A (Very) Brief History of Green Tea

Competition at the Tea Market 茗圓賭市圖

Competition in the Tea Market (detail), by Liu Songnian, around 1190 A.D., Southern Sung Dynasty, China.
    The picture depicts tea vendors in a competition for the highest quality tea. Demand for quality and tea preparation techniques were so prevalent in daily life that tea competition was popular not only in the tea trade, but also amongst the folks, the literati, the privileged and the imperial court. This had profound influence on the evolution of tea quality and tea consumption habits. Demand for the best available quality by those who can afford them is still a living heritage in Chinese societies.
    This picture also illustrates tea-making using grounded green tea tealeaves and how tea was consumed at that time. The spontaneity continued in the Chinese culture but the same materials, including the tea ware, the grounded leaf form, and the tea making method, have evolved in Japan to become the much disciplined tea ceremony with emphasize on ritualistic qualities.

household slaves are to buy and prepare tea

Minister Wang in Chengdu (in Sichuan Province) had a big argument with a slave on whether he had the rights to send the latter to buy wine from out-of-town. The slave, whose scope of duties was defined to the household, was refusing to go out. Wang, on a whim of rage, drafted the much studied “Household Slave Contract (Tong Yue)” in 59 b.c.. Preparing tea for guests and buying tea from 30 km away in the tea region of Wuyang were amongst the duties (1). This was the earliest documentation of the use of tea as a beverage.

from medicine to tea

The use of tealeaves as a medicine has been in existence for three millenniums in China, but it is unclear when it has become a drink until Wang. Further records of it being a hospitality beverage and a grocery item were in various achieves since then. Documentation of the processing technique, however, did not exist until the 8th century in Lu Yu’s “Tea Classics (Cha Jing)”. His description clearly describes the making of what we would classify today as a steamed green tea. To him, the centre for elitist (fine) tea was the area around the borders between Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

Compressed tea (i.e. cake tea, brick tea, etc) was the prevalent form in those days, but the products were made with a much more sophisticated process than those nowadays (2). It continued to develop into the 12th century, involving meticulous cleansing, steaming and rinsing of the leaves, before they were kneaded, rolled and pressed into moulds and then baked (3). This became the model for tea-processing in the early days of the Japanese tea industry.

beggar emperor prefers natural loose leaf tea

All along, however, loose tea, coarse tea, and powdered tea coexisted with the imperially appointed compressed form. By the end of the 14th century, the more naturalistic, original tasting loose leaf form had become the predominant household product and, in line with the frugal and pragmatic culture preferred by the first emperor of Ming, loose tea was officiated for imperial use. Concurrently, new ways of tea processing by baking and wok roasting, together with improved approaches in steaming, were spreading in all tea areas in the east and southeast.

Japanese over a cup of tea

Detail of a 1904 photograph showing a group of formally dressed ladies (probably geisha) taking a tea break. The tea utensils employed are clearly similar to those for everyday serving and that are for use with loose leaf tea, rather than those for chanoyu tea ceremony. Sencha had quickly become a daily grocery in Japan since its introduction in the 17th century.

Much development took place since that time and now most provinces along the course of the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) produce green tea with various techniques. Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan and Sichuan are key production regions for finer green teas. In fact, China is the single most important green tea producer in terms of quality, variety and quantity.

Japan began tea production in the 12th century in the mode of Chinese compressed forms of tea (i.e. “cake tea”) that would be grounded to powder form for whipping with water to make tea, a transplant of the elitist continental culture prevalent at that time. This was evolved into Chanoyu (cha-nô-yū), what we understand today as “tea ceremony”, that was meant to be an exclusive activities of the political and military elites.

japanese excels on an 11th century approach

Tea gatherers in Russia

Tea gatherers in Russia, cir 1909 – 1915, photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (cropped)

The more popular “sencha” (steamed tea) material culture began in the 17th century in Uji, a Chinese cultural hub south of Kyoto. Contemporary Ming Dynasty literati culture of the continent, together with the loose tea technique, anchor its root by way of the patronage of monks, scholars, and merchants. Since late 19th century, in the spirit of Meiji Modernization, steamed green tea processing had been mechanized with the inventions of a series of mechanical machines in Uji. Today the prefectures of Kyoto, Mie, Kagoshima, and Shizuoka are key production areas in Japan. Although processing have become so mechanized and massive scale, there is still a constant yield of a fine variety, Gyokuro, a grade quality that different producers would want to be prized as Japan’s best.

Other Asian countries, such as Korea, Thailand and Vietnam have also been producing because of early Chinese and Buddhist influence. A few other South Asian and African countries have in recent decades jumped in the green tea trend and are producing chiefly mass quality products or as raw materials for the beverage and other reprocessing industries.

spreading to the west

Catherine of Braganza, Painting by Sir Peter Lely

Catherine of Branganza, daughter of John IV of Portugal who brought tea drinking to England when she became Queen to Charles II

Some said that Marco Polo was the first one to bring tea to the West, and it is very likely that Islamic traders might have passed the dried leaves to a few Europeans even earlier, but the first written records of importing tea from the “Orient” was in 1610 in Portugal and Holland. The initial shipment was only a few “jars” of green tea for some elites, but the influence this had on subsequent centuries went way beyond the habit of the cup. It may not be obvious as the inventions of paper, printing and gunpowder, but tea was a key catalyst for the intense international trade, territory expansion, and a few wars in previous centuries that has shaped the world as we know it today.

Ironically, China now ranks much lower in tea consumption per capita ( officially, but you know official data in Communist China is not accurate ) than many Western or Middle Eastern countries. While with the exception of a few countries, such as Morocco, tea has meant black tea to most outside of Asia since the 19th century. Green tea is only gradually making a come back in these markets recently because people are more aware of the general health benefits, and perhaps we are now truly getting in touch with cultures other than ours. And tea is a small catalyst in that too?

• orientation • production • origin & history • tasting notes • health notes • tea list gallery
1. In a slave contract drafted by Wang Bao in the Han Dynasty in 59 B.C., the slave was required to prepare tea when a guest arrived and to buy tea in the ancient town Wuyang (different from the modern town of the same name), 30 km northwest of present day Chengdu, Sichuan. Reference from Yang Shengmin, Tong Yue Xin Tan, Zhongguoshi Yuanjiu, 1996 v3. (Yang Shengmin, A New Study of the Slave Contract, Studies of Chinese History, 1996 v3)
2. Hsing-tsung Huang, Joseph Needham — Science and Civilization of China V. 6.5 Fermentations and Food Science. 2000, Cambridge University Press
3. Zhao Ruli, Bei Yuan Bie Lu 1186. (Zhao Ruli, An Alternative Documentation of Tea in Bei Yuan, 1186)

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