Tea Culture in Ancient China

When the ancient Roman Empire did not exist yet, Chinese people were already drinking tea. In the meantime, in London, high society was getting to know new beverages, mainly alcoholic beverages, but only in the Celestial Empire the culture of tea was already flourishing.

Chinese love for tea is similar to the fascination French people have for wine, the same passion and devotion.

Every year more than 600 thousand tons of tea are harvested in the Celestial Empire (up to 10,000 varieties). And almost everyone loves to drink it! Yet, half a century ago, the unique tea culture was on the verge of being forgotten.

During the reign of Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese revolution, traditional teahouses were closed because they were defined as “Remnants of the past.”

The homeland of the tea plant is not China, as many believe, but the north of Vietnam, from there it arrived in the south of China, in India and in Burma.

Therefore the Chinese, who before were only dedicated to the infusion of tea leaves, only later on got involved in the cultivation of this plant. The first hints about tea and its beneficial properties are dated back to 2000 BC.

At first tea was used as a medicine and as an energy drink, it was not consumed simply for the pleasure of taste.

Historically, the glory of the person who discovered tea is attributed to Shen Nung, a mythical emperor who supposedly ruled China in 2737-2697 BC.

It is said that one day he heated some water under a tea bush and some leaves accidentally fell into a pot. The result impressed the emperor who decided to drink that aromatic water and was pleasantly surprised, so he decided to repeat this procedure many more times.

According to another legend, a Buddhist monk from India, Bodhidharma (who lived in the 6th century AD) once fell asleep during meditation and as a punishment cut off his eyelids. In the place where his eyelids fell, two tea bushes grew.

According to other sources, the name “tea” was already common throughout China before the birth of Bodhidharma, in the third century AD under the Han dynasty.

By the eighth century tea had made another step forward: it had become much cheaper and even less wealthy people could afford a cup. In 780 was completed the most famous treatise about tea in three volumes called “Cha Ching”, written by an academic scientist, Lu Yu.

Cha Jing 茶 經 (Treatise on Tea) by Lu Yu (陸羽) is actually the first encyclopedia on tea.

And it was not written in unintelligible scientific language, but from delicate phrasing and refined poetic metaphors.

“Tea leaves should curl like a bull’s chin, crumble like a piece of skin from a Tatar knight, become like a mist rising over a ravine, and soften gently like dust that is wet to the ground by rain.”

In Lu Yu’s times, mainly pressed tea was produced. The tea leaf was steamed, crushed, creating tiles, using rice starch as a binding agent and then cooked.

Such tea could be kept for a long time, easily transported and, just like a good wine, it became better with years. If it was harvested for the emperor, it was then decorated with relief images of the dragon and phoenix – symbols of supreme power.

In modern China, tea is rarely pressed and additives are no longer used as binders.

Tea in ancient China was also different in its preparation. We find the description of the ritual of tea made by Lu Yu himself. Firstly, dry tea leaves were washed with cold water.

The fire was lit and the kettle was put with water. Waiting for the first bubbles to form on the bottom, fresh leaves were dropped and soaked until boiling, then the water was removed from the fire.

When the tea leaves sank, the beverage was considered ready and immediately poured in the heated cups.

The Chinese Tea Ceremony

The particularity of the Chinese tea ceremony resides in its origin: at the beginning tea was a privilege for Buddhist monks and nobles.

Hence the birth of a lonely and sublime atmosphere with an aristocratic mood and an amusement. In its best moment, taken by the enthusiasm, in different parts of the empire were opened tea gardens, pavilions and tea houses, where it was possible to taste different kind of beverages, suitable for every palate, all surrounded by landscapes of marvelous beauty, familiar to us thanks to the drawings on ancient Chinese vases, by the sounds of music and birds singing, and in the evening, all surrounded by the soft light of lanterns and the splendor of fireworks.

In the finest circles of China, unlike Europe, snacks were never served with tea. Neither were milk, cream or lemon.

Other flavors such as ginger, rose, spicy herbs and lemon peel were only served among the poor, to cover the poor quality of the tea leaves, the best leaf was only for the rich.

The only additive recognized in the most chic world of tea tasting was jasmine. In the Middle Kingdom jasmine was used to restore the aroma of tea, once it became less noticeable due to transportation from the southern provinces to the north.

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