Tea was a cultural tradition begun in ancient China. Entwined in a vast history, tea was bound to events and people that subtly changed tea from drink and medicine to art and aesthetic. As tradition, tea was the custom of serving the drink as courtesy and the drinking of the brewed leaf as herbal and beverage. As culture, tea was the focus of connoisseurship and practiced as a form of art. It was the use of the brew to inspire wisdom and attain spiritual transcendence.
The story of tea starts in nature and in the garden. The tea plant is a member of the Theaceae family and belongs to the genus Camellia. Named Camellia sinensis, Chinese tea flowers in fall with blossoms of pure white, the pale petals surrounding a dense bouquet of stamens, yellow gold. Tea flowers produce fruit, a round, green husk that in winter turns dry and brown and trilobite bearing three seeds. Its spring leaves are oblong and pointed, serrated and glossy green.
In its native habitat, tea is an evergreen bush or small tree that grows shaded in forests or exposed on hills and cliffs of stony soil. After the cold of late winter, spare shoots and short sprouts quickly give way to a luxurious flush that carpets the fields and terraced slopes in jade and celadon. Within days, the new leaves are picked, processed, and dried to provide an astounding variety of teas in all shapes, sizes, and hues, each offering a brew distinct in color, aroma, and taste.
In China, tea now grows in a large range from the southern island of tropical Hainan north to the temperate coast of Shandong: from the slopes of the mountains of Gansu in the northwest to the southeast and the Wuyi cliffs in Fujian and further across the straits to Taiwan. But in prehistoric times, tea grew in the southwest, a distant realm of great natural riches, a far away cornucopia and the only source of tea. There, the vast, primordial wilderness of Sichuan and Yünnan nurtured ancient trees that grew for a thousand years. The great tea tree was high and broad, its a taproot bored deep into the earth, displacing soil with its girth, the trunk towering into the sky, its branches bearing a perpetual bounty of leaves, dark and shining.
The Tang poet Lu Yü 陸羽 (circa 733-804 C.E.) once wrote in the Book of Tea: “Tea is from a splendid tree of the south.” Stately and superior, the tree marked the seasons with abundance. In fall, tea flowered profusely and scented the air, it bore fruit and seeds aplenty, and in the clear cold days of late winter, within the still and somnambulant forest, tea grew and glowed. The majestic tree was radiant: a magnetic, irresistible sight, the early harbinger of spring and the force of life renewed. Insects stirred and fed on its buds, birds courted among its branches, and simians and humans alike sampled its tender leaves. The spirits, deities, and demi gods too were drawn by beautiful tea.
Pre dynastic Xia and Xia Dynasty
Tea lore and legend began in the late Neolithic with the myth of Shen Nong the Divine Cultivator. God-like and sage, Shen Nong 神農 (tradition circa 2838-2698 B.C.E.) was expert in husbandry and spread his knowledge of botany, horticulture, and medicine. One day, according to the stories, he discovered tea while under the shade of a fine tree listening to the breeze whispering through its branches. A sprite flew in on a zephyr rustling the leaves and sending a green shower down into the bubbling water cauldron beside him. Enticed by the aroma wafting up with the steam, he tasted the light golden brew and found it pleasantly bitter with a lingering sweetness. Sipping more, he felt refreshed yet relaxed, alert yet calm, clear minded and purposeful.
To name tea, Sheng Nong sought the scribe of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 (tradition circa 2696–2598 B.C.E.), Cang Jie the Nomenclator, who possessed four eyes to see all the patterns of Heaven and Earth and so named all that he saw. Cang Jie倉頡 (tradition circa 2650 B.C.E.) examined the plant, comprehending its integral parts – herb, man, soil, and tree – and pronounced tea as tu荼. Shen Nong spread its name throughout the land. The people, however, called tea according to their native tongues and dialects – jia檟, she蔎, ming茗, chuan荈, and cha茶 – but tea was long known and written as tu荼.
Shen Nong continued to drink tea and found its leaves nutritious as food and that its bitter flavor enhanced the taste of other fare. He investigated its medicinal properties and noted its stimulating, purgative, analgesic, and antiseptic effects. He used tea as an herbal remedy for toxins, respiratory and digestive problems as well as physical and mental fatigue. In tradition, his knowledge of tea and medicine were preserved in the Materia Medica神農本草. It was written that Shen Nong said, “Tea, when taken over a long period of time, gives a person strength and contentment.”
Shen Nong, the icon and the legend, remained fundamental to the tradition of tea. He personified tea as the singular gift of Heaven, brought by a spirit to a demi-god then given into the hands of humankind. To Shen Nong, tea was a pleasure, sustenance, and a medicine: tea was essential to good health and long life. His myth, practices, and beliefs persisted for millennia and deeply colored the history of tea.
After the decline of the Xia, the Shang rebelled and established a dynasty that lasted over half a millennium. The Shang built their capital on the Central Plain. Shang royalty knew of southern products like rice, but they were rare and costly. There was no historical evidence that the Shang knew of tea, and so tea remained a southern phenomenon, unique to Sichuan and Yunnan, isolated and distant.
The Shang king ruled a theocratic state in which he was high priest. He worshipped the supreme deity Lord on High and fulfilled his filial duties with sacrifices to his ancestors at shrines and temples. By means of divination, rites, and sacral offerings, he communed with the spirits, entreating them for success in the hunt and war, and the continued welfare of the state.
Served in fine bronze vessels, meat, grain, and wine were the sacred foods offered to the deity and spirits. The Shang was especially skilled in the casting of drinking vessels and the brewing of wine. It was said that their love of wine corrupted them, and they grew despotic and cruel. The people suffered and the Zhou rebelled.
Pre dynastic Zhou
The Zhou were a people west of the Shang. As Shang vassals, the Zhou defended the western borders of the kingdom. Unlike the hunters and warriors of the Shang, the Zhou were agriculturalists with an advanced but highly conservative society. Moral, temperate, and visionary, the Zhou shared their botanical and horticultural knowledge with the people under their influence, creating settlements, trade, markets, and revenue. Oppressed by the debauched Shang, the Zhou allied themselves with the BaShu, a southern people of Sichuan. Like the Zhou, the BaShu were contemporary to the late Shang and possessed a vibrant and highly developed bronze culture. They were reputed to be fierce fighters and skilled in the art of war.
The once vital Shang was a shadow of its former self. Caught between the armies of the Zhou and BaShu, the Shang were defeated in a single great battle and destroyed. In celebration of their victory, the Zhou sent palace concubines to Sichuan, binding the BaShu nobility to the Zhou aristocracy through marriage. In return, the BaShu sent the vast riches of Sichuan in tribute. According to the later record, Realms South of Mount Hua華陽國志, tea was sent to the Zhou from the backwaters of Ba and from Shu, “good tea” from the mountains of Shifang and “rare tea” from Nan’an and Wuyang.
Sichuan tribute bridged the divide between two immensely disparate cultures of the Zhou and BaShu. Tribute was the prelude to taxes and trade, and trade included tea. As a medicinal unique to the south, tea was added to the Zhou pharmacology, but the impact of tea on northern habits and customs remained tentative, open to question and speculation. Not so the mysteries and natural wealth of Sichuan, which drew the attention of power and ambition. Such intense interest foreshadowed the incorporation of Sichuan into the political and economic spheres of the Central Plains.
After the conquest, the Zhou established a dynasty lasting many centuries. They built their capital on the Central Plain and advanced their power by exploiting their great knowledge of farming. Elevating their sedentary and conservative culture among the people, they spread eastward.
The Zhou was a theocracy based on the worship of Heaven and sacrifices to the ancestors. The king was known as the Son of Heaven and was high priest performing rites and sacrifices for the benefit of the state. Tutelary deities included the fabled Queen Mother of the West西王母who, according to myth, received the Zhou king Mu周穆王（976-922 or 956-918 B.C.E.) and gave him the secret of immortality, which he squandered.
Early Zhou rulers were considered virtuous and moral, but they decreed austere and often harsh laws. The Zhou restricted the use of wine to rites and ceremony and banned drunkenness on pain of death. Correct and abstemious, the Zhou may well have drunk tea from Sichuan instead of wine, yet there is no contemporary evidence for such a practice. Still, attributions of tea in the Zhou persisted and it was written that the strict Duke of Zhou周公(11th century B.C.E.), using the ancient names of tea, said, “Jia檟is kutu苦荼, bitter tea.” Thereafter, the phrase “tea instead of wine” was intimately linked to the notion of temperance and moderation.
As horticulturalists, the Zhou love of plants was clear from the Book of Songs詩經, but there was no record of tea as herb or tree. When the term was mentioned in poetry, tu 荼meant sowthistle, a lovely bitter herb used as flavoring and food. Like sowthistle, tea was also bitter and pleasing, the two intertwining, till tea became nouvelle cuisine and part of the culinary arts of the time.
The Zhou slowly fragmented into contending states, each having to institute and administer policy. Questions of governance generated differing theories of rule, including the philosophical principle of wuwei無為or non intention attributed to Laozi 老子 (6th or 5th-4th centuries B.C.E.), regarded as the founder of Daoism.
The many states vied for dominance in a period marked by incessant warfare and turmoil, particularly in the north. Despite the political and military tension, trade continued, and tea reached the eastern state of Qi where the high minister Yen Ying 晏嬰 (578-500 B.C.E.) personified moderation, frugality, and simplicity by wearing plain cloth and eating “only coarse grain, three roasted fowl, five eggs, and tea.” In the sixth century B.C.E., tea was likely a dried leaf, steeped, infused, or boiled as a beverage or soup. As a vegetable, dry leaf tea was reconstituted by soaking in water and then steamed or stewed.
In the south, the state of Chu flourished. By way of evidence, the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng曾侯乙 (died ca. 433 B.C.E.) was laden with treasure: an exceptional set of bronze bells and chimes, wares of precious metals, and fine vermillion lacquers. Strange, antlered guardians and armed, feathered spirits protected the grave from the chaos of the mundane and nether worlds. Within nested caskets, at the foot of the body, was a small packet of herbs and tea seeds. The herbs were all medicinal – treatments for respiratory and stomach ailments – the tea to relieve persistent coughing and labored breathing. Such an offering attested to the use of tea not only as a remedy but also as a gesture to the soul of the dead as it departed on its eternal journey into the heavens.
Such cosmic travel was celebrated in the Songs of Chu楚辭which described a shaman casting off his material body to fly in astral form into the Vastness to meet with spirits:
...I departed, and swiftly prepared to start off on my journey.
I met the Feathered Men on the Hill of Cinnabar;
I tarried in the ancient land of Immortality.
Cinnabar was the potent ingredient in Daoist alchemical elixirs of immortality. Its mutability from solid mineral to liquid quick silver profoundly impressed the ancients and symbolized the transformation of states of being. The precious mineral came from the mines of Sichuan and its deep vermillion color was intimately associated with the distinctive shamanistic cultures of the south: Shu, Pa, and Chu. It was believed that by feeding on the large, dark ruby crystals of the mineral, mere mortals became feathered transcendents, gathering on high mounds of cinnabar, winging between the material and immaterial worlds, and living forever.
Though sparse and incomplete, the literary and archaeological evidence suggest that tea was a market commodity traded as far away from Sichuan as Shandong. It was a comestible taken as food and drink, and its use was considered a virtue, representing temperance, thrift, and plainness as opposed to excess and gluttony. As beverage, tea was possibly a libation in ceremony, if not ritual, and its different forms were provided to the dead as tokens of their former lives and relations. As funerary offerings, tea became associated with the eternal spirits.
Pre dynastic Qin
A major power among the warring states was the realm of Qin. Ruled by a long succession of able dukes, the Qin often led the hegemony of states in diplomacy, politics, and war. Having supplanted the Zhou in the west, the Qin profited from the trade with Sichuan and grew rich and ambitious. While perpetuating long standing forms and traditions, the Qin were also innovative, acquiring and creating new methods and technologies. In 325 B.C., the ducal heir declared himself King of Qin and within nine years invaded Sichuan to tap its riches. For over a century, his treasury overflowed with the bounty of the south, including tea.
The wealth of the Qin allowed its rulers to support occult practices such as funding the immense costs of alchemy and the creation of the golden elixir. Their desire for everlasting life expressed itself in the love story of the princess Nongyü 弄玉and the courtier Xiao Shi簫史. Nongyü was the daughter of Duke Mu of Qin 秦穆公 (659-621 B.C.E.) for whom Xiao Shi served as palace alchemist. Xiao Shi enchanted Nongyü with gifts of cosmetics and by teaching her to play the flute. Charmed by the music, they soared immortal into the heavens. In tandem, they roamed the universe: he, mounted on a dragon, and she, on a phoenix. Inspired by Nongyü, generations of Qin dukes and kings yearned for immortality, ever searching for the elixir of life, the herb of no death.
The vast wealth of Sichuan funded Qin statecraft, intrigue, and the naked aggression needed to conquer the rival states of the Central Plains and the southern kingdom of Chu. The Qin deployed its generals, commanders, and great armies in a campaign lasting seventy years. With the destruction of the state of Qi in 221 B.C., the Qin king (Ying Zheng 嬴政, 259-210 B.C.E.) ascended the throne as First August Thearch 始皇帝to rule god-like over both the mundane and spirit realms of the new imperium.
The First Emperor built his capital in the ancient state of Qin and secured the northern borders with a wall so great that it eventually traversed the continent. He fielded battalions of quadriga, two wheeled chariots drawn by horses four abreast. He built vast and opulent palaces at Xianyang and Ebang filled with the art of imperial workshops commissioned to furnish the vast court complex with beautiful art and music.
To assure that history began with his reign, the First Emperor burned books and buried scholars. Only works and experts on astronomy, astrology, divination, and medicine were spared, and his court was filled with herbalists, physicians, seers, stargazers, and masters of esoterica who catered to his obsession for spiritual power and immortality.
Like his Qin ancestors, the First Emperor passionately desired everlasting life, and his emissaries combed the empire for plants and elixirs that imparted the transcendent state of no death. Once he heard of an enchanted island where there grew a miraculous plant. A story from the Master of the Gold Pavilion 金樓子described his search:
On top of the mystic isle of Shenzhou there is the herb of no death, the new sprouts of which grow in profusion. The dead are restored with this herb. In the time of the First Emperor, many in [a certain place] were driven to death, but birds resembling crows dropped this herb to the ground and revived the dead, who immediately sat up. The emperor sent someone to enquire [and learned] that on the magical island of Tanzhou in the Eastern Sea, the herb of immortality grew in beautiful fields.
Such descriptions of paradise and the herb of everlasting life resonated deeply with the esoteric masters, and by virtue of its beauty, quality, efficacy, and bitterness, tea was likened to the herb of no death. To purify themselves before the divinities and spirits, the alchemist fasted, drinking tea to purge waste and toxins from their bodies. They drank tea to fortify themselves against the ordeal of the laboratory, a grueling process that exposed them to merciless schedules, noxious chemicals, fire and heat, all while demanding knowledge, nerve, and precision. Through their strict regimen of tea, tea itself became intimately associated with the golden elixir and immortality.
To order the country and align its cosmic points, the First Emperor made numerous state tours. Riding by coach over hundreds of miles, he performed rites at the sacred rivers and mountains of the empire. In his sacrifices on Mount Tai, he sought to confirm the Mandate of Heaven and prayed for revelation in his pursuit of eternal life. He wished to be spirited away to the stars and ascend the ranks of the immortals. Hoping to find the herb of no death, he shipped embassies of young men and maidens into the sea in search of the idyllic isles. On his last tour of Mount Tai, the First Emperor suddenly died. His body was returned to the capital and buried in a massive tomb, the center of an immense necropolis guarded by full scaled armies and graced with the amenities of a lavish and elegant life. According to the histories, the interior of the tomb was an intricate analogue of the universe, a mirror of the emperor’s eternal reign over the empire in harmony with the cosmos.
The Qin longing for eternal life reflected a widespread concern for health, longevity, and immortality that pervaded society at large during a time of uncertainty and war. The aristocracy and wealthy were especially receptive to the notion of prolonged life and perpetual being, prompting their support of pharmacology, medicine, and alchemy. Among herbs, none so perfectly fit the description of the beautiful herb of no death, and none was nearly as benign or as efficacious as tea. Once remote and alien, Sichuan was now integral to the empire, and the cultivation of tea spread rapidly down the Yangzi eastward.
The First Emperor’s unexpected death triggered internal struggles that quickly destroyed the dynasty. Out of the ruin of the Qin rose the Han.
The Han rulers unified the country and adopted the imperial manner and styled themselves huangdi 皇帝, emperor. They built their capitals at Xi’an and Luoyang in the north and continued to draw on the abundant resources of the south. Their palaces were filled with sumptuous works: inlaid, decorative bronzes, fine nephritic jades set in gilt, all lighted with scented oils aflame in golden lamps. Han Wudi漢武帝 (156-87 B.C.E.), the Martial Emperor, employed a host of Daoist masters and surpassed the Qin in his quest for immortality. He took to heart the words of the Dao De Jing道德經, the Book of the Way and Power:
The Dao is constant, but nameless.
Heaven and Earth would harmonize to send sweet dew.
Sweet dew was a celestial manifestation of harmonious accord that not only affirmed the Mandate of Heaven but also imbued long life. It was said that the Martial Emperor built storied pavilions, climbing their steps to collect sweet dew from golden dishes and silvery mirrors, then drinking the mystical essence for health, longevity, and immortality.
The Han nobles delighted in the depiction of Daoist subjects. Incense burners of inlaid bronze were made as miniature sacred islands and vessels of white jade were carved with winged immortals. The members of the high aristocracy were buried in full suits of nephrite in the belief that the precious stone would preserve their mortal flesh. But jade was not the only alchemical medium. There were masters of esoterica who recommended tea. The earth-bound immortal known as Master Gourd 壺居士 (traditional circa 1st -3rd centuries C.E.) offered prescriptions and predictions: “Bitter tea, drunk habitually over a long time, bestows immortality.” Renowned for the infallibility of his advice, Master Gourd’s teachings were followed by Lady Dai.
Lady Dai 軑夫人 (died ca. 168-164 B.C.E.) was a noblewoman who died over two millennia ago. She was buried in Changsha where her husband was prime minister to the Prince of Chu. Her funeral pall bore her portrait and showed not only her relationship to the Sun and the Moon of the Cosmos but also the sacrificial foods prepared for her grave. Beneath the painted pall, deep within her tomb, Lady Dai lay within nested caskets of wood, lacquer, silk, and feathers, her body perfectly preserved for over two thousand years. She was buried with all she required for her journey, including the Dao De Jing written on silk, lacquer ware, especially a set of fine nested cups, and a woven bamboo basket labeled “jiasi檟司, tea case” filled with fragrant tea.
In the Han, as in the Zhou, the finest tea still came from Sichuan. In 59 B.C., the poet and imperial censor Wang Bao 王褒 (active ca. 73-49 B.C.E.) wrote out the duties of his servant, including that “at Wu-yang he shall buy tea...” and that “when there are guests in the house, he shall...boil tea and fill the bowls.” However, in Lady Dai’s life time, tea grew at Tuling near Changsha, and though the tea buried with her may have come from Sichuan, she might well have acquired a taste for the local leaf from Tuling 荼陵, known as Tea Hill. In the Han, the name Tea Hill eventually changed from Tuling to Chaling 茶陵, the word tu荼for tea transformed by the deletion of a single stroke to cha茶.
Three Kingdoms period
After the fall of the Han dynasty in the third century C.E., the empire was divided among three major powers: Wei in the north, the state of Wu in the southeast, and in the southwest, Shu Han. Despite the warfare between the three kingdoms, scholarship was kept alive by academics whose glosses and commentaries to ancient texts revealed the early practice of tea.
Around 230 C.E., Zhang Yi 張揖 (active ca. 237-232 C.E.) wrote a supplemental glossary known as the Expanded Understanding Rectitude廣雅which stated:
In Jing and Ba, tea leaves are picked to make cakes. Of those made from aged leaves, the cakes are produced by using rice paste to make them. To make ming 茗 tea to drink, a tea cake is first toasted until it is reddish in color. The cake is then pounded to powder and placed in a pottery vessel, using boiling water to pour over and cover it. Brewed with scallions, ginger, orange, and herbs, the drink sobers the inebriated and causes wakefulness.
Zhang Yi noted the use of tea as a stimulant that physicians prescribed to overcome sleepiness: “drink it and awake.” Others, however, feared that tea induced insomnia and was something to avoid, warning “Drinking true tea causes sleeplessness.” Zhang Yi also recognized the analeptic effect of tea on intoxication: “the drink sobers the inebriated.” The sympathetic simply wrote, “This is called tea that dispels wine,” while others dryly observed, “any drunk can use it.”
In the Expanded Record廣誌, Guo Yigong 郭義恭 (3rd century C.E.) described three kinds of brewed tea:
Tea grows thick and dense. Properly brewed, it is called mingcha茗茶. Combined and cooked with the paste or juice of jasmine and dogwood berries, it is called cha茶, tea. There are red colored tea leaves mixed with rice paste and cooked. This is called wujiu cha無酒茶, tea that dispels wine.