A view of the Talawakelle tea estate in Sri Lanka, which grows fine Ceylon tea for Dilmah Tea. Photo courtesy DilmahTea.com.



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August 2005
Updated January 2010

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Beverages

The History of Tea

Page 2: The Evolution Of Tea Culture In China & Japan

This is Part 2 of an 8-page article. Click on the black links below to view other pages.


The Evolution of Tea Culture in China and Japan

The tea plant probably originated in the region that today comprises Northern India, Tibet and southwest China. Prehistoric man made a relish from the leaves and also used it for medicinal purposes, and the leaves were chewed. Tea plant cultivation in China began about 4,000 years ago. Chinese traders visiting the southern regions returned with tea, which, not surprisingly, became people all over China.

The Spread Of Tea Culture

In the Shijing or The Book of Songs, the earliest collection of Chinese written approximately 1122-256 B.C.E. (the Zhou Dynasty), tea is referred to as tu. It was also called jia and she in the Han Dynasty, 206 B.C.E.-220 C.E. During the Han Dynasty, tu also took on a second pronunciation, cha.

  • In the Fujian province on the southeast coast of China (Taiwan lies directly to the east, across the Taiwan Strait), tu became te, and ultimately tea, the word we use. Te is still used in romance languages including French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.
  • Jia evolved into cha and chai, the words for tea in Russia and India, respectively. The first example of the word cha in print is in Cha Jing (or Ch’a Ching, “The Classic of Tea”) by Lu Yu, published in 760 C.E.
  • The word she evolved to soh, used in Jiangsu Province, and sakh in the Ottoman Empire.
  • There are many more names for tea in different European languages.

If all of this seems confusing, think of the different words that can be used instead of cola—carbonated beverage, carbonated drink, mixer, pop, soda, soda pop, soda water, soft drink, tonic, etc.

The Spread Of Tea Culture: The Classic Age Of Tea

By 350 B.C.E., tea drinking was common in China, and many grew the plant in private gardens. Tea was thought of as a medicinal drink in China until late in the sixth century. Tea could be steeped with onion, ginger, orange or peppermint, depending on the medicinal purpose.

Not until the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 C.E.), often referred to as the Classic Age of Tea, did consumption move beyond medicinal purposes to a social beverage. Tea became China’s national drink.

Brick of Tea
A brick of compressed tea leaves.

During this time, compressed bricks of tea leaves were first softened by fire and then grated into boiling water. Milk and sugar were never added to tea—this practice was begun by Europeans—although both were available and used in other foods. During this period, the government imposed tea tax—further evidence of tea’s growing popularity.

In 780 C.E., Chinese merchants commissioned a Buddhist monk, Lu Yu (733 to 804 C.E.), to write the Ch’a Ching treatise (Classic of Tea) to extol the virtues of tea. It included the proper tea making process:


After being plucked on a sunny day, the tea leaves must be baked over an even fire, with no wind. After baking, they should be placed in a paper bag to cool. When completely cold, the leaves can be ground. [Tea was not brewed from whole leaf until the 1300s.] Then spring water should be heated to just under the boiling point and a pinch of salt added. Then bring it to a second boil, and stir only the middle portion of the liquid. Steep the ground tea leaves in this water in each cup individually and drink before it cools. The first and second cups taste the best, and more than four or five cups should not be consumed.


Lu also describes types of tea, uses and the benefits of drinking it. More importantly, he imbued the writings with a spiritual aesthetic that reflected Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian religious thought. The tea ceremony served as a metaphor for expressing the harmony and simplicity that not only ordered but also streamed throughout the entire universe.

Tea was a drink of the working people and the aristocracy, and was often drunk while entertaining. Making tea was an honor, so only the lord of the house was allowed this privilege. The skill of making tea properly was highly valued in China. An inability to make tea well, and with elegant style and presentation, was tantamount to being viewed as unmannered.


The Romantic Age Of Tea

In the Sung dynasty (960 to 1280 C.E.), known as the Romantic Age of Tea, poetry and artistic references to tea abounded. A precursor to the Japanese tea ceremony to come, the most popular method of preparation involved grinding delicate tea leaves into a green powder in a stone mill and whipping it into hot water with bamboo whisks, creating a frothy drink. Formal tea-tasting parties were held, comparable to modern wine tastings.

Powdered green matcha tea
Powdered green matcha tea, which
creates a frothy beverage, is used
for tea ceremonies.

During this period, Chinese culture significantly influenced and impacted art, politics and religion in the Far East. A Zen Buddhist monk, Saicho, is credited with introducing tea to Japan in the late 8th or early 9th century. While studying in China, Saicho was exposed to tea and returned to Japan with seeds. He began to grow it at his monastery. The monks found that tea enhanced their meditations, and over time small tea plantations sprouted up at secluded monasteries. However, due to the isolation of monasteries, tea did not explode into the mainstream until the thirteenth century.

At this time in Japan, as in China, people only drank tea in powdered form (matcha). Tea preparation and service became elevated to an art, an extension of the Zen philosophy’s purity of form. The Japanese tea ceremony or chanoyu (literally, “the hot water for the tea”) evolved, in which the making and serving of tea is carried out through an elaborate set of procedures, each movement learned over years of study and requiring great skill and poise.


Continue To Page 3: The Modern Steeping Custom Emerges & Tea Entices The

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