Understanding the Evolution of Chinese Tea Culture Through Four Periods

Chinese tea culture has ancient roots, tracing back to legendary times. According to folklore, the Yan Emperor (炎帝), one of the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, was the first to discover tea as a detoxifying beverage. He found that tea leaves, resembling ordinary leaves, not only quenched thirst and cleared the mind but also had remarkable detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties. Thus, he ushered in the medicinal era of Chinese tea culture.
This indicates that Chinese tea culture shares its origin with Chinese medicinal and culinary cultures. The history of Chinese tea is, in essence, a miniature of Chinese history.
So, how can we divide the development of Chinese tea culture into different periods? Let's explore this in the Chen Sheng Tea Academy series.


First Period: The Medicinal Drink Era

This era spanned from ancient times to the Three Kingdoms period (三国时期). As mentioned, the Yan Emperor, also known as Shennong (神农), was a tribal leader and shaman responsible for treating his people's illnesses. He often foraged for herbs in the mountains, leading to the anecdote in "Shennong Bencao Jing" (神农本草经/ Shennong's Classic of Materia Medica) about Shennong tasting various herbs, encountering 72 poisons in a day, and using tea to detoxify. This marked the beginning of tea as a detoxifying drink in China.
During the Three Kingdoms period, amidst frequent wars and the ensuing sufferings, many records mentioned the medicinal use of tea. In Wei, the famous physician Hua Tuo wrote in "Hua Tuo's Food Classic" (华佗食经) about the stimulating effects of bitter tea, indicating its wide acceptance for boosting alertness.
In Shu Han, Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) used local Pu-erh tea from big trees, along with turmeric and other spices, to brew a medicinal tea for his soldiers to ward off colds in Yunnan, where they were unaccustomed to the climate. This practice of brewing tea with spices still exists in Yunnan.
In Wu, the fourth sovereign Sun Hao offered tea to his ministers to alleviate drunkenness during feasts. There were numerous instances of tea being used medicinally, with some even claiming it as a cure-all, although this might be an exaggeration.

Second Period: The Porridge Drink Era

With advancing productivity and deeper understanding of tea, people realized that boiling raw tea leaves irritated the stomach and tasted unpleasant. This led to the invention of tea porridge - green tea pressed into cakes, ground into powder, and cooked with mixed fruits. This porridge-like beverage, named "Ming Porridge," (茗粥)  marked the transition from chewing raw leaves to boiling them. Tea evolved from being just a drink and medicinal herb to a food item.
By the mid-Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu's "The Classic of Tea" (茶经) had a profound influence. He argued that adding mixed fruits to tea spoiled its original flavor, likening it to ditch water. This view laid the foundation for appreciating the true taste of tea, ushering in the next phase of tea culture.


Third Period: The Plain Drink Era

This period, from the mid-Tang to the end of the Yuan Dynasty, saw the initial formation of the Chinese Tea Ceremony spirit. Tea was not only viewed as a medicinal herb, a food to satiate hunger, or a thirst-quenching beverage but also as a cultural symbol. During this time, due to the proliferation of Buddhism, tea became popular among monks for its alertness-boosting and sleep-dispelling properties and was widely spread worldwide.
Rongxi Zen Master, known as the "Patriarch of Japanese Tea," (吃茶养生记) greatly admired Chinese tea culture. In his "Record of Tea for Nourishing Life," he wrote, "Tea is the elixir of life for later generations, a magical art for prolonging life. Grown in mountains and valleys, its land is divine. Harvested by humans, it grants longevity. Both India and the Tang Dynasty value it highly, and our Japanese court has long cherished it. Since ancient times, it has been esteemed in all countries. How can we now abandon it, especially as it is an excellent medicine for nourishing life in these latter days?"
Post "The Classic of Tea," people gained a deeper understanding of tea, blending Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophies with tea culture, giving it new cultural significance. Thus, Chinese tea culture developed its unique tea philosophy: integrity, beauty, harmony, and respect. In a way, tea in this period not only retained its medicinal, satiating, and thirst-quenching properties but also served to cultivate the mind and spirit.

Fourth Period: The Loose Tea Era

Throughout the long history of Chinese tea, various forms have been used for storage and transportation. Initially, green tea was pressed into cakes - a practice that thrived from the Tang to the Song Dynasties, with famous examples like the luxurious 
Dragon and Phoenix cakes. However, with the continuous development of tea fermentation technology and the spread of the Chinese philosophy of "nurturing integrity through tea," a significant shift occurred in the 24th year of Hongwu (1391) under Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He issued an edict to stop the production of Dragon and Phoenix tea cakes, marking the beginning of the loose tea era. To this day, most Chinese teas, except for a few like Pu-erh and dark tea, are still sold as loose leaves.
From the development of Chinese tea culture outlined above, it's clear that in China, tea is much more than a simple beverage. The Chinese tea ceremony is not just a social ritual revolving around drinking tea; it's a multidisciplinary science that integrates botany, herbal medicine, chemistry, humanities, history, and even health sciences.

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