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Chinese Tea Drinking - A historical perspective

By Frank Yip

According to one Chinese source, tea was first used as a medicine over 4500 years ago. Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that China was first in discovering and cultivating tea as a people's beverage. In the process, it gives the world a unique tea culture that is good for the body and soul, and one that cuts across territorial, cultural and religious times.

This writer is of the opinion that tea and pottery (invented at least 7,000 years ago in China) could well have gone hand in hand no less than 4,000 years ago based on the discovery of Neolithic Longshan black pottery cups in Shantung Province. This would be discussed in a subsequent paper in the column later.

Chinese tea experts do agree that tea drinking on a large enough scale took place during the western Han period on about 100 before the last millennium began, i.e. about 2000 years ago.

It is now known that tea was first cultivated in the southwestern Sichuan Province, which also sent its best produce to the imperial court. Besides normal consumption, tea was presented as gifts, used at marital ceremonies and offered to the deities and the dead alike.

Archaelogical discoveries of eared cups, ladles, tea trays and tea tablesgo to show that tea was a popular beverage, if it is not a national yet. Because the Han dynasties were trade expansionists, tea in addition to silk, must have been exported to foreign countries (chieftly to the west, Middle East, and Persia in particular) via the overland Silk Road.

The mighty Tang Dynasty arrived in A.D. 618 (to 907). It was a cultural renaissance in China of a scale not to be seen perhaps until mid 18th Century when Qing Emperor Qianlong ascended to the throne one thousand years later. Tea drinking became a national pastime, thanks to a special class of teamen whose sole function was to promote it with good quality tea, water (yes, water), the proper way of drinking and the choice of charcoal.

Tea parties were in vogue from the Imperial Court down to the men in the street. Elaborate implements (numbering 24 in all) were used to prepare tea. For the gastronomical and spiritual enjoyment of the tea, we must thank the Tea Saint, Lu Yu, who living between A.D. 733 and 804, almost single-handedly wrote his monumental book "Classic on Tea" perfected and perpetuated tea drinking. More on him will be said in the next article.

Japanese tea drinking culture owes its origins to Tang tea practice, which was introduced by a Japanese monk, who had lived in Changan (the Tang capital) for 30 years, at the end of the 8th Century.

Song Dynasty (960-1279) succeeded Tang and is credited with the popularisation of the small tea plantation system country-wide. Another Song Dynasty innovation was the introduction of teahouses whoch played a significant role in tea competitions, on "dou cha" (tea fight), a national craze at the time.

In this social drinking game, competitors were judged from the quality, colour and the fiveness of their tea powder among other things. When mixed with the boiling water, it should produce a white froth and a nice aroma and which should leave its mark as close and as tidy, to the rim of the black tea bowl as possible. Less fine tea would contain some grains that would lower the water-mark from the rim.

China came under the reign of her first foreign rulers, the Mongolians in 1280. Like all conquerors, money must be quickly found to keep the soldiers happy. Through heart-landers, the Mongols were quick to exploit the maritime trade with their Southern neighbours. Thus, luck for local collectors, we are left with lots of blue and white, Yinqin and Longchuan teawares of Yuan excavated from time to time from the land and sea around us.

Succeeding Yuan was the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), led by a semi-illeterate former monk who valued the importance of security. One of his early decrees upon becoming emperor was to ban the tea cake so loved by his Song predecessors. He introduced tea leaves to make tea drinking a much manageable chore.

The Ming Dynasty also saw the emergence of Yixing (Jiangsu Province) tea pots made of unglazed red on brown earth as a major force in teawares. The Ming teamen are also remembered for their innovation of flower-scented teas.

The Manchus became the second foreign conquerors of China in 1644 and with their animal milk drinking habit, they invented drinking tea with milk. An innovation if we may call it, that made tea purists chagrin, even today.

It was during the 18th Century that Chinese tea started to be shipped to Europe, thanks to the Dutch. Like porcelain, it took Europe by storm, turnig itself into an indispensable drink to the Victorian Englishmen (Queen Victoria included, by mid Century) The English "high tea" is quite rightly a "step son" of Chinese tea.

The magic and impact of tea, on the Chinese is overwhelming, to say the least.

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