History of Chinese Tea

According to legend, in 2732 B.C. Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. He was immediately interested in the pleasant scent of the resulting brew and drank some. The Emperor described a warm feeling as he drank as if the liquid was invigorating every part of his body. Later Shen Nung became referred to as Shennong, meaning Divine Farmer. He’s now considered the father of Agriculture.

Shen Nung named the brew "ch'a", the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate. In 200 B.C. a Han Dynasty Emperor ruled that when referring to tea, a special written character must be used illustrating wooden branches, grass, and a man between the two. This character also pronounced "ch'a" symbolized the way tea brought man into balance with nature for the Chinese culture.

The popularity of tea continued to grow rapidly from the 4th through the 8th century. No longer merely used for its medicinal properties, tea became valued for everyday pleasure and refreshment. Tea plantations dispersed throughout China. Tea merchants became rich and tea became expensive. Elegant tea wares became the banner for the wealth and status of their owners.

The Chinese emperor tightly controlled the preparation and cultivation of the crop. It was even specified that only young women, presumably because of their purity, were to handle the tea leaves. These young female handlers were not to eat garlic, onions, or strong spices in case the odor on their fingertips might contaminate the precious tea leaves.

Black

Up to the mid-17th century, all Chinese tea was Green tea. As foreign trade increased, though, the Chinese growers discovered that they could preserve the tea leaves with a special fermentation process. The resulting Black tea kept its flavor and aroma longer than the more delicate Green teas and was better equipped for the export journeys to other countries.

During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), tea was used for its medicinal qualities. In the fourth and fifth centuries, rice, salt, spices, ginger and orange peel, among other ingredients, were added to tea. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea drinking became an art form and a drink enjoyed by all social classes.

Tea became a popular drink in Buddhist monasteries after the caffeine proved to keep the monks awake during long hours of meditation. For this reason, many monasteries cultivated vast tea fields. Lu Yu (Chinese: 陆羽), author of The Book of Tea, was an orphan brought up and educated in a monastery. It is likely that his experience growing up surrounded by tea inspired his book written during the Tang Dynasty. In the Book of Tea, Lu Yu recorded a detailed account of ways to cultivate and prepare tea, tea drinking customs, the best water for tea brewing and different classifications of tea.


Emperor Shen Nung

Whipped powdered tea became fashionable during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) but disappeared completely from Chinese culture after the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), when many other aspects of Song culture were erased during foreign rule. Chinese people later became accustomed to drinking steeped tea from leaves after the Yuan Dynasty and continue to drink it this way today.

Whipped powdered tea became fashionable during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Pu-Erh

The history of Pu-Erh Tea can be traced back to “Pu Tea” of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) with the drying of leaves in the sun in Yunnan province. The plants in this region have large, soft leaves spaced far apart on large, tough stems. Today, Pu-Erh Tea with “large wild leaves” is highly prized.

There is a long history of exporting compressed, aged green Pu-Erh Tea, dating back to the 7th century. Needing a tea that did not spoil on the trip, various fermentation methods and compressed shapes evolved to make transport easier. It was found that tea improved with age, so warehousing became the practice. In Tibet where beef and mutton and few vegetables were consumed, and the coastal regions of Guangdong and Hong Kong consumed seafood-based diets, people in these areas found Pu-Erh Tea helped with digestion and provided important nutrients not available in their local diets. Pu-Erh was also very affordable, so drinking Pu-Erh Tea became popular in these areas and remains so today.

There are two primary accounts of how Pu’erh fermentation became discovered. The first was that a caravan of Pu’erh tea merchants was traveling the Silk Road when they were attacked by thieves. The account said a wagon fell into a ravine. Eighty years later this cart was discovered. People were intrigued by the smell and decided to taste it. They found the tea to be wonderful. The tea had been fermenting for that long.

The second account of how Pu’erh fermentation was discovered again was on the Silk Road, only this time the tea was being transported during the rainy season and a cart where the tea got soaked was abandoned so not to contaminate the remaining dry tea. The cart was discovered a year later. People tasted the tea and loved it.

In 862 CE, Fan Cheuk, a Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) scholar undertook a mission on behalf of the Emperor to Western China and Yunnan. He wrote in his book Meng Shu (“Book of Uncivilized Peoples”), “In the mountain areas around Yin-sheng, people use no sophisticated methods to pick tea. They cook leaves mixed with ginger, pepper, spices and milk and drink it”. Imagine the horror of the royal court accustomed to green tea hand-picked by maidens using golden scissors to select the most tender green tea buds and tips.

In 1391, in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), the first Ming Emperor ordered the abolition of all moon-shaped, compressed tea because people were wasting too much time in its manufacture. Only loose-leaf tea would be permitted. The Ming Dynasty scholar Zhao Yuan wrote that Pu Cha was already very popular, and everyone drank it regardless of class.

Many Emperors drank Pu-Erh tea for longevity and especially liked the taste of the teas made with the finest tips. In the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911), Pu-Erh tea from Simao in Yunnan became a tribute tea by order of Yongzheng, the second Qing Emperor. In the tribute custom, tea regions were selected by the Emperor to produce tea to be offered as a gift to the royal court, which was a great honor and good for business. The last Qing Emperor Fu Yi (also known as Pu Yi) and the last emperor in China's history said “Drink Loong Jien (Dragon Well Green Tea) in summer and Pu-Erh in winter. Drinking Pu-Erh Tea is like being a member of the Royal Family”

Wulong or Oolong

There are numerous theories about how oolong tea came to be.

The first theory, called the “tribute tea” theory, claims that oolong tea came directly from the Dragon-Phoenix Cake tribute tea, which was made up of two different tea types: “Dragon” (Long) and “Phoenix” (Fong), produced in the Beiyuan tea gardens. When loose-leaf tea came into being as the new way of serving tributes, the name was changed to “Black Dragon” or oolong tea, to associate with the dark, wiry leaves that resulted from this form of processing.

The second theory comes from the “Wuyi” theory and claims that oolong tea was originally named after the Wuyi mountain region, where it was first documented in poems from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The third theory comes from the “Anxi” theory and claims that oolong tea was first discovered in the Anxi region of the Fujian province when a man named Sulong, Wulong or Wuliang, accidentally allowed his tea leaves to oxidize after being distracted during the harvest.

Near the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644) a new style of partially oxidized tea sprang from the Wu Yi Mountains. When first mentioned in writing these teas were referred to as Rock Tea (Yan Cha) – a reference to their birthplace, the rocky soil of Wu Yi Shan, and a name that is still used for teas from this region today. These first teas soon came to be called Min Bei Wulong Cha, translated as “Northern Fujian Black Dragon Tea.”  In English, we use a short-anglicized pronunciation of this title – “wulong,” also spelled “oolong.”

The skill of making this special type of tea spread from the North of Fujian province southward to the Anxi and Guangdong province’s Chaozhou area (Phoenix Mountain) before crossing the strait to Taiwan around 1810. These areas continue to be the bases for the four major categories of wulong tea: Wu Yi Mountain Rock Wulong, Anxi Wulong, Guangdong Dan Cong Wulong and Taiwan Wulong.

In 1392, the newly established Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) prohibited Wu Yi Shan’s most famous product: compressed cakes of tea. An attempt to break the long-standing corruption and excess the tea trade perpetuated, the Ming Dynasty’s ban on compressed tea inadvertently imposed a dark age on Fujian tea making. With their factories raided and equipment confiscated, tea production was effectively shut down for 150 years. Ironically, from this dark age, all the region’s most famous innovations were born. In the tumult of adjusting tea producing infrastructure to produce loose leaf tea, Fujian’s tea makers (likely Buddhist monks operating in their temples) invented charcoal roasting techniques to dry their tea. The slow charcoal roasting coupled with the accidental oxidization of their tea defined the characteristic flavor of Wu Yi Shan’s wulongs that continue to be produced today.

Exactly when the process began no one knows for sure, though the first mention of this tea comes from a poem written by a monk living in Wu Yi Shan during the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. He refers to this tea as “Yan Cha” (lit. “Rock Tea”) a name still commonly associated with the Wu Yi Wulong style today.

Wu Yi’s technique for making partially oxidized and charcoal dried tea spread south into the now famous producing areas of Anxi and Chaozhou and across the strait to Taiwan. Over time this skill was embellished into distinct regional styles defined by the local tea bush cultivars, local soil quality, and local culinary preferences. Initially though, all this new style of tea resembled the dark, long and slightly twisted appearance of Wu Yi wulong tea today. The name “Oolong” or “Wu Long” meaning “Black Dragon”, is likely a reference to the tea leaves’ unique resemblance to the curling body of mythical Chinese dragons.

Yellow Tea

There are disagreements over the exact beginnings of yellow tea. Few in number, the elusive yellow teas have always been developed in isolated instances in areas that were already famous for producing green tea, like Huo Shan in Anhui or Meng Ding Shan in Sichuan. Although there is a long history in these regions of producing green tea, it’s speculated that yellow tea only began to be produced in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Yellow teas are made for the appreciation of locals and have never had a broad market presence. Growing out of an elaboration of green tea techniques, the process for making yellow tea is time consuming and difficult. Thus, for the thousand kinds of green tea, there are only three kinds of yellow tea that survive today.

Market Influences on Yellow Tea Production

Recently consumers prefer teas with vibrant green leaves and cup color. Because yellow tea loses its verdant appearance in processing, this market trend has contributed to its decline. Now, even famous yellow teas are now produced with green tea processing techniques to meet market demand. Leaves once used to make traditional yellow teas are no longer processed as such at the cost of abandoning the traditional skill. In industry terms, yellow teas produced to be green are referred to as Lu Zhen or Green Needle, conversely yellow teas produced in their original style are typed Huang Zhen or Yellow Needle.

On the market however, famous “yellow” teas often retain their original name, even if they don’t retain their original processing techniques. No indication is made to the consumer whether he or she is buying Lu Zhen or Huang Zhen. Moreover, with examples of authentic yellow tea becoming increasingly rare, few consumers have had enough exposure to tell the difference.

enough exposure to tell the difference.

The Lost Yellow Tea

Most infamously, Huo Shan Huang Ya, a famous yellow tea at one time, has been lost to history. Anhui, being a poor province, lost the technique because the expense in producing it could not be sustained in the local market. A tea called Huo Shan Huang Ya can still be found on the tea market, although it has been made as green tea. The people the Anhui found it still commands a respectable price, and it is easier to sell as a green tea. There are still people however that buy this tea thinking it to be yellow. Tea scholars are searching the area in Northwestern Anhui to find someone that still knows the technique with no luck. Another relatively expensive and complicated tea to make coming from the same general area is Liu An Gua Pian, a green tea, which is struggling to survive in the difficult Anhui economy.

White Tea

White tea is classified based on both processing and plant cultivation. White tea is the least processed tea since it is simply plucked and air dried without being heated. But just as important, true white tea only comes from a few different varieties or cultivars of the tea plant, and mainly from the Fuding Da Bai and the Da Hao tea bushes, both of which have lots of little white hairs of the buds and leaves. Contrary to popular belief, white tea is not necessarily the young buds and leaves, although some white teas are picked very early such as Silver Needle white tea.

As mentioned before, white tea processing involves simply picking and air-drying tea leaves, therefore it should come as no surprise that white tea processing has been around since tea was discovered. In early tea drinking cultures such as during the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC – 1050 BC), tea leaves were air dried and then typically added to a boiling pot full of other herbs and spices to create a medicinal concoction. The earliest predecessors to modern day white tea tended to be very bitter though because the leaves typically came from wild growing tea trees, which were full of healthy, but bitter component of tea called tannins.

It was not until the Tang and Song dynasties though that tea production started to focus more on improving the taste and beauty of tea rather than just the medicinal value. During the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), tea drinking took a more aesthetic and spiritual role in Chinese society, with focus starting to shift away from bitter concoctions to more “pure” tea. Lu Yu, one of the famous tea masters at the time, encouraged tea drinkers to drink pure tea without the addition of any spices, berries, etc. Most tea during this period was still pressed into cakes however to help with transportation and preservation issues or ground into a powder and whisked similar to matcha tea that you find in Japan today. Even though brick tea comprised most of the tea produced during these eras, it is important to note that the white tea plant, the Da Bai and Da Hao teabush, had been discovered in Fujian, China. Tea farmers were starting to produce the earliest and most famous form of white tea called Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen) as well as another common white tea that we find today called White Peony (Bai Mu Dan). Silver Needle is comprised of only the most delicate buds, which are covered in beautiful white hairs where white tea gets its name. Due to transportation and storage issues however, white tea was not heavily traded or experienced outside of the few white tea growing regions in Fujian.

Loose leaf tea production finally started to take off during the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD – 1644 AD) when emperor Hongwu banned brick tea in China. Searching for a new way to store and preserve tea, Chinese tea farmers and tea masters perfected drying and fermentation techniques leading to modern day white, green, wu-long, and black tea. It was during this era that white tea started to become well known due to more refined techniques for drying and storing the tea leaves for trade.

Even today, however, white tea is just starting to gain in popularity. In fact, you now see that many different tea growing regions are trying to imitate white tea production to take advantage of spike of interest in white tea due to recent health studies. The true white tea, however, has been in Chinese culture for thousands of years since tea’s initial discovery as this article hopefully helped illuminate.