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History of Pu-erh Tea

People living in the general area where the country of Tibet and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan come together started drinking pu-erh tea as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). In its early history, pu-erh tea was traded as a form of currency since much of the society was built around barter. Pu-erh tea is named for the major city that used to be the key nexus for the trading of pu-erh tea.

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Located in the southwest frontiers of China, the Yunnan province features rough terrain dotted with cloud-veiled mountains and crisscrossed with meandering rivers. The province has abundant rainfall, mild climate, and fertile land, all of which provide ideal conditions for tea cultivation, which could explain why Yunnan is the homeland of tea trees.

According to historic records, Yunnan domesticated the aboriginal tea (known as the 'wild tea' plant) about 2,100 years ago. In Yunnan province, the 800-year-old cultivation type ancient tea tree is still growing in the Nannou Mountain of Menghai County, the 1,700-year-old ancient wild tea tree now growing in Bada of Menghai County and the 1,000-year-old ancient tea tree now growing in Bangwei of Lincang Prefecture which indicates the transition between the wild and cultivation types. They are praised as the 'Three Ancient Tea-tree Kings' of the world. Those ancient tea trees are regarded as the 'living fossils' of Yunnan's aboriginal tea plants.

In accordance with an ancient Dai document from Xishuanbanna, Yunnan had tea trees planted about 1,700 years ago. There is an old tea tree called the 'King of tea trees' still growing on Nannuo Mountain in Menghai County of the same prefecture. In 1961, a large wild tea tree was discovered in the primeval forest on Dahei Mountain of the same county. That tree rose 32.1 meters high, had a diameter of 1.03 meters, and was over 1,700 years old. Exuberant and verdant, it still can yield quality tea leaves. Yunnan's favorable growing conditions are suitable for the breeding of its large-leaf tea trees which feature early budding, strong buds, long growth period, tender leaf texture, etc. They have become unique materials for preparing pu-erh tea.

Other historic records in China show that the ethnic Pu people in Yunnan began to grow tea and serve it as tribute to the emperors as early as in the Chinese Shang and Zhou Dynasties. In the west and east Han Dynasties, tea was grown in river valleys and by the mountain trails of Yizhou. In the Three Kingdoms Period, the Nanzhong tea-seed was widely popularized. In the Tang Dynasty, tea produced in Xishuanbanna was marketed to the Dali area and became the favorite drink of the noblemen of the Nanzhao Kingdom. In the Song Dynasty, Pu-erh County became a famous market for trading tea and horses. In the Yunnan Dynasty, tea had become the most important commodity in the transactions undertaken by people of all ethnic groups. In the former part of the Qing Dynasty, the reputation of the Pu-erh County tea reached its climax. The years from 1926 to 1936, which were on the eve of the War of Resistance Against Japan, marked the most prosperous period of production and sales of Yunnan tea, during which more than 5,000 tons of tea were sold yearly to the Sichuan province and to the country of Tibet, while over 500 tons were exported to other countries.

Up to the present, Yunnan has registered a total number of 199 species of local tea trees, the good ones among which are 46 asexual-propagation species and 153 sexual-propagation species. Overall, Yunnan's tea species are known as the "Yunnan large-leaf tea", which, just like the ideal Assam tea of India and the Kenya tea, belongs to superb tea species of the world, and is the ideal raw material for producing black tea (that is, fully oxidized but not fermented tea) and pu-erh tea (fermented tea). Compared with the small-leaf species, Yunnan tea has a polyphenol level that is about 5-7% higher than average, a catechin level about 30-60% higher than average, and water-soluble substances about 3-5% higher than average.