China – how can you think of China without thinking about Tea?

China next to India has one of the longest of recorded histories.  Two completely different cultures that are also next door neighbours separated by nearly little more than a range of mountains.  It would be like B.C. and Alberta yet the people and culture couldn’t be any more different in appearance, social structures, music, clothing, foods and Tea, from each other than these two cultures are.    Anthropologically speaking how could that be?

An interesting curiosity but I digress….

Shen Nong

Legend holds that the origin of tea came from the ‘godfather’ of agriculture, herbalist and Emperor of Five Grains, a mythical sage ruler of ancient China, Shen Nong or ‘Divine Farmer’ in around the year 2737 BC.   It has been passed down through time that while he was out and about trying to many different herbs at once he got a sore stomach (like men never do that). So he sat down under a tree, built a fire and got a pot of water boiling to help settle his stomach. While he was waiting (forever) a gust of wind blew some of the leaves from the tree he was under, into the pot.  He was enticed by the fragrance and colour of the liquor, he tried it, enjoyed it and the rest is history.

Another version of the story makes a bit more sense if you think in terms of him actually being an emperor, having servants and all – the only thing (well a couple things really) that doesn’t make sense is the servants not noticing the water turned brown. Really?

Then you’d also have to believe that somehow this story was able to be passed down at all, let alone accurately, for 5+ thousand years. Technicalities….

According to legend, tea was first discovered by the legendary Chinese emperor and herbalist, Shennong, in 2737 BCE.[2] It is said that the emperor liked his drinking water boiled before he drank it so it would be clean, so that is what his servants did. One day, on a trip to a distant region, he and his army stopped to rest. A servant began boiling water for him to drink, and a dead leaf from the wild tea bush fell into the water. It turned a brownish color, but it was unnoticed and presented to the emperor anyway. The emperor drank it and found it very refreshing, and cha (tea) came into being.

China holds the record for the earliest written account of drinking a brew made from tea dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) which also coincided with a great time for pottery and the invention of porcelain, coincidence – I don’t think so.  But it wasn’t until the Tang dynasty when things got really crazy.

For many centuries Tea of the Camellia sinensis varietal was used primarily for medicinal purposes, then the Tang Dynasty (618 – 904 AD) came along.  Tea then started being used more as a part of a social occasion and who doesn’t like a party.  The arts community got into it, the imaginary and creative bunch that they are, developed a whole other world filled with dragons, gods and goddess, loaded with symbolism.  (Sort of like what Hollywood film industry does now.) 

In the time between 723-804 AD Lu Yu (an almost but not quite, monk) later in life after his time in the monastery decided this new interest in Tea thing, all needed to get organized. So sat down and wrote the Cha Jing ie the ‘Traditions of Tea’ this standardized the methods as to how tea was to be prepared and served.  He was orphaned and grew up with monks so his rebelliousness, yet needing structure kind of thing, explains a lot.  It was rumoured though that he did make the best cup of tea.  In my books anyone that takes the time to make me a cup of tea (so I don’t have to get up and do it myself) is always the best cup of tea!  Not saying that monks are lazy but hey maybe they just needed to keep him occupied on something other than him bugging them about the nature of enlightenment.

All that aside Tea though once considered a bitter herbal tonic that kept you healthy, awake and restfully alert during meditation, had over the millennia captured the hearts and minds of the Chinese peoples and is now considered one of the seven necessities to start the day.  I know it is definitely one of mine.

China tea map
Map of the Tea of China

Here is an excellent map I found on the JFS site of regions of China Teas of China in pdf and a Tea Processing Chart .

Tea Processing Chart