Last month, we celebrated the Lunar New Year and with it, the start of the Year of the Pig. Did you know that in Chinese culture pigs are signs of good fortune? We hope that the first weeks of this Chinese New Year have brought you luck but if you ask us, our greatest fortune remains the discovery of tea in China.
How did one country create a beverage that is still going strong hundreds of years later? Let’s learn about the history of Chinese tea and what it looks like today.
Sips by is a personalized tea discovery subscription. Each month, we match tea drinkers across the U.S. with delicious teas from over 150 global tea brands that we’re sure they’ll love. Members receive 4 teas chosen just for them in every box. Learn more about our tea subscription service.
What Is the History of Chinese Tea?
The origins of tea may have started in China, but now it’s enjoyed around the globe. We actually have China to thank for many of our favorite teas.
The Origins of Chinese Tea
The history of tea dates back to ancient China, almost 5,000 years ago. According to legend, in 2732 B.C. Emperor Shen Nong discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into a pot of boiling water in his garden. Finding the flavor enjoyable, he is said to have begun researching the plant. Still, tea was originally enjoyed for its medicinal benefits.
This legend is likely a fable. Still, since we have no hard evidence regarding how tea came to be, we’d like to believe it’s the truth.
From the 4th to 8th centuries, the popularity of tea in China grew rapidly. No longer used for medicinal properties alone, tea became valued for everyday pleasure and refreshment. As tea plantations spread throughout China, tea merchants became rich and expansive, elegant tea wares became the banner for the wealth and status of their owners.
The Chinese empire tightly controlled the preparation and cultivation of the crop. It was even specified that only young women, presumably because of their purity, were to handle the tea leaves. In fact, these young female handlers were not to eat garlic, onions, or strong spices in case the odor on their fingertips might contaminate the precious tea leaves.
Tea Travels to Japan
Shortly after tea became popular in China, the Japanese discovered this delicious hot drink. The Japanese brought tea back to Japan, where Buddhist monks used the drink to stay awake and focused during their meditations.
Rather than use green tea leaves whole, these monks used powdered green tea leaves to create a frothy tea drink. We now know this concoction as matcha.
The Japanese revered Chinese culture and modeled much of their own tea practices after Chinese practices. This is why Japanese and Chinese tea cultures are so similar.
In the 1200s, tea drinking slowly asserted itself as an important part of Japanese culture. The practice of tea drinking became a popular pastime not only for royalty but also for lower-class citizens.
Japanese and Chinese Tea Ceremonies Arise
The Japanese revered tea so much that they created the tea ceremony. During a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, artistic elements like tea, gardens, artwork, and floral design are enjoyed in complete silence.
The Chinese people had their own form of tea ceremony, too, with both versions emphasizing the spiritual nature of tea and its effects on community and harmony.
As tea ceremonies grew in popularity, so did ceramics. This is because the tea ceremonies used ceramic bowls and ornate pots in their tea brewing activities. Both Japanese culture and Chinese culture disdained lavish displays of wealth, so they gravitated toward an art movement known as wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi essentially refers to the appreciation of impermanence and imperfection, especially related to beauty.
This is a Japanese term, but it refers to an imperfect and rustic type of aesthetic that both the Chinese and Japanese favored. The Japanese took this farther than the Chinese did, but even the Chinese preferred simplistic bowls and utensils.
Tea Enters Europe
Tea began to make its way westward, and it eventually found its way to Holland. The Dutch and the Portuguese alike loved tea, but it was the Dutch who first negotiated a trade with China.
At this time, China was the sole producer of tea. Tea was also expensive to import, which meant that it was a drink largely enjoyed by the upper class.
In the 1660s, a Portuguese princess married into the British royal family and brought her tea drinking habits with her. At first, the royal family enjoyed tea in solitude, but eventually, the drink made its way into the streets of Britain. Once it did, tea mania struck fast and hard.
Citizens of Britain clamored over tea, but the price was still the same. In fact, the country’s great love for tea began to cause serious damage to its economy. Britain was hemorrhaging money into the tea industry and decided to take action.
The East India Company
The East India Company had a monopoly on tea imports from China at the time. However, Britain officially banned this monopoly in the 1830s.
This left the East India Company scrambling to regain market control, especially as other tea houses and importers began to spring up. To re-establish control, the East India Company did two things: It started the Opium Wars and infiltrated Chinese tea production.
The East India Company contracted Scottish horticulturist Robert Fortune to steal Chinese tea secrets. To do this, Fortune posed as a Chinese citizen and slowly took note of Chinese tea production practices.
In his time there, Fortune discovered that all teas were made from the same plant but exposed to different oxidation processes. Of course, we know now that harvest conditions and growing season also have a ton to do with creating distinct types of tea, but Fortune was definitely onto something.
Fortune also stole tens of thousands of tea plants and tea plant clippings and sent them to the East India Company.
The Company used these secrets and plants to start their own competing tea production farms in India, which is today’s second-largest producer of tea in the world. Once this happened, China was no longer the only country that could produce tea.
What Is Chinese Wedding Tea?
In Chinese culture, tea is closely tied to weddings. We may think of today’s wedding drinks as wines and cocktails, but Chinese weddings typically see guests drinking tea.
Before marriage, there’s betrothal. In traditional Chinese culture, the groom’s family would present the bride’s family with gifts in good faith, typically including tea in one form or another. The bride’s family would then send a dowry if they accepted the offer.
Although wedding tea was common in the Tang Dynasty, the tradition of gifting tea was solidified during the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1279 BCE. The Song Dynasty encouraged tea drinking amongst Chinese citizens, so tea became a staple in every bride and groom’s dowry. The guests would even drink tea at the weddings.
Before the guests drink, the happy couple traditionally engages in the Chinese tea ceremony. In a traditional Chinese wedding tea ceremony, the bride and groom bow or kneel and serve tea to their immediate families. This signifies that these families have now become relatives of the happy couple. This is not to be confused with the gongfu tea ceremony which focuses more on the slow and ritualistic practice of making tea.
Modern Chinese weddings look a lot like Western weddings, but tea still plays an incredibly important part in Chinese wedding culture today. In fact, many Chinese couples still include the Chinese wedding tea ceremony in their weddings.
Types of Chinese Tea
All types of Chinese tea come from the dried and fermented leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which grows natively in both China and India. Each type of tea has a different oxidation process, harvest condition, and growing season that results in varied flavor, color, and caffeine content.
Up to the mid-17th century, all Chinese tea was green tea. As foreign trade increased, though, the Chinese growers discovered that they could preserve the tea leaves with a special oxidation process. This resulted in black tea, which kept its flavor and aroma longer than the more delicate Chinese green teas and was better equipped for the export journeys to other countries.
Green tea comes from tea plant leaves that are dried and oxidized a little longer than white tea leaves. Green teas are typically very floral, often paired with other floral flavors to bring out their light texture.
There are many types of green tea that can come from various regions of China, such as Dragon Well or Longjing tea from Hangzhou.
White tea is harvested first before the leaves have much time to develop deep flavors and rich colors. As a result, white teas are often low in caffeine and have incredibly light tastes and textures.
One of our favorite white teas is Made of Tea Organic Bai Mudan White Tea. This quality tea provides a refreshing mid-day pick-me-up that is lovely for any on-the-go professional.
Oolong tea is a mix between red tea and green tea. Its color can vary, but it typically lands between red and green tea, and it is not to be confused with yellow tea. Oolong tea is known for its distinct floral flavor and light texture.
We recommend Davidson’s Organic Teas Quilan China Oolong for a rich oolong tea. This tea comes from Quilan tea leaves and has a woodsy flavor that is sure to be a favorite.
This may be confusing, but Chinese red tea actually refers to black tea. The Chinese call it red tea due to its deep amber hue, which makes sense.
We recommend Bare Leaves Golden Yunnan Black for anyone interested in trying Chinese red tea. This tea is made from plants grown in the Yunnan province, which is highly forested. The unique soil chemistry in this region gives the tea a surprisingly floral taste, which we love to pair with milk and sugar for a mid-afternoon treat.
Pu-erh or pu-er tea is a dark and musky tea that is made from fermented green tea leaves. This tea differs from red tea in that the leaves are left in a damp environment for extended periods of time to enrich the flavor.
Tea has remained an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years; it was popular before the Egyptians built the great pyramids, and was traded with Asian countries even before Europe left the dark ages. The importance and popularity of tea in China continues in the modern-day and has become a symbol of the country's history, religion, and culture.
While Emperor Shen Nung might have discovered tea in the first place, Sips by is here to help new and experienced tea drinkers discover their favorite cups of tea. Click the button below to create a tea profile, take the tea profile quiz, and get a personalized monthly tea box matched to your unique tastes. Or if you already know your tea tastes choose your favorite tea bags and get them shipped to your door.
Need help getting your tea collection all set? Sips by can help with that too. We have teapots, tea pitchers, mugs, and tools for steeping to create your own personalized tea set. Happy sipping!
About Sips by: We’re a female-founded and led startup that makes discovering tea fun, personalized, and affordable. The Sips by Box is the only multi-brand, personalized tea subscription box. Each month, we match tea drinkers across the U.S. with delicious teas from over 150 global tea brands that we’re sure they’ll love. Based out of Austin, Texas, we are adept at savoring a hot mug even when it’s seasonally inappropriate.