For centuries tea has been an important part of Chinese culture. In ancient times, tea was called ‘tu’ and during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) the word took on the pronunciation we are familiar with today, ‘cha’. Research on the history of tea has been made more difficult as the ancient Chinese character also means a type of bitter vegetable.
The tea plant originates from China and was described by the Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu, as ‘a grand tree from the South, tall … with [a] circumference [of] up to two metres’.
As to how tea was discovered, a story has survived through the ages. Though scholars debate the tale, legend has it that the Chinese Emperor ShenNong discovered tea in 2737BC while travelling. One day the Emperor and his entourage stopped for a rest and ShenNong requested some boiling water to drink. While a servant was preparing the Emperor’s drink, a dry leaf from a tea bush fell into the water and turned it brown. Unaware of this, the servant presented the drink to the Emperor who found it revitalising and tea was born.
After its discovery some historians believe tea was then consumed by both Buddhist monks, as it kept them awake during meditation and Daoist monks who drank the tea for health and prosperity. Tea was also used as a form of medicine in the Han Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty (618AD-901AD) tea became a significant part of daily life and was introduced to Japan for the first time. The first book about tea - ‘Canon of Tea’/‘Cha Jing’ written by Lu Yu around 770AD - describes how tea is grown, picked, prepared and drunk.
In the Song Dynasty (969AD-1279AD) tea became an important harvest, as a result its production was refined and tea farms appeared all over China. The tea leaves were compressed into cake-like shapes; ground into powder and added to boiling water (previously, hot water was just added to the tea leaves). Sometimes dragons or phoenixes were imprinted onto the tea and the drink was given unusual names, such as Large Dragon and Jade Flower. Teahouses were built as places to socialise and appreciate the taste of this new drink.
Famous teas were produced during the Ming Dynasty (1368AD-1644AD) and tea such as Tiger Hill and Heaven Pool were said to be the best in the world. The drink was exported to Portugal and Russia; here the Chinese Embassy presented tea to the Tzar in 1579. Tea-drinking also reached Africa and England in the next century.
Today, beside India, China is still the largest producer of tea. Although soft drinks and coffee are also consumed, tea-drinking remains a vital part of daily life for many in China and this does not show any sign of changing.