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Short History of Tea

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Article below by James Norwood Pratt, used here with permission

Once upon a time...

In the misty distant past, the second of China’s emperors ruled Asia. He was a sage named Shen Nong who understood all manner of plants and their uses. The Chinese say it was Shen Nong who first taught them agriculture and herbal medicine and—of equal importance in their eyes—how to make tea. The first book on the subject, the Ch’a Ching, the “classic” or “scripture” of tea, written in the 760s, cited the emperor as an authority. “Shen Nong’s treatise on food said tea gives one vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose,” recorded the famous author Lu Yü (715-803). That Shen Nong is said to have lived some 35 centuries before Lu Yü’s book was written illustrates the ancient origins of China’s love of tea, whether or not the legendary emperor really existed.

The Ch’a Ching appeared when China was at the height of its grandeur and power under the mighty Tang dynasty (618-906). By that time, tea was well known throughout an empire which extended from present day Afghanistan to Korea. Lu Yü began his book by stating “the tea plant is a beautiful and beneficial tree of the southern regions.” And indeed, the custom of tea drinking arose in south China, the original home of the wild tea plant Camellia sinensis. In the beginning tea was not very a pleasant beverage—in fact, it was considered a medicine. After some time, it was used also as a tonic, that is, not something to get you well, but something to keep you from getting ill. Scholars of traditional Chinese medicine claim that by 200 BC tea had 61 applications for the prevention of disease and over 200 uses as a cure for specific conditions. By this time it was also used as a beverage throughout southern China, the plant’s indigenous growing region. From there the custom spread until, with the slow passage of centuries, tea became China’s national drink.

Tea’s popularity corresponded with the introduction and spread of Buddhism in China. The Buddha, a contemporary of Pythagoras and Confucius, lived in India from about 563 to 483 BC, and his teachings followed the Silk Route to China, where they took root about the time of Christ. Just as Buddhists adopted use of the image of the Buddha at the Indian end of the Silk Route, so in Western China they adopted drinking tea, which also became part of their practice. Tea was employed by the Buddhists as an aid to meditation and as a focus of many ceremonies. Wherever they went, Buddhists carried a taste for tea along with them.

Tales of Tea

This explains why some Chinese myths ascribe the origins of tea not to Shen Nong, but to Buddhist teachers. The hero of one such story is the Chinese monk Ganlu or “Sweet Dew.” Returning from a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India in the first century AD, he brought back scriptures full of esoteric secrets along with “seven magic tea plants,” China’s first tea, according to the story.

Another story attributes the origin of tea to Bodhidharma, an Indian prince who went to China in 520 to teach the Buddhist practice of meditation, known as “Ch’an” in Chinese and “Zen” in Japanese. On his arrival, Bodhidharma is said to have sat down facing a wall at the Shaolin monastery and there remained in meditation for nine years without interruption. Only once in the course of this marathon did the great man’s mind begin to wander, allowing his eyelids momentarily to droop in drowsiness. To insure that no such lapse could recur, the story says, without an instant’s hesitation he severed the offending eyelids.

Such heroic devotion to wakefulness won the tender heart of the Kuan Yin, as the bodhisattva of compassion is known in Chinese. Where Bodhidhama’s eyelids fell to earth, Kuan Yin straightaway raised up China’s first tea plants to help Buddhist meditators remain alert and tranquil. Always, whatever the story, tea was held to be somehow divine in origin.

Religious Parallels

The role of Buddhism in the history of tea in Asia parallels that of Catholicism in the history of wine in Europe. Both beverages assumed ritual significance and the faithful of both traditions became devoted consumers. Many European monasteries were famous centers of grape-growing and wine-making. Similarly, nearly all the early teas in China were named for mountains that were sites of large Buddhist temples and monasteries. Just as experiments by Catholic monks like Dom Perignon led to champagne and the like, it was Buddhist monks who produced Asia’s superior teas and gradually developed new methods of processing the leaf and preparing the drink.

Lu Yü and Ch’a Ching

Lu Yü was apparently brought up and educated in such a temple or monastery where tea was grown and manufactured. Chinese sources give differing accounts of his life but most agree that he was abandoned as an infant and that a Ch’an priest named Zhiji found him near the banks of a lake and raised him at a temple. Even at his chores, the child proved precocious. He passed the time as a cowherd practicing his writing on the backs of the cows with a bamboo stick. His boyhood must have included many hours working in tea fields and manufactories also, for he filled the Ch’a Ching with precise observations and practical directions for cultivating, plucking, and processing tea leaves.

As an adolescent, Lu Yü seems to have rebelled against the pieties and practices of his received religion. He fled the monastery and made his living first as a circus comic and clown, then as a government official of some sort before turning to a life of scholarship and tea. By the time Lu Yü completed the first book on tea, five years in the writing, he had barely entered middle age.

The Ch’a Ching was no mere disquisition on tea-producing regions, tea’s efficacy as a medicine, the ways to discriminate between tea varieties, or their processing and preparation. Although he covered such matters masterfully, Lu Yü also managed to convey something of the contemplative life he experienced because of partaking of tea and the transformed world to which that life opened his eyes. He likens tea to the elixir of the immortals in flavor. “The effect of tea is cooling and as a beverage it is most suitable. It is especially fitting for persons of self-restraint and inner worth,” he wrote. From start to finish, his wonderfully poetic classical Chinese constantly implies that there was a spiritual dimension to making tea—not that he made any such claim directly.

Lu Yü’s work made him not only a celebrity but also a god in the eyes of the tea-drinking public. People in the tea business made offerings to porcelain statues of Lu Yü, praying that the tea crop be large and profitable. When business was bad, the same people would scald the unoffending image with a kettleful of boiling water. The author was befriended by the emperor Taisong (ruled 763-779) and was revered by the intelligentsia, as numerous poems and stories about him demonstrate. According to one tale, Zhiji, the Ch’an priest who raised Lu Yü, would never drink tea made by anyone else’s hand, even at court. The emperor considered this a tea snob’s affectation and laid a trap for the unsuspecting old man by having him served tea that Lu Yü had in fact just prepared. “Now this tastes like Lu Yü’s tea!” said Zhiji, and he asked for more.

Tang Dynasty Tea

A master’s hand was needed to make perfect tea because of the way it was manufactured at that time. Lu Yü listed 24 utensils required for tea’s preparation and serving. The freshly plucked leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, and then made into a cake, which was dried and stored. To prepare tea, the cake had to be roasted carefully before a fire “until soft as a baby’s arm,” Lu Yü recommended. The cake was then shredded between two pieces of fine paper and added to the best available water, which was just about to come to a full boil. When the water reached a rolling boil, a dipperful of cold water was added to revive “the youth of the water” and settle the tea. The beverage was then poured into tea bowls and ready for drinking.

Lu Yü went into detail about the appearance of various teas in the bowl and how to appreciate the drink properly: the number of bowls to drink, the temperature of the tea, and the speed at which to drink it. He observed that just sipping any properly made tea brought out its bitter quality, while swallowing it brought out the sweet.

Song Dynasty Tea

In the tenth century, the Song dynasty (960-1279) came to China’s dragon throne. In order to obtain the Central Asian horses vital to China’s defense, the vastly reduced empire that the Song ruled was forced to barter with the nomadic people now beyond China’s frontiers. Song policy was “to control the border regions with tea,” which was the nomadic people’s chief source of vitamin C. During the Song dynasty, Sichuan tea, so highly favored by the Tang, was made only as an item for trade. The Song also formalized an institution which was to last a thousand years: Tribute Teas. Fast horses, no doubt bought with Sichuan tea, were used to transport the newly popular Fujian teas to the Song court each spring.

During the Song era a new institution sprang up throughout China, the tea house, where Chinese high and low could seek refreshment and relaxation with their friends over tea. In the tea houses, tea was prepared by the boiling method as it had been for centuries. Among the nobility and the higher ranks of Buddhist priests, however, the old methods of preparing tea were being phased out as a new type of tea evolved. In this new method, the tea cake was ground into a powder so fine that it could be added to hot water and drunk powdered leaf and all. Tea like this was prepared by whipping the powder and water with a split bamboo whisk, one bowl at a time.

In this latest development once again, it was the Ch’an monastics who seem to have taken the lead in ritualising the preparation and drinking of tea, both privately and for group occasions. Ceremonial occasions included seasonal assemblies, arrival and departure ceremonies, and events like a liturgy enacted annually before an image of Bodhidharma in which the monks all drank from a single huge bowl. These formal sacraments would eventually become the basis of Japanese tea ceremony. Tea, as ephemeral experience, as opportunity for wordless awareness that was equally inner and outward-looking, contemplative and yet socially interactive, was found to contain the Buddha’s teaching entire.

When the new method of preparing tea was introduced, tea bowls suddenly became the most important items in the tea equippage. For old-style boiled tea, the preferred cups had an exquisite blue glaze that complemented the reddish-brown liquid poured into them. The new whipped tea, however, was usually a vivid lime green that inspired ceramacists to create “chinaware” of a beauty never before imagined. Song tea bowls were glazed in black, blue-black, dark brown, or deep purple. Everyone could finally afford and obtain porcelain once, under Song patronage, the city of Jingdezhen grew into a major ceramics manufacturing center. Centuries later, it was Jingdezhen’s kilns that would produce the first “chinaware” seen in Europe.

To the Emperor’s Taste

Song culture reached its height under emperor Huizong (ruled 1101-1125). Distinguished as a painter and poet—as well as the husband of 3,912 wives and concubines—Huizong was also the leading tea lover of his day. In the tea treatise that he wrote, he showed an amazing familiarity with tea cultivation and manufacture, considering that the emperor was shielded from all manual labor. Huizong’s favorite was a white tea “from trees that grow wild on forested cliffs.” Harvested by four or five families in the Wuyi mountains, no more than two or three bagfuls of the leaves could be gathered each year. He records this as a tea-lover, as a fact to be accepted, not as a shortage to be corrected by imperial edict. More artist than ruler, Huizong ended his days in sad exile after Mongol invaders from the north took control of his beautiful capital city of Hangzhou and, eventually, seized the entire Song empire.

After Mongols Invade, Mings Re-invent Tea

Mongols under Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his sons reduced China’s population by a third and very nearly destroyed Chinese culture. His grandson Kublai Khan (1215-1294) completed the conquest of the country and established a Mongol dynasty to rule over it. But only 75 years after Kublai’s death a nation-wide rebellion, which was co-ordinated through China’s tea houses and is still memorialised in the “moon cakes” of the Autumn Moon Festival, drove out the Mongols and brought the native Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to power. By that time not even scholars could recall the shape of the bamboo tea whisk that had been used by the Song nobility. China’s elite had been nigh exterminated

While the Mongols were in power, loose whole-leaf tea like ours today replaced cake and powdered teas. Tea producers had discovered the manufacturing process of pan-firing or chaoqing, “roasting out the green,” which improved the flavor of tea while at the same time the use of this whole leaf tea simplified the preparing of it. Two decades into the Ming dynasty, a tea manual called the Cha Pu appeared which described the methods of manufacturing and preparing loose-leaf tea. Making tea required nothing more than placing the leaf in a vessel and covering it with water (rather less-than-boiling) to steep. This covered cup or guywan, a combined drinking cup and steeping vessel, was created by adding a saucer and lid to the tea bowl of former times. The Chinese under Ming rule took to loose-leaf tea and the guywan the way Americans would one day take to the teabag.

New Developments

Also developed in Ming China around the time that Columbus was heading toward the New World was the teapot, which appeared about the same time as the semi-fermented oolong teas which required it. Best brewed in a fist-sized earthenware teapot, semi-fermented oolong teas were associated primarily with southern China as a local taste. Popular throughout China was another creation—scented tea. The Ming have never been surpassed in their obsession with flowers. In addition to flower paintings and floral embroidery, Ming poetry even produced epics written about a single blossom. Most Chinese floral porcelain patterns originated during this period. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Ming were first to produce jasmine tea. Although only one among numerous other flower-scented teas–notably rose, magnolia, chloranthus, osmanthus, and lichee—Jasmine has remained the most popular tea in China.

Tea’s long, slow evolution from medicine to tonic to beverage and on from cake to powder to leaf, from preparation by boiling, then whisking, then steeping, was essentially completed during the Ming dynasty. In 1398 the reigning Ming Emperor decreed that even Imperial Tribute Teas were allowed to be made in the new-fangled loose leaf form. By 1500 loose leaf tea suitable for steeping such as we know today–and teapots to steep it in besides–had been brought to perfection and both were ready to be discovered by the rest of the world. The ceremonial whipped tea of Song times would be remembered and preserved only in Japan.

Copyright ©2010 James Norwood Pratt, all rights reserved. Reproduced here with the permission of the author.