History of Tea

Tea has been a beverage in China from as far back in time as Chinese history extends. There are two histories for the origin of tea: one attributes the discovery of tea as a beverage to the legendary Emperor, Shen Neng who lived in 2700 B.C.E., and was believed to be the first herbalist. Shen Neng used tea leaves boiled in water to make a concentrate that was drunk as a bitter medicine to strengthen Kidney function. Kidneys are believed in Chinese medical theory to store and regulate the life force energy (Chi) in the body. The accumulation and regulation of the life force was believed to be essential in maintaining good health. The drinking of tea "broth" as the tea liquid is stilled called today, became popular as a tonic, making tea the world’s first health drink.

The second history of tea’s origin tells the story of Bodhidharma, an East Indian Bodhisattva who came to China in the 6th Century B.C.E. to teach Buddhism. Bodhidharma is considered the founder of Martial Arts in China, or at least for changing it radically from warring techniques to a practice of spiritual and health exercise. It is said that when he came to China, in order to attract students he sat in meditation in front of a cave for nine years. During the first three years, people would come by and mimic him or ridicule him or play tricks on him. Sometimes they would defile him, much like children making fun of someone different. During the second three years, people grew tired of bothering an unreacting statue sitting in meditative repose, and they ignored him. In the final three years, some individuals realized his great accomplishment of sitting in meditation for so long despite the hardship and began to join him in sitting meditation. By the end of the nine years, Bodhidharma spoke in front of thousands of totally receptive students, every one of them became instantly enlightened. The Sermon he gave was called the Lotus Sutra, Lotus being the flower that represents man’s striving quest to find meaning to life and rise above a world of pain and suffering just as the white lotus rises above the muddy water from which it grows. This sudden enlightenment method became known as Ch’an Buddhism. To prepare for this meditation marathon, Bodhidharma would sit for long hours each day. One day he fell asleep during meditation. He was so angry at himself for failing that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground, so that he would never close his eyes again during meditation and fall asleep. To this day, C’han meditation practice always employs an open eyes method and Bodhidharma is always depicted with large, round, saucer like eyes. Legend states that where Bodhidharma’s eyelids fell, the first tea plant grew. The quality of tea, which keeps one awake, is Bodhidharma’s gift to the Buddhist world of meditators, establishing the drinking of tea as an aid to alert meditation and spiritual development.

Through Buddhism, tea spread to Korea and Japan and to Southeast Asia. Tea was not known or consumed in Europe until it was discovered by the British in Canton at the beginning of the Ching Dynasty (1645-1911 A.C.E.) The British took to the drinking of highly fermented black teas and added sugar and milk to make it more palatable. It became a popular and expensive imported commodity back in England and the British East India Tea Company was formed to grow Chinese teas in Indian plantations, which contained cheap labor and cheap land. The British tea industry grew and fortunes were made. This industry in its expansion efforts introduced East Indians to tea drinking in order to sell tea locally closer to the farms, thereby saving shipping costs. They began by giving tea away on street corners until East Indians grew fond of the taste of this new beverage, then the tea was sold to this ready market. Today, India is a major producer of fine teas originally formulated from the black tea styles the British favored with milk or with lemon and sugar.

Meanwhile, green and slightly fermented amber teas such as Wu Lung and Te Kwan Yin were being produced and consumed in Asia. During the Sung Dynasty(960-1279 A.C.E.) tea drinking became an elevated art. At the time, green tea was ground into a powder and stirred into boiling water with a bamboo whisk and drunk without any additions. This tea drinking method used high quality water from pure mountain springs and the care of preparation became elevated into an Art. Mainly enjoyed and practiced by artist – scholars this tea drinking became know as Cha Tao, the proper Way to drink tea. Accompanying the drinking of tea with friends, there was the refined and artful environment of these scholars’ homes, filled with calligraphy, paintings and art objects, such as scholars’ rocks, carved jades, and intricately cut ivory. The drinking of tea in this way became a way for the leisure class to exchange ideas, gaze at beautiful art and gardens, and leave the cares of the mundane world outside. This style of tea drinking is the basis of the Japanese Cha No Ryu, which is still practiced today.

During the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644 A.C.E.), Cha Tao changed from powdered to whole leaf tea and a further evolution of tea drinking caused a new wave of popularity for this relaxing, yet stimulating beverage. Using the tea leaves whole enabled the tea to be brewed many times, as the leaves give up their essence slowly. Rounds of tea were then served and a natural rhythm determined by the tea was established. Friends could sit and talk for ours over a pot of very fine tea, savoring its aroma and taste and discussing it characteristics and merits as Cha Tao practitioners do today.

In modern times during the Nationalist period 1911 to the present, the Chinese in Taiwan began drinking tea with two cups: a tall narrow sniffing cup to capture the aromatic tea mist and a short wide drinking cup designed to cool the tea quickly for drinking and savoring the flavor of the tea broth. This innovation further elevated the Cha Tao tea drinking experience to become a way of training sense of smell, taste, aesthetics, and refinement. A kind of tea drinking etiquette surrounded with cultural refinement was a way for Taiwan’s elite class to learn and preserve traditional Chinese culture. This is the tea drinking experience and training that the China Arts Council Tea Society represents.

In the meantime, in Mainland China, refined tea drinking in the Chiu Jau Province uses small Ji Sa (purple sand) clay pots from Yixing province to brew mostly fully fermented teas that are called black teas in the West. These are called Bo Lei or Pu Er red teas in China, and are consumed with wonderful delicate Cantonese style dishes in fine restaurants. This tea drinking style is called Gung Fu (High Skill) tea because of the skill necessary for its correct preparation.