China's Tea Culture (Part 1)
The Origin of Tea
There are seven things that Chinese people are concerned about in their daily lives: "firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea." Even though tea is last on the list of people's daily necessities, it has quite a significant history and cultural connotation, as the Chinese people have long had the tradition of "having a cup of tea after a meal." China is the origin of tea and tea culture, and tea has thus accompanied the Chinese nation for 5000 years. As stated in a couplet, "A cup of spring tea temporarily keeps a guest, a simple and clean life inspires one to become immortal." Offering guests a cup to tea is a fine Chinese tradition. So today let us talk about "tea."
Regarding the origin of tea, there is a Chinese legend about Shennong, a mythical ruler in the early days of Chinese civilization. "When Shennong was looking for medicinal herbs he tasted hundreds of kinds of herbs and grasses. One day he encountered 72 poisons, but then used tea as a detoxifying antidote." As the legend goes, ancestor Shennong had a belly that was transparent like crystal. No matter what he ate, he could see it very clearly through his transparent belly. At that time, people were living in primitive conditions and ate everything raw, such as fish, meat, vegetables and fruit, so illness was very common. The legend says that in order to help people, Shennong tasted all kinds of herbs and vegetation, and then he discovered what happened in his body after he ate various kinds of foods. He traveled over mountains and rivers all year long.
One day Shennong saw a kind of plant with green leaves and white flowers, and he ate the leaves. After he ate them, he noticed something strange happening in his stomach. The leaves not only moved all around, up and down in his stomach and cleaned up all the food he had eaten, but they also left a fragrant taste in his mouth and a feeling of freshness. Shennong was extremely happy to discover the detoxifying effect of the leaves. He believed that the discovery of tea was bestowed upon him by heavenly gods as their appreciation for his kindness in trying to find medicinal herbs to treat people's illnesses in his old age. Shennong was grateful to the heavenly gods, and he became even more diligent in collecting medicinal herbs. From then on, whenever he got poisoned when tasting herbs, he used the green leaves for detoxification. Since the green leaves played the role of a doctor (to check and clean up his stomach), Shennong called the green leaves "cha" (examine). Later, people changed the character to "cha" (tea). This is how tea was discovered.
Because "tea" can quench one's thirst, refresh oneself, and neutralize poison, tea trees were collected and grown in later years. They were viewed as a kind of herb for maintaining good health outside of medicinal herbs.
Gradually "tea" became well-known, and, aside from using it as a form of medicine, people also used it as an item of tribute, a dish or a kind of beverage. Through modifications in different dynasties, we have the tea of today. In summary, tea was a beneficial medicine discovered by the ancestor Shennong, a reward bestowed upon him by heaven as a form of appreciation for his kindness towards people. Gods arranged for Shennong to discover tea to make it beneficial for humanity.
The Development of Tea
After tea was discovered, people went through several developmental stages in its application. Today we make a beverage use boiling water to make tea from tea leaves. In ancient times, our ancestors used tea only as a medicine. At that time, people cut off branches from wild tea trees, picked the tips of the leaves, boiled them in water, and then drank the water. This is what people called "porridge tea." The tea made this way was very bitter and was therefore called "bitter tea" at the time.
By the time of the Qin and Han Dynasties, people developed a new method of “half tea half beverage” to prepare and use tea. They did not boil fresh tea leaves. Instead, they baked "tea cakes" on the fire, then ground them to dust. Boiling water was added to make tea. They mixed scallion, ginger, and orange into it, and called it "baked tea."
In the Tang and Song Dynasties, people made tea cakes. When they had tea, they first broke a tea cake, ground it finely and put it through a sieve, placed the fine tea in a cup, and poured boiling water into it. Tea culture gained in popularity rapidly at this time. Gradually "tea drinking" became "tea tasting." Also popular were tea banquets that were held at the royal palace, in temples, and among scholars. The atmosphere at a tea banquet was usually solemn and elegant and followed strict rules of etiquette. The tea served had to be of high quality, and the water had to be from well-known springs. The tea set used also needed to be precious and of a rare quality. The tea banquet usually began with the host personally mixing the tea, or overseeing the mixing of the tea, to show respect to the guests. This was followed by presenting the tea, receiving the tea, smelling the tea, appreciating the color of the tea, and tasting the tea. After three rounds, people would begin to comment on the tea, appraise the fine moral qualities of the host, enjoy the scenery, and chitchat or write prose or poems.
By the Ming Dynasty, people usually poured water directly into a tea pot or a tea cup with loose tea leaves in it, making tea drinking simpler and more convenient. As time went on, people became more and more conscious of the fast pace of life and started to do things with efficiency in mind. Some people started to drink instant tea, or for health reasons they drank health tea, either ordinary tea or decaffeinated tea. However, most people were just "drinking tea" instead of "tasting tea."