchange for tea leaves. The journey by caravan was long and hard, lasting months, so the tea was dried, crushed, and formed into bricks before being placed on the backs of yaks for transport. Tea was prepared by grating some powder off the brick and putting it to boil with salt and yak butter, then churning it forcefully in order to produce a most invigorating drink, into which one dunked nuggets made from toasted barley.

* The sudden outburst of the Mongol tribes in the thirteenth century resulted in the devastation, destroyed all the fruits of the Song culture. Manners and customs changed to leave no vestige of the former times. The conquerors established new dynasty - * Yuan(* See the map). The powdered tea is entirely forgotten.

Only green or semifermented tea was consumed. The black tea produced in China was entirely for export. Some say that the Western taste for black tea is the result of an error. The story goes that Europeans received a cargo of tea that had fermented because of the long boat crossing. The recipients believed that they were emulating the Chinese, and developed a taste for this kind of tea.

Gong Fu steeping method

* Gong Fu(chinese - skillful) has been passed down to the present day from * the days of Ming Dynasty Emperor Shen Tsung in 16th century China, so it boasts a 400-year history. The full aroma and sweetness of the tea can be brought out when using a small teapot to steep tea. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) dynasties, the purple clay ceramic teapots of Yihsing, Kiangsu were the most famous.


China has the greatest tradition of pottery-making in the world. The use of the word 'china' for any porcelain or porcelain-like products shows how closely the country is identified with ceramics. Pottery has been made in China from as early as the 3rd millennium bc, but it is only from * the Han dynasty (206 bc - 220 ad) that a continuous tradition begins, low-fired, lead-glazed earthenware being made in large quantities for use in tombs. High-fired wares were also made, developing into the Yue wares of the Six Dynasties (251-589) and Tang (618-907) periods. These were stoneware, fired to a temperature of about 1,200°C and covered in a green celadon-type. The most important feature of Tang ceramics was the perfection of the fine pottery known in the West as porcelain in the 7th or 8th century. The Song dynasty (960-1279) was the golden age of Chinese ceramics, with famous * kilns in both northern and southern China. Jingdezhen, in south-eastern China, became the most important ceramic centre from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) onwards. Underglaze cobalt painting started to be used at this time on the porcelain for which this area became famous. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), this 'blue and white' ware reached an unsurpassed level, particularly in the 15th century. Overglaze enamel colours were introduced in the 16th century, first in combination with underglaze blue (doucai or 'contending colours') and later on their own. During * the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) 'famille verte' enamels became popular in the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) and 'famille rose' in the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-35). The pink used in 'famille rose' enamels was derived from colloidal or opaque gold and was probably introduced from the West by Jesuit monks at court. The ceramic complex at Jingdezhen was managed by able directors during the 18th century and enjoyed court patronage, notably that of the Emperor Qianlong (1736-95). Another important kiln site was in Dehua, Fujian province. This produced the fine white porcelain, left unpainted with a milky glaze, that came to be known as 'blanc de Chine' in the West and was very popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Imperial wares of the 19th and early 20th century have recently begun to enjoy increased favour.

Yixing Teapots

Yixing(pronounced yeeshing) teapots are thought as superior to all other types for brewing tea. The pots are made from the signature clay of Yixing, an area situated 120 miles northwest of * Shanghai in * Jiangsu(Kiangsu, Chiang-su) province. With continued usage the porous and unglazed teawares will absorb the aroma and flavors of your tea. It is said that if you use a Yixing teapot for many years, you can brew tea by just pouring boiling water into the empty pot. The exceptionally strong purple clay pottery will also increases in luster and color with repeated use. They have the ability to withstand high temperatures and are slow to conduct heat; therefore, t he handle remains comfortably cool even when pouring very hot tea. Yixing clay occurs naturally in three characteristic colors: light buff, cinnabar red and purplish brown. Other colors are created by mixing these three or adding mineral pigments; for example, the dusty black color is obtained by mixing in cobalt oxide and the blue color is made by mixing in magnesium oxide. A principal factor in determining the depth of the color is the concentration of iron in the clay. All the characteristic Yixing colors are called zisha, but the most celebrated of all Yixing wares is its zishayao, or purple sandware, in which a relatively high concentration of iron produces a deep purplish brown color, sometimes called "pear-skin." Western tastes tend to run to a wider range of colors other than the prized zishayao.


Ceramic made from china clay (kaolin) and feldspar (china-stone), closely related to pottery but fired at a much higher temperature to produce a fine, hard, translucent, white material. Porcelain was first made during * the Tang dynasty (618-907 ad) in China, where a combination of easily accessible raw materials and superior kiln design resulted in the ceramic industry being many centuries in advance of the West.

* Chinese Tea Manufacture Photos from 19th Century
* Chinese Tea Ceremony
* Taiwan site on Chinese culture
* Hua Ming Tea Company : Chinese tea history
* Gray and Seddon : Chinese tea classification
* History of China
* Barnes and Nobles : History of Commerce in Asia
Chinese Tea Ring
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Last updated : 23-Feb-09