Tea Drinking in China

Tea drinking was popular in ancient China as tea was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities, the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar, which has been a part of Chinese culture since before the third century. 

Origin of Chinese Tea

The origin of tea is lost among history and legend. Shennong (神农), whose name means the Divine Farmer – and who is considered as the ancient Chinese Father of Agriculture, is honored with the discovery of tea. Since Shennong’s discovery, tea has been grown and enjoyed throughout the world. The cultivation of tea originated in south-west China, in the region now known as the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, sometime before the Han dynasty (202-220). In Yunnan, and elsewhere, there are still some wild tea trees that are over 1,000 years old.

History of Tea Drinking in China

In the beginning, tea was used in ritual offerings. Then, tea leaves were eaten as a vegetable, or used in medicine. Until the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, tea was a new drink. Tea drinking began with Buddhist monks, quickly spreading to the literati and eventually the wider population. Tea became a tasty drink and was very popular amongst the nobility.  In the Wei Period (220-265) and Jin Dynasties (265-420), tea came to be the drink of banquets and lubricated philosophical and metaphysical discussions.

In the Tang dynasty (618-907), tea was processed in the form of dried tea cakes, which were roasted and ground before being brewed in hot water. Tea drinking became an art form and a drink enjoyed by all social classes. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), tea consumption began to resemble what it looks like today – a dried, loose-leaf tea steeped in boiling water inside a teapot.

Tea Types in China

China, the homeland of tea, is a leading producer and consumer, and the discovery and usage of tea has a history of four or five thousand years. The main varieties of Chinese tea are classified as green tea, black tea, Oolong tea, white tea, yellow tea, and dark tea. It’s the variety of tea plant and how the plant’s leaves are processed that define if a tea becomes black or green.

  • Green TeaWith a history of more than 3,000 years, green tea, known as the “national drink” in China, is the oldest type of tea in the world. The processing of green tea is mainly divided into three steps: frying (to remove water), hand-rolling and drying. Longjing (Dragon Well Tea 龙井), Biluochun (Green Spiral Tea 碧螺春) and Huangshan Maofeng (Yellow Mountain Fur Peak 黄山毛峰) are the famous ones.
  • Black Tea: Black teas have been fermented and the tea has a distinct red colour. True Black Chinese Teas as they are known in China are the post-fermented (aged) teas of which the Pu-Erh family of teas is the most famous. These teas are a type of fermented tea that is aged like vintage wine, continuing the fermentation process over time (post-fermentation). Crowned as the queen of black tea, Qimen Hongcha (Keemun Black Tea) tastes winy and fruity.
  • Oolong Tea: An oolong may end up with more black tea characteristics or more green tea characteristics depending on the direction the tea master takes in the processing of the tea. Anxi Tieguanyin belongs to the highest grade of oolong tea and has a history of over 200 years. Wuyi Rock tea is the best-known oolong tea, only produced in the Wuyi Mountain Region of Fujian Province.
  • White Tea: White tea is an unfermented, uncured green tea that dries quickly. Native to Fujian province, it is lighter in color than other types of tea and has a subtle, subtle taste. Baihao Yinzhen (White Hair or Pekoe Silver Needle 白毫银针) is the only one belonging to the highest grade of white tea. 
  • Yellow Tea: The manufacturing process of yellow tea is very similar to that of green tea, with one added step. After pan-frying, the leaves are left to dry slowy and yellow. Yellow tea is mild and sweet without grassy notes, and contains a yellow-green appearance. Still, it has a different aroma then green and white tea. Junshan Yinzhen tea produced in Hunan Province is the most popular yellow tea in China.
  • Dark Tea: Fermented tea originates in China, where it is commonly known as hei cha (黑茶) or dark tea. The most famous fermented tea is Anhua dark tea produced in Anhua County of Hunan Province. 

Customs of Tea Drinking

There are several special circumstances in which tea is prepared and consumed.

  • It is common to offer tea to one’s guests, and to perform tea ceremonies during holidays.
  • In the traditional Chinese marriage ceremony, both the bride and groom kneel in front of their parents and serve them tea as an expression of gratitude.
  • Going to restaurants and drinking tea becomes an important activity to reestablish ties at family gatherings. 
  • The Chinese make serious apologies to others by offering them tea. This act is taken as a sign of regret and submission.

This custom originated in the Qing Dynasty, about 300- 400 years ago that is after a person’s cup is filled, that person may knock his bent index and middle fingers (or some similar variety of finger tapping) on the table to express gratitude to the person who served the tea.

Teahouse has been ranked as the public place for drinking tea, relaxation and entertainment since ancient times, acting as a vivid epitome of Chinese tea culture and Chinese people’s leisure lives. Besides providing a place for drinking tea, Chinese teahouses constantly launch new varieties in order to meet different needs of various people.

Brewing Chinese Tea

The different ways of brewing Chinese tea depend on variables like the formality of the occasion, the means of the people preparing it, and the kind of tea being brewed. For example, green teas are more delicate than oolong teas or black teas; therefore, green tea should be brewed with cooler water. The most informal method of brewing tea is to simply add the leaves to a pot containing hot water. This method is commonly found in households and restaurants, for example, in the context of dim sum or yum cha in Cantonese restaurants. Another method for serving tea is to use a small lidded bowl called a gaiwan. Gongfu cha, meaning “making tea with skill”, is a popular method of preparing tea in China.

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