Tea in China 茶
“For all the tea in China” is an English idiom for an overwhelming abundance. China has been at the heart of the development of the global tea industry for thousands of years.
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History of Chinese Tea drinking
Tea drinking may have been established as long ago as 3,000 years ago in the Zhou dynasty. According to legend it was the emperor Shennong ➚ who introduced the drink. However it is difficult to be sure whether the infusion was of what we now know as 'tea' or some other herb. Tea became popular in China at the same time as Buddhism – 1,800 years ago. Soon it was cultivated widely in Sichuan and south of the Yangzi. By the Tang dynasty the demand was such that the government imposed control over the trade. Books were written about tea: Lu Yu's Cha Jing ➚ (c. 770CE) details amongst many other things which are the best colored porcelain for tea cups to show off the color of the tea. It details the Chinese tea ritual complete with the 24 special instruments you need to make a brew correctly. Some of the suggested additional ingredients include orange peel, salt and slices of onion. The classic also describes the cultivation of the plant and the best time of day and weather to pick the leaves. The source of the water should be pure, and certain places became famous for their water for tea-making, for example 虎跑梦泉 Hǔ pǎo quán Running tiger Spring near Hangzhou.
For many centuries tea competitions (斗茶 dòu chá) were held to identify the best tea of the year. In the Song dynasty the tea was prepared as a fine dust which was whisked with water to form a froth of tea ➚ rather than an infusion.
Later on the Chinese tea trade was suppressed in the Yuan dynasty, as the Mongols saw tea drinking as decadent, but was restored as soon as the Ming dynasty came to power. During the Ming the harvested tea leaves began to be dried rather than steamed producing dry leaves rather than an oily block.
Demonstrating the elaborate tea ceremony at the Du Fu Thatched Cottage Museum, Chengdu, Sichuan
The well-known Japanese tea ceremony ➚ came into prominence in the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1868), when Japanese women were trained to carry out the elaborate steps provide of tea for guests. The story is that tea drinking was introduced by a Buddhist priest from China and the strict rituals of the ceremony come from that origin. In Southern China the 工夫茶 Gōng fu chá tea ceremony is equally elaborate
A Georgian Staffordshire teapot (c.1750) in the shape of a camel made in salt glazed stoneware
Image by Valerie McGlinchey available under a Creative Commons license ➚
Cha is the Chinese word for tea 茶 chá from whence the English word 'char' ➚ is derived. The English word ‘tea’ comes from the local Fujian dialect which pronounces 茶 as ‘ti’. The character is a pictograph of a tree under a lid - suggesting drying and oxidation, the grass radical on top indicates its plant origin. Over centuries of cultivation many other characters were introduced relating to tea, 茗 míng is a term for the young leaves; 蔎 shè and 荈 chuǎn for coarse teas.
The Tea trade
Tea came to be the most important Chinese export once the Europeans had acquired a taste for it. It was the Dutch who started the trade at the start of the 17th century. It was initially so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford it. Tea caddies ➚ of this date had a lock to protect the expensive leaves. The word ‘caddie’ is derived from ‘catty’ the standard measure for weight of tea. A catty of tea weighs about 1 pound [600 grams]. Along with bolts of silk and silver, catties of tea were used as a currency; gifts to China's neighboring kingdoms was partly made with catties of tea.
“That excellent and by all Physicians approved, China Drink, Called by the Chineans Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee”,
London Weekly News 21st January 1606.
Peter Mundy, one of the first Englishmen to visit China, wrote in his journal in 1637:“Chaa, what it is: The people there gave us a certaine Drinke called Chaa, which is only water with a kind of herbe boyled in itt. It must bee Drancke warmed and is accompted wholesome.”
Harvesting tea by hand in Taiwan
Centuries on and other countries began to take a liking to the infusion. Originally nearly all the exported tea came from the relatively small province of Fujian whose mountainous climate is ideally suited to growing the shrub. As Fujian is a coastal province, transport to Europe was easy by sea with the famous tea clippers ➚ vying to make the fastest journey to Europe with the new, fresh harvest. Some tea was exported to Russia but most went to Britain, and it was the British East India Company ➚ that handled the shipping. Trade increased 50 fold in just 80 years. By the late eighteenth century tea accounted for more than 60% of the East India Company’s trade. It was the huge demand for tea that proved the stimulus for the Opium Wars as China wanted silver in payment for the tea; the trade would have been much more profitable if the tea ships could take merchandise to China in exchange for it. To break the Chinese monopoly in tea cultivation the company started growing tea in the Assam district of northern India. It is said that the ill-fated MacCartney expedition to China (1793) brought back tea plants from China to the botanic gardens at Kolkuta (Calcutta) from these few plants the Indian tea industry may have developed. In order to promote Indian rather than Chinese tea a story came out that all tea originally came from India not China; from then on most of the tea drunk in Britain came from northern India and Sri Lanka rather than China.
Porcelain tea sets produced in China became the must have items for tea drinking in Europe. The styles used for export were very different from those used domestically in China.
Girl wearing a traditional dress holds a glass of green tea in a tea plantation.
Camellia sinensis (‘Sinensis’ means from China) is the Latin name for the tea plant. The small tree is in the same family as the ornamental Camellia which flowers in Spring. It is kept as a low shrub by pruning. The variety grown in China is the smaller leaved version Camellia sinensis sinensis, while India grows Camellia sinensis assamica. It is the active growing tip that has the lighter and best flavor. Up to five pickings can be collected in one year as the tips rapidly re-grow. The first picking in April is considered the best. Caffeine is the active stimulant that accumulates in the leaves. The foliage's bitter taste keeps away herbivores including goats. In mountainous Fujian goats are used to keep the tea terraces free from weeds as they'll eat everything except the tea plants. The plant grows best in humid conditions, and the moisture off the South China Sea makes Fujian an ideal spot to grow it. Other favored locations include the moist mountains of Sichuan; Jiangxi and Anhui.
YouTube video demonstrating the tea industry in China
Laying out tea leaves to dry, Yunnan
The drink of tea, particularly green tea, is high in anti-oxidants and so has anti-cancer potential as well as lowering cholesterol. There are various categories of tea ➚, green tea is the type that is unprocessed, it is just the fresh dried leaves. In contrast black (or red) tea is oxidized (often misleadingly called 'fermented') and this is the variety generally exported. The length of time that the tea is left to oxidize after picking determines the bitterness introduced. Oolong teas are intermediate in type between green and red. Chinese people usually drink green tea while black tea is drunk elsewhere in the world. This is partly because black tea holds its flavor longer which was essential for transportation on the long sea trips to Europe.
In Mongolia and Tibet tea is added into 'soups' with other ingredients and eaten rather than drunk. 'Yunnan brick tea' is a black tea mixed by the Tibetans with yak butter to produce a creamy strong tea.
Chinese tea leaves
A fine tea in China commands a high price, it is not unusual to pay a $100 for 1 pound [ kgs] of tea. The appreciation of tea is very much like how wine is prized and valued in France.
Here are some famous teas:
|Green tea||西湖龙井 Dragon well||Hangzhou, Zhejiang|
|Green tea||洞庭碧螺春 Dongding Green Spiral||Suzhou, Zhejiang|
|Green tea||黄山毛峰 Yellow mountain tip||Huangshan, Anhui|
|Green tea||珠茶 Gunpowder||Pingshui, Zhejiang|
|Green tea||六安瓜片 Liuan leaf||Jinzhai, Anhui|
|Green tea||珍眉 Chun Mee||Zhejiang; Anhui|
|Oolong tea||武夷岩茶Wuyi Rock Tea||Wuyi, Fujian|
|Oolong tea||安溪铁观音 Anxi Iron Goddess||Anxi, Fujian|
|Yellow tea||君山银针 Jun mountain Silver needle||Yueyang, Hunan|
|Black tea||祁门红茶 Keemun||Qimen, Anhui|
|Black tea||拉普山小种 Lapsang Souchong||Wuyi, Fujian|
|Black tea||Szechwan Imperial||Sichuan|
|White tea||白毫银针 White Tip silver needle||Fuding, Fujian|
|White tea||白牡丹 White Peony||Fujian|
|Puerh tea||云南普洱 Yunnan Puerh||Puerh, Yunnan|
|Jasmine||茉莉花茶 Jasmine flower||Fuzhou, Fujian|
The best teas are those picked earliest in the year. The Qing Ming festival (around 5th April each year) is considered the date that determines the start of the main tea crop. Any tea harvested before that date commends a very high price.
There are elaborate traditions for preparing tea for drinking. The best tea should be made with freshly boiled soft water in a small copper kettle; hard water containing lime should be avoided. A porcelain teapot is best. Chinese teacups often come with a lid, useful for filtering the leaves that are left in the cup. Green tea is drunk without milk and sugar and for this reason teaspoons are not generally found in China.
Tea houses ➚ in China have been a traditional meeting place for centuries, particularly in Sichuan province. As well as sipping green tea customers play Chinese chess and Mahjong, or read newspapers. Peddlers of various trades frequent the tea house including a Sichuan specialty - the ear picker ➚ who cleanses the ear while you sit in the tea house. A cup will be replenished with boiling water several times before the leaves are finished with, the middle infusions are considered the best flavored.
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