In today's post we will discus the origins of tea in China and ancient Chinese tea drinking methods. From
2737 BCE and all the way up to modern times, let's take a look at how tea culture transformed.
The Origins of Tea in China
Tea originated in Southwestern China. China was the first country to use tea leaves and is indeed the birthplace of tea. There, tea bushes were cultivated over 2,000 years ago.
According to the widespread legend, tea was discovered by the Chinese Emperor and herbalist Shennong in 2737 BCE. The Emperor liked his water boiled before drinking so it would be clean. One day, the Emperor was on a trip to a faraway region. A servant began boiling water for him, and a tea leaf happened to fall into the water. Emperor Shennong drank the water either way and found its taste exceptionally pleasant and refreshing. Thus tea came into being.
Early in the Shennong period, tea and its medicinal value were found by the ancient Chinese. It gradually evolved into a daily beverage.
The very first origins of tea were most likely of it being used as a medicine. Many centuries ago, tea culture was far from being developed, and food supplies were short. People found that tea leaves had specific properties — they were fibrous and nutritious and could even be eaten.
Eventually, people started noticing that tea could help cure many ailments. It allowed people to stay awake for long working hours in the fields and subdue headaches and fever, amongst other complaints. Read more.
It is improbable that the tea leaves were being steeped at this time. They were most likely being used in cooking or making soups out of the entire tea leaves while adding other ingredients.
From its very origins, tea was used exclusively for sacrifice and ceremonies.
From pre-Qin (before 221 BC) to Han dynasties (206 BC – 220 AD), tea was not yet being steeped. During this time, people would make thick tea soups. This period does mark the switch of tea from being purely a medicinal commodity to something that could be enjoyed as a beverage.
To make the tea soup, tea was boiled for long hours with millet until it became a porridge consistency. Tea soup was a popular breakfast beverage used to gain energy for the hard day ahead. This way of utilizing tea leaves was very popular all the way up until the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD).
Today, thick tea soup using millet is still made in remote villages throughout China.
Powdered Tea Leaves
The first mention of powdered tea leaves appeared during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 -280 AD). In the ancient Chinese dictionary Guang Ya, written by Zhang Yi, it was written: "People in regions of Sichuan and Hubei have the habit of picking tea leaves to make tea cake using rice milk. When drinking, these tea cakes will be roasted to a reddish hue then pounded into small pieces and then mixed with the addition of scallion, ginger and tangerine".
The addition of the strong spices and aromatics was perhaps also for medicinal purposes. This tradition is still widely used today in Traditional Chinese Medicine practices.
Powdered tea hadn't gained popularity till the Tang Dynasty. Further on, powdered tea really reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). At its core, it served as the basis for matcha tea in Japan.
A Statue of Lu Yu
During the Tang Dynasty, the sage of tea — Lu Yu, wished to make tea a true art form. In his book Cha Jing, he promoted the idea that tea should be consumed mindfully, fully focusing on the tea leaves' taste. Thus, adding strong spices was not recommended and slowly lost popularity as the tea ceremony started to form. Read more.
Purely brewed tea leaves were called Qing Ming, meaning clear tea. It was described how the greatest pleasure is sipping the tea, noticing its subtle flavor and aroma, then chewing on the leftover tea leaf bits afterwards.
From the Tang period onward, tea became known as one of the seven essentials of daily life.
Infused Tea Leaves
This is the modern way of drinking tea. Originating during the Tang Dynasty, it gained popularity during the Ming (1368－1644 AD) and Qing Dynasties (1636 – 1912 AD). This is the first time that tea leaves were actually being oxidized, steamed, and roasted. (Prior, tea leaves were consumed fresh).
These new methods of processing tea gave a wide variety of different aromas, flavors, and even colors of the tea leaves and liquid. People started to gain interest in the ever so varying tastes of tea and gradually abandoned ancient drinking methods.
With the advancement of tea processing techniques, new national standards came into place. Tea culture slowly but surely started booming. Tea farmers tried to make the best tea suitable for the Emperor's taste.
Today, you may still find ancient tea in cafes throughout different regions if you travel to China. For example, thick tea soup and powdered tea mixed with various herbs and grains, in some places referred to as Lei Cha.
Of course, in the West, it is more difficult (if not impossible) to find these ancient tea brewing techniques, and most stick to tea leaf infusion.
Lei Cha Preparation
To learn more about tea history click here.