Decoding Tea Culture in the Song Dynasty

Decoding Tea Culture in the Song Dynasty

The Song dynasty (960-1279) features an amazingly rich tea culture. Tea during this period involves many aspects such as politics, economy, literature and social customs. With the prosperity of the tea industry, everyone – the nobles, scholars, and common people, all had access to tea.

Every household has seven daily necessities: firewood, rice, oil, salt, (soy) sauce, vinegar and tea. ” Wu Zi Mu

This is one of the famous quotes by Wu Zimu from Southern Song dynasty. Nowadays, it’s one of the favorite quotes among tea enthousiasts in China. What was the tea culture like in the Song dynasty? How did the tea culture flourish then? Read further to find out!

Song Dynasty Tea Drinking Method  

Dian Cha: The Rise of Matcha

grinding tea dian cha song dynasty
Grinding tea

Different from the Tang dynasty’s (618 to 907) tea cooking method, during the Song dynasty, the way of tea drinking was changed into “dian cha”.

Most of the tea in the Song dynasty was in the form of semi-fermented tea cakes. The dian cha process starts with grinding a suitable amount of the tea into powder, then sieve for the finest powdered tea and put it in the tea cup. Then pour a small amount of boiling water in the cup to make a “tea paste”, then again pour in boiling water, stir the tea with a bamboo tea whisk at the same time, until the water and the tea are fully blended and the froth appears. This action of pouring boiling water is called “dian”, hence the name “dian cha”.

This tea drinking method was then introduced to Japan by the Japanese monks and developed into the Japanese tea ceremony by integrating their own aesthetic taste. The Japanese later called their tea ‘matcha’ (grinded tea).

Tea Contest (Dou Cha)

tea competition dou cha song dynasty
Dou cha: Tea Competition

Tea contest was a custom in the Song dynasty to evaluate tea quality in the form of a competition. Tea contest was measured by the colour of the tea liquor and the water mark on the inside of the cup.

The colour of the liquor reflects the quality and processing technique of the tea:

  • If the liquor is pure white, it indicates that tea leaves were tender, and the production was just right. The whiter the better.
  • If the liquor is a bit green, it means that the tea lacked steaming;
  • if the colour is grey, it shows that the tea was over steamed;
  • if the liquor was yellow, it means the leaf-picking was not timely;
  • if the colour is reddish, it means the tea leaves were over roasted.

If the tea is ground finely, with optimal pouring and whisking skills, the tea froth will be fine and will stay on the inside of the cup for a long time. If the tea froth fades out quickly – a sign of poor dian cha technique, there will be water marks shown where the liquor meets the inside of the cup. The cup of tea with the water marks shown the last wins!

There were other kinds of tea contests. Some were focused on guessing the region of the tea leaves or by distinguishing the season of the tea (Spring tea or Autumn tea), while others where about the source of the water used to make the tea (e.g from mountain spring, river or well).

The custom of tea contests was not only very interesting, but also promoted the quality of tea and the dian cha skills at that time.

Tea Ware in the Song Dynasty

Rabbit hair jian zhan
Rabbit hair jian zhan

Tea contest standards also influenced teaware in the Song dynasty. Since the tea colour in the Song dynasty was considered better white, once popular white and celadon porcelain cups were not suitable to achieve a good contrast and highlight the tea colour. The black and brown jian zhan cups made from Fujian’s famous Jian kiln started to sweep the country. At that time, the representative jian zhan was black or brown as the main colour, with thin jade-white stripes on the inside of the cup. Because those fine stripes look like rabbit hair, the model was called “rabbit hair cup” (tu hao zhan). Under the praise of official and tea master Cai Xiang and the Emperor Huizong of Song, the rabbit hair cup became the go-to tea ware for dian cha and tea contest in the Song dynasty. The aesthetic pleasure brought by the dark cup and the white tea with strong contrast showed the mutual achievement between the way of drinking tea and teaware development, which was unique for that period of time.

Imperial Influence in the Song Dynasty

The influence the emperors in the Song dynasty had on the tea culture was mainly reflected by the development of the tribute tea (gong cha), granted tea (ci cha) and the tea-horse trade.

Tribute Tea

There were two forms of tribute tea: one was selected by the local officials from all the tea regions, the other was appointed by the imperial court.

The Song emperors were fond of tea. To please the emperors, officials and ministers devoted themselves to creating new kinds of tribute tea. This practice, though criticized by some people, objectively promoted the development of the tea industry in the Song dynasty.

For example, the Beiyuan tea in Fujian Province flourished in the Song dynasty, and had a great influence on the history of tea in China even for the later dynasties like Yuan and Ming.

Dragon Phoenix Tea Cake (Long Feng Tuan Cha)

Sketches of the dragon phoenix tea cakes from the Song dynasty tea book "On the tribute tea from the Beiyuan Gardens during the Xuanhe reign"

Sketches of the dragon phoenix tea cakes from the Song dynasty tea book On the tribute tea from the Beiyuan Gardens during the Xuanhe reign

Beiyuan was famous for its imperial tribute tea gardens. Its tea cake (tuan cha) processing technology reached the peak level at the time.

In the early years of the Song dynasty, the imperial court sent envoys to carve models of dragon and phoenix patterns in Beiyuan to make dragon phoenix tea cakes for the emperor and the queen,  as in Chinese culture, the dragon represents the emperor and the phoenix represents the queen. Later on, the tribute tea cakes developed in a more elaborate way. The tea leaves were more and more delicate, the tea cakes were more and more compact, the pattern on the tea cakes were more and more exquisite. Not only the quality of the production was getting better, the number of the tribute tea gardens increased as well.

Granted Tea (Ci Cha)

The Song emperors got hold of a large number of high quality tea. To show their grace, they often granted the tea to scholars, officials, monks and common people. It was regarded as a supreme honour to receive the tea from the emperors. Thus, the social and cultural status of tea has been greatly enhanced.

Tea was introduced into the common people’s homes. People served tea to guests to show their hospitality. Tea started to be an improtant part of the wedding ceremony. To this day, it is still customary to serve tea to both bride’s and groom’s parents by the newlyweds in China. Tea houses were everywhere and became the social places for working people.

Tea culture in the Song dynasty was further refined and became a school of art with the help of the emperors. Making tea was not only an indispensable beverage in the social life among the common people, but also a significant element in the literal life of the scholars. To become a successful scholar, you had to know a lot about tea and the tea making process.

Tea Horse Trade

As tea became more and more important in the daily life of the society, the economy of tea industry developed rapidly in the Song dynasty. There was abundant tea supply of the inland area.

The Tibetans couldn’t get enough of tea to complement their fatty diet, while they had an abundance of horses. Thus, the tea horse trade became an important border trade. This resulted in the development of the tea horse caravan roads.

The tea horse trade showed the economic interdependence of both sides, played a positive role in maintaining the stability in the southwestern borders of China.

Tea and Literature in Song Dynasty

The imperial tea culture and common people’s tea culture were connected by the scholars-officials. They went in and out of the imperial court as well as the street markets, they wrote a lot of tea poems, leading the tea culture trend in the Song dynasty. Their contribution to tea culture lied in the true combination of tea, art, and life. Everything about tea – tea picking, tea making or tea tasting, has been recorded in poetry and essays.

Read for example the tea poem by the renowned scholar Su Shi: Simmering Tea with Fresh River Water



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