Chinese Tea - History, Classification, Culture, Best Chinese Teas
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History of Tea
According to Lu Yu, writer of the book "Tea Classics" during the Tang Dynasty, Chinese tea has enjoyed a history of more than 4000 years.
Tea was used as offerings in the West Zhou, vegetables in the Spring and Autumn period, and medicine in the Warring period. Later in the West Han dynasty, it became a major commodity.
During the 300 years between the Three Kingdoms period and the Northern and Southern Dynasties, especially in the latter era, Buddhism was extremely popular. The Buddhists applied tea to relieve sleep in Za-zen, so tea trees spread along valleys and around Buddhist temples. That is why people say tea and Buddhism accompanied each other during their development in China.
Till the Tang Dynasty, tea became popular with the common people. In the Ming Dynasty, tea trade began to play an important role in the government's economic plans and the "Tea and Horse Bureau" was set up to supervise the tea trade.
In the 6th century, a Buddhist monk brought tea to Japan and in the 16th century a Portuguese missionary introduced tea to Europe. It was then that tea truly became an international drink.
Presently in China, the tea family not only consists of traditional tea, but also tea beverage, tea food, tea medicine and other tea products.
Although there are hundreds of varieties of Chinese tea, they can mainly be classified into five categories. The classifications are determined by the method of processing the tea. The five types are green tea, black tea, brick tea, scented tea, and Oolong tea.
With its natural fragrance, the oldest tea is green tea, which is very popular among many people. It is baked immediately after picking. Green tea can be divided into many kinds, depending on the way that it is processed. The most famous among the various green teas are Longjing (Dragon Well) Tea around the West Lake in Hangzhou, Huangshan Maofeng Tea from Mt. Huangshan, Yinzhen (Silver Needle) Tea from Mt. Junshan and Yunwu (Cloud and Mist) Tea from Mt. Lushan.
Black tea is favored mainly among foreigners. Different
from green tea, black tea is a kind of fermented tea. After the fermentation,
its color changes from green to black. The most famous black teas in China
are "Qi Hong" (which originated in Anhui),
"Dian Hong" (originated in Yunnan),
and "Ying Hong" (originated in Guangdong).
Scented tea, popular in Northern China, is a mixture of green tea with flower petals of rose, jasmine, orchid and plum, which is combined through an elaborate process. Among this type of tea, jasmine is the most common.
Brick, or compressed, tea, is usually pressed into brick shape, and is mainly produced in Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Brick tea is made from black or green tea and is pressed into blocks, which makes it easier to transport. This kind of tea is popular with the ethnic minority people in border regions. The most famous brick tea is "Pu'er Tea" made in Yunnan province.
There are also other kinds of tea. Among them, white tea is special and is not very familiar to most people. Just as its name suggests, this kind of tea is as white as silver. It is mainly produced in Zhenhe and Fuding in Fujian Province, but popular in Southeast Asia. Famous varieties include "Silver Needle" and "White Peony".
Best Chinese Teas
Just as coffee became a part of daily life in the West, tea became a part of daily life in China. One can see teahouses scattered on the streets of China, much like cafes on the streets of the West. The Chinese have such a close relationship with tea that a new cultural phenomenon relating to tea is rising up in China. It goes by the pleasant name of "Tea Culture". Tea Culture includes articles, poems, pictures about tea, the art of making and drinking tea, and some customs about tea.
Among the customs, a host will only fill a teacup to seven-tenths of its capacity. It is said that the other three-tenths will be filled with friendship and affection. Moreover, the teacup should be emptied in three gulps.
Tea plays an important role in Chinese social and emotional life. Tea is always offered to a guest immediately upon entering a Chinese home. Serving a cup of tea is more than a matter of mere politeness. It is a symbol of togetherness, a sharing of something enjoyable, and a way of showing respect to visitors. In some areas of China, it might be considered rude not to take at least a sip.
We normally think of tea drinking as an invitation to stay and socialize. In earlier times, however, the drinking of tea could signal the close to the social encounter. This was particularly true when one visited one's superior. When the guest reached the host's home, the host would offer his guest a cup of tea. They would then talk. When the host wanted his guest to leave, he would signal this by holding his own cup of tea and drinking it. The guest would then know that the host wanted him to leave and would ask to leave.
Although there has been an increasing amount of literature about tea in recent years, such literature is certainly not new. During the Song Dynasty, Lu Yu, who is known as the "Tea Sage", wrote the Tea Scripture. This scripture describes in detail the processes of planting tea bushes, harvesting tea leaves, preparing harvested leaves for the brewing of tea. Famous poets such as Li Bai, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi created large numbers of poems about tea. Famous painters Tang Bohu and Wen Zhengming even drew many pictures about tea.
The Chinese give great attention to their tea and the way they drink it. People have high requirements for the quality of the prepared tea leaf, the water they use to brew tea and the wares they use to prepare and serve tea. Normally, the finest tea is grown at altitudes of 3,000 to 7,000 feet (900 to 2,100 meters). People select their water carefully. The Chinese emphasize water quality and water taste. Fine water must be pure, sweet, cool, clean, and flowing. Water from good springs is always considered best, as is rainwater from autumn and the rainy seasons.
Chinese prefer pottery wares to wares made of metal or other materials. The best choice is the purple clay wares made in Yixing and Jingdezhen, Jiangsu province. The purple clay of this region gives the wares their internationally-known purple color.