Why Is Tea So Important To The Chinese?

Chinese culture and tea are synonymous – everyone knows that. But how did a drink from the southern part of China conquer the vast plains of China and its culture? In today’s post, we’ll give you a brief overview of the history of tea in China and how it came to be so interwoven into Chinese culture.

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Image from Teasenz

Although popular legend attributes the discovery of tea to Shen Nong, one of the early mythical emperors of pre-history China, there is surprisingly little evidence for this claim. According to Profession James A. Benn in this book Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History, the first mention of the legend of Shen Nong discovering tea is in Lu Yu’s seminal work, The Classic of Tea. As tea was still fairly ‘new’ at that time, Lu Yu would have wanted to give it ancient roots as a form of legitimacy. As such, Benn argues that “it is most sensible to understand tea as a Tang-dynasty invention”[1]. That is not to say that tea did not exist before the Tang dynasty – there is evidence that tea was consumed, but tea started its ascent during the Tang.

Additionally, tea was originally a southern drink. However, due to Buddhist precepts against alcohol, tea managed to make its way up North as an alternative to alcohol. Tea was favoured because it calms the mind while providing energy – something many of us still drink tea for! You can read more about the different ways tea and alcohol were treated in the 茶酒论 (cha jiu lun), a hypothetical discourse between tea and alcohol, but suffice to say: the history of tea is deeply intertwined with Chinese beliefs.

Now, why would a Southern drink suddenly become popular in the Tang dynasty, so much that it became the subject of poems and other art forms? In this book, The Rise of Tea Culture, Professor Bret Hinsch argues that as social complexity in the Chinese court increased, something that started in the Tang dynasty, the connoisseurship of tea was used to display superiority. To quote:

“In embracing the literati style of tea drinking, these emperors rejected courtly traditions for far more humble customs. […] Discarding empty opulence in favour of literati-style connoisseurship acknowledged the changes in elite culture at large. The elite increasingly ranked individualistic expressions of sophistication and discrimination above empty extravagance. A new view of the idea person as a distinctive individual transformed tea culture even at the highest reaches of society.” [2]

And because tea was so intertwined with Buddhism and Taoism (the reason why many monasteries have first-rate tea gardens), it started to be associated with nature. The influence of Taoism meant that Chinese gentlemen saw nature as a refuge and a model, and tea, by its association with nature, rose from the realm of the mundane and into a drink worthy of contemplation and pursuit.

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Image by Tinydot Photography

Tea also gained meaning in other areas of Chinese culture. For instance, “in ancient China, when you went to another house as a guest you could not bring tea as a gift if the host had a single daughter, because that would cause misunderstanding.” [3] due to the deep relationship between tea and marriage. This link came about because the tea tree was as ‘loyal’, a characteristic desirable in a daughter-in-law. A more familiar tea custom would be that of the marriage tea ceremony. Both the bride and groom will kneel and offer tea to both sets of parents, as a symbol of gratitude for having raised them.

That, in a nutshell, is the history of how tea became an intrinsic part of Chinese culture. As you can see, a cup of tea is more than just a drink to the Chinese – it’s a symbol of culture, of piety, and of a centuries-old tradition.


References:

[1] Benn, James A. Tea in China: A religious and cultural history. Hong Kong University Press, 2015.

[2] Hinsch, Bret. The Rise of Tea Culture in China: The Invention of the Individual. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

[3] Liu, Tong. Chinese tea. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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