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Good Morning, Brew-Tea-Ful!

- Desiree, Vanessa (LO2)

 Pouring Tea. By Kai Chan Vong (Own work), [ CC BY 2.0 ], flickr. 

Pouring Tea. By Kai Chan Vong (Own work), [CC BY 2.0], flickr. 

Let's Get This Chinese Par(TEA) Started!


Whenever we walk into a Chinese restaurant, we would be served tea (that is freshly brewed in a porcelain teapot) in tiny porcelain teacups. Whenever we attend a traditional Chinese wedding, we would see the bride and groom kneeling in front of their elder family members, presenting tea to them as a form of the traditional marriage ritual. Whenever we are “heaty”, we would also make our way to herbal shops and grab a bottle of herbal tea (Hint: can you now guess what we would be discussing in our blog post?). Other than that, we can also use tea for many other reasons such as cleaning carpets, polishing furniture, getting rid of odours and even adding them to our food - think 茶叶蛋 (tea leaf eggs). YUMZ! From here, we can see that the use of tea is all around us and plays a very important role in many aspects of our everyday lives, even embedding itself in our culture. In this post, we would be telling you more about some of the historic functions of tea, which still continue to serve its function all the way till today - the 21st century. But first, let us tell you more about its origins and how they spread to other parts of the world.


  Shen Nong   By Guo Xu (1456–c.1529) [ Public domain ], via Wikimedia Commons

Shen Nong

By Guo Xu (1456–c.1529) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So how did tea come into existence then? In 2737 BCE, Shen Nong, a mythical sage ruler of ancient China who was also a herbalist, travelled to a remote province of China. His servants started to boil water when they were taking a break from travelling, and that was when a dead leaf from a nearby wild tea shrub landed in the boiling water. Although the colour of the water changed to a shade of brown, the servants were oblivious of it and served Shen Nong the drink. Much to Shen Nong’s surprise, the drink was unexpectedly refreshing and hence, cha (茶 - tea) was discovered.

Move Oolong, There's Nothing To Tea Here...

Silk Road and Tea

But since it was discovered in China, how then did the people from other parts of Asia, or even the rest of the world, know about the existence of tea? We would have to give this credit to the chamada (茶马道), also known as the Tea Horse Road (c. 700 CE - 1960). The Tea Horse Road is a complex system of roads or other routes that runs across mountainous regions of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, which are located in the Southwestern parts of China, and which groups of people, especially the pilgrims and traders, will travel on together. Today, it is referred to as the Ancient Tea Horse Road or more commonly known as the Southern Silk Road.

  Map of Silk Road   By Yerius J [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via  Wikimedia Commons

Map of Silk Road

By Yerius J [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It is largely understood that it is through this trade route which tea first made its way from Pu’er county in Yunnan, one of the first major tea-producing province in China, across other parts of the country and then to Asia. People and animals, such as horses, carried the tea (which were sometimes as heavy as 60 - 90 kilograms or more, a weight heavier than themselves) on their backs as they travelled through the Southern Silk Road.

  Zhuan Cha   By Jason Fasi (Wikipedia) [ CC BY 2.5 ], via  Wikimedia Commons

Zhuan Cha

By Jason Fasi (Wikipedia) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The tea leaves which they carried on their backs have been harvested and compressed together to become tea bricks, which are blocks of thoroughly dried or ground tea leaves that are filled into (usually)-rectangular molds and then pressed to create their block form. The reason for the use of tea bricks is because they were more compact than loose tea leaves. Being compact meant that these leaves would be less vulnerable to physical damage caused by external environmental factors when they were travelling on the Southern Silk Road, which has uneven surfaces and could be a bumpy journey if they were travelling with a horse-drawn wagon. These tea bricks could also as a form of food or as a drink upon boiling them with water. In addition, tea porters may also use tea bricks as a currency whenever they travel on the Southern Silk Road. The exchange of tea bricks for other goods then allowed tea to spread to other parts of China and subsequently to Asia as well, wherever these tea porters may have travelled to. With this trade and with this system of network, tea is traded and can now be found in use in other provinces and in countries other than China.

Now that you know more about how tea came about and how tea came to arrive in other countries, we will be discussing with you in the following paragraphs three aspects on how and when tea was used in the past, and how tea is similarly or differently used today.


#1: Tea Ceremony At Weddings

The tea ceremony made its appearance during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) and this practice has been passed down till today. It has became an important part of Chinese culture, so it is not surprising that the tea ceremony, a significant event, can be seen happening during a traditional Chinese wedding. During the tea ceremony, both the bride and the groom will have kneel in front of family members who are their seniors (i.e. parents) and serve them tea in a gaiwan, which is a Chinese bowl with a lid that is used for brewing and drinking tea. A tea ceremony during the wedding is used by the bride and the groom to show their respect and gratitude for their parents and to thank them for the love and care which their parents have showered them with throughout the years. Moreover, to the Chinese, tea symbolises fertility, stability and purity - fertility of tea represents having children in their marriage; stability represents their faithfulness of their love for each other; purity represents the nobility and pureness of their love - all of which are important aspects of marriage which parents would wish for their children. Tea served during tea ceremonies also tend to be sweet, as it is said to bring sweetness and happiness to the newlyweds, and to have sweeter relations with their in-laws during their marriage period.

Even though it is an ancient practice that was passed down since the Tang Dynasty, tea ceremonies at weddings are still practiced today, even amongst young couples. Reasons for these tea ceremonies to be held still remains the same today. Similarly, tea still symbolizes the same today as it did in the past.

For those of you who have not witnessed a tea ceremony before, below is a short video for you to understand how the tea ceremony is carried out better. Enjoy! :)

#2: Leisure and Social Activi(tea)s

So far, Chinese tea may seem to be a drink of symbolic grandeur at wedding ceremonies and share a social purpose. But the social purpose of Chinese tea also encapsulates a commoner aspect, whereby its presence permeates the leisure and social activities of commoners. The practice of consuming Chinese tea extended from the elite realm to the everyday lives of Chinese natives, attributing to many events happening in succession. 


  Huxinting Tea House, Shanghai   By by Paul Mannix ( Flickr ) [ CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Common

Huxinting Tea House, Shanghai

By by Paul Mannix (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Common

During the Tang dynasty, there was a rising scale of cultivation of the tea plant across forty prefectures. It was also during the Tang dynasty that Buddhism was blooming. Monks in the temples needed to meditate and sit in the evening, doing without dinner. However, young and amateur monks faced difficulty doing so. Hence the Lingyan Temple at Mount Tai made an exception by permitting monks to have tea during evening meditation. The monks accidentally found out the relaxing effects of tea and additionally the improvement of focus and concentration. This discovery lead to the eventual spread of tea drinking among the commoners. During the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, a popular custom was developed, known as “appraisal’ of tea. This custom is similar to the process of modern wine tasting in the Western culture.  Tea appraisals frequently mixed with meditation or reflection, with scholars or artists pondering on the ingenious or inspirational effects of a type of tea. Instead of consuming liquor which would cause intoxication, consuming Chinese tea stimulated greater levels of creativity and inspirations from scholars and artists. As a result, tea drinking was not solely a thirst quencher but also became a hobby and way of relaxation. Besides, tea drinking inspired numerous types of cultural activities such as songs, dances, operas on tea and shows which displayed the relationship between tea and Chinese arts.

Some folk customs of tea drinking projected the Chinese people's interest in tea culture. Teahouses was the place or a melting pot where regardless of social class, Chinese people would come to enjoy tea. A myriad of social activities took place in tea houses, such as business dealings, exchange of ideas, interactions between strangers and even personal issues were trashed out in the tranquil environment of the teahouses. Teahouses were also places where people could be entertained by watching traditional opera and storytelling. Teahouses can then be said to embody the rich social life of the Chinese people.

#3: An Cup of Tea Keeps The Doctor Away

Stressed over what would be the next topic for Blogpost 3 or perhaps not getting enough information you needed for your blogs? Fret not. Simply reach for a bottle of Chrysanthemum tea or Luo Han Guo (Monk’s fruit) tea to douse that raging stress within you. One may most probably know without doubt that all types and concoctions of Chinese tea contain medicinal values. However, when it comes to knowing the origins of the discovery of Chinese tea's medicinal properties, one may stutter for an answer.

 By Pancrat (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via  Wikimedia Commons

By Pancrat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dated around 2,700 years ago, an ancient text titled Shen Nong Cao Ben Jing (Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic), recorded about Chinese natives then who frequently experienced poisoning from ingesting some wild herbs they had taken. The invention of the plough and being one of the few early discoverers of the medicinal properties of various types of plants, was attributed to Shen Nong, who was also known as Yan Di, the Holy Farmer. The tea plant was initially used as a medicinal herb and those who consumed the tea plant could be cleansed and re-energised. This initial establishment of the tea plant as a medicinal herb may not be congruent with what we commonly know tea to be -- a tea drink. The evolution of the tea plant as a medicinal herb to being a drink, was mentioned in Wang Bao’s work, titled “ A Contract with a Servant” in 59 BCE, where a servant must boil tea for his master and head for Wuyang (situated in the Sichuan Province which was then a popular tea producing region) to buy tea. It was then understood from Wang Bao’s work that tea as a drink was established right until the Western Han Period (c. 206 BCE - 23 CE).

Winding Down The Tea Party

Nowadays, when we think of tea, it would be a drink to defrost ourselves in the freezing classrooms, a drink that accompanies our Mac’s breakfast or a drink that we use to maintain our 'clean-diet'. However, the functions of Chinese tea that were established in the past, still permeates silently in our everyday life. Be it at a wedding ceremony or when we want to soothe that itchy throat or so that we could wash away the oily and cloying taste after a hearty meal at a Chinese restaurant, all these many wonderful purposes of Chinese tea represents a significant part of the past. 



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