The Origin and Evolution of Tea in China

Did you know that tea originated from ancient China? Legend has it that its origins date back to almost 5,000 years ago in 2732 B.C. when Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when the leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water. 

As the leaves were boiling in the water, the emperor inhaled the pleasant aroma of the brew and decided to take a sip. He was surprised by its flavor and the warm and restorative feeling it brought him.

He also felt it was investigating his body for possible illnesses. Thus, he decided to name the brew “ch’a,” the Chinese character meaning to check or investigate. 

Fast forward to 200 B.C. during the Han Dynasty when an emperor mandated that upon referring to tea, a special written character that illustrates wooden branches, grass, and a man between the two must be used. This character represents the tea’s cultural Chinese significance and balance with nature.

Emperor Shen Nung’s discovery of tea


China’s Tea History

China is considered to have the earliest record of tea consumption. The popularity of making tea in China  grew rapidly as tea plantations cropped up throughout the country. However, these plantations were tightly controlled such that only young women were the only ones worthy and pure enough to handle the tea leaves. 

Based on the  evidence found in the mausoleum of Emperor Jin, the Han dynasty’s sixth emperor, tea was drunk and served to Han dynasty emperors. Aside from its medicinal properties, tea was consumed for everyday pleasure and refreshment in the imperial court. 

Laozi, one of the greatest Chinese philosophers, was said to describe tea as “the froth of the liquid jade” and claimed it an “indispensable ingredient to the elixir of life.”



Tea’s Evolution in China 

During the Song Dynasty, people decided to experiment and included many loose-leaf styles in order to preserve the delicate character preferred by society. This eventually turned into the loose teas and the practice of brewed tea that we know today. In addition, a powdered form of tea also emerged.

During the mid-13th century, the Chinese learned to process tea in a different way. They started roasting and crumbling the tea leaves instead of steaming them.

During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, unfermented tea leaves were first pan-fried, then rolled and dried. This stops the oxidation process which turns the leaves dark and allows the tea to remain green. In the 15th century, oolong tea was developed. With oolong tea, the tea leaves were allowed to partially ferment before pan-frying.

This eventually shifted the tea production to loose-leaf tea as processing techniques advanced through pan-firing and sun-drying. By the end of the 16th century, loose-leaf tea eventually replaced the previous processes of making tea.

Tea has become a symbol of the country’s history, religion, and culture, as the importance and popularity of tea in China continue to be relevant in modern society.



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