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Famous stories about tea in China

Every morning, I treat myself to a nice cup of tea. My latest preference is to pour boiling hot water to make a cup of black tea, then add a slice of lemon and a full teaspoon of honey. The colour of the tea quickly changes from a dark red to a warm colour of clear and light orange. After it cools down a little, it becomes a delightful fragrant cup of tea, which always lift my spirit up. 

I am one of the countless Chinese people who love tea. In China, different regions have their own traditions and customs of drinking tea, such as kungfu tea (功夫茶), morning tea (早茶), bowl tea (碗茶), and so on. There are also different types of tea, such as green tea (绿茶), oolong tea (乌龙茶), white tea (白茶), and so on. Each type has its own famous teas. And many places in China have their very own unique tea, such as Longjing tea (龙井茶) in Hangzhou (杭州).

But, all these are not what we’re interested here. In this article, I’d like to share some wonderful stories about tea in China. People who are learning Chinese might find them interesting.

The origin

Tea in Chinese is chá (). It is said that all the teas of the entire world could possibly come from a single wild tea tree in Yunnan (云南), in the southwest of China. 

The discovery of tea as a magnificent drink is credited to Shen Nong (神农), a legendary figure who taught ancient Chinese people agriculture and herbal medicine. It was said that one day, after doing a lot of work, Shen Nong was tired and decided to have a rest. He started to boil water in a pot. Without him noticing, a few leaves fell into the pot from a nearby tree. After drinking the water, he felt refreshed and energised. Shen Nong was intrigued and began to learn more about this tree. 

Later, in the Shen Nong Herbal, he wrote, “Tea tastes bitter. Drinking it, one can think quicker, sleep less, move more nimbly, and see more clearly”. That was the earliest record of the medicinal effects of tea.

Princess Wencheng, buttered tea, and Tea-Horse Road

In Tang Dynasty, in order to form a good relation with Tibet, the Emperor sent Princess Wencheng (文成公主) to be the wife of the Tibetan king. In 641 CE, taking with her textiles, vegetable seeds, tea and so on, Princess Wencheng was escorted to Tibet. 

Tibet is a place of high altitude, and the diet mainly consists of meat. 

Princess Wencheng was not accustomed to this environment. It is said that, at breakfast, she drank half cup of milk, then half cup of tea to dispel the strong taste. Later, she simply mixed milk and tea together, and thus invented buttered tea (酥油茶).

Tibetan people love buttered tea. 

After Princess Wencheng married into Tibet, many envoys began going back and forth between China and Tibet. As the demand for tea grew, a trade channel gradually emerged. For thousands of years, traders, using horses to carry the loads, travelled on this road. That is the famous Tea-Horse Road (茶马古道).

In a beautiful and dangerous mountainous region, business flourished.

The saint of tea, Lu Yu

Lu Yu (陆羽) also lived in Tang Dynasty from 733 to 804 CE. He was an orphan, and adopted by a monk. While growing up in the temple, Lu Yu was tasked with all sorts of works, cooking, cleaning, and etc. As tea was quite popular at that time, he became familiar with the making of tea. Later, being a rebellious youth, he abandoned Buddhism and ran away from the temple at the age of twelve. 

He was talented and hardworking, and received generous helps. Later he travelled around and studied tea. Afterwards, he wrote his masterpiece, The Book of Tea (茶经). This book was the first ever of its kind. As a result, Lu Yu became famous and was revered as the saint of tea (茶圣). Today, there are still tea houses and teas named after him. 

The Emperor heard about his skills and knowledge of tea, and made him an official in the court. As a result, Lu Yu had a life of freedom, lingering in tea gardens and enjoying companies of friends. 

Later, his attitude towards Buddhism changed. Many monks became his friends, and he was reconciled with his adopted father, the monk, whom he was buried next to after his death.

Tea ceremonies and art

Drinking tea goes beyond feeling physically refreshed. It also provides a spiritual refinement. 

Tea, water, tea pot, cups, when, where and with whom to drink tea, all these are observed. In many ancient Chinese paintings, we see people enjoying tea, either in an elaborate setting or a simple environment. Such as this one:

The person who brought the whole experience to a philosophical level in a linguistic way was Jiao Ran (皎然). Lived from 720 - 803 CE, Jiao Ran coined the term “tea ceremony” (茶道).

“Tea ceremony” is not a good translation of 茶道. In Chinese, the terms conveys a deeper meaning of cultivation of mind and virtue. 

Jiao Ran was a monk and also a poet. He wrote beautifully about drinking tea and his spiritual freedom:




First sip dispels sleepiness and thoughts get clear and active;

Second sip refreshes my mind like find raindrops descending on dust;

Third sip brings enlightenment and worries evaporate without much ado.

East India Company and the tea industry in India and Sri Lanka

In 1637, Britain started importing tea from China. Quickly, tea became a household essential in Britain. At the end of the 1700s, because of tea, Britain ran a huge annual trade deficit with China. Later, the East India Company began actively seeking other sources of tea. However, this was not easy, because, in order to protect the trade, China banned exports of tea seeds and tea-making techniques. 

In 1834, the British Governor in India organised a tea committee, and sent the committee secretary, Mr Gordon, to China in disguise. He managed to smuggled out large amounts of tea seeds from Fujian province, and shipped to Calcutta in 1835. 

In Calcutta, tea seeds were planted, and produced 42,000 tea saplings. Thus, the foundation for the tea industry in India was laid. India is today’s number one tea producing country in the world.

In 1867, offspring of those tea trees were introduced to Sri Lanka, which is today’s number three tea producing country in the world.

In the late 1800s, China lost its dominant position in tea completely.