History of Tea: From Food to Medicine
History of Tea: From Food to Medicine is an article about the history of tea during Shang ,Zhou,Qin and Han Dynasties.
Anthropologists speculate that prehistoric humans (the species Homo erectus) discovered indigenous tea trees growing wild in the forests of Yunnan. The quest to discover edibles in the environment would have eventually tempted these early inhabitants to chew on the leaves of the tea trees, perhaps stimulated by their own curiosity or from watching the actions of forest-dwelling animals. They would have discovered these leaves to be a source of invigorating energy that might sustain them on their daily rounds of foraging for food.
Once these prehistoric humans learned the skills of fire building, they gained warmth and protection from the elements, and soon they acquired the ability to cook meat and boil water. Surrounded by an abundance of wild-growing tea trees, they felled these trees to use for fuel. Most likely along the way they experimented with adding tea leaves and other forest barks and leaves to boiling water, which was then stewed into various strong, bitter, and invigorating concoctions.
Tea During Shang and Zhou Dynasties
By the time of the Shang dynasty (1766–1050 BC), tea was being consumed in Yunnan Province for its medicinal properties. For any given ailment, tea leaves were boiled with a host of other forest plants, seeds, barks, and leaves to concoct healing herbal remedies. Wisdom gleaned from the trial and error of using these herbal concoctions laid the groundwork for the great herbal-healing traditions for which China would later become famous. Early on, tea was thus among the growing pharmacopoeia in China of ingredients considered useful and necessary for maintaining one’s health.
By the end of the Zhou dynasty (1122–256 BC), indigenous tea trees were also found growing wild in Sichuan Province, Yunnan’s neighbor to the northeast. It is believed that here, for the first time, people began to boil tea leaves for consumption into a concentrated liquid without the addition of other leaves or herbs, thereby using tea as a bitter yet stimulating drink, rather than a medicinal concoction.
Tea and China’s Great Religions
China’s three great philosophy religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, sprouted toward the middle of the Zhou dynasty. Each of these religions embraced tea for its healthful virtues and powers of rejuvenation. Monks and priests who were introduced to tea found that this beverage would help them stay awake during long meditations. To these holy men, tea represented a virtuous and necessary tonic, which they declared to be the “elixir of life” that should be consumed daily by all people. As the popularity of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism spread throughout China, so did an awareness of life-enhancing tea.
Tea under the rule of Qin Shihuangdi
History of Tea: Early Uses for Tea
It was under the rule of Qin Shihuangdi, the first Qin emperor (r. 221–210 BC), however, that the greatest number of Chinese citizens came to hear of this beneficial tonic. During his reign China became a unified country; a collection of previously warring states thus turned into a single empire with a centralized administration. The emperor was responsible for monumental building projects the region had not yet witnessed.
Under Qin Shihuangdi’s rule isolated segments of fortification walls that had been built in earlier times were linked together to create one strong defensive wall that would define his empire. This became the first stage of the Great Wall of China. The emperor ordered the construction of a multitude of grand and elaborate imperial palaces as well as the creation of his own tomb, which he outfitted with thousands of the now famous terra-cotta warriors.
These projects brought massive numbers of workers from across China to live in compulsory labor camps. As workers shared information and praised the wonders of their homelands, their customs and special foods, those from the western provinces spoke of the invigorating qualities of tea. As word of this beneficial tonic spread across the empire, tea became a much sought-after commodity—everyone who heard of tea wanted to try it.
Around 53 BC a holy man named Wu LiZhen is credited with planting a cultivated tea garden in an isolated spot atop Mengding Mountain in Sichuan Province. His tea plants, today referred to as the Seven Tea Trees, established a tea garden that yielded tea of such purity and delicacy that it would become one of the exclusive Tribute Tea Gardens reserved for use only by the emperor. Wu LiZhen is thus called the forefather of tea cultivation, as it was from this first garden that the seeds of Sichuan’s extensive tea gardens came.
Tea during the Han dynasty
History of Tea: Early Uses for Tea
Tea’s destiny changed course during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Former western barbarian territories, including Sichuan and Yunnan, and all of the southern provinces were brought into the fold of the Chinese Celestial Empire. This geographic change made it easier for common people to obtain tea from the western provinces. Government control over the Sichuan and Yunnan tea regions meant that tea could be traded more easily, and later, under the Tang dynasty (618–907) these vast regions would be developed into prime tea gardens.
But despite its growing popularity, the way tea was still prepared by many produced a bitter-tasting drink. In the latter part of the Three Kingdoms Period warring factions split the north and south regions, and the Period of Disunity (220–589 AD) brought an unsettled time to China. Refinements in tea drinking continued to progress, however.
During this time the method of how fresh tea leaves were processed and brewed changed. Tea leaves, formerly dried and charred, were now steamed to make them pliant. After steaming, the leaves were dried but not charred, then pounded and compressed into small, solid cakes of tea. The cakes were then baked, which hardened them and kept the tea from spoiling. In this state bits of tea could be chipped or scraped off and finally boiled.
These changes in the process were reported to have eliminated the bitterness of the leaf, transforming it into a sweet-tasting drink. Although this tea was no doubt still crude and astringent by today’s standards, this modification began the final transformation of tea from a bitter tonic to a pleasure beverage.
Zhong Zi, a writer of this time, is credited with producing the first document that described tea production and tea drinking in his day. He records a method of tea preparation that involved adding onions, ginger, and orange along with the broken-up bits of tea in the boiling water.
If you want to read more about the history of tea check out “Tea Drinking during the Tang Dynasty”