“The Chinese people are without a doubt the ones who best understand the nature of tea. ” It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of tea in Chinese culture. At various points throughout history, China’s national drink has been designated as the state currency and used as cash. While references to tea in Chinese literature go back approximately 5,000 years, the origin of tea’s use as a beverage is unclear. Ancient folklore places the creation of the brew at 2737 BC, when a camellia blossom drifted into a cup of boiled drinking water belonging to Emperor Shen Nung.
However, most scholars credit a reference found in Erh Ya, an ancient Chinese dictionary, dated about 350 BC. Since then, tea was valued for its medicinal qualities. It has long been known that tea aids in digestion, which is why many Chinese prefer to consume it after their meal. (Another interesting side effect for smokers is that tea hastens the discharge of nicotine from the body). The elevation of tea drinking to an art form began in the 8th century, with the publication of Lu Yu’s “The Classic Art of Tea.” The highly esteemed poet and former Buddhist priest had strict notions about the proper procedure for brewing, steeping, and serving tea. For example, only water from a slow-moving stream was acceptable, and the tea leaves had to be placed in a porcelain cup.
The perfect milieu for enjoying the finished product was in a pavilion next to a water lily pond, preferably in the company of a desirable woman. (To be fair, his work also contained several practical tips for manufacturing tea, many of which are still in use today). In the centuries following the publication of Yu’s work, tea’s popularity spread rapidly throughout China. Not only did tea drinking become a fitting subject for books and poems; Emperors bestowed gifts of tea upon grateful recipients. Later, teahouses began dotting the landscape. While the Chinese have never developed a ritualistic ceremony surrounding tea drinking resembling the Japanese tea ceremony, they have a healthy respect for its role in their daily lives.