The Beginning of Tea in China
Before the first leaves from the wild tea bush fell into Emperor Shen Nung’s bowl of hot water, the leaves of tea had long been used by the Chinese only for preparing medicine and vegetable relishes.
It was only until that incident in 2737 BC that the leaves of the camelia sinensis, the plant from which all teas come from, were first considered as ingredients of a hot beverage.
The tea of today took on a long journey before it resembles anything like it is, and quite literally so, because whereas the tea we drink comes either in looseleaf or powder form, the ancient Chinese used to press their tea leaves into bricks. A document from 3rd century AD explains that for them to prepare a bowl of tea, the bricks first had to be crushed and mixed with onion, ginger, orange, and other spices, and then hot water was poured over the concoction.
Unlike today where tea is drank for pure pleasure, back then the medicinal properties of tea was the foremost reason why they drank tea and integrated it into their daily lives.
The popularity of tea in China grew to such a point where to fulfill the demand, they started to cultivate tea, thus sowing the seeds of the tea industry, a billion-dollar industry that will take over the world.
By the early 8th century it had embedded itself into the Chinese cultural life and became the “national beverage”. In 780 AD, the greatest Chinese authority on tea, the poet Lu Yu, was commissioned by tea merchants to create a compendium of contemporary tea knowledge, and the book The Classic of Tea was written.
It was the first ever book written about the virtues of tea. Divided into nine parts:
- mythological origins, horticultural description and and proper planting of camelia sinensis,
- fifteen tools for picking, steaming, pressing, drying and storing tea leaves and tea bricks,
- methods for the production of tea bricks,
- twenty eight items used in the brewing and drinking of tea, including specifications and instructions, construction and recommended materials,
- guidelines for the proper preparation of tea,
- actual consumption of tea, some of its properties, the history of tea drinking, and the various types of tea known in 8th century China,
- anecdotes about the history of tea in Chinese records,
- compares and ranks eight tea producing regions in China at its time,
- procedures that may be omitted and under what circumstances, tools and methods that can be excluded in cultivation and processing under abnormal conditions,
- how to transfer the contents onto placards or large scrolls for hanging on the wall for quick references
The comprehensive knowledge on tea has made it the bible for tea drinkers of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
To China’s great love for tea, Lu Yu advocated for moderation:
"Moderation is the very essence of tea. Tea does not lend itself to extravagance. If a tea is insipid and bland, it will lose its flavor before even half a cup has disappeared. How much more so in the case of extravagance in its use. The vibrancy will fade from the color and the perfection of its fragrance will melt away."
By this time, the tea had spread beyond Lu Yu’s reach: tea was about to reach the nomads of Tibet and Mongolia, then eventually the Arabs, and it was only a matter of time when it would take over the world.