The legend of the discovery of tea in China dates back to 2700 BC when a leaf descended into Emperor Shennong’s cup of hot water. Legend has it that one day, on a trip to a distant land, he and his army stopped to rest. The Emperor, who liked his water boiled before drinking, was served a cup of water into which a dead leaf from a wild bush had fallen. The water turned a mild shade of brown, but it went unnoticed, as he enjoyed this water immensely and found it refreshing.
Scholars often say that this was how tea came into being. However, there is literature about tea that dates back by around 5000 years. A Chinese dictionary contained records which show that an infusion of some kind of leaf was used as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), disputing the version which states that tea was discovered during the time of Shennong.
China is considered to have the earliest record of tea-drinking, although the origin of tea as a medicinal herb used for staying awake is unclear. The Han Dynasty used tea as medicine but it was during the Tang Dynasty that tea began to be used as a beverage on social occasions.
The history of tea illustrated that the nature of the beverage and style of its preparation were quite different from the way we experience tea in today’s world. Centuries ago, tea leaves were processed into compressed cakes. The dried teacake, generally called brick tea, was then ground in a stone mortar. Hot water was then added to the powdered teacake. Sometimes the powdered teacake was boiled in earthenware kettles and then consumed as a hot, refreshing beverage.
White tea, a form of compressed tea, was produced during the Tang Dynasty. This special tea was picked in the early months of spring, when tea bushes were grown in abundance, resembling a stretch of silver needles. These “first flushes”, as they were called, were used as the raw material to make the compressed tea from which the white tea was produced.
Another interesting snippet from the records of history goes on to explain how whipped, powdered tea became fashionable during the Song Dynasty, but disappeared completely from Chinese culture after the Yuan Dynasty. The Chinese became accustomed to drinking steeped tea from leaves after the Yuan Dynasty and continue to drink it this way today.
Discover the various kinds of Chinese tea here: Types of Chinese Tea.
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