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Chinese Tea History

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Chinese Tea History

Chinese people began to cultivate tea shrubs as early as 3,000 years ago. But it was only late in the sixth century A. D. during the Tang Dynasty that people drank tea in great numbers. Poets and writers appeared who extolled the virtues of tea and described the delightful effects of drinking tea one cup after another. Ahead of them, ancient Chinese linguists had taken great pains to create five hieroglyphs all meaning the same thing, which was tea, each with a different pronunciation and some slight difference in connotation. This circumstance caused a lot of confusion in reading and interpretation. Efforts directed at simplification were made by scholars without much effect until Lu Yu, author of the Classic of Tea, decided in the eighth century to simplify one of the hieroglyphs and alter its pronunciation to correspond with the popular pronunciation "cha" of the accepted Chinese name of the substance tea. Of the other hieroglyphs only one, pronounced "ming", still remains in common use, though more often in writing than in colloquial Chinese.

The custom of drinking tea widened its scope of influence at high speed and penetrated into nooks of people's daily life. Whenever a guest or a casual visitor arrived, the offer of a cup of tea to him/her would show at least respect, if not friendship and affection, at a cost which bespeaks emphasis on frugality rather than pretence of affluence. Therefore, for more than a thousand years, the serving of tea to a guest has been the universal etiquette in China, which has long enjoyed the fame of being a land of ceremony and propriety.

However, in the last twenty or thirty years a change in people's behavior occurred in their capacity as visitors. In fact, guests generally refrain from drinking

Chinese Tea History

the tea offered by the host for fear of getting some infectious disease. It would be advisable, therefore, that the host sterilize the teacups and pour boiling water into them to steep the tea leaves in full view of the guests.

Now, let's return to the time of Tang Dynasty (618-907), which was soon to be followed by the Soong Dynasty(960-1270), and continue our pursuit of tea culture in the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D. The drinking of tea in that era was generally oriented towards aestheticism. The tea party ought to be limited in size. The optimum number of people present was considered at that time to be four. The meeting began usually with a discussion of the quality of the tea served. This discussion was termed "evaluating the tea", or by literal translation "placing the tea in its appropriate class". Then, a topic about current events in the imperial court, history, literature, especially poetry, and arts, especially painting, would be taken up for analysis, praise or criticism. These topics, to which none of them was a stranger, would occupy most of the time of the tea party.

One of them would probably become tired of this persevering assiduity and cracked a joke, as if by accident. Another one, who, though a little dull at starting game, might be intelligent in hunting it down. The aesthetic, scholarly conversation paused, and bantering began among them in greater excitement. Of course, they had no idea at all that the increased excitement might have been caused by the caffeine and theophylline in the tea, which they had drunk in large volumes. Some other topic, also aesthetic in essence, which would not exactly do for a lady's ear, might be raised, perhaps for the purpose of teasing one of those present at the tea party. There would be abundant laughter at the end of the merry meeting accompanied by a lot more of tea drinking.

Chinese Tea History

In the next few centuries, the custom of drinking tea and the cultivation of tea spread to other parts of the world, and trade in tea assumed great importance in the world. It was so important as to create a turning point in world history. In 1773, the British Parliament gave special advantages to the East India Company for the importation of tea into America with a total disregard of the colonial tea trade which existed at that time. The colonists resolved to refuse and boycott this tea. When the tea importers at Boston showed themselves stubborn and insisted on landing their cargoes, a band of men disguised as Indians, boarded the three tea ships, in the presence of a great crowd of people, and threw the tea overboard (December 16, 1773). This was truly an epoch-making event not only for Americans but for people of the whole world.

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