Portrait of the Kangxi Emperor in court dress

The history of tea

Canton Tea Club Week 26

This week I set out to write a piece about the history of tea in Yunnan, only to realise that because Yunnan is generally regarded as the birthplace of tea, we’ll have to go back to the very origins of the drink we all love so much.

Would you believe me if I told you that tea has been consumed for almost 5,000 years? Sounds implausible, but 2737 BC is the date most often used to mark the birth of tea. Unfortunately for us, Instagram hadn’t been invented then, so the events surrounding the very beginnings of tea are mythologised and somewhat murky.

Shen Nung, the ancient Chinese emperor who is regarded as the father of agriculture and medicine, allegedly discovered tea when some tea leaves fell into the water he was boiling and the infused liquor refreshed him. Other origin myths include the gruesome tale of the Bhodidarma, whose torn off eyelids sprouted the first tea bush, and the ancient god of agriculture chewing tea leaves to rid himself of poisons ingested when testing various wild plants.

What we do know for certain is that the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, originates from an area of southeast Asia that spans modern Burma, Yunnan and Sichuan. Feng Qing in Yunnan is said to be home to the world’s oldest cultivated tea tree – estimates of its age range from 1,000 to 3,200 years, but whatever its true age may be, it’s really very old indeed.

The first uses of tea leaves were mainly medicinal – the leaves chewed to aid digestion or used in salves for the skin and joints. Tea leaves were also eaten with rice, a tradition that continues to this day in some of the ethnic groups of Yunnan. It is thought that as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), the Pu people of Yunnan began to pay tribute to their emperors by growing and presenting them with the best tea. This practice became widespread in the Tang Dynasty (619-907 AD), when the highest grade teas, harvested for royalty alone, became known as ‘Tribute tea’. Today, the highest grades of any tea are still called Tribute (your box this week contains one such tea).

At this point you might be conjuring up images of ancient Chinese emperors elegantly sipping delicate cups of pure, clear green tea as opposed to our bastardised English ‘milk and two sugars’ brew. Actually, for around the first thousand years that tea was drunk in China, it was taken as a thick and bitter ‘soup’, prepared by boiling tea leaves from a pressed brick with water and condiments such as sweet onions, ginger, cloves salt, orange peel and mint. Imagine asking for ‘onion and two salts’ next time someone asks you how you take your tea.

It wasn’t until the Tang dynasty that methods and practices of tea drinking started to resemble what we know today. Tea makers began steaming the leaves after picking to rid them of their grassy flavour, and the name for tea which was previously the Chinese character for ‘bitter’ changed to another character that meant many things: wood, grass, people – suggesting a harmony between man and nature and indicating that the Chinese now imbued tea with spiritual and philosophical nature, rather than regarding it as a purely medicinal substance.

Tea-drinking flourished in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), when delicate flavours such as jasmine and lotus began to replace the savoury, spicy additions above. Tea became so popular that The Song Dynasty even tried to force Yuan Hao, the King of Western Xia, to surrender by cutting off supplies of tea. Rituals for preparing and drinking tea had evolved from boiling the leaves with the water, to adding hot water to the leaves. Tea houses appeared for the first time, as the practice of taking tea found its way from the courts and palaces of the nobility to the streets and houses of every class in China.

But maybe for some the popularity of tea could be a little…dangerous. Zhao Ji, Song Dynasty emperor, gifted artist, tea master and calligrapher, devoted so much time to the world of art and tea that his ruling skills left a lot to be desired. Failing to take the threat of invasion by the Nurchen army seriously, he preferred to work on compiling his General Remarks on Tea. The army invaded and eventually overthrew the Northern Song Dynasty…whoops.

Up until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) most tea was processed from wild-growing trees, which, especially in the Tang dynasty, were preferred to cultivated trees. But as demand grew and processing techniques improved, tea tree plantations were created for the first time, and the taste for loose tea overtook the preference for pressed bricks. It is during this period that the Black, Green and Oolong teas we drink today were developed, and tea began to be favoured by and exported to other countries, but that’s another blog for another week (next week to be precise).

Although I’ve rather diversified into the broad history of tea in China, I think we can fairly conclude that Yunnan is both the geographical and spiritual home of tea. Sitting here drinking a small bowlful of oolong, I am forever grateful that the Chinese developed a humble leaf from Yunnan into the wonderful drink we all know today. Because let’s face it, if I was drinking a traditional English beverage I might be on my fifth pint of table ale, and I think I’d feel rather ill.

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