Tea is a long and honored tradition in Chinese culture. It has a history over 2,000 years, and is a common thread running through Chinese culture. Tea drinking has become a form of artistic and intellectual expression. The significance of tea began to assert itself in the Tang and Song Dynasties. It was during this time that the art of tea was born. The Tea Classics, written by Lu Yu during the Tang Dynasty, helped to elevate tea drinking to a high status throughout China.
It was somewhere between the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty that the custom of tea drinking was brought to Japan, which readily adopted the Chinese custom. But there were, and still are, differences between the Japanese and Chinese interpretations of the art of tea drinking.
Chinese people tend to view tea drinking as a natural form of enjoyment, unlike the Japanese, who approach the concept in a very strict and ritualistic fashion. In spite of its popularity throughout the ages, the Chinese have never elevated tea to the reverential level of repsect it enjoys in Japan. Rather, tea is something one drinks after a meal; it is merely a part of one's life. For a Chinese to say anything more of tea than this would be to misunderstand its purpose, which is anything but to be worshipped. The attitude Chinese take toward tea drinking is in many ways symbolic of their relatively balanced position towards different attitudes and behaviors.
But it wasn't until the Song Dynasty that tea drinking really became in vogue. Even the Emperor indulged in this custom, which subsequently drew tea-growers to the capital every spring to pay tribute to the Son of Heaven. The Emperor gave tea as a gift to those worthy of the honor, which not only helped increase the drink's popularity, but also helped spread elevate its value. Books, poems, and paintings about tea became increasingly popular. With the passing of the Yuan Dynasty, and the start of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the technology of tea production was constantly being improved. Not only to enhance its flavor, but also to further simplify its production. By this time, tea houses were popping up all over the country. Tea-drinking establishments could be found at any public gathering place; temples, palaces, even famous mountains had their respective tea vendors.
Types of Chinese Teas
Chinese tea is usually broken down into three basic types: black, green and oolong.
Black tea is also commonly known as red tea, after originating in China where this type of tea has been cultivated for many centuries. In more recent times, its popularity has grown and black teas are currently being produced in many other countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Java, etc. This is the type of tea leaf with which British tea is made.
The world's finest green teas are produced from the small leaf Chinese tea plant Camellia sinensis. Young, tender, budding leaves are traditionally hand-plucked and quickly processed without fermentation to produce a fresh tasting tea. Dragon Well (long jing) tea is produced in the Hangzhou's West Lake area, Zhejiang province, China. Most fine green teas are usually best prepared in a gai wan (covered steeping cup) with lower water temperature (about 167F) and relatively short steeping times (about 1 minute or less). The wonderful flavors of quality green teas may be enjoyed through at least 3 or 4 separate infusions.
Oolong teas are the semi-fermented variety of tea. Although the word fermented is often used by the tea community, it refers to a process involving enzyme and oxidation action that occurs within the leaf. To stimulate this action, the leaves are bruised using various methods, the most common of which is rolling. Oolong leaves rolled by hand or in a rotating drum usually exhibit a distinctive red fermented edge, while the inner portion of the leaf remains green in color. Oolong teas offer the greatest range of flavor from a light floral green style to the richness of the dark styles.
The rare exotic taste of pu-erh tea has long been a favorite in China, and its widely acclaimed health benefits are currently gaining substantial Western interest. The rich mellow flavors of pu-erh tea are easy to prepare for enjoyment in either the gai wan or in a clay pot, gongfu style.
White teas are a unique departure from the three major commercial categories of tea. Although sometimes included with green teas, they have a slight degree of fermentation. However, the amount of fermentation is not sufficient to classify them as semi-fermented or oolong style tea. These smooth, flavorful teas, produced only in China, are given a unique modified-bruising leaf surface treatment, along with their light fermentation.
Premium quality scented and flavored teas have long enjoyed great popularity throughout the world. Among the most famous of the traditional products are the fragrant jasmine teas (mo li hua cha) from China.