While historically the origin of tea is unclear, China is considered to have the earliest records of tea drinking, with recorded tea use in its history dating back to the first millennium BCE. In the 诗经 (Shī Jīng), an ancient record of Chinese poetry and psalms, tea was known as 荼 (tú). In the classic Chinese dictionary, the Ěr Yǎ (爾雅), tea is referred to as 檟 (jiă) and defined as “苦荼” (kǔ tú) or “Bitter tú.” In the same work, tú was further annotated by the scholar Guō Pú (276-324 CE) as “a small plant whose leaves can be brewed to make a beverage.” The Han Dynasty used tea as medicine. The use of tea as a beverage drunk for pleasure on social occasions dates from the Tang Dynasty or earlier.
The Tang Dynasty writer Lu Yu‘s 陸羽 (729-804 BCE) Cha Jing 茶經 is an early work on the subject. According to the Cha Jing (composed at around 760 CE) tea drinking was widespread. At this time in tea’s history, the nature of the beverage and style of tea preparation were quite different from the way we experience tea today. Tea leaves were processed into 磚茶 (zhuān chá) or compressed brick form which was ground with a stone mortar. Hot, lightly salted water was added to the powder, or it was boiled in earthenware kettles then consumed as a hot beverage.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), production and preparation of all tea underwent a dramatic change. The tea of Song included many loose-leaf styles (to preserve the delicate character favored by the court society), but a new powdered form of tea emerged. Tea leaves were picked and quickly steamed to preserve their color and fresh character. After steaming, the leaves were dried. The finished tea was then ground into fine powders that were whisked in wide bowls. The resulting beverage was highly regarded for its deep emerald or iridescent white appearance and its rejuvenating and healthy energy. Drinking tea was considered stylish among government officers and intellectuals during the Southern Song period in China (12th to 13th centuries). They would read poetry, write calligraphy, paint, and discuss philosophy, while enjoying tea. Sometimes they would hold tea competitions where teas and tea instruments were judged.
This Song style of tea preparation incorporated powdered tea and ceramic ware in a ceremonial aesthetic known as the Song tea ceremony. Japanese monks traveling to China at this time had learned the Song preparation and brought it home with them. Although it later became extinct in China, this Song style of tea evolved into the Japanese tea ceremony, which endures today.
Steaming tea leaves was the primary process used for centuries in the preparation of tea. After the transition from compressed tea to the powdered form, the production of tea for trade and distribution changed once again. The Chinese learned to process tea in a different way in the mid-13th century. Tea leaves were roasted and then crumbled rather than steamed. This is the origin of today’s loose teas and the practice of brewed tea.
In 1391, the Ming court issued a decree that only loose tea would be accepted as a “tribute”. As a result, loose tea production increased and processing techniques advanced. Soon, most tea was distributed in full-leaf, loose form and steeped in earthenware vessels.