Surely most of us know that tea originated in China. Throughout centuries, the mighty tea leaf spread across continents and established itself as the most popular beverage in the world. The world's tea history is indeed vibrant. Such that we cannot simply cover in one article. However, here we will address the most important dates of Asian tea, specifically in the history of tea in China, Japan, and Taiwan.
Asian Tea as Medicine
The true origin of the Camellia Sinensis tea plant is in the areas of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China, and the northern part of Burma. In the tea drinkers community, we accept Yunnan as the birthplace of tea. There stands the world's oldest cultivated tea tree that is around 3200 years old.
According to pre-historic records, tea leaves have been used in China in a myriad of ways, from ceremonies to food. However, it took centuries for tea actually to become a beverage.
The Discovery of Tea
2737 BC: The wise Chinese medicine man and second Emperor of China Shennong discovers tea. According to popular legend, a tea leaf falls into Shennong's cup of hot water.
In Chinese, Shennong translates as "Divine Farmer" or "God of Agriculture". Indeed, we know Shennong to be a herbalist who introduced various medicinal herbs and their benefits to the people of China.
In yet another widespread legend, it is said that Shennong discovered tea while testing out the plant's medicinal benefits.
The journey of tea as we know it perhaps only sprouts here. It will be many centuries until roots take ground and blossoms form.
551-479 BC: Chinese documents speak of Confucius as being a tea drinker.
221 BC-220 AD: People began making tea into a kind of soup, often made with millet. It was a popular breakfast food that gave people energy for the challenging day ahead.
350 AD: The Chinese dictionary mentions tea as "erh ya". Throughout time, tea gains many names in the Chinese language before finally becoming "cha."
400 AD: The Chinese dictionary lists tea as "kuang ya". Furthermore, now the dictionary lists the necessary steps required to prepare tea.
593 AD: Buddhist monks first bring tea seeds into Japan. However, it will be many years before people begin cultivating tea in Japan and the Japanese tea culture forms.
Asian Tea as a Beverage — Powdered Tea
At these points in time, people drank tea in powdered form and commonly still for medicinal purposes. Farmers would press the tea leaves into cakes (similar to pu-erh). Then, people would grind these tea cakes into a fine powder similar to matcha. Furthermore, they would often mix the powder with other herbs and spices before whisking it with water or boiling it.
While these traditions of making tea are practically extinct in China (aside from a few small communities that still practice it), in Japan, matcha tea culture lives on strongly.
Tea Horse Road
500s AD: Around this time, the famous Tea Horse Road was born. These were caravan paths winding through the mountains of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. While merchants traded various products along the Tea Horse Road, one of the main ones was tea. Particularly brick tea like hei cha and pu-erh, a type of Chinese fermented tea. Tibetan monks especially enjoyed this tea as it helped keep them awake and alert for extended meditation hours.
618-907 AD: During the Tang Dynasty, tea begins to gain immense popularity. White tea production emerges. However, at the time, white tea was enjoyed in the form of pressed cakes similar to Shou Mei White Tea.
725 AD: Tea first appears in the Chinese dictionary as "cha" and has its own character — 茶.
Tang Dynasty Tea
Lu Yu and the Cha Jing
780: Lu Yu writes his famous tea book — Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea). The Cha Jing is known to be the first written account of tea culture in the world. In this book, Lu Yu describes in great detail everything that is related to tea. Including the necessary tools needed to make tea, how to make it correctly, the taste of tea, and the benefits of tea.
Nowadays, many Chinese tea farmers have Lu Yu and Shennong statues somewhere in their tea gardens or production facilities. You can also find their statues in towns of popular tea-growing regions.
Around this same time, the Chinese government imposes the first tea tax. Surely, tea is gaining immense popularity.
960-1280: During the Song Dynasty, a more elaborate tea culture takes form in China. Lavish and ornate teaware begins to appear. Tea drinkers start paying attention to the materials artisans use to create teaware. A profound tea aesthetic emerges.
Since the Song Dynasty, tea has been known as one of the Seven Necessities in Chinese daily life. It was mentioned in the following phrase: "Firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar, and tea are the seven necessities to begin a day".
Furthermore, during the Song Dynasty, the first forms of oolong tea begin to emerge. However, this tea doesn't become popular until the Qing Dynasty (1636 - 1912).
1101-1125: The Chinese Emperor at the time, Hui Tsung, further spreads tea culture. He is obsessed with tea and holds tea tournaments in the royal court. Hui Tsung even writes about the proper ways of whisking tea. Tea houses and tea gardens begin popping up across the country.
1191: Eisai introduces Zen Buddhism to Japan and plants tea gardens around Kyoto temples.
1211: Eisai writes the first Japanese tea book — Kitcha-Yojoki (Book of Tea Sanitation).
Loose Leaf Tea
1368-1644: During the Ming Dynasty, the practice of steeping whole tea leaves emerged versus making powdered tea forms. Farmers also began roasting, oxidizing, and steaming the tea leaves – processing methods widespread to this day.
Farmers begin to experiment with tea processing techniques to create tribute teas suitable for the Emperor's taste.
Green tea production also emerges during the Ming Dynasty. Although green tea (unoxidized tea) has existed for centuries, it was always quite bitter, which is why people would mix it with herbs and spices. The discovery of steaming tea leaves showed farmers that green tea could indeed be a delightful, aromatic, and sweet beverage on its own.
During the same time, black tea (hong cha) production emerges in Fujian province. The first black tea in existence is Lapsang Souchong black tea. However, farmers produce black tea almost exclusively for export as it travels well. On the other hand, they reserve the more favored green teas for local consumption. It isn't until quite recently that Chinese black tea becomes incredibly popular both in China and abroad.
1185 -1333: People begin drinking matcha tea in Japan.
Many believe that artisans created the first teapots specifically for Wuyi Oolongs.
1422-1502: The Japanese tea ceremony, Cha No Yu, takes form. Tea has become an art form in Japan. The Japanese tea aesthetic celebrates the mundane aspects of life.
1484: Japan's Shogun at the time, Yoshimasa, encourages the Japanese tea ceremony.
1500s: Sen no Rikyu opens his first Japanese tea house. The Japanese tea ceremony begins to form further and becomes more similar to what we are familiar with today. Before Sen no Rikyu, the Japanese tea ceremony was incredibly lavish. People would idealize expensive teaware from China. However, he wanted to simplify it. Sen no Rikyu began collaborating with local Japanese potters and artisans to create chawan and tools for the tea ceremony. He then urged even the highest-ranking officials to humble themselves and leave their swords outside before entering his tea huts.
Sen No Rikyu popularized wabi-sabi culture throughout Japan, preferring rustic and simple objects over lavish ones. His style of tea ceremony came to be known as wabi-cha.
1700s: Loose leaf green tea takes form in Japan, with the first one being sencha. Sencha became a tea that commoners could enjoy, as matcha was only available to Buddhist monks and the elite.
Around the same time, Japanese potters created kyusu teapots, as loose leaf tea was gaining popularity.
During the same century, Chinese tea farmers brought tea plants to Taiwan and taught local farmers how to produce oolong tea. The terrain being ideal for oolong tea production, this tea quickly becomes widespread across the island.
Asian Tea History, Conclusion
Indeed, as we know them today, gong fu cha and chanoyu result from thousands of years of development and evolution. Thanks to the incredibly rich Asian tea history, we can now enjoy robust roasted oolong, refreshing green tea, complex pu-erh, elegant white tea, mellow black tea, and frothy matcha.
Next time we engage in our tea ritual, we can remember the intricate steps the Asian tea leaf went through, across time, to end up in our cup. We can reminisce on the hours of labor and experimentation of the tea farmers and craftsmen, thanks to who we have this energizing tea before us. Finally, we sip the tea with gratitude as we enjoy our humble yet powerful tea meditation.