CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Tea: A Very Short History | China Heritage Quarterly

Tea: A Very Short History

Marco Ceresa

The following brief article by Marco Ceresa is extracted from Brill's Encyclopedia of China, edited by Daniel Leese and published in 2008. Click here to read an eighteenth century precursor.

Cha, the current Chinese word for tea, refers both to the botanical item (Camellia Sinensis) and to the drink. Before the character cha came into use in the Han dynasty, the plant was known under different names, such as tu, jia, ming, and chuan. Among there early names, tu, a general name for bitter tasting plants was the most common until the charates was created by subtracting a horizontal stroke from the character tu itself. The new character was read cha, which was the alternative reading of the character tu (probably in those circumstances where it meant 'tea').

Fig.1 A Song period Longquan ware tea bowl from the Suining hoard (Photograph: Daniel Sanderson)

The tea plant is generally assumed to be indigenous to southwest China, although the debate on the original birthplace of tea is still open. What is commonly accepted as the earliest reliable reference to tea-drinking in China is to be found in the biography of Wei Yao in the Sanguozhi (History of the Three Kingdoms). The episode, which can be dated between 264 and 273 AD, is well known: Wei Yao, when invited to Sun Hao's banquets, was secretly given tea instead of the enormous amounts of wine each guest was expected to put up with on such occasions. There are actually some other earlier references to tea-drinking, which scholars usually dismiss as unreliable (from a textual point of view) or not relevant to the point (they refer to tea as food or medicine, not as a recreational drink). It is not until the Tang dynasty that tea-drinking becomes a nationwide custom from south to north.

Two factors contributed to the diffusion of the custom: the rise of Chan Buddhism and the appearance of the Chajing (The Classic of Tea), by Lu Yu (733–804), compiled between 758 and 760. This monograph on all aspects of tea culture was the first book ever devoted to the subject. The Chajing is part of a corpus of monographs on tea, the Chashu, which from the Tang to the Qing numbers over 100 titles and is one of the most important sources for the history of tea in China.

Chan adepts would use tea for its stimulant properties to keep mentally alert during meditation, and would always carry their tea utensils with them. In 770, an office of tribute tea was set up to deal with tea for court consumption. At the same time, the nomadic tribes from the area north of China had taken up the habit of drinking tea, for which they bartered their celebrated horses. The Song dynasty was the rise to prominence of Fujian province as a tea-growing region, the establishment of several tea gardens for imperial consumption (the most among which was in Beiyuan in Jiangzhou, present day Fujian province), and the creation in 1074 of the tea and horse agency, responsible for the bartering of tea for horses, which became a permanent fixture of regional government, playing a vital part in the economy. The Ming-Qing period saw a progressive reduction of the ancient tea-tax (established in 973), which led to its abolition in recognition of the fact that tea had become necessary to the people and therefore a traditionally tax-free item.

Tea has been manufactured throughout Chinese history in the following forms: cake tea, powder tea, and loose leaf tea. The history of tea-brewing techniques can be divided into three, partly overlapping, phases: 1) boiled tea (zhucha, at Tang times), 2) whipped tea (mocha, at Song times), 3) steeped tea (baocha, from Ming onwards).

The first phase is described in a detailed fashion in the Chajing. According to Lu Yu, tea cakes were dried by fire and stored in paper bags while still warm to retain their fragrance. Once cooled, they were ground into a fine powder. When the water would begin to boil and 'fish-eye-like' bubbles appeared, a pinch of salt was added for flavour. As soon as the bubbles 'linked together as pearls in a necklace', a ladle of water was removed from the cauldron for later use. The boiling water was stirred with a pair of bamboo sticks in a circular motion, and tea powder added to the centre of the ripple. When the water reached a full boil, making the sound of 'drumming waves', the water ladled out earlier was returned to the cauldron to lower the temperature and stop the boiling. When a froth appeared on the surface, the tea was ladled into bowls and served.

The Song dynasty marked a new chapter in the history of tea with the diffusion of the whipped tea method. Whipped tea is prepared from tea cakes made from compressed tea powder, and are much finer than the Tang tea cakes made from leaves crushed in a mortar [sic]. Song tea was prepared by re-grinding the tea cake into fine powder, placing the powder in a bowl, pouring boiling water into the bowl from a ewer, and whipping the mixture with a whisk.

With the beginning of the Ming dynasty, tea cakes went out of production (with the exception of those needed for barter trade with nomadic tribes), and loose tea leaves came into use. Ming tea is brewed by pouring boiling water over leaves placed in a vessel. The emergence of the steeping method brought significant changes to tea ware, such as the introduction of the tea-pot. The Qing dynasty brought no substantial changes in the process of tea-brewing, whereas the manufacture of tea ware flourished in this period as never before (purple clay-ware in Yixing, polychrome wares in Jingdezhen).

From the point of view of manufacture, a new procedure was devised early in [the] Qing dynasty by tea manufacturers in the Wuyi district of Fujian. Instead of steaming or frying the leaves right after picking, they would allow the leaves to wilt and partially ferment, before heating them to stop the fermentation. Tea processed in this way is known as Wulong (Oolong). The manufacture of Wulong tea led to a new method of tea brewing known as gongfu tea. According to this method, tea leaves are steeped in dainty teapots, and served in tiny cups, often the size of a nutshell.


Marco Ceresa, 'Herbe amère et douce rosée: Notes sur l'histoire de la terminologie du gout du thé en Chine,' in Flora Blanchon (ed.), Savourer, Goûter, Paris: Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1995, pp. 269-84.

——, 'Oltre di Chajing: I Chashu di Epoca Tang,' Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, vol. 53, no. 2, 1993, pp. 193-210.

——, Il Canone del tè, Milan: Leonardo, 1990.

Chen Zugui and Zhu Zizhen (eds), Zhongguo chaye lishi ziliao xuanji, Beijing: Nongye chubanshe, 1981.

Chofu Nunome and Nakamura Takahashi, Chugoku no chasho, Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1976.

Robert Gardella, Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade, 1757-1937, Berkeley/London: University of California Press, 1994.

Paul J. Smith, Taxing Heaven's Storehouse: Horses, Bureaucrats, and the Destruction of the Sichuan Tea Industry 1074-1224, Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Asia Center, 1991.