Origins of Chinese Tea
The earliest records show us tea leaves being eaten straight from the tree, ground to powder, added to soup stock or being roasted. The Chinese have been consuming tea for a long time. Long enough that they have their own implausible, accidental origin for where it came from. The first literary reference to tea dates back to 2737 BC when the scholar-emperor Shennong, the father of Chinese Agriculture, medicine and acupuncture, was feeding the fire for his boiling water with some dry tea twigs. Some leaves were blown into his pot, the water changed colour and flavour and the inevitable followed...
Regardless of the the reliability of the origin the Chinese give for tea, we can confirm that the drink itself originated in the South West provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan.
Shennong wrote "Tea tastes bitter. Drinking it, one can think quicker, sleep less, move lighter, and see clearer".
Shennong's authority as a medical giant naturally coloured the patterns of tea consumption for several hundred years with most Chinese imbibing the decoction for its ability to freshen the body and clear the mind. It wasn't until the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220AD) when Tea became popular amongst the nobility that the idea of drinking it for its own sake became commonplace. The following Wei and Jin Dynasties saw tea replace wine as the preferred beverage at banquets as people preferred it's freshness and clarity to wine's violence and intoxication. During this time both Buddhists and Taoists helped to promote tea's popularity. The Buddhists praised tea for it's capacity to ward off dreariness and langour whilst the Taoists insisted on Tea's ability to keep the drinker young and ultimately attain immortality.
It wasn't until the Tang dynasty and Song Dynasties (618 AD - 1270 AD) that tea culture came to something approaching its present infusion in Chinese society. During the Tang; the first tea houses opened, shops solely dedicated to tea thrived and tea became the number one foreign export. During this period Japanese Buddhists introduced tea to Japan. Amongst the poems and other miscellaneous writings dedicated to tea at this time, Lu Yu wrote the seminal "The Book of Tea" covering all known aspects of tea culture. By the time of the Song Dynasty, even emperors such as Huizong Zhou-Ji were composing literary meditations on Tea. The emperor's "General Remarks on Tea" is considered to be the most detailed description of the Song era Tea Ceremony in existence.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD - 1644 AD) wild tea trees were no longer considered sufficient to meet the demand of total tea consumption. Plantation farming began in earnest with the extensive layout of tea gardens and experimentation with processing techniques leading to the five types of tea we recognize today. The greater availability of tea has allowed it to well and truly transcend its earlier medicinal uses. Now tea is inextricably infused into China as an everyday expression of its culture and cuisine with most tea produced being destined for domestic consumption.