The History of Chinese Tea



  Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. The history of Chinese tea can be traced back to 2737 B.C during Emperor Shen Nong (神农)'s rule. The legend goes that the emperor was aware of the danger of drinking raw water so he ordered all soldiers to boil it before consuming. While his troops took refuge under a tree, a few leaves fell into his pot and gave the water a delicious taste. What was more, Shen Nong felt that his strength was immediately restored after drinking the brew. Another legend fable tells that Shen Nong was on his journey through forests to test different plants to study their effect on the human body for his famous work Shen Nong’s Herbal Classics (神农本草经). During this journey, he was poisoned successively 72 times and was on the verge of dying. He ate some leaves of the next plant that was plucked to test and the leaves instantly detoxified and cured him. The very plant was then discovered (now known as Camellia Sinensis) and was examined further for medicinal purposes.

This incident is known to be the first to introduce tea to the world.​


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Shen Nong finding the tea that saved him


Ancient China was said to be recorded as the homeland of tea and the cradle of tea culture. Chinese people began cultivating tea trees in Yunnan (云南), Southwest China, while Chinese tea culture started and bloomed in Bashu (巴蜀), an ancient city of, Sichuan province. It is believed that Chinese travellers at the time were the primary source of selling and buying Chinese tea leaves for medicinal purposes. Raw tea leaves were chewed as a wound dressing, cooked as a vegetable or stewed in a broth for their profound health benefits.

A Tea Timeline

1046 - 256 B.C.

Western and Eastern Zhou (西周和东周时期)

When Emperor Wu of the Zhou dynasty (周武王)conquered the Shang dynasty, tea entered and spread in the Central Plains(中原) as the tribute from the southwestern area. Since the transportation was rather inconvenient and time consuming between the southwest and the Central Plains, when the tribute of tea arrived, the leaves were no longer fresh. As a result, people processed the tea leaves into dried tea. The leaves were compressed into ‘tea cakes’ or ‘bricks’ for easy transportation across the Himalayas, on what would become known as the Tea Horse Road. During mid-Zhou dynasty, the three great religions Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism came to being, each embracing tea for its many healthful benefits and powers of rejuvenation.​


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'Herbal Classics' by Shen Nong


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The ancient tea horse road map



256 - 206 B.C.

Qin Dynasty (秦朝) 


Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism developed further in this dynasty. The leading monks and priests declared tea to be the "elixir of life (仙丹)", and that all people should drink tea every day. By the beginning of the Qin dynasty, they had helped spread words of tea's many beneficial properties far and wide. Under the Qin emperor, Qin Shihuangdi(秦始皇帝), with help from the holy men,the greatest number of Chinese folks got to know about tea and began to consume it. It was also under the Qin emperor that several massive building projects were carried out. Remote sections of previously built fortification walls were linked together, creating one strong defensive wall, completing what would one day become the first stage of the Great Wall of China (长城). He brought thousands of workers from throughout China to construct other massive and elaborate projects, including grand imperial palaces and even his tomb, complete with thousands of terracotta warriors(兵马俑)  



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Emporer Qin


.All these workers were made to live in compulsory labour camps. They talked and shared stories of their families and homeland while enjoying this wonderful elixir introduced by the emperor. It was here that workers from the western provinces and other remote areas shared what they knew of this invigorating brew called tea. From there word spread across the empire and everyone who heard of it wanted to try this miracle Chinese tea.       



Huatuo from East Han dynasty, the first person in China to use anaesthesia



206 B.C. - 220 A.D.

Han Dynasty (秦朝) 

In the Eastern Han dynasty, the famous physician Hua Tuo (华佗) and the Classic Chinese poet Sima Xiangru(司马相如)both emphasized the curative function of tea, making it one of the main herbs in the traditional Chinese medicine as well as an everyday drink. Also, during the process of delving into the detoxification and digestive functions of tea, Han people began to deeply understand its thirst-quenching and refreshing functions as well as being herbal medicine. Tea gradually became the indispensable herbal go-to drink of people’s daily life.​



618 - 907 A.D.

Tang Dynasty (唐朝)


This era is referred to as the classic age of tea whereby consumption of brick tea became widespread. The government imposed a new tax on the people because of its popularity as a beverage. At that point, tea became recognized as the national drink of China. During the Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu(陆羽), a Monk, composed a monumental book, The Classic of Tea(茶经, elevating tea to an art form. It was the first opus on the cultivation, categories, the rituals of preparation (boiling leaves in water), tasting and specific medicinal benefits. He even lamented the common practice then of adding fruit pastes, ginger, cloves, even salt and onion to tea leaves for more diverse flavours and therapeutic properties!


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‘The Classic of Tea’ by Luyu


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A tea competition in the Song Dynasty



960 - 1280 A.D.

Song Dynasty


This period is the romantic age of tea and the beginning of ‘Dian Cha’ (点茶, pouring water on tea powders for several times)tea drinking methods and ‘Dou Cha’(斗茶)tea competition. During this era, refined and elegant rituals of tea drinking were carried out. The upper class of the Song dynasty attached much importance to the way of tea brewing rituals. A cake tea with a high price and high value of appreciation were much sought after. The Emperor noticed tea was also popular as a leisure drink and social beverage. He controlled the cultivation and production of all teas. New systems of grading leaf tea and categorizing quality were established. The process of tea farming and competition evolved, and leaves were replaced with fine tea powder for quicker measurement and judgement of its taste and quality. Also, on the order of Northern Song emperor Huizong(徽宗), the royal pottery works created new tea-drinking cups to compliment the new ritualized powdered tea preparation.



1271 - 1368 A.D.

Yuan Dynasty (元朝)

Tea was used as currency for trading horses with Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia. Teacakes were appreciated as a tribute to the nobles, and loose teas emerged for the wider consumption among the working class. On higher demand, other varieties were mass-produced such as tender tea (modern green tea, white tea and yellow tea), dust tea (similar to that used at the present Japanese tea ceremony) and nut tea (walnut, pine nut, sesame, apricot and chestnut). People in Hunan and Hubei still have the habit of drinking nut tea.​


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Tasting and testing different loose teas

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Roasting tea leaves in a farm



1368 - 1636 A.D.

Ming Dynasty (明朝)

The roasting of tea leaves was introduced to replace the steaming method for longer shelf lives and distinctive flavours. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), who rose from a plain folk family but a tea connoisseur himself, drew a line under the culture of tea cakes produced from steamed leaves. In 1391 he imposed a decree whereby putting a limit on the production of brick tea. The execution of the decree was strictly monitored and all who disobeyed were punished. Everybody was compelled to produce a loose-leaf tea. In the meantime, yellow tea, black tea and floral teas were brought to the public. blue and white teaware, small teapots were made to hold the finest, most precious teas.



1636 - 1911 A.D.

Qing Dynasty (清朝)


During this period, various teas like oolong tea, green tea, white tea, yellow tea and black tea, etc. of different grades in various forms and shapes became very popular even among ordinary people. Large tea farms began to branch out and deals were made to trade internationally.


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Trade deals being negotiated

A bustling tea shop


If you've made it this far you will no doubt be ready for a brew of your own by now. Make sure you're always stocked up with our connoisseurs tea subscription here.

1 comment

  • Very interesting and I’ve learnt lots about tea.
    Thank you.

    Michelle Rees

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