Tea culture brewed in the Yangtze River basin

By LIU LITANG / 06-10-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: “Tea Grinding” by Liu Songnian (c. 1131–1218), a Song Dynasty painter, depicts a Song Dynasty tea party, where literati enjoyed painting and calligraphy, while their servants prepared tea in a meticulous way.

China has a long history of tea consumption. Before the Tang Dynasty (618–907), tea leaves were mostly obtained from wild tea plants. As tea drinking became widespread, the consumption of tea soared. Wild tea leaves couldn’t meet increasing consumer demand. Therefore, tea plantations emerged and gradually formed major tea-producing regions.

Tea-drinking traditions in the Yangtze River basin 
Since the 20th century, small groves of ancient wild tea trees have been discovered in some provinces along the Yangtze River, including Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Anhui. Research shows that two wild tea trees still alive in Qianjiazhai at Zhenyuan County of Yunnan Province, which took root during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), are the oldest and largest wild tea trees found on earth so far. However, there is no credible evidence for tea drinking during these periods.
Tea leaves discovered in the Han Yang Mausoleum, a tomb built for Emperor Jing of Han (188–141 BCE) near the modern-day city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, provide evidence for tea use during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE). The Western Han scholar Wang Bao (90–51 BCE) wrote “Tongyue,” or “A Contract with a Servant,” which mentioned buying tea in Wuyang (an ancient town near the modern-day city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province). This indicates the popularity of Wuyang tea at that time, and implies that a certain tea market had already formed.
During the Three Kingdoms (220–265) period, tea was a banquet beverage mainly consumed by the upper classes in the Yangtze River basin. Drinking tea as a substitute for alcohol became a local custom. Guangya, a dictionary compiled by Zhang Yi, a native of the Wei state, records the unique customs of making and drinking tea in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River at that time. Guangya explained that in the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, people mixed old tea leaves with rice pulp, and formed them into cakes. When they were ready to drink tea, they roasted the tea cake until it turned dark. Then they pounded and ground the mixture before putting it into a porcelain container, adding hot water, and covering it with a lid. The final step was to finely chop green onion, fresh ginger, mandarin orange peel, and add these to the brew.
During the Jin Dynasty (266–420), tea was cheaper than alcohol. Therefore, this beverage gradually spread through all classes, eventually becoming a common drink in China. Tea became a popular item to trade in the market. “Chuan Fu” (Ode to Tea Leaves Collected Late), a literary work praising tea by scholar Du Yu (?–311), represents one of the earliest aesthetic writings surrounding tea drinking.
By the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), tea was being served as an offering to ancestors and deities. During the late Southern and Northern Dynasties, people in south China took up drinking tea as a hobby, while people in the north considered tea an odd drink, and mocked tea-drinking traditions from the south. There were records of tea in many local chronicles, but these documents have been lost, except for limited information written in The Classic of Tea, the first known monograph on tea by the Tang Dynasty tea scholar Lu Yu (c. 733–804).
Tang Dynasty tea culture  
Buddhism played an important role in the nationwide popularization of tea drinking during the Tang Dynasty. There were many Buddhist monks who had a deep affinity for tea, because drinking tea was seen as an aid to meditation as it helped to clear the mind. Men of letters enjoyed visiting temples at that time. Tea became a medium for stimulating communication between Buddhist monks and secular scholars, so discussing Buddhist philosophy while brewing and enjoying tea became a common practice. 
Before the middle Tang era, in addition to making tea into porridge, sometimes items such as salt and ginger were boiled along with tea. Lu Yu recorded this method of preparation in The Classic of Tea, but he deeply disapproved of this crude process for tea brewing. He wrote that “drinks like this are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches.” Lu improved tea processing methods, making them much more sophisticated and refined. The art of tea became essential to representations of literati style. Since then, tea ceremonies thrived, and this beverage was acclaimed by all notable aristocrats and literati.
During the Tang era, all famous teas were cultivated in the Yangtze River basin, among which spring teas had the greatest value. During the spring harvest season, literati living along the Yangtze River often sent the fresh tea to their relatives and friends as gifts. Sending tea leaves as gifts became so popular that there were storehouses in the post that specialized in properly storing tea leaves. Tea recipients often rewarded their generous friends with poems about tea. It was common for people to request gifts of tea leaves from their close friends. Communicating through tea and poetry in this elegant way reflected the traditional pursuit of genuine relationships within Chinese society, and the belief that “it’s the thought that counts.”
During the Tang Dynasty, celebrities often held tea parties. They composed and shared poems during their parties. A popular party game was known as jigu chuanhua, in which players sat in a circle passing a flower around while one blindfolded player was beating a drum—when the drumbeat stopped, the player holding the flower must drink a cup of tea. As the An Lushan Rebellion broke out in 755, Tang literati fled south of the Yangtze River. Huzhou and Changzhou, two regions located on the Yangtze River Delta, became new cultural centers. Authorities began to hold tea parties in these places. In addition to providing a platform for talent exchanges between the regions, tea parties also improved the quality of tea leaves cultivated in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River through “tea contests,” which concentrated on assessing the quality of fresh tea. By the late Tang and the Five Dynasties period (907–960), the tea produced in the Yangtze River basin, especially the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, had been turned from a drink refreshing the mind into a work of art, which played into broader understandings of the tastes and spiritual pursuits of Chinese literati. 
Generally speaking, tea-drinking customs varied through different regions of the Yangtze River basin during the Tang era. Ethnic minorities who lived in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River drank tea in a simple and crude way. Their preference for tea stemmed from its health benefit as an aid to digestion. Tea was an essential part of their daily diet to maintain health. When brewing and drinking tea, they paid more attention to the tea’s health value rather than the sense of joy brought by the process of tea making and drinking. Different from those in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, people who lived in the middle and lower reaches performed tea processing and drinking in a refined and meticulous way. Tea drinking became an art.  
Global expansion of tea culture
Tea and tea culture were introduced to foreign countries beginning in the Tang era. 
During the Zhenyuan Era (785–805), a period under Emperor Dezong’s reign, Tang geographer Jia Dan (730–805) wrote a book titled Huanghua Sida Ji, or The Record of the Imperial Glory Reaching Four Directions. In this book, Jia wrote of seven overseas routes from China commonly used in his era, which can be categorized into four routes. The Tang people could travel east to the Korean Peninsula and Japan, either by way of Andong (roughly east of present-day Liaoning Province), or by sea from Dengzhou (the present-day coastal cities of Weihai and Yantai in Shandong Province). The route to the Western regions (regions west of Yumen Pass) through Anxi (centered at Kucha in the present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), is better known as the Silk Road. From Guangzhou (a city in Guangdong Province), the Tang People could sail south to Southeast Asia and Tianzhu (the historical name for India). They could reach further to Ubullah (located in present-day Basrah, Iraq) through the Persian Gulf and the Euphrates River. This route was known as the Maritime Silk Road. The routes from Xiazhou (today’s Jingbian County in Shaanxi Province) to Yunzhong (presently Datong, Shanxi Province), and from Central Shouxiang City (Baotou, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) to the Uyghur Khaganate (a nomadic regime located in what would now be northwest China), connected the Tang people with Tujue and Uyghur nomadic tribes.  
The aforementioned routes, except for the path to Yunzhong and the Uyghur Khaganate, were Tang Dynasty diplomatic routes, through which tea and tea culture spread throughout the world. 
Liu Litang is the head of the Archaeology Research Institute of Yangtze River Civilization at Wuhan University.