China: Royal & Religious Origins of Tea - Tea was discovered in China and is the stuff
of myth and legend. The Chinese are credited most for the development and cultivation
of tea and the methods of its early preparation and use.
Tea has played a significant role in Asian culture for centuries as a staple
beverage, a curative and a symbol of status. It is not surprising its discovery
is ascribed to religious or royal origins. According to Chinese legend, the god
of agriculture would chew leaves, stems, and roots of various plants to discover
medicinal herbs. If he consumed a poisonous plant, he would chew tea leaves to
detoxify the poison. Buddhists believe that the Buddha himself discovered tea. Another ancient Chinese legend infers that an emperor discovered tea some 5,000
years ago. The emperor, known for his wisdom in the ways of science, believed
that the safest way to drink water was by first boiling it. One day during a
journey, the emperor noticed that leaves had fallen into his boiling water. The
leaves turned the water a light-brown color and gave off an enticing aroma. The
ever inquisitive and curious monarch took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly
surprised by its excellent flavor.
Regardless of this legend’s veracity, the fact is that the Chinese have
enjoyed tea for centuries. Scholars hailed the brew as a cure for a variety of
ailments. The nobility considered the consumption of good tea as a mark of their
status. The common people simply enjoyed its flavor.
The Chinese are credited most for the development and cultivation of tea and
the methods of its early preparation and use. The oldest written record regarding
tea appeared more than 2000 years ago in China in a labor contract between a
master and laborer where tea was already treated as a saleable commodity. There
is no clear record regarding when human beings began consuming tea or if people
in ancient times ate tea leaves or drank brewed tea. There is some evidence that
tea leaves were roasted in the process.
8th Century: Steaming Process is Introduced - The Han dynasty used tea as medicine. Tea drinking was
widespread during the Tang period according to Cha Chang (Classics of Tea) written
around 760 by Lu Yu (729-804).
The book describes how tea plants were grown,
the leaves processed, and tea prepared as a beverage. It also describes how tea
was evaluated. The book even discusses where the best tea leaves were produced.
A form of compressed tea referred to as white tea was being produced as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). At this time in tea's history, the nature of the beverage and style of tea preparation were quite different from the way we experience tea today. Tea leaves were processed into cakes. The
dried teacake, generally called “brick tea” was ground in a stone
mortar. Hot water was added to the powered teacake, or the powdered teacake was
boiled in earthenware kettles then consumed as a hot beverage. This special white tea of Tang was picked in early spring when the new growths of tea bushes that resemble silver needles were abundant. These "first flushes" were used as the raw material to make the compressed tea.
12th Century: Tea Culture is Introduced - During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), production and preparation of all tea changed. The tea of Song included many loose-leaf styles (for the delicate character favored at court).
A new powdered form of tea also emerged. Tea leaves were picked and quickly steamed to preserve their color and fresh character. After steaming, the leaves were dried. The finished tea was then ground into fine powders that were whisked in wide bowls. The resulting beverage was highly regarded for its deep emerald or iridescent white appearance and its rejuvenating and healthy energy. Drinking tea was considered stylish among government officers and intellectuals during the Southern Song period in China (12th to 13th centuries). They would read poetry, write calligraphy, paint, and discuss philosophy while enjoying tea. Sometimes they would hold tea competitions where teas and tea instruments were judged. When Song Dynasty emperor Hui Zhong proclaimed white tea to be the culmination of all that is elegant, he set in motion the evolution of an enchanting variety.
This Song style of tea preparation incorporated powdered tea and ceramic ware in a ceremonial aesthetic known as the Song tea ceremony. Japanese monks traveling to China at this time had learned the Song preparation and brought it home with them. Although it later became extinct in China, this Song style of tea evolved into the Japanese tea ceremony, which endures today. This Song style of tea preparation incorporated powdered tea and ceramic ware in a ceremonial aesthetic known as the Song tea ceremony.
Japanese monks traveling to China at this time had learned the Song preparation and brought it home with them. Although it later became extinct in China, this Song style of tea evolved into the Japanese tea ceremony, which endures today.
Many forms of white tea were made in the Song Dynasty due to the discerning tastes of the court society. Hui Zhong, who ruled China from 1101-1125, referred to white tea as the best type of tea, and he has been credited with the development of many white teas in the Song Dynasty, including "Palace Jade Sprout" and "Silver Silk Water Sprout."
Producing white teas was extremely labor-intensive. First, tea was picked from selected varietals of cultivated bushes or wild tea trees in early spring. The tea was immediately steamed, and the buds were then selected and stripped of their outer, unopened leaf. Only the delicate interior of the bud was reserved to be rinsed with spring water and dried. This process produced white teas that were paper thin and small.
Once processed, the finished tea was distributed and often given as a tribute to the Song court in loose form. It was then ground to a fine, silvery-white powder that was whisked in the wide ceramic bowls used in the Song tea ceremony. These white powder teas were also used in the famous whisked tea competitions of that era.
13th Century: Tea Roasting Process is Introduced - In China, steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the
preparation of brewed tea.
After the transition from compressed tea to the powdered form, the production of tea for trade and distribution changed once again. The Chinese learned to process tea in a different
way in the mid-13th century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather
than steamed. This is the origin of today’s loose teas and the practice
of brewed tea.
In 1391, the Ming court issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a "tribute." As a result, loose tea production increased and processing techniques advanced. Soon, most tea was distributed in full-leaf, loose form and steeped in earthenware vessels.
17th Century: Tea Fermentation Process is Introduced - In 17th century China, various types of tea plants were grown in different
regions and numerous advances were made in tea production.
In the southern part
of China, tea leaves were sun dried and half fermented. However, this method
was not common in the rest of China.
Late 18th and 19th Century: Mass Production is Introduced - Modern-day white teas can be traced to the Qing Dynasty in 1796. Back then, teas were processed and distributed as loose tea that was to be steeped.
They were produced from "chaicha," a mixed-variety tea bush. They differed from other China green teas in that the white tea process did not incorporate de-enzyming by steaming or pan-firing, and the leaves were shaped. The silver needle white teas that were produced from the "chaicha" tea bushes were thin, small and did not have much silvery-white hair.
It wasn't until 1885 that specific varietals of tea bushes were selected to make "Silver Needles" and other white teas. The large, fleshy buds of the "Big White," "Small White" and "Narcissus" tea bushes were selected to make white teas and are still used today as the raw material for the production of white tea. By 1891, the large, silvery-white down-covered Silver Needle was exported, and the production of White Peony started around 1922.
In the 19th Century Chinese tea was losing its popularity
in taste to Assam tea. The Chinese could not compete with mass agricultural production
and rational processing methods adopted elsewhere particularly by the British
in its other colonies. Chinese tea's worldwide reputation, status and market
dominance fell into rapid decline.