Tea Industry in China 101

Tea is so intertwined with Chinese history that China is almost synonymous with the word tea. Tea has been consumed in China for practically as long as the country has existed. Despite the ongoing prominence of coffee throughout the modern ages, Chinese tea traditions remain very popular. 

(Source: Unsplash.com)

(Source: Unsplash.com)

So if you are curious about how and why tea is essential in China, then this article will give you the answer to your questions. Keep on reading to understand how the tea industry in China came to be and evolved throughout the years. 

History of Chinese Tea

Throughout olden history, tea has played an essential role in Chinese culture. Tea consumption has been a practice in China for over five centuries. Tea was claimed to have been found by chance.

According to mythology, an early ruler named Shen Nong found tea by chance in the very ancient period. The monarch believed that consuming heated water would ensure protection from sickness. As a result, servants prepared boiling hot water for emperor Shen Nong. A leaf dropped into the water on their journey to a faraway destination. The emperor was intrigued by the water concoction produced, so he let his servant drink it. His servant reported that it tasted well and was safe to drink. So, the ancient emperor then sipped the drink and discovered fresh tea.

However, an account of tea consumption in a Chinese document, The Erya, goes back to the Zhou Dynasty (1045 - 254 BC). China was the primary country in the ancient world to unearth tea. In the past, tea has been used as a remedy to keep people alert. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC -220 AD), tea was still employed as a medicinal herb. 

 

In the Sui and Tang Dynasties, tea was developed from a natural herb into a beverage. In the Sui Dynasty, the practice of drinking tea became more widespread. It was among the adjacent Mongolian country's commercial items. The Tang Dynasty (616-909 A.D.) was a pivotal formative tea period. Tea has become a more popular beverage in everyday living. Tea plantations were established in large numbers, and the tea industry multiplied.

The tea leaves and the method of tea production were detailed in-depth in Cha Jing, an ancient text about the old beverage tea, published by Lu Yu (a Tang Dynasty scholar). Tea is considered to have spread worldwide and become one of the most indispensable liquids in people's daily lives. The work also detailed the origins of tea before the Tang Dynasty and the various sorts of Chinese tea. During the Tang Dynasty, Brick tea was the most popular type. Tea leaves were processed to produce a cake form. Brick tea was placed in boiling water in teapots and cooked for a period to make the hot tea.

Another critical phase in the history of tea is the Song Dynasty (691-1280 A.D.). Tea enthusiasts even competed to measure tea characteristics, which include tea leaves, water, and concoction. Tea-themed literature, hymns, and artworks were widely circulated across the nation, promoting tea commerce between the Central Plains of the country or the Yellow River's middle and lower reaches and the Great Wall's outer regions.

During the Song Dynasty, the number of public tea houses grew dramatically. Tea has become a staple in everyday living. People continued to make brick tea from tea leaves. Literature notes that the other tea ceremonies of neighboring nations, including Japan, originated in China during the Song Dynasty. 

During the Qing and Ming Eras, Tea had reached far lands and was immensely adored by people of all social classes. The state also permitted people to plant tea trees openly. Green tea, oolong tea, white tea, and black tea were among the many types of tea available during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The tea experts have enhanced the tea-making technique, affecting tea-drinking styles.

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The gorgeous teapots drew attention as well. During this time, Yixing Purple Clay Kettles were the most famous teapots, forming a new teapot art. The regimes had several tea works during this period, including novels, poems, and tea art. The administration continued to gain from a vast quantity of tea trades. The government established tea trade relations with several other states, including African and Asian nations and European nations such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

History of Specific Chinese Teas:

  • Green Tea

    Tea gradually shifted from a royal good to a beverage typically taken by the general populace during the Wei Jin Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 221-590). Simple basic drying methods of tea were invented, increasing its accessibility and allowing the emergence of flavored teas, which managed to help reduce the bitter taste of green teas at that period.

    Drinking tea emerged as a crucial aspect of Chinese culture living during the Tang Dynasty, with the development of an entire movement centered on tea consumption and the institution of official tea festivities and ceremonies. The technique of boiling tea leaves was developed throughout the time, enabling tastier, less bitter green teas to be produced.

    In the Song Dynasty, Drinking tea also became an essential component of Chinese everyday living, comparable to how consuming tea in the afternoon had been established in Europe. The use and manufacturing of tribute teas, which were made to be handed to the king and other high-ranking figures, became an essential aspect of royal tradition and a form of state revenue. As many people competed for the emperor's favor during the Song Dynasty, Tribute teas, including Dongting Bilouchun and Xihu Longjing, stimulated the production and development of different types and qualities of green teas. 

    However, during Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Yanzhang officially prohibited the practice of paying tribute tea to the court. As a result, this prohibition paved the way for the golden period of green tea invention. Tea production soared, and tea merchants rapidly developed new methods, varieties, and kinds of tea. Loose tea leaf usage grew popular throughout this time. In the 16th century, tea masters established dry heating and roasting of tea leaves to cure them and prevent oxidation. This method of processing tea leaves is still the most common way to manufacture green tea today.

  • Oolong Tea

    Oolong tea, titled after its originator, is a Chinese tea with particular qualities mostly made in Fujian and Guangdong, China. Oolong tea has a rich history in the Fujian region, dating back thousands of years to a classic kind of tea known as Beiyuan tea. This type of tea was the first recorded tribute tea made in Fujian, and it was amongst the most famous teas made throughout the Song Dynasty. The Beiyuan area in Fujian, situated close to the country's mountainous regions, has been a tea-growing center since the Tang Dynasty. The tea leaves were compressed into cakes, making it a compacted tea. When these became unpopular among the elite, the region began manufacturing a slightly oxidized loose tea known as Oolong tea.

    Oolong's roots are also the theme of a distinct tale. Legend says that a tea farmer in the Qing Dynasty named Oolong harvested tea when a deer caught his attention. The farmer decided to go hunting instead of gathering the tea, so he could not finish processing the tea until the next day. However, the farmer observed that the margins of the tea leaves had slightly oxidized the next day, and it gave off an unexpectedly pleasant scent. So, after finishing the tea handling, the farmer was shocked to see that the finished tea had an entirely new rich sweet taste that lacked most of the other bitterness that was usually present. Thus, the fresh tea was named after the farmer.

  • Black Tea

    The famous black tea originated in China and is known in the country as hong cha or red tea. The name comes after the crimson hue of the beverage it typically produces. The origins of black tea in China may be traced back to the Ming Dynasty, approximately in the 15th century, when the first black tea, known as Lapsang Souchong, was grown in the Fujian's Wuyi Mountain region of Fujian.

    The small leaf tea plants were called Souchong, while the high mountainous location was named Lapsang. Hence, the name of the first black tea was Lapsang Souchong. Fujian Lapsang Souchong, Sichuan Mabian Gongfu, Guangdong Yingteh, and Fujian Minhong black teas are among China's finest black teas today. In particular, China's most well-known black tea is Keemun black tea. Hu Yuanlong, in 1875, first introduced this type of black tea in Qimen county. He traveled to Fujian to understand how to create tea. When he returned to Qimen, he started making his tea, which became recognized as Keemun black tea and quickly became one of China's most sought-after black teas.

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    The origins of black tea in Europe can be traced back to when European explorers originally arrived in China in the 1700s. The first recorded evidence of tea in Europe was from the early 17th century when Dutch traders returned from China with Chinese black tea, marketed throughout Europe. It was once regarded as a mystery oriental drink in Europe, but it was only available to the aristocracy at exorbitant costs. From this point forward, it was a drink associated with the wealthy, and it grew popular as a way to show your riches and social standing.

    Although black tea is often consumed "black" in China, many Europeans prefer to drink the beverage with sugar and milk, which improves the scent and flavor of fine black teas. Several black teas' sweet, flowery flavors can be enhanced by a tiny bit of sugar. Keemun is particularly famous because it turns a delightful nearly pink tint when blended with a little bit of milk. With sugar and milk, many Chinese black teas, including Keemun, Tanyang gongfu, Yunnan, and Yingteh tea, become more appealing to westerners. However, it is good to note that adding sugar and milk to traditional black tea can also defeat the very essence of consuming conventional black tea.

  • White Tea

    White tea is known for the intricate white hairs known as Bai Hao that coat its leaves and its light yellow-green tinted leaf stems and buds. White tea is mainly cultivated in Fujian province and its districts and is regarded as the peak of tea in China. White tea is unusual in flavor and looks because it is made without rolling or roasting.

    The earliest document mentioning white tea is from the writings of Emperor Song Huizong of the Song Dynasty. In the late 1700s, White tea was extremely uncommon throughout Emperor Jiaqing's rule and was created primarily from the tiny sprouts of a tea tree variety in the region. Around 1857, the Fuding variant of the tea tree was found, which marked a significant advancement in the tea's reputation. This tea tree's buds were way more prominent, with a thicker pekoe or hair coating and a richer flavor and scent. The white tea made from Fuding tea had a far more pleasant, better taste and aroma. White from such variants could also be mass-produced in more significant amounts. Distribution of white tea to other nations started under Emperor Guangxu's rule in the early 1900s, and white tea's reputation expanded significantly during the 20th century.

  • Pu Erh Tea

    Pu Erh tea may be traced back to Eastern Han Dynasty in Yunnan Province, China. The Tang Dynasty initiated the commerce in Pu Erh tea, which grew prominent during the Ming Dynasty and was promoted during the Qing Dynasty. Pu Erh was brought in lengthy wagons by mules and horses across existing routes named the Tea Horse Roads. Merchants would trade for Pu Erh tea in different markets, then rent carts to transport the tea straight to their houses.

    The growing market for a type of tea that could be easily moved and did not deteriorate on long voyages prompted providers to work feverishly to develop new methods of preserving the tea. The tea leaves not only stayed fresh but also enhanced with aging. This improved flavor is because of the fermentation of the leaves. Individuals soon learned that Pu Erh aids digestion and provides additional nourishment to a daily diet, and it rapidly became a favorite household alternative due to its low cost. Pu Erh tea was remarkably regarded, and it became a valuable trading item among roaming entrepreneurs.

Modern Tea Industry in China

In China, there are many different types of tea. In addition, in China, a new kind of tea has been gaining popularity since 2014. Fresh tea ingredients are combined with milk or cream in this innovative form of tea. Tea with toppings including pearls, jellies, and fruit is also available. China's tea industry is the biggest globally. It does not succumb to competitors' products like espresso or soda but instead develops by making tea more appealing to consumers.

In 2018, the global total tea production was 5.9 million tons, with China accounting for 2.6 million tons or 44.7 percent. China is the world's leading tea producer, but there is still a massive opportunity for the tea industry in the country. As a result, the output of nations with large tea products will continue to rise. The growing health consciousness of Chinese consumers, in particular, will propel the world tea economy to grow even more.

Tea cultivation, harvesting, fertilizer application, manufacturing, and packaging are all part of the industrial tea chain in China. Tea is also folded, roasted, and aged in various ways. In China, markets, small shops, cafes, and e-commerce companies are the sales outlets. 

Green tea leaves account for the majority of China's tea production. Green tea will seek to uphold its production edge for a long time, given China's huge market need. Drinking tea is also a significant aspect of Chinese lifestyle and culture. Green tea exports constitute approximately 83% of overall export sales. Green tea, Black tea, and floral tea exports climbed by over 6%. The popularity of novel tea drinks such as chai tea and milk tea has boosted black tea consumption and demand in China.

Tea revenues will continue to rise in China. With the rise in Chinese citizens' affluence, tea quality will become an essential aspect of tea sales. China's 1.4 billion people consume approximately 40% of all tea produced worldwide, and they are eager for even more. Chinese customers prefer higher-quality teas, and they frequently depend on licensing to ensure that the tea is natural and produced ethically and sustainably. Furthermore, they accept to spend far more per serving than European tea drinkers. The highest quality tea can cost up to about $1,000 for every 500 grams of tea leaves in China.

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Exporting grew delayed and more costly after China's coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has also created a tangle of logistics and transportation. As a result, China's tea exports have stagnated, and its export expenses have risen. The major tea-importing countries tightened customs checks, while others decreased or discontinued importing Chinese tea. Coronavirus has the most significant impact on China's offline retail networks. In February 2020, more than 60% of tea cafes had no revenue. Due to a scarcity of logistics staff, online purchases for tea dropped, and several items experienced delivery interruptions. As a result, online tea sales have decreased.

However, it is essential to emphasize that the coronavirus's economic consequences on China's tea distribution networks are only transient. The pandemic's most considerable effect on tea retailers was felt at the onset of the outbreak in 2020. When the pandemic limitations were relaxed, tea sales online and offline began to rebound.

Now, post-pandemic, many will undoubtedly give greater attention to their health than they did previously. Tea leaves, while not medicines, are wellness goods that provide health advantages. The correct dissemination of information about tea leaves will aid in tea consumption by all. Because the Chinese public's excitement for social media continues to develop, tea companies must rely heavily on packaging and visual appeal.

References: 

  1. Britannica. 2022. Tea. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/tea-beverage. Retrieved on 23 April 2022. 
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  4. China Travel. 2019. History of Tea Drinking in China. Retrieved from: https://www.chinatravel.com/culture/chinese-tea/history. Retrieved on 23 April 2022. 
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