According to legend, tea was discovered in China almost 5000 years ago by Emperor Shen Nung when a tea leaf fell into a pot of water he was boiling. The rest, as they say, is history.
Originally valued for its medicinal properties, tea became the drink of emperors, aristocrats, and eventually, of the common man. Tea has held a place in our collective consciousness and daily lives for so long that everyone has a favorite tea and every culture has its own unique tea rituals and ceremonies.
All The Tea In China
For millennia, tea has been entwined with China's history, social customs, and economy. From its earliest uses in religious ceremonies and as a digestive aid and stimulant, tea, made by boiling wild camellia leaves in water, evolved into a social drink and a valuable trade commodity.
By the Chin Dynasty (A.D. 557-589), tea was used as medicine and also enjoyed for its taste. It was offered to guests as a sign of friendship and hospitality, a custom started by a Buddhist monk who greeted his teacher with a bowl of tea.
In the following decades, tea became a commercially cultivated crop. Tea leaves were harvested, crushed, and pressed into cakes called tea bricks, which were also used as currency in trade. Tea was made by breaking off small pieces of the brick and boiling them in water. This bitter-tasting tea was often flavored with salt, ginger, or onions.
Tea's popularity soared during the T'ang Dynasty (620-907). Now widely available, tea was universally revered and, for the first time, taxed. Tea growers held harvest festivals, making "offerings" of their best teas to the emperor. As tea became part of daily life, tea masters began to establish the guidelines of the tea ceremony.
One of those tea masters was poet Lu Yu, considered the patron saint of tea, who wrote an encyclopedia of tea called Ch'A Chins (Book of Tea) in 780. The book is filled with elaborate descriptions of growing, harvesting, preparing, and serving tea. Yu even described in minute detail the twenty-four essential utensils used in tea ceremonies.
Taoist poet and tea master Lu T'ung, one of Yu's disciplcs, earned himself the nickname "tea maniac" for his absolute devotion to tea. T'ung lived in seclusion in the mountains of the Hunan Province, drinking tea and writing poetry. His poem "Thanks to Imperial Censor Meng for His Gift of Freshly Picked Tea" is one of the most well-known tea poems:
By the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the spread of teahouses, the creation of clay teapots and bowls, and tea contests, where growers competed to make the best tea, all demonstrated tea's rising status in Chinese culture. Tea used in ceremonies was made by whisking dried, powdered tea leaves and hot water to produce a frothy, bright green liquid. Emperor Hui Tsung (1100-1126), a dedicated tea drinker, wrote his own book about tea, Ta Kauri Ch'a Lun, which extolled die health benefits of his cherished elixir. The emperor's tea, of course, had to be of the purest quality, harvested by virgins who wore white gloves and used gold scissors to cut the bud and first young leaf.
It wasn't until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that tea growers developed new processing methods that allowed them to make black and oolong teas in addition to their green teas.
The Zen of Tea
Tea was introduced to Japan in A.D. 600 by Buddhist monks, who drank matcha, a strong, nourishing powdered green tea, to help them remain alert during long hours of meditation. A Buddhist monk named Saicho brought the first tea plants to Japan from China around the beginning of the ninth century.
Where China had revered tea for its many uses, Japan exalted it to a spiritual practice and art form that personified Zen precepts of harmony, purity, respect, and tranquility. The tea ceremony, called chanoyu, was a strictly disciplined event where host and guest communed over tea. Tea master Sen Rikyu, who outlined the guidelines for "the way of tea," as he referred to the ceremony, described the tea ceremony as a spiritual exercise:
Dutch traders introduced tea to Europe in the sixteenth century. The imported green tea was initially considered a medicinal drink and dispensed by apothecaries. During this time it was also common to drink herbal infusions or decoctions to treat common ailments. By the seventeenth century, tea had become a popular beverage with the upper classes, particularly in Germany, France, and eventually, England. The first public sale of tea in England took place in 1657.