China National Tea Museum in Hangzhou looked unpretentious. A young man and young woman sat together on a bench looking out at a tea plantation. It was the first time that we visited a tea plantation in China. We stepped into the museum and found we were in an authentic teahouse. The museum displays the history of tea and results of tea studies and it receives more than one million visitors a year. We wandered through the exhibition halls, reviewing exhibits. What are on display in showcases are just a small part of the 1,300 tea species known to mankind. However, all these tea species share a common ancestor: , a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce tea.
The home of tea is in the southwest of China. Tea as a beverage began its eastward journey thousands of years ago. It then spread all over China. It traveled further to Japan, Korea and India before it reached the length and breadth of the world. The original tea making differed from the way we know very well today. The ancient beverage, in all probabilities, may not appeal to modern tea drinkers. In the ancient procedure, tealeaves must be pulverized and boiled in water. It must be seasoned with salt before it was served.
A Chinese legend has it that Shen Nong first discovered tea. The patron of agriculture instructed that tea must be boiled before it could be drunk. One day, he was boiling water by a shrub. It happened that some leaves fell from the shrub into the boiling water in the water jar. Shen Nong sipped the water and found it tasteful. The myth offers an accurate time to indicate when this happened: it happened in 2737 BC.
In fact, ancient Chinese knew about tea for many centuries in the pre-Christ era. As early as the Western Zhou (1,100-771BC), tea was part of the offering at the royal sacrificial ceremony in honor of deities. Tealeaves were also used as herbal medicine and vegetable. In the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), steeped tea was generally used as a medicine.
As testified by historical records, it was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that tea became a popular beverage. The centuries witnessed the great prosperity of the Tang era featuring political stability and economic growth. At first, only privileged nobles could afford tea. Then the fashion spread downwards. Eventually, it was one of the seven necessities of well-maintained everyday life. At that time, tea was steamed and pressed into bulks in the shape of a brick or a small millstone. Brick tea can be purchased as a tourist souvenir. It can be easily transported to Tibet. A tea brick must be ground before tea is made.
Wu Xiaoli, curator of China National Tea Museum, gave us a brief introduction to the genesis of . Lu Yu (733-804) wrote a book exclusively dedicated to everything he knew about tea. The book covers information on planting tea trees, processing, and tea drinking. The special book is also known as . In the Song (960-1279), pulverized tea was a popular beverage. It was easy to make tea out of pulverized tealeaves. A bamboo stick was used to whisk pulverized tea until it frothed. At that time, tea was also one of the most important commodities China exported to overseas markets. In 1191, a Japanese monk named Saichou finished his studies in China. The tea seeds he brought back to Japan made tea farming real in the island country.
There was a dark age for tea. It was marginalized when the Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1271 to 1368. Tea came back to the everyday life of Chinese in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). There emerged a new tea product: broken tea. In 1391, an imperial decree stipulated that only broken tea could be tea tributes to the royal house.
Today, there is a great variety of tea products: green tea, black tea, oolong (green and yellow), red tea, white tea and white tea. Interesting enough, there was only green tea in ancient China. In the 17th century, tea farmers in southern China began to produce black tea and oolong tea, which underwent microbial fermentation before they were ready for international trade. Unlike unfermented tea, these tea products would not deteriorate on their long journey across the world to overseas consumers.
(The article was written in cooperation with the Chinese newspaper Guangming Daily and the Czech monthly Literární Noviny. The Chinese version has been printed in Chinese tea, a magazine.)