Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Chinese Tea Culture: Origin, Development, and the Dao of Tea

Lucy Crawford
Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.
Published: May 12, 2021
Tea, once used mainly for its health benefits in China, has become one of the most popular beverages in the world. (Image: Jose Esquivel via Pexels)

Tea, the national beverage of China for centuries, has become the world’s second most popular drink – after water. Tea culture and rituals are practiced in many countries.

If we consider the discovery and introduction of the plant, growing techniques, cultivation, processing and preparation, and tea drinking methods and rituals, the roots are all directly or indirectly connected to China.

Origins of tea

The origin of tea can be traced back to the legend of Shen Nong — the Divine Farmer — who is commonly known as the originator of Chinese herbal medicine. He learned his trade by sampling all manner of vegetation in order to determine its usefulness, and found that tea had a detoxifying effect. 

As the legend goes, Shen Nong had a belly that was transparent like crystal. No matter what he ate, he could observe it very clearly through his belly. At that time, people lived in primitive conditions and ate everything raw, including meat and fish. Diarrhea was a common problem. 

Shen Nong had a good heart and wanted to help people. In order to ease their suffering, he uncovered the medicinal properties of herbaceous plants through tasting them and observing the effect on his own body. He traveled over mountains and along rivers year in and year out, in pursuit of new herbs. One day Shen Nong found a broadleaf evergreen with white flowers, and he ate the leaves. After he swallowed them, a strange thing happened. The leaves not only moved all around in his stomach cleaning up all the food he had eaten, but they also left a fragrant taste in his mouth and a feeling of freshness.

Shen Nong was extremely pleased to have found the detoxifying effect of these leaves. He believed that his discovery was bestowed upon him by heavenly gods, in recognition of his noble desire to find medicinal herbs to treat people’s illnesses.

From then on, whenever he ingested some poisonous herbs, he used the green tea leaves for detoxification. Since these leaves played the role of an internal doctor, looking at and cleaning up his stomach, Shen Nong called them “cha” (to examine). Later, people changed the original word to its homonym character “cha” (tea). This is how tea was discovered in China.

A Chinese tea stall in Gulang Yu displays all manner of tea varieties available for sale. Tea has developed through the ages from a simple herbal with health benefits, to a highly refined and developed culture. (Image: Photography_1O1 via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Tea can quench thirst, refresh the mind, and neutralize poison. It was viewed as a kind of herb for maintaining good health outside of medicinal herbs. Small specimens of Camellia sinensis, the evergreen that produced tea leaves, were eventually collected from the wild and grown in cultivation. Domesticated, these plants are kept in the form of a shrub, although in the wild they can become trees. 

Gradually tea became well-known, and was used not only in maintaining health, but also as an item of tribute, a dish, or a kind of beverage. Through modifications in different dynasties, tea evolved into the drink we know today.

Development of tea

In ancient times, when tea was used as medicine, people cut off branches from wild tea trees, picked the tips of the fresh leaves, boiled them in water, and then drank the water. It was called “porridge tea.” Because of the harsh flavor produced by using this method, the medicine was called “bitter tea” at the time. Over the course of different dynasties, the method was refined and then simplified to eventually become our present method of pouring boiling water into dry tea leaves.

During the Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC-220 AD), people developed new ways to prepare tea. Rather than boiling fresh tea leaves, they baked “tea cakes” on the fire, and then ground them into powder. Boiling water was added to make tea. Spring onion, ginger, and orange were added to the hot liquid, and it was called “baked tea.”

By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), people regularly made tea cakes. In order to have tea, they would first break a tea cake, grind it finely, put it through a sieve, place the fine tea in a cup, and pour boiling water into it. Tea culture gained in popularity at this time. Gradually “tea drinking” became “tea tasting.” Tea banquets also became popular at the royal palace, in temples, and among scholars. 

The atmosphere at a tea banquet was usually solemn and elegant, and followed strict rules of etiquette. The tea served had to be of high quality, and the water had to be sourced from well-known springs. The tea set also needed to be precious and of fine quality. 

The banquet generally began with the host personally mixing the tea, or overseeing the mixing of the tea. This was to show respect to the guests. The mixing was followed by presenting the tea, receiving the tea, smelling the tea, appreciating the color of the tea, and tasting the tea. After three rounds, people would begin to comment on the tea, appraise the fine moral qualities of the host, enjoy the scenery, and chit chat or write prose or poems.

By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it was common to pour water directly into a teapot or a teacup with loose tea leaves, making it simpler and more convenient to drink.

Tea culture is an intermediary culture

There was a man called Lu Yu (733-804) in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), who, after many years of observation and research, wrote a book entitled Cha Jing (The classic of tea). This book summarized a set of methods, from growing tea and harvesting the leaves, to tea preparation and tasting. The book also described the profound cultural connotation of the art of tea, giving shape to the earliest Dao of tea. People in later generations called Lu Yu the “Sage of Tea.”

Tea culture reflects characteristics of traditional eastern culture – combining “tea” with “Dao.” 

“Dao,” or the Way, reflects the principles and the law of the universe and life. There was “Dao” in all  trades and professions in ancient China, and people were interested in pursuing the Dao. Therefore, ancient Chinese also sought the Dao in tea tasting.

Tea culture is a kind of “intermediary” culture, where tea functioned as a carrier to pass on and carry on the spirit of Chinese traditional culture. Liu Zhenliang in the Tang Dynasty clearly stated in the ten virtues of tea drinking, “Tea can carry on the Dao, and tea can refine one’s will.” Then what is the Dao of tea?

On the surface, there are six basic subjects regarding tea: tea etiquette, tea practices, tea methods, tea techniques, tea arts, and tea essence. To understand the Dao of tea, one must become enlightened to the spirit of these six subjects. When one studies the techniques, the focus is not on “techniques” but the “spirit.” However, to understand the spirit, one has to start with the techniques. This is the principle in studying the Dao.

The Dao of tea

The Dao of tea culture reveals several profound truths. In experiencing how tea starts out bitter and becomes sweet, one can become enlightened to the principle that living a simple life and experiencing hardship can lead to joy. 

Tea culture can also help one discover the happiness in letting go of attachments. In order to appreciate the color, fragrance, taste and shape of tea, one must release internal anxiety and worldly concerns. In this state of profound peacefulness, one can reflect upon life, shape one’s temperament, achieve a state of ease and contentment, and feel the beauty of tranquility.

Even the making of tea can reveal higher truths. Japanese tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu once said, “…(you) should know that the nature of tea is no more than boiling water to make tea.” This demonstrates that one can grasp the mysteries of the universe through observing trivial things in daily life.