|The Early History of Tea
|No one would ever have guessed that when emperor and scholar, Shen Nung
discovered the humble tea leaf in 2737 AD that it would go on to have all the
elements of a blockbuster hit movie complete with adventure and intrigue,
riches made and lost, war, revolution, power, fame, and massive social change,
as it made its way around the world.
|No one knows for certain if the
date given for Shen Nung's discovery of tea in
2737 AD, when a leaf, carried on the wind, landed
in his pot of boiling water is accurate, but it is the
From the time of its discovery the Chinese immedi-
ately recognized the medicinal value of tea, using it
for everything from a digestive aid, to help relieve
rheumatism, to a topical ointment to help soothe
Up until the Han
Dynasty (AD 206-220)
it is believ- ed that wild
tea trees were cut
down and their leaves
|stripped from the branches to be brewed. It was during this period
that commercial plantations were established to meet the ever growing demand for the raw tea
leaves. High quality crops and improved manufacturing methods developed during this time,
ensured a thriving tea trade throughout China, helping to earn massive
fortunes for the tea traders.
By the end of the third century tea was established as China's national
drink. In AD 332, Zhang Yi wrote the first detailed account of manufact-
ure, detailing how the plants were laid out, pruned and plucked, and the
method of processing.
During the fourth and fifth centuries tea was seen in a new light. No
longer was it just drunk as a medicinal tonic, but was now seen as a
pleasurable drink. It was also a time of growth as many new planta-
tions were added along the Yangtze River Valley.
The Tang Dynasty saw strict new rules of
tea etiquette evolve, leading to the creation
of a new professional class called "Tea Mas-
ters," who filled an important role in society,
working for the emperor and wealthy man-
It was during the eighth century that Lu Yu,
China's first real specialist on tea wrote Cha
Chang (Classic of Tea). Known today as the
"patron saint of tea," Lu Yu learned the cor-
rect method of brewing tea from his adopt-
ive father who was a Buddhist monk and
China's first real tea specialist.
Lu Yu worked for 20 years to write Cha
Chang, and his work became essential read-
ing for everyone from tea farmers and researchers,
to Chinese consumers.
In Cha Chang, Lu Yu wrote about methods of cultiva-
tion, describing the tea plant and how different teas
were manufactured. He even taught readers what type of
water to use for brewing and about tea's health benefits. He
also covered other areas such as the culture and rituals of tea
During the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) the Chinese Tea House
became the center of Chinese social life. Think of it as the
country club or coffee house of today. It was a place where
family and friends gathered to play cards or chess, or just relax and talk.
The Chinese Tea House also provided a new venue for the merchants
and businessmen to do business and make deals. It was also used as
a backdrop for professional actors, jugglers, poets, and storytellers
who often entertained there for the enjoyment of the people.
By this time the Chinese had begun trading tea to Tibet and Arab lands
to the west, including Turks, tribes, and groups living in the Himalayans
and along the Silk Road trading route which linked India to Macedonia.
In the 16th century China began trade with Europe. Unfortunately,
during the long sea voyages much of the tea spoiled, forcing Chinese
manufacturers to come up with new ideas for processing, packaging,
and transportation of the tea.
All Chinese teas were green up to this point in history. Under the Ming
Dynasty (1368-1644) tea was being sold as loose leaf, instead of the dried, compressed tea
cakes they had been previously. But the new loose leaf tea spoiled easier, well before reaching
its final destination - the customer.
The profit conscious Chinese producers tried a new production
method, devising black teas. The naturally oxidized tea leaves
turned a dark, rich, coppery color and lasted much longer and
travelled better than the more delicate green teas had.
The Chinese continued their practice of drinking green teas, but
happily provided new black teas to the ever growing European
trading companies, exporting a continual supply to their home
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