Tea During The Tang Dynasty

In the early days, tea used to be consumed as a medicinal beverage. Tribes in the North Western regions of China boiled the tea until all the all flavour and nutritions were extracted. The resulting tea was bitter, and definitely not for pleasure. Instead, tea was seen as a practical drink that prevents one from different ailments and keeps one warm.

But tea became more than just that during the Tang Dynasty. Cultivation, production and trade flourished. As a result, tea-drinking surged in popularity. You couldn’t go anywhere in the capital of Chang’an without seeing tea: at the imperial court, in the monasteries, on the street… Everyone drinks tea: monks, poets and even the common people.

Why Tea Became Popular During The Tang?

There are several factors that allowed tea to go mass market. First of all the Tang dynasty was a relatively peaceful period. Emperors such as Taizong and Gaozong not only practiced the ‘Art of War’ but had plenty of time to practice the ‘Art of Tea’.

But it wasn’t only the emperors who loved tea. With the backing of the Monks and famous poets such as Lu Yu, it was just a matter of time for common people to start appreciating tea.

Tea and Chan Buddhism (Zen Buddhism)

Chan Buddhism flourished in Tang Dynasty. It requires days of meditation practice. The monks found tea very refreshing and useful. It helped them stay awake and get rid of distracting thoughts. Tea became their favourite drink. Most of the Chan Buddhist temples located in the mountains. These mountains had the right soil and temperature for growing tea. The monks started to grow and produce their own tea. They planted more and more tea trees around temples. They were among the earliest big scale tea growers in China. The monks set the tea-drinking trend. They also discovered new growing and roasting method that improved the taste of tea.

Lu Yu and The Classic of Tea

During the heyday of Tang Dynasty, Lu Yu grew up in a temple with a tea-loving adopter. He learned to cook and wrote the famous book on tea-The Classic of Tea (Cha Jing).

The book showed the whole tea-drinking procedure and methods. It also listed 28 tea utensils and 8 growing regions of tea at its time. It marked the birth of Chinese tea ceremony and set a model for the development of tea culture in later ages. With his contribution, Lu Yu deserved the name “Tea Saint”.

Also read the Full History of Tea in this article: History of Tea in China & How It Spread Across the World.

Tea Trade During The Tang Dynasty

Early in Tang Dynasty, Princess Wencheng got married to Tibetan King Songtsän Gampo and introduced tea to Tibet.

princess wen cheng tibet tang

The Tibetan people had a diet based on meat and dairy, tea was the best drink for the vitamins they lacked. Soon tea was high in demand. But high altitude and tough climate there made it hard for tea to grow. However, there were plenty of good Tibetan horses that inland market needed for the expanding army.

tea horse road map

With the surging tea production and the market for horses, inland tea merchants started to transport tea through some tough routes to Tibet, and exchanged it for Tibetan ponies back. This was called “tea-for-horse” trade, a big part of the Tea Horse Road history.

The Word ‘Tea’ During The Tang

Before Tang tea was called “tu” (荼). It means tea as well as bitter vegetable and one kind of weeds. As tea gained more and more popularity, people found the need to give tea a specific name. They took out one stroke of the character “tu”, and called it “cha”(茶). This character meant “tea” only. Lu Yu used “cha” in his The Classic of Tea (Cha Jing). Famous tea enthusiast and poet Lu Tong also used “cha” in many of his poems. Since then, “cha” was tea, and it lasted until today.

Teaware During Tang Dynasty

Teaware became a big part of tea culture during Tang. The ceramics industry’s rapid development resulting in teaware to become more affordable. Common families were now able to drink tea from ceramic tea cups and store tea in ceramic jars.

At that time, the two most famous styles of teaware were Xing ware from Hebei and Yue ware from Yuezhou. The first, was known for its clean white appearance, while latter was appreciated for its polished jade look.

Dragon Well Tea Legends Reveiled

Dragon Well tea is the most famous of Chinese green tea that is known for its wonderful taste and amazingly fine quality. It is also a tea with a long history with its production dating back 1,500 years ago. According Cha-Jing (the world’s first tea book written by Lu Yu), it was recorded as early as Song Dynasty. Two fascinating legends have been passed down through generations and they are definitely worth to read to make your experience of this drinking Dragon Well tea even better.

Legend of Dragon Well

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Long ago, a tea elf had 8 teacups and always used them to brew teas for his guests in fairyland. One day many gods came and visited his home, the elf was panicking and dropped one cup to the human world. The god Dongbing helped him to go to the human world and told him he had only one chance to get the cup back. The elf went down to the mountain in Shifeng (one of the Legendary Dragon Well Green Tea Villages). He believed his cup was there but he couldn’t find it. Searching for a whole day, he was tired and thirty. Fortunately, he found an old lady who was brewing teas and she was very nice to give him a cup of tea. Then he found the tea water tasted like his. Thus he asked the old lady where the water and the tea came from. She pointed to a well not far away and said the well appeared long ago after something dropped from the sky. The water was from the well and the teas were irrigated by the water. At that moment, the elf knew that his cup became this well long time ago since one day in the fairyland is equal to many years in the human world. To thank the old lady for treating him cordially, he decided to leave the cup there and turned back to fairyland. He told this story to some of his dragon friends and they sometimes visit the well and drink water from there. Then this well has become very important for the local green teas and therefore is named after the Well visited by Dragons

Legend of 18 tea trees beside the Dragon Well

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Then many years passed, the old lady’s house became a famous temple called “Hugong”. And 18 tea trees, irrigated by the water from Dragon Well, were planted outside of it. In Qing Dynasty, an emperor called Qianlong came to Hangzhou and visited Hugong temple. When he was picking teas from the tea trees outside the temple, he received a message that his mother was ill and wished his immediate return to Beijing. He shoved the leaves he had picked into his sleeve and immediately left for Beijing. Upon his return he immediately went to visit his mother. She noticed the smell of the leaves coming from his sleeves. Qianlong decided to immediately brew a cup of tea made from the Dragon Well tea leaves for her. The holy tea cured her disease. The Emperor was very grateful and gave the 18 tea trees  Imperial status. Since then, Dragon Well tea became the tribute tea to emperors.

Until today, the 18 tea trees remain at the Shifeng Mountain and attract thousands of tourists all over the world.

The History Of The Word ‘Tea’

The way we call tea in different regions of the world is influenced by the different pronunciations of the word ‘tea’ in Chinese as well as the power balance of different regions throughout history.

3 Ways Of Pronouncing Tea

China has many ethnic groups and thus they have their own pronunciations of the word tea.

  • North China: ‘Cha’
  • South China: ‘Tey’ or ‘Ti’
  • Southwest China: ‘La’

6th Century: The Beginning Of Tea Exchange

Starting from the 6th Century, China started exporting tea during the Sui Dynasty. The North was the most influential region with many export activities focused on shipping tea to Japan, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Portugal and other Arabic countries. Therefore, these countries way of pronouncing tea is very similar to ‘cha’. Try to translate the word tea from English to any language from the mentioned countries, and you will find that they use ‘cha’ or variations such as ‘chai’ or ‘char’. For example:

  • Russia: char
  • Japanese: cha
  • Turkish: çay

mapping the word tea

16th & 17th Century: Tea Export To Europe

During this period, economic activity shifted from the North to the Southern part of China where tea was at that time pronounced as ‘Tey’. Main export destinations in Europe with the most demand coming from Britain, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Spain. These countries therefore use pronunciations close to ‘tey’ or ‘ti’.

  • France: thé
  • Holland: thee
  • Germany: tee
  • Italy: tè
  • Spain: té
  • Britain: tea

tea word map

tea word 2

What’s particularly interesting is that even though Portugal and Spain are neighboring countries with a very closely related language, they pronounce tea differently (Portugal: chá, Spain:té). This proofs the importance of dominance of tea producing regions in China over different periods of time through history.

Exceptions

Some European countries such as Poland are an exception. In Polish the word for tea isn’t related to either of the pronunciations mentioned above, but comes from the word ‘herb’: herbata.

Export to Countries Neighboring China

At the same time the Dai, Miao, and Yi minorities Southwestern part of China also started exporting tea to neighboring countries, such as Laos, Burma, Cambodia. As these ethnic minorities pronounce tea as ‘la’ the importing countries are using the same term in their languages.