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The history of Chinese tea is a story of passion and refinement. The modern methods of processing, brewing and drinking Chinese tea took centuries to develop. What started as a royal drink for emperors has become one of the most beloved Chinese cultural traditions.
The origin of tea in China is credited to the legendary Emperor Shennong, who is said to have lived in the most ancient era of Chinese history. Shennong was famous for his wise edicts, and one such edict required that people boil their water before they drink it. This led to the discovery of tea.
One summer day, while visiting a distant part of his realm, Shennong 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 a nearby bush fell into the boiling water, and a brown substance was infused into the water. As a scientist, the Emperor was interested in the new liquid, drank some, and found it quite refreshing. And so, according to Chinese legend, tea was created in 2737 BC.
Whether this story is true or not, China has a long and fascinating history with tea. Tea as a plant originates in the mountain wilderness of Southwestern China, in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Before they were ever cultivated as a cash crop, tea trees grew large and wild in this southern frontier. These trees were the beginnings of the first Chinese tea.
Tea started out as a very different beverage than it exists now. The Erya, an ancient Chinese dictionary, mentions tea drinking in the Zhou dynasty as far back as 1046 BC. The earliest tea was a simple whole leaf infusion dropped directly into a cup of water, much like the story of Emperor Shennong. More processed tea that extracted the true tea flavor from the leaf would come much later.
In the Han Dynasty, between 206 BC and 220 AD, the Chinese began to use tea as a medicinal drink to help keep a person awake longer. At this point, tea was highly expensive and usually only available for the Emperor and other high ranking nobles. Most tea from this time was still grown in Sichuan and Yunnan. Tea was brought up out of these mountainous regions to the capital for the emperor's consumption.
Tea culture began to change dramatically in the Tang dynasty, from 618 to 907 AD. Before this dynasty, tea was an imperial drink only for the rich, but in the Tang period tea became widely available to the Chinese people and became a central aspect of Chinese day-to-day life. In this period, it also changed from being a purely medicinal beverage to a social drink consumed among family and friends. Tea soon became one of the seven essentials of Chinese life.
The Tang dynasty also saw an evolution in tea processing. Before this time, raw tea leaves were steamed and then pressed into bricks known as tea cakes. These cakes were ground down in a stone mortar, and hot water was poured over the powdered tea, which would diffuse in the water, creating tea.
During the Tang dynasty, this process changed, creating the loose leaf tea we know today. In this process, instead of being steamed the tea leaves are roasted, which dries out the leaves. This process preserves more of the essential tea flavor from the leaf. This is still the way most Chinese loose leaf tea is made today.
The West took a liking to the teas of China through international trade. Some Westerners often think of England when they think of tea, even though tea doesn't grow there. Thanks to expansive colonization, England gained access to many foreign delicacies, including Chinese tea. It has now become synonymous with both countries.
Tea has traditionally been traded along the famous 2,000 year-old Silk Road, along with other highly prized commodities. The Tea Horse Road is another trade route that played an important part in expanding the influence of this popular beverage between the 6th and 20th century. Thanks to the extensive maritime exploration of China and other countries, particularly during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279), tea was also a popular cargo on the high seas of the Maritime Silk Road.
Just like European wines, different areas of China are known for producing different types of tea, including green, white and oolong teas. Read more about Tea Classification with our complete guide.
This variety of tea was first shaped into small cakes or bricks of dried leaves. Brick teas are still made today, continuing an ancient tea tradition that is over 2,000 years old.
Considered the oldest variety of tea, green tea has been enjoyed for thousands of years. Zhejiang province produces some of the most famous green teas. Green Tea has been used as an energy stimulant throughout history.
Oolong is distinct from green tea because it has undergone semi-oxidization, a process that darkens both the tea color and flavor. There are many theories of how oolong tea was discovered. Each story consists of someone becoming distracted or traveling a long distance giving the tea time to become more oxidized. This led to its dark color and rich taste. Oolong tea is thought to help with weight loss and improving the skin.
White tea is another famous tea and is nearly entirely produced in China. Noted for its delicate flavor, white tea is the least processed type of tea and is traditionally just plucked, wilted, and dried. Historians think white tea is the first variety of tea ever made because it is the easiest to create. Some also believe white tea is the healthiest option since it is the least processed form of the tea leaf.
Oil tea is a favorite variety from Guilin and other parts of southern China. Historically, it is the product of several southern ethnicities. They have made this type of tea for centuries and keep the tradition alive today.
Oil tea is high in caffeine and offers a strong taste due to the amount of tea leaves, oil, and other ingredients boiled in its broth. People either love or hate it.
Tea is one of China's greatest cultural treasures, and visiting a tea estate and sampling tea can be one of the most enjoyable parts of a trip to China.
If you are interested in the history of tea, consider booking China Highlight's 5-Day Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Water Town Culture Tour, where you will have the chance to pick tea yourself at a Hangzhou tea estate.
Or, create your own tour to discover the hidden secrets of Chinese tea your way.