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History of Chinese Tea & Cultural Significance Explained

Everyone knows tea is a big deal in China. Tea is a big deal worldwide, but in China, it has a major role to play in the culture and economy as well as the diet. China invented tea or so the legend says but there are many who will argue and say it was not a Chinese discovery!

For the sake of argument, we will assume it really was invented or discovered in China. There is such a long history involved with how tea came to be the massive Rockstar it is today, but not many people know the true story of how it came to be what it is today.

Because this is ancient history up to a point, we must assume the accepted stories are true. There is nobody alive today that can confirm or deny some of the legends and history here. The one thing that everyone can agree on is that tea plays a major role in today’s world. It is a part of the world economy, the world culture, and the world diet but have you ever wondered how it got to be that way?

Here we are going to take a deep dive into how tea became so important in China, and how it was discovered to begin with.

The Origin and Discovery of Tea in China

Emperor Shen Nong is said to have been the one to discover tea. He is a mythological prehistoric emperor said to be one of the three kings or three sovereigns in Chinese history and lore. There are also five emperors that are held in very high regard and often spoken of along with the three kings. The five emperors were:

  1. Huang-Di
  2. Zhuanxu
  3. Emperor Ku
  4. Emperor Yao
  5. Emperor Shun

The Three Kings

The three sovereigns are ancient mythological kings that existed in the land of China in prehistoric times. They are sometimes called the Three August Ones. They were first found in printed words in the Records of the Grand Historian from around 109 BC.  They are Fu Xi also known as the Heavenly Sovereign, Nuwa or the Earthly Sovereign, and Shennong or the Human Sovereign.

Fu Xi

Fu Xi is said to have 12 heads and ruled China for almost 20,000 years. It is written that he also had 12 sons who were part of his reign and carried out tasks for him and assisted him in ruling the entire world. The 12 sons divided the humans on earth into different groups to keep them organized. This story is used to explain why there are different people and different lands on earth.


Nuwa had 11 heads and was responsible for setting the sun and moon into the orbits they still follow today. Nuwa is said to have created many of the largest mountains in China and he was also the king of all fire. He is called the fire king in some Chinese texts where they may not call him Nuwa, so if you see the Fire King mentioned, it is Nuwa.


Shennong who is said to have discovered tea had seven heads and lived longer than the other 2 sovereigns surviving for 45000 years. Shennong is credited with not only inventing tea but also rice. In the story, he drives a chariot made from the clouds in the sky, and one day he spits a grain of rice out of his mouth which fell to earth and multiplies.

His name means ‘The Divine Farmer’ in Chinese. It is said he was responsible for learning to harvest herbs and he invented many more herbs and foods than just tea. Some call him the god of natural medicine as well.

How Shennong Discovered Tea

ancient china

Shennong had a transparent belly and was able to see inside and make observations and discoveries about the inside of the body by looking at his belly. He traveled the land experimenting with herbs and plants, placing them into his mouth and watching what they did inside his organs. He then learned the best use of all these herbs based on his studies. He documented all of this.

On one of his travels, he came across 72 poison plants and he became extremely ill. As he fell to the ground he reached out and grabbed some leaves and placed them in his mouth. The leaves began to heal him and reverse the effects of the poison plants he had digested. Those leaves he called cha, which is tea.

There are several other versions of this story, one of the most popular ones is that he was traveling in the countryside and some leaves blew into a pot of boiling water. The color and smell were intriguing to him, so he consumed the mixture, and it turns out that it had many healing properties, and it was tea leaves!

Related Reading- Chinese Tea (Introductions to Chinese Culture)

This is a paperback book by Tong Liu which provides interesting thoughts and ideas about ancient culture, trade, and philosophy of tea in China.

It is a great introduction to tea culture with respectful and entertaining insights into how Chinese tea became the well-known thing it is today. For the beginner, I can not think of a better introduction to the fascinating world of ancient Chinese tea.

It is an illustrated introduction with beautiful pictures. It is a small paperback that will go well with a nice sit-down and cup of strong tea. Highly recommended if you are interested in getting some insight into what this is all about!

Early Uses of Tea in China

In ancient times in China after tea was discovered, it began to be used in rituals and ceremonies as offerings to deities. This leaf was so revered in ancient times it was deemed worthy to give to gods, and the people of China respected the plant and gave it great reverence.

Tea as Medicine

Long before tea was ever a drink, it was respected for its medicinal properties. People discovered that tea could aid in digestion and it was eaten raw to help soothe the stomach and intestines when people felt ill. Tea leaves were used for many other medicinal things early on in China as well.

Tea as an Antidote to Poison

Early Chinese people also used tea as an antidote to poison. It would be added to food or eaten by itself to help facilitate detoxification of the body. This is well known and documented in early texts. The plant had so many medicinal uses, it became extremely popular and well respected. This wide variety of uses for tea began to start the overwhelmingly positive feeling that Chinese people had for tea going way back to ancient times and continuing today.

Used for Food and Fun

Tea was also used as a food, just to garnish other dishes or snack on when you wanted a little boost. Since tea does contain caffeine, it was used recreationally as something to enjoy whenever you wanted to. The tea leaf is one of the most beneficial plants on earth to this day, and it all started in ancient times in China. Tea was most likely used by almost everyone as a caffeine source you could chew on, much like gum is used today. The caffeine would help you get more done in a day and keep you alert and feeling good.

The History of Drinking Tea

The earliest record of tea drinking is in 350 A.D. when a Chinese dictionary was being updated. It was discovered that in ancient China the tea leaves were being boiled with orange and other fruits and vegetables and ginger to enhance the flavor of the leaves. Up until this point tea leaves were being eaten and used as medicine, but they were not known to be used in a mix of boiling water.

The Tang Dynasty

ancient chinese scupture

The Tang Dynasty which lasted from 618-907 A.D. is when preparing tea and drinking it in groups really became the art form it is today. In these early times, the tea-drinking ceremonies and culture were done by wealthy people and scholars, members of the royal court and other notables in early Chinese society. It was not something most commoners were participating in. This early tea culture was documented in a book called the Cha-Ching (the tea classic). It went over how to grow tea and the details of drinking it in the ceremonies and the other aspects of early Chinese tea culture.

Fun Fact- The early brewing of tea involved 27 pieces of equipment and was a complex and expensive ceremony!

After the Tang Dynasty

After the Tang Dynasty as the tea culture began to become more popular, the ceremonies and special preparations and manners began to spread to all parts of China. There became levels of tea, from very exquisite to far more affordable, and many people began to enjoy the drinking of tea. The brewing process became more simplified and some of the outrageous steps in the brewing and drinking process were let go.

Tea, much like any other discovery or invention has evolved from its origins as a mysterious complicated plant enjoyed by only the well to do with 27 pieces of equipment needed to make it into a drink that could be found all over china in any village or town. As the culture became more popular it became simplified to an extent.

How Tea Shaped the Chinese Culture

Tea is extremely important in China. It is considered one of seven necessities in life for Chinese people. The seven necessities are:

  • Vinegar
  • Firewood
  • Oil
  • Salt
  • Soy Sauce
  • Tea
  • Rice

The act of drinking tea in Chinese culture is more than just sitting down and having a refreshing cup of tea. There is a spiritual element to the act of preparing and drinking tea. Learn about the best tea caddies here!

Related Reading- The Ancient Art of Tea: Wisdom from the Old Chinese Tea Masters

This is a fantastic book that contains much of the history of tea and lots of information about the philosophy behind tea and why it is such a big deal in China.

The book is a good resource for anyone looking for some deep insight into the spiritual and philosophical aspects of tea and tea culture. The book has many quotes from ancient Chinese tea masters which have been translated into modern language and put in a way that is easy to understand for us now.

There are some passages that bring attention to the importance of water in the making of tea, and water in general as a spiritual resource. Water is known to be a spiritual element and when you look at it in the context of tea through the lens of ancient tea masters, it is fascinating.

It is not a big history book, just a little coffee table book perfect for reading while you sip some tea!

How Drinking Tea Relates to Spirituality in China

The legend of Bodhidharma is the best way to set the stage for how tea began to become more than just a beverage or an herb in early China. Bodhidharma is known for bringing Buddhism to China in the 5th century.

The legend goes that he was determined to meditate for nine years without sleeping. He went to Mount Song and found a cave to do his meditating in. Inside the cave, he began to meditate sitting on the cave floor facing the wall. He would sit there day after day in silence without sleeping meditating. He was able to do this for three entire years before he succumbed to the fatigue and finally fell asleep.

When he woke up, he was upset that he was not able to reach his goal of nine years, and he also felt ashamed of himself. He wanted to reach his goal so badly that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the cave floor so that he could not fall asleep again.

The legend goes that his eyelids grew into a tea bush. He was able to meditate for the next five years without falling asleep again, he was getting close to his goal. But in the final year, he began to feel tired again and he was too close to his goal to let sleep overtake him. He pulled some leaves off the tea bush and chewed them and felt himself become alert and the sleepiness went away. He finished his nine-year meditation, and it was all because of the wonderful tea leaves he chewed on.

Monks and The Spread of Tea Culture

Tea became popular with Chinese monks due to its caffeine helping them to stay awake when they are meditating. Since tea is also known to help with digestion it was appealing to the monks. Tea is also said to help ward off troublesome desires that plague the mind when trying to empty it of thoughts. The popularity of tea with the Monks became well known and the wide acceptance of tea in China had begun.

Tea Culture and the Significance to Chinese Culture and Spirituality

The Chinese culture is full of ceremony and tradition. Being respectful and calm is held in high regard in China, so the tea ceremony and culture surrounding tea is full of rules and manners which are important to follow.

In China, drinking tea is not just about the liquid, it is about savoring, smelling, brewing, sharing, and every other aspect of tea. This act of drinking tea properly is a great example of Chinese culture overall. Chinese people have great respect for the tradition of drinking tea and all the steps and rules that entails.

Much like Buddhism and other Chinese religious practices, the drinking of tea has a focus on calmness, reverence, and appreciation. The idea is that the chaos of the world and the thoughts in our heads are merely distractions and having a tea ceremony is meant to bring us back to a mental space of mindfulness and quiet appreciation.

The tea ceremony is as much about the ceremony as it is about the tea. It is a time to take a break from busy life and focus on what is happening right now. Every step of the process is given its proper time and each step is taken mindfully. Performing the tea ceremony is as much as a religious act as going to church may be in the west. Rules must be followed, and the ceremony must be respected.

The lines between religion and the tea ceremony are blurry and if you look only at the tea ceremony you may think you are witnessing a religious ritual. This is by design; it is supposed to look this way!

How Tea Affected the Chinese Economy

chinese economy

Tea was a mainstay in Chinese culture long before the rest of the civilized world. It was considered a fancy product like certain spices or silk or fine Chinese pottery. The rest of the world wanted what China had and when that happens you get a trade, and from trade comes growth for the economy. Tea was so popular in China it was the thing it was best known for all over the world. Everyone knew China had excellent tea, and everyone wanted it.

China began to export a great deal of tea, and with the rest of the world buying up Chinese tea, China as a country began to get more interest in it. Other Chinese exports began to increase in sales as other nations were loading their ships with tea. This opened China up to international trade which has become the catalyst for the rapid rise of China as an economic leader in the world.

Without tea, China may never have become the superpower it is today. Today there are over 80 million Chinese people working in the tea industry. This is a massive part of the economy!

Fun Fact- The Opium war in the mid-1800’s was not just about Opium. The British and others were obsessed with getting as much tea as they possibly could from China once they got a taste of it.

Other Things That Came from The Discovery and Use of Tea

In addition to tea becoming such a popular drink in China, the cups and teapots became all the rage. China began to produce tea paraphernalia along with the tea and it became a hot commodity all over the world. England began to cherish Chinese porcelain teacups and teapots, as well as other western countries.

As the news of this wonderful invention spread across the world, China began to export teacups and teapots which helped aid in the growth of the early Chinese economy right alongside tea.

Porcelain teapots were invented in China way back during the Yuan Dynasty. Ceramic wine kettles were popular during this time, but the form and function of the teapot made of porcelain was not yet invented. The teapot is thought to have evolved from the wine kettle. The spout was added and the iconic handle and lid to avoid burning your hands while handling it. Some of the best tea sets are reviewed and compared here!

Indian Tea VS Chinese Tea

The reason I bring this up is that both countries are well known for exporting tea, and both countries have tea cultures surrounding the consumption of tea. There are similarities and differences which we will cover, but it should be addressed in the context of Chinese tea culture because India is the closest competitor when it comes to tea production and popularity.

The first most obvious thing to know is China produces about two times more tea annually than India does. For example, in the year 2016 India produced about 1.4 million tons of tea while China produced roughly 2.8 million. There are more differences than how much each country produces, but this is a good starting point because it sets the tone with China as the clear world leader in tea production.

Types of Tea in China and India

This a broad statement and there is more nuance in it when you dig deeper, but in general China is known for green tea while India is more well known for varieties of black tea. Green tea is produced from leaves that are not oxidized. The oxidation process is what makes the leaves black and the corresponding tea black as well.

There are 2 main tea plants that India and China both use in their tea production. Camellia sinensis var Sinensis is the main tea plant commonly used to produce tea in China, while Camellia Sinensis var assamica is the main plant in India. However, both countries grow and use both types of tea plants, it is just that one is more prevalent in each nation.

India is unique in its production of crush tear curl tea, also known as CTC style tea. This is a style of tea that is not known to be produced in China. This process is when black tea leaves which have been oxidized are processed through a series of rollers which crushes them and produces the CTC style result.

Areas of Tea Production

In China, most of the tea is made in the Fujian, Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces. Tea is produced in many more provinces in China but those are the ones that export the majority. The soil and weather conditions in China are very favorable for tea.

In India, most of the tea is produced in Darjeeling and Assam with many other areas also producing notable teas. As with China, the Indian economy benefits greatly from the production and exportation of tea leaves.

Both nations are huge tea producers, and both have well-known and well-practiced tea cultures. The cultures in each country are quite different, but they have tea in common!

While we are on the subject of geography, there is a great book about tea in Taiwan that is recommended reading.

Taiwan- The Island of Tea: History, Culture and Travel Guide

This is a good little book for anyone interested in a quick look into the island of Taiwan and how it is considered the island of tea. It contains some travel tips and wonderful information about the island and where to find excellent tea.

Taiwan is famous for its Formosa Oolong tea. In this book, you will get some fresh insight into why that is, and how it affects tourism and the economy of Taiwan. Taiwanese tea is some of the best tea in the world, and this book will help you learn more about it!


Tea in China Today in Modern Times

With thousands of years of history, tea remains a cornerstone of Chinese culture and the economy as well. In China, it seems like everyone drinks tea and understands the importance it has on the history and success of China as a nation.

As the world’s leader in tea production, tea is part of the culture. You can not visit China without experiencing tea. The main teas created in China today are:

  • Green tea
  • Oolong tea
  • Black tea
  • Dark tea
  • Yellow tea
  • Pu’er tea
  • White tea

As mentioned earlier, China produces almost 3 million tons of tea every year and employs over 8 million people in the tea industry. This is more than any other tea-producing nation. There is no other country even close to China when it comes to exporting tea and tea accessories.

The Culture of Tea Today

In China, tea is so common that there are different ways to consume tea, each with its own unique reason.

Tea Drinking

The most obvious is drinking tea. This is a tea that is simply used as a drink to quench thirst or get a quick dose of caffeine and just enjoy a cup. Millions of cups are drank daily. Not every cup of tea drank in China is part of a detailed ceremony, many people just like to drink tea the way westerners drink coffee. Either in the morning to get going, afternoon for a boost, or evening to calm down. It is part of daily life.

The Tasting of Tea

Tasting tea is a unique and involved experience in China. The tea is judged by the smell, color, taste, and even the cups and teapot. This act is often done very deliberately, or even meditatively, and never in a rush or a hurry.

It is part of the culture to appreciate the tea in a meaningful way, giving thanks and fully embracing the tasting experience. This is enjoyed by millions in China, and even young children understand the importance of savoring and smelling and slowly tasting fresh tea.

The Art of Chinese Tea

The art of tea is also a popular thing. The table in the room, how it is decorated, the smell in the room, and all the decorations are considered. In fact, there are even special tea rooms in some homes dedicated to fully enjoying tea. Decorative and elaborate containers for storing tea are also popular, you can check out some of the best tea caddies here!

Tea Vs Coffee

This is a far cry from how many western people treat coffee, it is produced in mass quantities as fast as possible and often drank quickly on the way out the door to work. China has a fundamentally different relationship with tea than the west does with coffee. It is a respected part of the culture, held in high regard and respected by all.

Tea Legends and History

The lore and legends surrounding tea are often spoken about and discussed in homes around China. The history, real and imagined, is something that is kept alive through the retelling of the stories to children and friends as they gather for tea. Chinese culture is so full of tea and tea activities, you could safely say that without tea, China would be a completely different country, almost unrecognizable from the nation it is today.

In today’s modern China, it is a fast-paced industrial-focused country in the big cities and towns. However, if you go to a normal home almost anywhere in China, you will find a well-stocked tea cabinet and lots of wonderful tea and tea sets that are used daily by everyone in the family.