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A brief history of tea

The history of tea as a beverage reaches back as far as five thousand years B.C.E. The legend says that emperor Shennong discovered the tea plant in the year 2737 B.C.E. as a remedy, as a healing herb that worked like an antitoxin against poisonous substances in other plants whose healing qualities he was examining. For a long time, tea was used only as a medical plant, and over a long period of time, too, it was only infused together with other herbs, fruit etc. and salt, then drunk as a healing potion during acute phases of sickness or as a prophylaxis. It was only after this indefinitely long period that brewing the tea leaves on their own as a “pure” tea beverage established. The ancient traditions of cooking and brewing tea leaves together with other ingredients still lives on in many of the people on the borders of China, as in the Tibetan butter tea or the Mongolian milk tea.

The tea plant itself originates from the south of the province of Yunnan from where it was gradually spread throughout China. Especially the huge large-scale projects of emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (259-201 B.C.E.), the great unifier of the empire right before the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.), contributed in spreading the custom of drinking tea, as innumerable people from all parts of China, like condemned criminals, discharged soldiers, hired (forced) labourers worked together on the further construction of the Great Wall, or on the emperor’s magnificent burial site with the famous terracotta army. Through the massive exchange between these people from the most diverse origins their customs and their articles of daily use got known to each other and spread out.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.), when Lu Yu (728-804 CE) wrote the great classic “Chajing”, the first and oldest known book on tea existing, tea was still not crafted in the form of loose leaves as it mostly is today, but it was pressed into cakes and stored. Leaves, stems etc. were all processed together and the leaves were not left intact. The leaves were, in part, even boiled down and reduced into a brew, then pressed into bamboo cane. The exact method of processing is contested, it was however none of the methods we know today. Most probably it could have been similar to today’s Heicha. The tea was prepared by pulverising a piece of tea cake, pouring hot water over it and then beating it until fluffy with a bamboo whisk. This tradition still lives on in the Japanese tea ceremony, however, it is pulverised green tea (Maccha) that is used here (and not oxidised or fermented tea like Heicha is/was).

It was only during the Song (960-1279 C.E.) and Ming (1368-1644 C.E.) dynasties that the tea culture developed to a point where the tea was processed as leaf tea. Besides today’s Heicha, which is most probably an only slightly modified remainder from the olden times, the green tea was the first of the methods of processing tea to appear of those that are still known today. This happened probably around the twelfth century. In its form, it was similar to the steamed green tea that is still produced in Japan today. It was only in the 16th century that other steps were introduced into the process of manufacturing the tea leaves, like baking and roasting. The yellow tea was probably invented quite early, too, the procedure differs from making green tea only in one step, the Menhuang, yellowing of the leaves (literally “becoming yellow through closeness (lack of fresh air)”. It was around 1500 that the procedure of making Oolong teas emerged, white and black tea production methods were invented only during the 19th century.

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