A thousand years ago, when new types of tea were cultivated, tea farmers would gather to grade their leaves and compete in their tea making skills.
Contestants, onlookers and judges would all be present. It was like a major sporting event. Tea testing competitions, which originated during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), reached their height in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Even rulers and academics would take part in the competition. The contest between Su Shi (1037-1101) a poet and Cai Xiang (1012-67) was one of the most notable.
Cai brought high-quality leaves and chose the most esteemed Mount Huishan well water from Wuxi of East China's Jiangsu Province to make his concoction. In previous tea contests, this great calligrapher and author of "Record of Tea" (Cha Lu) had never lost.
But to everyone's surprise, Su Shi used water boiled in burned bamboo (a kind of traditional Chinese medicine) to finally win the competition.
This is just one of the interesting stories that Liu Tong told in his book "Chinese Tea," the English version of which was published by the China Intercontinental Press recently.
The discovery and usage of tea has had a long history of some 4,000 or 5,000 years in China.
Tea enjoyed real popularity in the Tang Dynasty, when people invented a steaming method to get rid of the grass flavour in the tea-leaves. They picked tea-leaves and then steamed them. They were then ground and made into cakes, dried and then sealed for storage.
It was also in the Tang Dynasty that teahouses in their real sense came into being. And what is more important, the first definitive commentary on tea "The Book of Tea" appeared during the Tang Dynasty.
In the Song Dynasty, tea drinking became a ceremonial activity. Academics would frequently hold tea parties and compete in their skills of making tea.
But how could you possibly decipher the best tea? In those days the colour of tea and the froth were the deciding factors.
Since people used tea-cakes to make tea in the Song Dynasty, the tea took on a whitish colour. Pure white would indicate the leaves were fresh, tender and finely processed.
The best-loved concoction ware was the black-glazed Rabbit-Hair Cup (Tuhao Zhan) made in Jianyao Kiln of Jianyang city of East China's Fujian Province. The concoction's oily blackness created rabbit-hair-like veins in a foil on top of the water, helping prevent the froth from dispersing. Since making tea-cake is time consuming, the practice was abandoned in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming, decreed that only loose tea leaves should be used to make tea.
Spread and influence
Making loose tea involves the technique of heating the tea, which is far less complicated than the previous steaming and caking process. This practice started in the Tang Dynasty but was perfected in the Ming Dynasty.
Tea originated in the mountains in the southwest of the country in regions inhabited by the Han people.
When tea made its way into other regions it gained in popularity as people became fascinated by the concoction and started to introduce its consumption into everyday life.
Sichuan and Yunnan of Southwest China have long been major tea producing areas.
The Tibetan people like to credit Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng (AD 617-689) for introducing tea to them. She was sent by Emperor Taizong (reigned AD 626-649) to marry Songtsan Gambo (AD 617-650) King of Tubo, as Tibet was then called.
Even today, the Tibetans have a folk saying that goes: "One would rather go without food for three days than not drinking tea for one day."
In response to the huge need for tea, a trade route known as the "Tea Road" emerged through the mountains and peaks in the southwest frontier of China. Tea was carried on horseback to Tibet and then further into India, Nepal and other South Asian countries.
The diffusion of tea from China to the whole world was realized through two means by land and by sea.
Britain started importing tea from China by sea in 1637, when British merchant ships arrived at Humen of Guangdong Province.
At first, green tea was imported by Britain, but the long voyage could not guarantee the quality of the leaves. Thus black tea gradually replaced green tea, which directly affected the tea-drinking habits of the British people.
Because of its long history many variations of tea now exist, some of which are more upscale than others.
While educated men thought sipping tea was the essence of tea drinking and large gulps spoiled the charm of it, for ordinary people, tea was a mere thirst quencher.
Of course the best place to experience Chinese tea culture today is in a teahouse. Originally, teahouses were seen as a micro world where people from all walks of life would gather. Chinese writer Lao She (1899-1966) wrote a famous play "Teahouse" (Cha Guan), which has been translated into many languages.
Written in 1956, the play vividly depicts the ups and downs of people living in the turbulent years between 1898 and 1945.
Nowadays Chinese teahouses are often called tea art houses (cha yi guan), where elegant ladies perform various tea-related activities for customers.
Sitting in front of a cup of fragrant tea admiring traditional Chinese paintings, furniture, arts and crafts, one begins to appreciate the history behind this important Chinese concoction.
Source: China Daily