The History of tea in China

China was the first country to discover and cultivate the tea plant. Tea has been an important part of Chinese culture for millennia, and China is often referred to as the ‘home of tea’.

According to legend, tea was discovered by the legendary Chinese emperor and herbalist, Shennong – during a walk in the forest he stopped to boil some water when leaves from a nearby tea plant fell into the cauldron. Shennong subsequently used tea as a medicinal herb to treat a wide range of ailments.

The use of tea as a beverage dates back to the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE). Tea was already in widespread use by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), when it was sold commercially. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) tea was drunk by Chinese nobles and monks. Tea also became an important part of Buddhist culture – it was often drunk during chanting rituals.

The history of tea is documented in The Classic of Tea, China’s first authoritative work on tea cultivation and consumption. It was written by the Tang dynasty writer Lu Yu, an orphan who was adopted by a monk. During his childhood at the monastery Lu Yu learned about Buddhist teachings and tea culture. After almost 30 years of studying and visiting China’s most famous tea plantations, he documented his findings in The Classic of Tea, which he completed in 780 CE. The book covers the origins and types of tea and describes how tea is cultivated and brewed. It consists of ten chapters (Origin of tea, Tea tools, Manufacture, Tea Wares, Brewing, Drinking tea, Anecdotes, Tea-producing regions, Omissions, and Diagrams). It is often referred to as the ‘Tea Bible’ and has been translated into many languages.

The history of tea in China dates back thousands of years and is an integral part of Chinese culture. China has hundreds of varieties of tea – more than any other country in the world. Tea cultivation flourished during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when tea plantations could be found all across China. Varieties included Wuyi rock tea, Longjing tea from Hangzhou and Jianzhou tea. The famous Song dynasty poets Su Shi and Wang Anshi were both tea connoisseurs, as was the Emperor Huizong of Song, who wrote the Treatise on Tea and played a major role in promoting the production of tea, which quickly became an essential beverage for ordinary people. During the Ming dynasty people mainly drank loose tea and started to brew tea in teapots. The Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, China’s longest reigning emperor who lived to the age of 89, when once asked how the empire could do a day without its emperor, he replied, ‘how can the emperor do a single day without his tea’.

Teahouses quickly became a part of Chinese culture, and tea was often served at theatrical performances and other cultural events and festivals.

Throughout history, tea has been an essential part of Chinese culture. It has also been proven to have many beneficial health effects and is the second most widely consumed drink after water.

There are six types of Chinese tea:

White tea

Green tea

Yellow tea

Oolong tea

Black tea

Post-fermented tea

White tea – Shoumei and Bai Mudan

The history of white tea dates back over 1000 years to the Song dynasty. It originates from Fujian province and is known for its delicate flavour and natural aroma. Major cultivation regions include Fuding, Zhenghe and Jianyang. White tea undergoes very light fermentation during the withering process before being dried. It has numerous health benefits, including flushing out toxins from the body and relieving toothache.

Green tea – Longjing and jasmine

Green tea is a non-fermented tea that produces a clear green infusion. After harvesting, the leaves are heated, rolled and dried. Green tea has the longest history of all tea varieties – Song dynasty records indicate that the leaves were heated by steaming. It was first cultivated in China before being introduced to Japan. Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are the biggest producers. Green tea is rich in polyphenols, amino acids and vitamin C and has antioxidant properties. It has also been proven to combat cancerous cells, reduce blood glucose, blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and protect against bacteria and viruses.

Yellow tea – Junshan Yinzhen

Yellow tea is known for its delicate mellow flavour. It is produced in a similar way to green tea, but with an added step of being encased and steamed. This gives the leaves a slightly yellow colour. Yellow tea is mainly produced in Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei provinces. It helps to aid digestion, kill bacteria and reduce inflammation. Records of yellow tea date back over four hundred years to the Ming dynasty.

Oolong tea – Tie Guan Yin, Da Hong Pao and Baiyaqilan Oolong Tea

Oolong is a partially-fermented tea with a rich flavour and orchid-like aroma. The production process involves six steps – air drying, cooling, tossing, frying, rolling and drying.

It possesses the processing methodologies of both green and black tea. It has a refreshing aftertaste and helps to protect against ageing and tooth decay.

Black tea – Kungfu black tea and Jin Jun Mei

Black tea is a fully-fermented tea that originates from the mountains around Wuyishan in Fujian province. The leaves are withered, rolled and fermented before being dried, pan fired and baked. Chemical reactions that take place during the production process reduce the amount of polyphenols by 90%, but produce other compounds that are beneficial to health such as thearubigins and theaflavins. The fermentation process also creates a rich aroma. Black tea helps to aid digestion and has a number of other health benefits.

Post-fermented tea – Pu'er tea

Post-fermented tea has a rich, lasting aroma. The leaves are withered, rolled, shaped, re-rolled and dried before consumption. Major producers include Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi and Hunan provinces. Black tea helps to reduce blood cholesterol, prevent hardening of the arteries and promote weight loss.

Health benefits of tea

Tea helps to boost mental alertness and contains over 20 different substances that are beneficial to health. Tea helps to expel toxins, improve eyesight, promote dental health, relieve nasal congestion, aid digestion, and prevent constipation.

The art of tea

Tea leaves, water, tea ware, heat, people, atmosphere are the 6 key elements in the art of tea.

Choosing the right water for your tea

For best results, use mountain spring water from pristine, natural sources.

If spring water is not available, use mineral water. The minerals in the water produce a sweet, delicate infusion.

You can also use distilled water, which does not interfere with the tea’s flavour.

Avoid using tap water, as it contains chlorine that may affect the tea’s flavour.