The earliest accounts of Chinese tea appeared in 2700 BC, in the Medical Journals of Shen Nong. It was narrated that Shen Nong had experimented with hundreds of shrubs and herbs that day, resulted in him being afflicted by 72 ailments but tea cured him entirely.
Hyperbole or not, the earliest uses of Chinese tea were for medicinal purposes, as an antidote for varying poisons and the like. It is a logical assumption that as a medicine- especially an early civilization medicine- there would be minimal processing of the leaves, probably just pluck and boil.
By the time it was the Tang Dynasty, there are ample written accounts about the consumption of tea, notably the authoritative ‘Cha Jing’ or The Way of Tea written by the man nicknamed as the Sage of Tea- Lu Yu. ‘Cha Jing’ described many intricacies of Chinese tea that survived until today, like processing methods (of green tea notably, the rest have yet to be discovered), brewing methods etc.
Tea has become an integral part of Chinese culture so much so that when one refers to the basic necessities of life ‘Chai (Firewood) Mi (Rice) You (Oil) Yan (Salt) Jiang (Condiments) Chu (Vinegar) Cha (Tea)’, tea named, at the very last slot, no less. These 7 items are frequently used by the Chinese to described items falling very much in the most basic order of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, even today- with gas being the modern day replacement for firewood.
When one refers to simple home cooked meals, either in typical Chinese humility or an expression of one’s frugality- the phrase used is ‘Chu Cha Dan Fan’ which means Coarse Tea and Bland Rice. This exhibits what an integral role tea plays in Chinese culture, being on equal footing to daily consumption as rice- which as you might know is an everyday diet staple.
During the Eastern Han, the phrase ‘Yi Cha Dai Jiu’ Replacing Wine with Tea when it comes to toasts of honor and the like- further elevating the status of tea, not merely as a perfunctory means of thirst quenching but a valued item, fitting for celebrations.
During the Mongol ruled Yuan Dynasty, tea culture reached a new low with very literature during this thankfully short (less than 100 years) dynasty.
During the Ming and Qing dynasty though, tea drinking once again underwent a revival. The peasant born founder of the Ming Dynasty- Zhu Yuan Zhang true to his peasant roots, decreed that in order to minimize citizen efforts, abolish the rolling of tribute teas into small ‘dragon balls’. That simple decree had far reaching consequences on the processing of tea leaves, even prevailing until today.
The Ming Dynasty also saw the emergence of the Zisha pots from Yixing village which continues to represent the highest quality tea pots until today.
The Qing dynasty, especially under the tea loving king Qian Long brought about so many developments to tea processes and culture that continues to define the culture today.
Sadly, it was also during the Qing dynasty that the Opium Wars began over the tea trade but that is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say, the 18th century saw massive exports of tea to Europe, especially England.
After Communist China came to power, international trade dwindled somewhat, especially with the emergence of Sri Lanka and India as tea producing nations. It was only during the past three decades, especially since the rule of Deng Xiao Ping that the Chinese trade saw a revival.
In the 21st century, as new research uncovers findings on the wealth of benefits of Chinese tea, interest is renewed. Especially as China opens its doors and more foreigners are too captivated by the allure of Chinese culture, we can expect the popularity of Chinese tea to reemerge and blossom further.